Monday, May 30, 2011

Revisit: Inception

We have to go deeper

Declaration: I am a Christopher Nolan fan. I'm sure I'm not the only one. He is not my favourite director, but I think he's had an astonishing hit rate: we're seven films in, and of the six I've seen I have very little bad to say (I'm only missing out on Insomnia - I saw the first half half hour years ago, but from all I've heard it's only OK). He's a director who has brought intelligence and originality back to mainstream Hollywood cinema: making hugely accessible cinema that dares to do something new. From the structural fuckery of Memento, to pulling the rug out from beneath the audience with The Prestige, to effectively reinventing the superhero film with his outstanding takes on the caped crusader, Nolan cannot be accused by doing things by the well established book - even when he adapts books, he conjures up a cinematic vision of his own.

Yet a funny thing happens everytime a new Christopher Nolan film is released. They are always pre-empted by a hype train, an avalanche of rabid fan expectations and viral marketing. Obviously, his Batman films are the ones that tend to occupy internet rumours for upwards of forty-eight months at a time. With Inception, though, it showed Christopher Nolan finally being a name that could stand alone without a brand name. There was of course excitement preceding the release of The Prestige, but Inception was different. He'd just made the most commercially and critically successful blockbuster of recent times - screw Avatar, the confidence and intelligence of the Dark Knight was the evolution Hollywood needed. The internet was sent into a tizzy everytime a teaser was released. Many of us avoided trailers and anything even resembling a spoiler. I personally went in close to blind. I couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement though - this was an event movie to be genuinely excited about.

Release came, and was met with both critical and fan orgasms. For many, Inception was a joy. And yet, others didn't get what the fuss was about. Inception didn't cure world hunger, as we had been led to believe it would. For all those who came out and went searching for their own totem, there were others who thought they'd been screwed over. On the message board I moderate, the Inception thread went on for over sixty pages - a true rarity in the world of mainstream film discourse, and full of a very wide range of opinions - from love to hate to apathy.

Almost a year on, I finally rewatched Inception, and I still think it's an astonishingly good film. Free from expectations and excitement, I watched the film solely for what it was, not simply as the new Christopher Nolan film. What stood out this time around, much like it did first time, was that going into Inception expecting The Best Film of All Time, a game changer, a mind-melter or a Best Picture winner is expecting something you're not going to get (and I hope most don't go into a cinema with that attitude!). What you need to expect with Inception is a blockbuster, pure and simple, and that's where it excels.

Beautiful dreaming
This is obviously a Christopher Nolan film, so pure and simple isn't fair. But this is an action film first and foremost - it's a twist on the heist movie, one of the most generic of all genres. A friend commented when we left the cinema that it was "Ocean's Eleven of the mind", and that isn't far off. The first layer of Fischer's subconscious is standard gunplay and con-man material - albeit occasionally interrupted by the occasional freight train. Level two sees Cobb as confidence man Mr. Charles - again, pulling a trick we've seen many times before. And much ire was directed at the snowy sequence where our heroes try to infiltrate a well guarded base in a dream within a dream within a dream. It's a by-the-numbers sequence - and that's pretty much the point. It's Nolan living his dream of directing a James Bond film. Of course, all these sequences are punctuated by acts of surrealism and abstraction (time distortion and the physic twisting acrobatics of the famed corridor fight, for example). It's true the content most certainly verges towards the generic at times: but like all Nolan films, it's the delivery that counts.

With Inception, Nolan has crafted an accessible film out of what could easily have been inaccessible ideas. The dream structure and subconscious layers that drive Inception's plot forward are little more than pop psychology at times, but that doesn't take away from the fact that they are a brilliant central plot device. One of the criticisms a few levelled at Inception was that it was 'confusing' - personally, I can't agree. What Nolan has done is craft a potentially confusing structure, and then use established genre tropes and ideas to keep everything grounded. Some have also criticised that the dreams lack imagination - again, somewhat missing the point. The whole film is built around trying to create a believable world so Cobb and his crew can achieve inception - hence, architect Ariadne builds something that is both meticulously crafted and fully believable in order to keep Fischer on board with the illusion. It makes narrative sense, but also crucially plays to Nolan's advantage - he presents abstract ideas to the audience in an entirely familiar way. It's an act of craftmanship that shows how Nolan truly is on top of his game.

If there is one problem with the film, it's the extended first half. Here, Ellen Page's Ariadne - a character ignorant to the criminal dream invasion of Cobb et al. - is a representation of the audience. The other characters are there to describe the film's central concepts in excruciating detail. While they are still presented with great verve and energy - the Paris scene remains stunning - there's little denying there's a lot of exposition before we get on our way. However, it's another reason why the 'confusing' criticism rings hollow. The explanatory streak shows Nolan refusing to leave the audience behind - determined to have us all understanding the central ideas before he executes them. It could certainly be argued that he slightly underestimates our ability to take these things on board, but I'm sure that was partially down to studio interference.

On a purely cinematic level, there is little to nothing to criticise. All the artists involve succeed admirably. The cast are uniformly excellent - Gordon-Levitt, Cotillard and Hardy are particular standouts, and DiCaprio is - as usual - an engaging lead. Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister make everything look remarkable, even if the setting is unremarkable. Kudos to the set designers as well, particularly their beautiful work in the final 'limbo' level of the dreamworld. And, of course, one of the truly masterful soundtracks of recent times, courtesy of Mr. Hans Zimmer. It's an electrifying soundtrack, and one that genuinely has a depth to match the film that goes alongside it, such as the much heralded integration of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

As the beautiful closing track Time plays over the final scenes, it dawned on me that I didn't agree with yet another of the criticisms the detractors put forward - a lack of emotion. As Cobb re-enters his homeland and reunites with his family, it's a strangely beautiful and apt conclusion to the film. Alongside other scenes like Mol's suicide and Fischer's final acceptance of an artificial idea, it's hardly a film void of emotional resonance. Inception is a remarkable film for the many reasons I've mentioned here. Most of all, though, it's the fact that it has the guts to do something daring and original in the multiplex. Few mainstream directors have either the resources or imagination of Christopher Nolan. And it's why in a year with an unusually high level of unimaginative blockbuster sequels, his presence will be sorely missed. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I Saw the Devil

A dish best served cold

Chan-Wook Park's epic Vengeance trilogy was an admirable and largely successful experiment. The Korean auteur crafted three unique rifts on themes of revenge. Oldboy may be the most widely known, but the plights of Mr. and Mrs. Vengeance were equally fresh and insightful takes on one of cinema's classic genres. They weren't always perfect - Mrs. Vengeance particularly - but they were all fascinating. One might have thought Park got a last word of sorts having completed a project of such scope. Looking at the likes of Taken, it's not hard to recognise the standard revenge film can seem more than a little basic in comparison. However, Japan's recent Confessions proved that there's vibrancy and originality left in the angry parent on a mission film. Not one to be outdone by their neighbors, though, another of South Korea's great contemporary masters of genre has swooped in with the glorious I Saw the Devil - a film that makes even Oldboy seem tame.

Jee-Woon Kim is no stranger to fans of Asian cinema. He's proven himself a man capable of bending even the most well worn of genres into something refreshing and enjoyable, much like his fellow country man Joon-Ho Bong. After his gloriously mental Eastern-Western The Good, the Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil sees him breaking the rules while remain loyal to genre roots. The film opens with the death of a young woman at the hands of Kyung-Chul (Min-Sik Choi - who you might recognise as the elderly boy who ate a live squid). Unfortunately for him, the woman in question was not only the daughter of the chief of police, but also the fiancee of Byung-hun Lee (Kim Soo-hyeon, back with Kim after TGTBTW), a top government agent. Oops. Lee quickly takes matters into his own hands, determined to dish out some cold revenge.

So far, so standard. What surprises is that the film reaches the spot the typical revenge film concludes at after a mere forty minutes. The film then continues on for another hour and a half. It quickly becomes apparent that the stereotypical Taken-esque plot is a mere extended first act here to establish the characters.  Lee has a much more in-depth revenge plot planned for Kyung-Chul, one that plays out over almost 150 minutes of hyper violence, pitch black comedy and frequent role reversals. If anyone has seen the Chaser, the plot structure is similar in some ways to that - taking an established genre, and continuing on well past the obvious end point through clever subversion of expectations.

The joy is very much in the discovery here, so I'll leave it there on plot details. It'll keep you engaged on many levels. The first is performances. Kudos must go first to Choi, now the victim of revenge in contrast to his most famous role, as the demented antagonist - he's a psycho-killer up there with the best of them. There are only the most minor of hints at his ultimate motivation - he is merely a bloodthirsty lunatic. Indeed, given chances at redemption, he inevitably returns to his old ways - unable to survive without frequent homicide, sexual assault or other unpleasant acts of depravity. Is he the devil of the title? He's certainly a powerful representation of pure evil. However, the title hints at greater ambiguity. We also have Soo-hyeon as the grieving bringer of vengeance. He soon realises he's far from the justice keeper his motivations might suggest. Instead, as his revenge becomes more intricate, his humanity is called into question too. He remains a fundamentally moralistic person, obsessed with punishing only those who "deserve" it. Kim doesn't ignore the moral complications of his actions though. There's no winning in the subverted game of cat and mouse that ultimately plays out. As the manic Kyung-Chul frequently informs the man chasing him, "You've already lost". No-one here is rewarded.

The story and performances are tied together with beautifully intense direction from Kim. Ever the one for laughs in the most unexpected of places, there are pitch black laughs to be had amongst the penetratingly grim visuals and atmosphere. Set pieces are delivered with a mix of almost unbearable tension and borderline slapstick delivery. Deliriously physical and vibrant action sequences take place in wonderfully realised settings - notably a greenhouse and an old mansion.  Now is as good a time as any to flag the extreme violence - this isn't for the faint-hearted, and there are certainly moments when even the hardiest audience member will grimace uncomfortably. This, though, isn't violence for violence sake - it's a much more accomplished vision than that, all adding to the overall atmosphere and directorial delivery. Also, both the music and the sound design are surprisingly excellent - even the infrequent 'jumpy' scares are well delivered with an inventive soundtrack.

I Saw the Devil is simply a great film. It's one that's expertly made, and always kept afloat by two astonishing lead performances. There are a few problems - in order to keep the chase going, a few illogical liberties are taken: South Korean nurses and policemen seem particularly inattentive and inept, it would seem. It's a small problem, and an understandable one, but occasionally distractingly obvious. Otherwise, though, you're dealing with a true rip-roaring rampage of revenge. As it concludes on a note of emotional intensity and moral ambiguity, it's hard not to be impressed. I Saw the Devil manages to make two and a half hours fly by (well, when you're not on the edge of your seat). Some might see it as a little repetitive and overwrought. For me, though, it was one of the most intense films I've seen in recent times. The revenge film is alive and kicking ass.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Win Win

Lose Lose

 Tom McCarthy has made a name for himself with small scale but emotionally engaging character studies. His first two films aren't world changing, but they're very hard to dislike. He has also had the profound luck of having had fantastic lead actors - Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent and Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. His luck continues in some ways with Win Win - this time he's working with the always reliable Paul Giamatti, a perfect fit for McCarthy's thoughtful indie mindset. And again it's a small scale story coming of age story (this time, it's middle age we're dealing with). Alas, the title's brave proclamation of double success is misleading - this is by a distance the weakest McCarthy film.

Giamatti is Mike: a lawyer struggling to keep his practice open. The office boiler is broken, there are barely any clients and the secretary is complaining about her low salary. Unlike your typical movie suburban depressive, though, Mike is happily married with two kids. In order to support them, he takes advantage of an elderly client with dementia by becoming his legal guardian solely to avail of a $1500 monthly allowance. He quickly shoves the client into a nursing home, but things are complicated by the arrival of the client's sixteen year old grandson Kyle who seems to have run away from home. His arrival is initially met with some hostility from Mike and his family, but Kyle soon turns out to be somewhat of a wrestling protegee. Did I mention Mike is a wrestling coach?

It was near the end of Win Win when it dawned on me that I was just watching The Visitor with a coat of paint. The situations and settings seem radically different, but in terms of dramatic flow and plot developments this is close to identical to McCarthy's vastly superior last feature. It's the same basic story - an aging protagonist finds a source of inspiration in the most unlikely of places, only for a spanner to arrive and throw itself into the works. But whereas The Visitor offered an engaging portrait of contemporary loneliness and alienation (literally), Win Win is the sort of film we've seen handled much better. The likes of American Beauty and Little Children have handled suburban depression with much more aplomb.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the film, but there's very little to surprise or engage with, and overall just doesn't come together. The film jumps back and forth between a sports film and considered character studies, but neither are all that interesting. There are moments of humour and drama (I particularly enjoyed a scene where Mike finally musters his confidence in a rival lawyer's office and starts to show some sort of legal competence), but all in all distressingly by the numbers. There's a wisecracking best friend (Bobby Cannavale) who has little of note to do, other than to - bizarrely - advertise Wii Golf. There's a wrestling team overcoming the odds (the odds in this case being an embarrassing lack of talent). There's bland direction, and there's a script that struggles to make us care for the characters or even create a credible dramatic situation - subplots are either uninteresting or evaporate completely.

It's not the actors' faults. Giamatti gives yet another fine portrayal of quiet desperation, albeit one that lacks originality. Nice to see Amy Ryan back on screen as Mike's wife, but despite a few strong scenes as she comes to terms with the situation her character feels underwritten. Alex Shaffer as Kyle is particularly notable for giving a removed performance that captures teenage angst more effectively than usual. Others, though, are wasted - spare a thought for Arrested Development's Jeffrey Trambor, criminally underused as Mike's colleague

It's all inoffensive stuff, and admittedly the same could be said for McCarthy's previous work. But Win Win left me cold. Like the director's previous films, the plot strands aren't all wrapped up in a nice little packages to the film's credit. However, there's a weak epilogue that, despite providing clear narrative closure, is extremely awkwardly delivered. The Visitor deserved to please the crowd. With Win Win, the crowd deserves better.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

A Pirate's Life for You?

It's a small miracle we're four films into this franchise. I'm sure I'm not the only one who had written off the original PotC - surely a film based on a theme park ride could only be doomed to failure (a hypothesis lent some credence after the failure of The Haunted Mansion). Yet few films have surprised so delightfully as The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was ridiculous fun altogether - all doubts evaporated as Captain Jack Sparrow arrived on screen atop a sinking boat. Tightly choreographed fights, a wicked sense of humour and a light-hearted plot made it one of the most engaging contemporary blockbusters. Unfortunately, no-one involved seemed to understand why, and the franchise promptly blew its load. Like the Matrix before it, the two sequels (made together) felt bloated, confusing and - let's be honest - shit. The plot was close to indecipherable, focusing on the dull trials and tribulations of Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom instead of the endeavours of franchise hero Johnny Depp. Hell, even when Depp was on screen, the writers and director Gore Verbinski barely knew what to do. By the over CGIed climax of At World's End, Pirates of the Caribbean had become just another lazy big budget blockbuster - far from the playfulness that made the original so compelling.

Disney seem to have taken some of the criticism on board, and in many ways On Stranger Tides is an improvement over the last two clusterfucks. Bloom and Knightley and many other superfluous cast members have walked the plank - their absence is to be welcomed. Original director Gore Verbinski has been sent to Davy Jone's Locker too, replaced by Rob Marshall of Chicago fame. Depp is once again at the helm casting wise - Sparrow is very much the captain of this vessel (I'll lay off the pirate talk soon). A few cast members return - Geoffrey Rush as the once antagonist and now reluctant Sparrow ally Barbossa, and first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) pops up from time to time. Keith Richards, thankfully, gets a very small and less obnoxious cameo this time around, and is gone as quickly as he appeared. They're joined by new faces - most notably Penelope Cruz as pirate and ex-Sparrow conquest Angelica, and Ian McShane as Blackbeard. If it seems like they've trimmed the fat only to then add some more, it's not exactly right. While some of the additions are pointless (more on that in a paragraph or two), for the most part the story is more coherent and focused.

The story? It, unlike the previous films, is relatively easy to synopsise. Jack Sparrow is looking for the Fountain of Youth. So's Barbossa, working for the British Crown this time around. Sparrow unwittingly teams up with Angelica on the dastardly Blackbeard's vessel, and is forced to lead the ship towards the Fountain. Along the way, they have to pick up a mermaid's tear and two chalices for some sort of ritual at said Fountain, all the while racing Barbossa and a Spanish armada determined to find the location themselves.

It's a plot that at least makes sense, and that's a big improvement. It flows jauntily - almost too jauntily, the first act moving perhaps a bit too swiftly as it establishes the major players. There's some very enjoyable setpieces and chases moving things along though; including a frantic one in London that features an unexpected cameo from a well known British acting veteran. The second half, in comparison, feels stretched. Despite more action sequences - most of which remain good fun, such as an enjoyable bit with coconut trees, and an intense battle in a bay - the film seems to spend a lot of time on unnecessary complications and redundant subplots. A main offender is a very silly series of scenes focusing on an enslaved priest (Sam Claflin) who takes pity on an even more enslaved mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). It goes nowhere, and could easily have been trimmed to have a more consistent pace. One is unpleasantly reminded of the Bloom / Knightley dullness as the subplot quickly becomes trite and utterly pointless.

Other changes, though, are for the better. Penelope Cruz is a welcome addition as the feisty Angelica, and Ian McShane crafts a menacing antagonist as Blackbeard. Also nice to see This Is England's Stephen Graham in a minor role as one of Blackbeard's crew. The major improvement is less of a reliance on computer generated imagery - it's still here, but joyfully there are no over CGIed characters clogging up screen time like Bill Nighy's character in the last two films. The setpieces are more physical, the settings - mostly - more grounded. It's a welcome step back. Unfortunately, the one major concession to modern technology is the addition of an increasingly useless third dimension. It starts well - there's an awesome fog effect at the very beginning. Things quickly go downhill though, especially when you realise that the vast majority of this film takes place at night. It's a very, very dark film as is - the addition of 3D glasses only darkens the image further. It's frustrating: yet another example of 3D adding nothing of note to the experience, and instead having a negative effect. If you can see this without the need for glasses, do.

Otherwise, there's little to surprise here. Depp's performance now lacks the shock factor that initially made Jack Sparrow such a memorable creation, but he gets a fair share of witty lines and pleasantly sloppy action scenes here. The rest of the returning cast are grand too, especially a playful Rush. It's certainly an improvement over the last two films, yet there's still the sense this series has failed to advance from the stellar first sailing. The soundtrack is still epic, the plot's coherent, Sparrow's still a unique protagonist, and the sense of fun is back. But that was all there first time around. On Stranger Tides is a pleasant diversion, even if it overstays its welcome over a 130 minute length. It's the best sequel, new director Rob Marshall seemingly understanding why the first was so well received. It's still a distant second in franchise terms though. A fifth and sixth Pirates of the Caribbean are in the works - they'll need to explore much stranger tides to warrant a return to a series that has long risked over-exposure.

Look, I got through the whole review without saying Yarr!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Revisit: Dogtooth

 Dogtooth was the first film in a long time to catch me completely off guard. A random pick at a film festival in 2009 alongside better known titles, I had heard very little bar a brief synopsis as I entered the cinema. What followed was an hour and a half of surreal, surprising and shocking black comedy. It had the audience laughing at the same time as being deeply unnerved by the increasingly unstable actions occuring on-screen. Eccentric cinematography, an imaginative script ('A "pussy" is a large light') and a general sense of playful subversion made Dogtooth a rare true original. Plus, it had a fantastic punchline of an ending, which I'm sure plenty of people are still pissed off about.

Time passed, and the shock wore off. I looked fondly back at the film as increasingly derivative Hollywood comedies clogged multiplexes, while the funniest film in quite some time - alongside In The Loop - was relegated to arthouse cinemas for the crime of being subtitled. Reviews flooded in on wide release, praising an economic subtext that I will readily admit I missed the first time around. And while an awful lot of fantastic cinema has come out in the last fourteen or fifteen months, little had the scathing wit and satire of Dogtooth. About time for a revisit!

What remains rewarding about Dogtooth is the surface level lunacy of the film, although with subtexts in mind the film takes on a pleasing other layer. But in any case, Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted one of the most unique films tonally and visually of the last few years. The opening sets the tone - a comical graph serving as an introduction and quickly jumping to a surreal vocabulary lesson as our three captive siblings are misinformed of the meanings of words like 'sea'. It's revealed that the adult (with the mental maturity of children) 'protagonists' are fenced into their house, with their minds twisted by seemingly well-intentioned parents. Their father leaves the house in a car (the only safe way to travel!) each morning for work, occasionally returning with a security guard named Christina who 'services' the son of the family - and, later, the daughters too. It's her influence that ultimately disrupts the carefully forged peace. 

The film plays out in almost episodic form, capturing surreal incidences inside the wooden fence, with the episodes forming a rough overall narrative over the course of the film. Bizarre games are overseen by the father, the winning 'child' rewarded with toy airplanes that have 'crashed' in the garden. Harmless outside influences, such as a cat, are met with confusion and hostility, and made even more unusual by their father's bizarre attempts to explain the situation. Family events occur with further 'rewards' (wait for the dance scene). And all this is punctuated with acts of random violence. The 'kids' are confused by the most basic of events, so no surprise they act out at times.

On a basic level: it looks amazing, the performances are engagingly weird and it's consistently funny. The DVD cover compares it to the work of Michael Haneke, and there are certainly elements of his bold social commentary here. Another comparison, though, would be Lars von Trier; well, von Trier with a sense of humour. It has the same confrontational style von Trier is both praised and violently criticised for, but does so with self-awareness and, IMO, precious little pretensions. It serves up a healthy dose of laughs, and the best kind too: the sort you shouldn't be laughing at, but can't help yourself. Who'd have thought a cat and a garden shears could make the stuff of classic black comedy?

So then, once one has appreciated the bounty of delights present on a basic level, one must dive under the surface. What exactly does Dogtooth satirise? First time around, bits and pieces made me think this was a scathing satire of reality television, although that's almost too easy a reading. Others have suggested everything from xenophobia to democracy to the education system are issues ripped apart by Lanthimos. And of course we have Dogtooth as an economic allegory. As an Irish person, I couldn't help but parallel it with Greece's (and Ireland's, and Portugal's, and Spain's) recessionary woes - an argument against economic isolation, suggesting that despite the best intentions outside help is to be encouraged, not violently rejected. Cutting yourself of will only lead to self-mutilation. It's a confrontational message, and while I don't fully agree, it's argued with conviction.

Of course I could be totally wrong. And therein lies the joys of Dogtooth. On one level it's a deliriously surreal black comedy, on another it could be anything you want to read into it. What was the intent of the director? Hard to say. But it's a film that has a message Lanthimos is proudly unafraid to keep ambiguous - he doesn't hold a big 'pussy' up to the themes like lesser directors would. There's belly laughs a-plenty on a first viewing, but it's the subtexts and potential analyses of said subtexts that will make Dogtooth a joy to revisit again some time in the future.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Review: 13 Assassins

Miike does Kurosawa

Source Magnolia Pictures
I'd imagine a vast amount of reviews of 13 Assassins have pointed out just how unlike your average Takeshi Miike film it is. For a man who has made what surely rank amongst the most explicit, provocative and controversial films of recent times, from Visitor Q to Ichi the Killer, a generally traditional samurai film is a change of pace for sure. It's a remake of a 1963 film, and from what I've heard quite a loyal one. There's a handful of typically Miike style acts of shocking violence throughout - most notably a disturbingly vivid look at a limbless victim of the film's cruel antagonist - but the bloodletting throughout is far more restrained, gritty and realistic than the fountains of crimson that have defined his more excessive flights of fancy. For a film with a body count in the hundreds (literally), this level of restraint is to be welcomed.

The film opens with an act of violence which in another Miike film would have been shown in gut wrenching detail. Instead, the harakiri which kick starts the narrative occurs just off frame, the camera painfully focusing on the man's reaction as he drives his sword into his stomach. The sound effects make for painful listening, but it illustrates that Miike understands that less explicit violence can sometimes prove more effective. Anyway, the suicide is part of a complex chain of events which ultimately forces the Shogun's adviser to order the assassination of his master's cruel, disturbed and bloodthirsty half-brother Lord Naritsugu after a series of unforgivable acts of violence that threaten Japan's peacetime. A trusted samurai Shinzaemon is entrusted with the task, and then goes about gathering a small group of followers to assist in what could optimistically be referred to as a suicide mission.

It sounds like Seven Samurai with small dashings of Ocean's Eleven, and often that's what it feels like. The initial setup is a bit complicated, but once you get on bored with who's who the film moves forward at an agreeable pace. It takes an hour or so to setup the politics and characters, and then breezes through a second act, and only fifteen minutes into the second act kicks into an extended, brilliant climax (more on that later). It doesn't always give us time to get a grip on the group of samurai (and one possibly supernatural tag along) bar brief backstory for two or three of the most thematically important individuals. Their setup is condensed into a speedy, entertaining training montage. It works, and it becomes clear we're firmly in action film territory, albeit one with something to say.

That's the best way to look at the film, because if you're unprepared the fact that at least a third (probably more) of the film is an extended battle sequence may surprise you. And it's a brilliant decision from Miike and his crew. Seven Samurai comparisons become more appropriate as our small band samurai heroes battle Naritsugu's 200-strong entourage. It starts off like an elaborate Rube Goldberg device which is a joy to witness, only to descend into far more brutal close combat as both sides become wearier. The mud-drenched, claustrophobic streets see Miike channeling Kurosawa most obviously. It surely ranks amongst cinema's great battle scenes, culminating in a number of fumbling yet majestic duels. The body count is high, but Miike for a change reflects on death, often vocally. It's a great portrayal of the samurai spirit - people willing to die for their cause and mission, no matter how hopeless.

The whole thing looks gorgeous, the widescreen cinematography impressing with a beautifully muted palette. It can be a bit disappointing how little attention is given to some of the assassins, but there are a number of strong performances in the mix. Yusuke Iseya provides a pleasantly light hearted performance as the strange wood dweller who joins the group, while Goro Inagaki makes a compelling villain as a man who simply enjoys brutality. Koji Yakusho's restrained performance casts him as a believable yet weary leader, and Takayuki Yamada as his nephew provides the group with that bit more depth as an individual who genuinely has something to lose apart from his life. For the most part, the thirteen assassins bring a variety of credible motivations to the story, even if only a few are granted an extended period in the limelight.

I have long been a fan of Miike, and think Audition and Visitor Q (my personal favourites of what I've seen) have far more depth and individuality than their provocative content may suggest. What 13 Assassins lacks in originality and explicit Miikeisms, though, it makes up for in clarity and competence of execution. It reflects on the grizzly nature of violence, making it a welcome contrast to Miike's sometimes devil may care attitude to on screen gore. It's thoroughly entertaining once you get a grip on who everyone is: a perpetual problem in samurai movies being haircuts and costumes sometimes making it tricky to pinpoint who is who in a crowd, especially when covered in mud. I nitpick: 13 Assassins is a visceral, thoughtful action film, proving that one of Japan's most eccentric directors can handle traditional genre rather impressively indeed. After the disappointment of the awkward Sukiyaki Western Django (the last of his films to be granted a wide Western release) it's a welcome revelation.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hollywood vs. The Mushroom Kingdom

Adaptations from Hell

I, as my alias would suggest, am a gamer. I, as this blog title would suggest, am also a film fan. I tend to curse when these two passions of mine collide.

One of the main problems with cinematic game adaptations thus far is that the vast majority have been shit. It doesn't help that two of the directors who keep being put in charge of these adaptations are dreadful - Uwe Boll and the 'bad' Paul Anderson (there's a good one too, and thankfully he's not lowering himself to Resident Evil sequels) are two frequent offenders. Barring maybe two or three exceptions, few films have managed to do their gaming counterparts anything resembling justice. Forgetting our merry band of hack directors, there are a few reasons for this. Let's explore!

Hopper as Koopa
Imagine, for a second, they made an adaptation of Lord of the Rings and re-imagined Middle Earth as a futuristic dystopia. Fans would be angry, and with good cause. When you adapt something, one of the goals is to remain loyal to the original vision, and at the same time adapt it to fit comfortably into its new medium. It's with that logic that we can point Super Mario Bros. out as a primary example of why Hollywood shouldn't be fucking with our games. Here, the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom of the games becomes said futuristic dystopia. Colourful characters (like Yoshi the Dinosaur) from the game become horrid mutants. Bowser (or King Koopa) is the series' main antagonist. In the games he's a kind of turtle / lizard with a spiky shell. In the film, he's Dennis Hopper. Ahem. It shits upon the world Miyamoto and co. created with nary a concern.

It borders on disrespectful, and that's a frequent theme with video game films. While I'll be the first to admit that game settings may not always be as inspired or 'mature' (mature in video games often means tits and gore, shamefully) as other mediums. But that doesn't mean we gamers aren't fond of them, so seeing them bastardised is always painful. The Resident Evil films are another example of removing much of the uniqueness and tone of the series and replacing them with generic action film bollocks. Again, Resident Evil has never been the most original of beasts, but the films barely resemble the series that inspired them.

Of the films that successfully at least capture part of the essence of their source games, Silent Hill is memorable for at least looking and sounding like the Silent Hill that has scared gamers shitless since 1999. The atmosphere is great, but unfortunately the film goes a bit crappy in the second half. A valiant effort, though, even if it is up itself. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is perhaps the most successful game adaptation of them all - it features all the well-known characters (and cameos from the ones who don't get a major role), the narrative roughly coincides with the very basic story of the game, and there is plenty of actual street fighting featuring the signature moves of Ryu and co. It's anime, though, and it is telling that the best game movie isn't live action at all.

Which brings me to another point. Gaming, for all its eccentricities and flaws, is an interactive medium (or at least it should be). The phrase "like watching someone play a videogame" is a common one in contemporary film criticism, and while I find the the phrase bit ignorant coming from reviewers who are clearly non-gamers, it does make a point. Games are meant to be played, not watched - look at the painful first person sequence in the disaster they call the Doom film. Jumping on turtles makes great gameplay, but isn't something necessarily fun to watch.

Silent Hill - at least they sort of got it right. Source: Sony Pictures.

A major design flaw with many contemporary computer games is their reliance on non-interactive cutscenes to tell their often uninspiring stories. These games, therefore, are far more memorable for their gameplay than their narratives. Take Metal Gear Solid - a fantastic stealth action series. Unfortunately creator Hideo Kojima has a penchant for narrative flights of fancy, and hence the player is often let sitting for forty minutes watching the regularly ho-hum and unnecessarily convoluted events of the series play out, sometimes for periods of over an hour. Narrative is a regular weak point of gaming, with exceptions of course: the Half-Life series, Braid, BioShock, the Persona games, Mass Effect and Shadow of the Colossus to name but a handful of examples of stellar interactive storytelling. Why does Hollywood think gaming's admitted weakness is going to make for compelling non-interactive cinema? The best games embrace their inherent "gameness" - from shmups to FPS, from puzzle games to RPGs - and that's why much interactive entertainment remains compelling despite their frequently limited stories. Game designers make games, film directors make films - and the best of both excel in their own medium time and time again.

It goes both ways. Gamers are well used to film adaptations disappointing. The recent Thor game has attracted some serious ire from the few individuals who spent cold hard cash on overpriced copies. There have been good games based on films - Spiderman 2, MegaDrive / SNES era Disney adaptations, King Kong - but alas we're dealing with exceptions, and the reality is games are often rushed out to coincide with film releases. It is telling that the best Batman and Transformers games of recent times have nothing to do with the ongoing film franchises, instead making uniquely 'playable' experiences out of their beloved characters.  Making something worth playing out of a linear and tightly focused film is a constant problem for game developers, or at least the less talented ones.

Rapture in Bioshock. Source: 2K Games
I'm very much a cynic when it comes to this topic: a cynical gamer, one could say. I've been burned too many times. Max Payne wasn't the most amazing game of all time, but its noir influences and curious presentation made it stand out from the crowd. The film was hopelessly generic junk. Same goes for Alone in the Dark, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and countless others. I've taken up ignoring the damn things unless I'm advised by trustworthy sources to do otherwise. I'm not hopeless, though. A BioShock film has been long rumoured, for example. The game, for those of you not in the know, is an Ayn Rand inspired (yes, that level of literary influence is extremely rare for gaming) descent into a failed underwater utopia called Rapture. The setting is an astonishingly visceral place to explore, a gloriously demented art deco metropolis populated with its deeply disturbed citizens. It even has a lot to say about the very nature of interactivity, and the way games often cheekily influence players. I dare say I'm not alone in suggesting the ideas and setting are more compelling than the gameplay - which is still great fun, especially in the narratively weaker but technically stronger sequel - at times. While half the joy is in uncovering the hidden secrets of Rapture for yourself, in the hands of a good director - Guillmero del Toro has been suggested - such a unique setting could potentially make a fascinating film.

Possibly successful adaptations like the above, though, are rare. On the other hand, we have the terrifying case of Shadow of the Colossus: a film adaptation stuck in production hell, where it should stay. SotC is a breathtakingly beautiful game in which you play the young Wander, who is tasked with defeating sixteen colossi in order to reincarnate his fallen love. There is miniscule storytelling and barely any extraneous features: you merely traverse the barren landscape on your horse in order to slay these majestic creatures. As you drive your sword into each of them, there is a powerful sense of loneliness. Do they deserve to die? What is the final outcome going to be? All you can do is desperately continue on out of a sense of hopelessness. Emotions flow as you, the player, slays these mysterious, seemingly innocent giants as they desperately try to shake you off. It is a rare game that uses gameplay to make the player question their actions; the overwhelming sense of loneliness captured with barely a word. And this is something a film will never capture.