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“13 Assassins,” “The Green Lantern,” “Super 8,” and “X-Men First Class”: Weekly Movie Diary

Koji Yakusho (third from left) leads 13 assassins

13 Assassins

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 whole movie looks as cheesy as this ... and the script isn't much better.

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)

 

There is no passion for movies or for childhood in "Super 8"

Super 8

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 **)

Young mutants begin to come together in 1962.

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)

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Weekly Movie Diary (2-21-11) “Even the Rain,” “Cedar Rapids,” “I Am Number Four,” “Unknown”

Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal in "Even the Rain"

My liberal sensibilities make me a sucker for movies that lament the exploitation of the weak and celebrate the power of the people. Even the Rain (También la lluvia) does both as it follows a Spanish film crew in Bolivia making a movie about Christopher Columbus’ violent conquest of the American Indians. Why is the film crew in Bolivia? It’s a landlocked, mountainous state smack dab in the middle of South America when Columbus actually tooled around the Caribbean. The producer of the film, Costa (Luis Tosar), can hire Bolivian Indians cheaper (two dollars a day) than anywhere in the Caribbean. The irony of this isn’t lost on the film’s writer/director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and constantly needles his friend and colleague for his spendthrift ways (but never really challenges him in a serious way). All of this plays out in 2000, the year Bolivians initiated mass protests against foreign ownership of their water systems and the exorbitant prices and debilitating shortages that came with it. (The title of the film refers to a law which prohibited Bolivians from collecting rain water for their use, codifying foreign control over all of Bolivia’s water.) The instability and violence stalls production of the film and forces Costa and Sebastián to reassess what is truly important – their film or their ideals.

The film could have better explained the water issue, but it does a great job of revisiting the horrors of sixteenth century colonization through rehearsals (including a great table reading scene), actual filming, and watching the rushes. Yes, the irony of a film crew making a movie about exploitation while exploiting is obvious (maybe inelegantly obvious), but director Icíar Bollaín plays the story out well. Also look for some nice supporting performances from Karra Elejalde playing the actor playing Columbus and Juan Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian actor portraying a resistance leader who also turns out to be a leader in the water rights fight. It is an effective and engrossing film that highlights the disparity between idealism and reality, and the insidious parallels between colonialism and globalization. It is, he argues, much easier to decry the violations of the past while turning away from injustice today. It is also remarkably relevant considering the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the current ones in Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, and Wisconsin. (Never thought I would see a list like that.) These protests and the protests in the film remind us that power still does reside with the people and if their leaders are deaf and/or corrupt they will find ways to take their governments back. (Rating ****)

Ed Hall lets loose with Isiah Whitlock Jr, John C. Reilly, and Anne Heche in "Cedar Rapids"

Cedar Rapids is a rare new-release comedy that works more often than not. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a sheltered, small town insurance salesman sent to an annual convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is awed and overwhelmed by everything from a typical car rental to the key card in his hotel. His roommate is the incorrigible and irrepressible Dean Ziegler played by John C. Reilly (a character he has been playing variations on for years though he is particularly effective here). There’s nothing terribly fresh here; we have a pretty good idea where things are going from the first scenes, but director Miguel Arteta handles the material well and mostly resists the urge to resort to cheap gross-out gags. The movie could have descended into mean-spirited condescension, but Arteta avoids it mainly thanks to his cast. Ed Helms is always sympathetic – we’re meant to appreciate his naivety, not look down our cosmopolitan noses at him. He might not be all that bright or worldly but he’s good, true, and still believes in things like honor and honesty and, even as an insurance salesman, has not bought into the cult of the dollar like many of his colleagues. Two particularly refreshing supporting performances come from Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has fun with his fame from The Wire (incidentally one of the best television series in history), and Anne Heche who reminds us that she used to be a pretty good actor before she turned into tabloid fodder. (Rating ****)

Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer look pretty in "I Am Number Four"

I Am Number Four is a surprisingly decent action movie – but just barely. If not being bored and not getting angry is the worst one can say about a movie, I suppose that is a borderline recommendation. The story is well-treaded ground and offers few surprises, but it all unfolds nicely despite lackluster performances. Leads Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron may be great to look at, but they don’t truly create characters and inhabit the roles – you know, act. Pettyfer has an attractive screen presence, but that will only take him so far. His cut abs don’t distract from his empty eyes and uninspired line readings. (Well, OK, they do a little.) He is, however, head and shoulders better than the icy Ms. Agron, who doesn’t do much beyond what she is called on to do in Glee. She has the most boring character in that show and has carried her over into this movie, making us unsure why it is John (Pettyfer) is willing to risk so much for her. John is one of nine protectors of an alien planet that was destroyed by an invading force when he was a baby. The nine and their protectors (who seem fairly useless) came to hide on Earth. John’s protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant) takes him from one city to another so the invaders, who have tracked them here, can’t find him. They can, it seems, only be killed in sequence and at the beginning of the film, Number Three is murdered. John knows they will come for him next and, even with supernatural powers, he and Henri don’t stand a chance. But, of course, he just wants to be a teenager. (That’s pretty lame – how many people died to keep him alive and he wants to go to high school and play sports?) I Am Number Four works if you want a brainless action movie (and there are plenty of plot holes someone with a brain can find). It is, however, fun, fast-paced, and, for the kind of movie it is, satisfying. (Rating ***)

Diane Kuger and Liam Neeson try to figure out what's going on well after we figure it out in "Unknown"

I was mostly curious about seeing Unknown because I wanted to test whether I had figured it out from the trailers. I’m disappointed to say that I did. I’m disappointed because I was hoping that the upshot wouldn’t be obvious, that they would have had a twist in there for me, but they didn’t. Watch the trailer and you can, more or less, figure out exactly what is going on. (There are two lines that really give it away and should have been excised from the trailer.) Liam Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotech conference. He is in an accident, wakes up after being in a coma for several days, and suddenly no one, including his wife, seems to know who he is. The more he insists, the more people think he’s crazy until he is forced to concur. After all, if everyone says you’re crazy, maybe you’re crazy. But when someone comes to kill him, he figures something must be up. Neeson does his best, but he’s just as lost in this material as his character. And like Agron in I Am Number Four, January Jones transfers her cold character from Mad Men, Betty Draper without showing any range – if we can call Betty Draper range. Luckily she doesn’t have a lot of screen time and Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz have opportunities to shine – and they do, which must have been hard in this drek. Ganz does have a great scene with Frank Langella, two old spies talking over the good old days and dancing around the problem today, but that was a rare gem. There are some well choreographed action and chase sequences, including a breathtaking car chase through the streets of Berlin that was refreshingly shot in Berlin rather than an Eastern European stand in, but there the scenes between are listless, a pale combination of Frantic and The Bourne Identity. The movie finds a better footing in the last act, but the poorly paced and awkwardly written first two thirds stymie any connection with the film as a whole. We just don’t care what is going on. (Rating **)

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