I can’t claim to be an expert in the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike, but I can say he made one of the best and most repulsive horror movies I’ve ever seen, Audition. I’ve only seen it twice and not only was the second viewing just as disturbing as the first, but I really don’t want to ever have to watch it again, though I know I will be compelled to rewatch it at some point. (The DVD sits on my shelf patiently waiting to assault my senses again, but I resist … for now.) Now the prolific Miike has remade a 1960s samurai movie that isn’t as viscerally disturbing as Audition, but is still a remarkably good action movie.
It is a time of peace in eighteenth century Japan, but Lord Naritsugu, the brother of a powerful shogun, threatens to disrupt it. He is sadistic and heartless, killing, raping, and maiming for the sheer fun of it. A powerful official, unable to directly do anything himself secretly charges Shinzaemon Shimada, retired samurai, to assemble a team to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon recruits eleven masterless samurai and, together with a mountain “hunter” (though there are suggestions he may not be entirely corporal), the thirteen men buy out a town and fill it with booby traps to help defeat Naritsugu’s superior forces. There could have been more time spent building the characters of the samurai, though I suspect there is some of that in the 20 minutes that has been cut for the international release.
The most interesting relationship is between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu’s chief samurai Hanbei, former rivals. Hanbei knows he is protecting an evil man, but he cannot break his oath to protect his master. Masachika Ichimura delivers a wonderfully conflicted performance opposite Koji Yakusho’s Shinzaemon. We realize early on that neither is evil or righteous; had circumstances been different they could well have ended up in each others’ shoes and would have still fought just as bravely and committed. (Rating ****1/2)
The Green Lantern
There’s a lot of goofiness in Warner Bros’ attempt to jumpstart their DC Comics franchise. The Green Lantern takes one of DC’s most recognizable (but least known) heroes and inserts him into a lackluster, been-there-done-that story opposite one of the least interesting actresses of recent years, Blake Lively. To make matters worse, we aren’t given a good villain to root against – no Joker, Lex Luther, or Magneto that have helped make other superhero movies so good. On the one hand we have a cheesy looking black cloud floating around the universe gobbling up entire civilization making a b-line for Earth and on the other we have Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond, a scientist infected with some of that clouds evilness. He goes a little crazy, but his story rarely intersects in any meaningful way with Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.
I already mentioned the cheesy special effects, but they are worse than that silly cloud. The whole movie looks phony, especially when Hal transforms into his all-CGIed suit and travels to the planet where the other Green Lanterns lives (they are some kinds of protectors of the universe). Ryan Reynolds has a great body. Why not give him a real Green Lantern suit to wear? It all looks cartoony and unconvincing, which might have worked if the script was more tongue in cheek. However they tried for a middle ground that does not work.
But director Martin Campbell had a mess of a script to work with – a script that was written and rewritten by what seems to be a whole staff. (I began to suspect that the original script may have been innovative, but each draft removed a bit of originality to come up with something as safe as this.) For instance, Hal has siblings and a nephew (who idolizes him) who appear in one scene and are then summarily dismissed from the narrative. No one even asks why he left his nephew’s party without a word. Why don’t we get to see their reaction to his new superhero status? Or, better yet, watch Hal’s conflict as he has to keep it secret from them. I did enjoy Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the cocky test pilot, but like Campbell there was little he could do when CGI silliness undercuts any suspense and his romance with Blake Lively was less than compelling. This is all the more insulting after good superhero movies like the X-Men series, Spiderman, and Nolan’s Batman series. We know they can do it, so stop trying to pawn off on audiences lazy junk that might have seemed innovative in 1981. And studios wonder why people are less and less inclined to risk their hard earned money at the movies. (Rating *1/2)
Super 8 is a bad movie that looks fantastic. This movie looks and feels more like the late 1970s than some movie actually from the 1970s do. Unfortunately this homage to the popcorn movies of the 1970s, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. – fails to connect on any other level. I’m dazed that so many critics have given this thoughtless junk a passing grade. There is little excitement from the mystery of the derailed train and no wonder of the changes that occur in adolescence. These kids live in a hermetically sealed world that, sadly, has little relation to ours or the worlds that Spielberg created in his early films. These feel like kids created by a writer who is more concerned with making an action movie than a movie about them. They are set pieces meant to scream on cue in front of special effects.
I did like Joel Courtney in the lead, playing Joe, a good kid trying to connect with his father after the death of his mother while helping his friend make a zombie movie for an amateur film festival. The rest of the kids who make up his circle of friends are obvious types: the bossy fat one, the lanky pyromaniac, the pretty one, the dumb one. It’s hard to believe filmmakers who have created such believable characters in the past would think these work. There’s even a contrived rivalry between Joe’s father, Sheriff Jackson Lamb, and the father of the pretty one – it’s so obvious how that will play out it’s embarrassing.
The premise is great, unfortunately writer-director J.J. Abrams doesn’t know (or care) what to do with it. While secretly shooting Charley’s movie late one night, the kids witness a military train derailment and accidentally film it. The U.S. Air Force swoops in and assures everyone that there was nothing hazardous on the train, but doesn’t give any other information. (You know it’s something because if it’s nothing, they can tell you what it is.) Strange things begin occurring in the Ohio town making it clear that there was something on the train. Their film could help them figure out what it was. As intriguing as all that sounds it’s executed as formulaically as one could imagine. The creature is derivative, the personal conflicts and dramas are muted in favor of chugging the plot forward, the Air Force guys are unbelievable sociopaths (why couldn’t they be genuinely fearful for the population of the town, rather than two-dimensional heartless goons that only seem to exist in writers’ heads?) Why couldn’t this have been more about kids in love with movies instead another monster movie without an original twist? I never got the sense that any of these kids loved movies. They don’t seem to watch them, talk about them, or even know they exist beyond posters on a wall. Charles’ movie, then, becomes a gimmick. In the end, this is a flashy exercise in boredom. I didn’t much care about the alien, about Joe and Alice’s (the pretty one) relationship or whether their dads will make up (because you know they will and why they will from the first time they meet). (Rating **)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men – whether the comic books, TV shows, or movies – are always strongest when they are rooted in a reality that asks how society would react if we knew there were mutants with supernatural abilities living among us. They have also dealt marvelously with how factions within the mutant community would arise, each advocating differing methods of dealing with their human counterparts. The movies have had varying levels of success, though I largely liked all of them (yes, even the third though there is still room for someone to make a truly great movie out of this material). X-Men: First Class traces the roots of Charles Xavier’s school and his relationship with Erik Lehnsherr, soon to become Magneto, the super-villain who not only thinks a war with humans is inevitable, but desirable.
The main problem with First Class is too much is packed into such a short time span. It would have been nice to have spent a little more time with these characters, seen their stories, before we get to the inevitable action sequences, especially the relationship between Charles and Raven (a wonderfully cast Jennifer Lawrence) and their eventual falling out. There are so many characters with great story potential like scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who shamefully hides his mutated feet. There are about five or six such characters that are introduced in a breeze, but whose stories would have made the movie richer (especially a disgracefully underused Darwin played by Armando Muñoz). Or what about some of the stories of villain Sebastian Shaw’s team like Riptide, Azazel, or, most intriguingly, Emma Frost.
The casting is mostly well thought out. I enjoyed James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles and Erik, respectfully. They both capture the characters brought to life by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKlellan without mimicking them. The only dud for me was January Jones as Emma Frost, a wonderfully complex character that Jones can’t keep up with. I cringed every time she had to string more than one sentence together (which, thankfully, director Matthew Vaughn handled nicely by giving her short lines). In everything I’ve seen her in she’s played a variation on Betty Draper or, I’m beginning to suspect, on herself.
Otherwise, despite the rushed story and a weak link in the cast, I enjoyed the insertion of X-Men into the Cuban Missile Crisis and was shocked that they even got a lot of the history right (no one ever seems to remember that U.S. missiles in Turkey precipitated the incident), even though they went on to have mutants save the day. But that made sense. We’re talking about an alternate universe here, like The Watchmen. This is a re-imagining of what would have happened had mutants been around – and a pretty entertaining one at that. (Rating ***1/2)