47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

47 Ronin is a film reimagining of a popular Japanese folktale that is stuck inside its mythic contraptions. Everybody is an archetype, as opposed to a character. Love, hate or brotherhood between characters is assumed rather than shown through character development. The story starts and ends with an unknown narrator, who tells the story as if we were all listening to an old tale by a campfire. The end result is that it places a distance between the story and the audience. It is as if the story itself is matted on a frame, and we are just looking at it in a gallery with a curator recounting the story as opposed to the viewer experiencing the story from a first-person perspective.

Keanu Reeves is not the problem here. There is no room here to critique about woodiness as there wasn’t enough for him to do. He is casted here for marketing reasons and it really shows. Reeves’ character is sidelined by Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays the leader of the Ronin. Sanada carries the film with his powerful presence; you really do believe he can really hurt someone with a sword. He has long been the go-to guy for American-Japanese co-productions and it’s finally nice to see him in a central role. Tadanobu Asano also shows up to chew some scenery as the villain and adds a depth that wasn’t on the page. My fingers are still crossed he will play Genghis Khan again in a sequel to Mongul.

Hearing the film opened poorly in Japan is unfortunate. Perhaps it is uncomfortable for the Japanese to see their own folktale retold in a foreign production. I have bulked at my fair share of Hollywood misrepresentations of Chinese culture, and evidently there is a sufficient amount of Orientalism in the film. Though the fantasy elements and the production design are so extreme it plays closer to a graphic novel. The more I think about why the fantasy elements were added, the more it seems like it is there to justify the casting of Keanu Reeves as a half-Caucasian half-Japanese outsider amongst an entire cast of Japanese actors. I can’t help but imagine what a more realistic telling of this story would have been like as the Japanese cultural elements and Samurai politics were more interesting than the magic and mythic beasts.

To sum it all up, 47 Ronin is a fantasy graphic novel style adaptation of a Japanese folktale released in December. Perhaps it is not exactly the most festive way to start the new year with all the beheadings and Samurai ritual suicide. The story also takes a long time to get set up, which asks for a lot of patience on the viewer’s part. The ideal crowd would have been overseas anime geeks who are fascinated with Japanese pop culture, and perhaps for that, the film may have fared better if it was released in the March-April slot. That all said, even with its flaws and supposed qualifiers, 47 Ronin accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s just not for everybody.
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The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing by Joshua
Oppenheimer

A
documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders
to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic
genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and
lavish musical numbers.

By omitting the historical context
behind the 1965–1966 Indonesian killings and letting the
Indonesian death squad leaders tell their own story, watching
The Act of Killing evokes the
Nietschean idea of ‘gazing into the abyss’. That if one
were to ‘gaze long
into an abyss, the abyss also
gazes into you.’ The Act of
Killing
is a deep ocean of ideas, constantly
reflecting the human condition. Every scene was like a wave, with
an entirely different idea, crashing over the previous scene and
provoked a new thought in me. My thought train spiraled and
branched off into different directions.

At first, I thought about the brutality
of man. Then it went to how history is written by the
victor.

And then I
thought about the nature of cinema and storytelling. That in the
act of telling their own story, the death squad leaders became
conscious of their past actions through the task of having to
present it to an audience. That aesthetic distance, interestingly
enough, ends up being the distance these death squad leaders needed
to truly examine what they have done.

And then I arrived at the nature of how
extreme ideas in society prevail, despite of how illogical or
inhuman they may be. That logic is relative, anyone can easily
manipulate logic to justify any action. One can make anything sound
logical to do whatever they desired in a given moment.

And like that, the film kept on
giving infinitely and its themes continually deepened. The Werner
Herzog brand of the ‘ecstatic truth’ is at play here. Each
audience member will have their own individual experience of the
film’s ideas and themes, because the film allows it so. Director
Joseph Oppenheimer never puts these men on trial and instead of
burrows for something deeper to reflect humanity at its core. These
men, like anybody, are just human. And I cared and became invested
into their emotional journey through how Oppenheimer displays their
humanity, which was perplexing at points. I had to remind myself
that they were still mass murderers.

At a two and a half hour running time,
the film is too long. It’s hard to sit with such heavy material.
There is a 115-minute theatrical cut that exists, which is 45
minutes shorter than this director’s cut. Joshua Oppenheimer
seemingly wants to covers more ground than needed and less
definitely would have been more. I stuck with it alright because I
was fascinated by the film’s subjects, but it may test the patience
of general audiences. That said, The Act of
Killing
is a great story told through subjects
that I never ever want to meet in real life.
It is an unsettling and powerful
experience and is one of the best films of 2013, if not the most
important.

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Danny Boyle’s new film Trance is an cinematic assault on the senses, and unapologetically so. The premise behind Trance is inherently silly. This is a world in which where hypnosis is magic and accomplishes everything. I doubt any real gangster in the world would ever incorporate a doctor of any kind to assist them with crime.  Audiences just have to go along with it. With trippy cinematography and an awesome soundtrack that I want on my mp3 playlist, Boyle crafts a colorful thrill ride of a film.In the past, Danny Boyle has experimented with genre to varying degrees of success. 28 Days Later worked for me, Sunshine did not. For Trance, the genre-shifting nature works mostly because of its three stars giving it the proper balance. All three lead actors are given dimensional characters to play. Vincent Cassell and James McAvoy seem to be enjoying their roles as they get to play out not only their own characters’ complexities, but their fantasies and projections as well. The standout, surprisingly, is Rosario Dawson.

This is the best Rosario Dawson role I have seen thus far. In her past roles, her sex appeal has been used too blatantly and it has taken away from her performances. The more you intentionally portray someone as sexy on film, the less sexy it is. I am too aware that I am supposed to be aroused by something that I am not totally immersed in. It’s more the idea of sex and the building of sexual tension that creates onscreen sexiness. Danny Boyle sets up the proper atmosphere and films her in a way that forwards the story. Boyle creates an allure to Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist character, who’s just sitting down in plain office attire hypnotizing the male characters with words. Her presence adds an entire genre, the erotic thriller, and it sets the film off on a corkscrew spiral mixing film genres, reality and dream states. Nobody is who they seem to be and the film delivers some nice twists and turns.

There’s a trashiness that the film revels in, as if the film is fine with the audience being aroused and indulging into its stimulus. It never gets serious enough for the audience to ever truly take it seriously. So for that, Trance is a fun naughty little piece of pop art, that’s not to be taken seriously and I was comfortably lost in it.

Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook

After India’s (played by Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller has stated that this is not a vampire movie. To this I say, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”  Regardless of what Miller says, it’s a vampire film or not, Stoker is clearly playing to the beats of a vampire film underneath its surface.There are things at play that suggest this, Uncle Charlie is fixated with India and he preys on her. India seems to possess some kind of innocence or purity that is at stake of being corrupted. Lastly, the movie is called Stoker. That’s no accident.

It’s as if someone took a traditional vampire movie, folded it inside out, wore it like a bag on his head looking outside from within. That’s the way to watch Stoker. Anybody who says there is nothing happening in this story is not looking at the subtext. The subtext is the supertext, that’s where the story is taking place. Park Chan-Wook leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to ponder about what’s going on. There is a whole lot going on if you tune to the film’s grammar and look in the right places.

Matthew Goode has always had this steely piercing look that looks sinister and that quality is well used under Park’s direction. Park knows how to pull back and just shoot an actor in a certain pose to emote a mood or feeling. As Uncle Charlie, we never know what he’s thinking or if we can really trust his intentions. Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman give fine performances but Matthew Goode gives the standout performance. The real star of the film however is Park Chan-Wook himself. He elevates the script by adding a visual poetry that subtlely implies. Everything is played at such a low volume that the audience is unnerved waiting for the tension to crescendo.

A good companion piece to Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire horror film Thirst; it’s probably what got Park the job. This is probably one of the best English-language debut for an Asian director. It’s a smooth transition as his directorial stamp is very much present. You will need to put in more brain work for Stoker, but it pays off.

Cloud Atlas by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Cloud Atlas by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Lets start with the good things, Ben Whishaw gives a great performance as the aspiring musician. Man he can really rock a voice-over. There’s something very convincing about Hugh Grant playing sleazy disgusting characters. This sounds like a backhanded compliment but I don’t mean it that way. He’s much more believable being slimy than in his romantic comedy roles. I liked the central musical score that the film is named after. That’s about all I can say.

Cloud Atlas asks the audience to do an incredible amount of math to keep up with its stories. In my opinion, the movie doesn’t use much style or story devices to help the audience follow the story. Sometimes they downright made it difficult to follow, personally I found the language in the future timeline hard to tune to. I tried very hard for the first two hours trying to figure out how the six story lines connected to each other. I don’t know if it’s something you have to know from the book but I sincerely hope that is not the case. If reading the book is necessary to understand the film, then does that not mean the film failed entirely as a standalone piece?

The make-up concept was problematic. Why deliberately make an actor who is Asian look Caucasian? Or a Caucasian actor into an Asian?  Racist stereotyping aside (there are Asians who have double eyelids), it kept taking me out of the movie because I am suddenly aware that the cartoonish-looking character would not genetically exist. Seriously, look out for Hugo Weaving dressed as Nurse Hatchett from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in one of the storylines. That said, I still gave it a chance and searched hard for the internal logic of the film. I reflected upon viewing, why is one actor playing six roles in six different storylines? Is the fact that I can recognize the actor’s face in a different character meant to be a narrative device? Is it suggesting a thematic connection between the multiple roles that actor is playing? Or is it trying to evoke juxtaposition between them? I failed to see it.

The Wachowski’s have gone on record saying that critics are going to dismiss the film as incomprehensible schlock from the frustration of not being able to piece it together. They’d prefer if the audience will just find their own interpretations. I know what they mean, though that doesn’t magically make the movie critic-proof.

I probably need to have a dialogue with people who did enjoy Cloud Atlas, because I simply did not connect with the material. As a standalone piece, it did not hold together cohesively. Mainly because I have seen this type of material done much better, I recommend anybody to see watch Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (my thoughts here). An underrated film that shares Cloud Atlas‘s ambition. It masterfully used every cinematic technique in the book to visually guide the audience easily through it’s attention-shifting tree branch narrative structure. I was able to track the entire story through the twelve different versions of the protagonist as the story developed simultaneously. As for the six story lines in Cloud Atlas, not the case!

Who? What? Where? When? Why? Zilch. It’s not a bitter angry ‘zilch’, but I worked very hard following a story that did not payoff.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.

Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine

Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine

Before I write out my thoughts, I must admit that I am only familiar with the general popular mainstream British cinema. I know the stars, uprising actors and some independent directors of who I have only seen bits of their filmography (i.e. Thus far I have only seen one Ken Loach film). I am not yet immersed enough yet to know about the British character actors. The two major players from Tyrannosaur, director/actor Paddy Considine and actress Olivia Colman, both of whom I only recognize from Hot Fuzz.

Tyrannosaur begins with Joseph (played by Peter Mullan), an unemployed widower who’s on the verge of self-destruction, decides to change his life after accidentally killing his own dog in a fit of rage (one of the most engaging inciting incidents I have experienced in a long time). Joseph befriends the local charity shop worker Hannah (played by Olivia Colman), a respectable wholesome and kindly Christian woman who takes pity on him. They slowly become friends. However, Hannah has a dark secret of her own at home – James, her physically abusive husband . This threatens to plunge Joseph back into his former life.

One of the joys of watching a movie is seeing the story unfold. Each scene engages you with a bit more information and you search and piece things together in the next scene, so on and so forth. Tyrannosaur sucks you right in from the beginning in its opening sequence (my reaction: “He kicked a dog dead! Who is this guy?”) and keeps you asking questions about its characters. It doesn’t even end with Joseph as the Hannah’s character is introduced. We begin to explore her story and ask questions about her. I found myself thrilled to know the answers.

Director Paddy Considine understands that the lurking threat of violence is much scarier than merely presenting violence occurring and manages to create some tense dialogue set pieces, particularly the scenes between Eddie Marsan and Olivia Colman. He knows the exact amount to show and when to get out of the scene and it incorporates it with film language. i.e. A character is about to be punched and we cut to another character hitting a brickwall with a sledgehammer in another scene. We are left to ponder about the fate of the first character as the brickwall is being pounded away.

Having seen Olivia Colman only in Hot Fuzz as a goofy policewoman, she really blew me away as Hannah. It’s one of the most engaging performances I’ve seen this year. One noteworthy scene where James, Hannah’s abusive husband, pleads for forgiveness, breaks down and cries at her leg for physically abusing her. Hannah gently pats his back in a loving gesture but her face reads entirely different. She acknowledges that this is only the beginning of a never-ending abusive cycle. Olivia Colman’s face plays 6-7 emotions; from love, worry, fear, pity and dread all at once. It is a very layered performance that hits a lot of different emotions and you won’t understand the subtlety of her performance until the end of the movie.

That’s the thing, Tyrannosaur struck me hard emotionally. So much that it mentally delayed me from acknowledging what was really going on. The film ended and I was left thinking about the characters: connecting their backstories, the events of the film and what would probably happen to them after the story. It was raw and it was real. The two central characters are very engaging and the three leads turn in a very good performances in a well-crafted story. I like to see more films from Paddy Considine in the future.

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

There is something admirable about the PG-13 horror film. It is not allowed to be gory, crass, nasty or graphic, and that forces the filmmaker to use alternative, more subtle methods to induce scares for audiences. Scary thoughts and ideas have to be implied as opposed to physicalized. Often it takes more thought and discipline to achieve this. Joe Dante’s The Hole is one good example. I would even argue the latter Harry Potter films are essentially horror films for children as well.

Anyways, the set-up: Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, who recently lost his wife from childbirth, travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success speaks about the 10,000 hour rule, the idea that mastery in any skill must involve practicing it for up till 10,000 hours. From all those years of playing Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe has proven the 10,000 hour rule with the skill of “acting to nothing.” Much of the film’s scares hang on the reactions off Radcliffe’s face, everything that the film wants the viewer to believe is present is communicated and punctuated through his performance. He has matured and refined his act into a disciplined performer than previously relying on instincts as he did on the Harry Potter films. A popular criticism that’s been circulating around is that Daniel Radcliffe is a bit young to be believable as a solicitor that has recently lost his wife. I did not mind it as it was not a conscious observation to me as I watched the film. He is a very watchable presence and carries the film competently.

Jump scares are something one can grow out of in life. It used to be the part in a horror movie I dreaded the most when I was a child and now as an adult they do not scare me at all. After all, there’s only 2 possible results to a jump scare: either the jump scare was for nothing (in which there was no point to the build-up and it’s just there to scare you to keep you unsettled for the real scares later) or for something (in which the build-up was giving away the surprise of the scare, i.e. in The Descent, there is never any build-up music/sound effects to a scare). Personally there were too many jump scares utlized in the film.  That said however, it is still a legitimate aesthetic choice because it can still prove very effective for a teen audience.

The film gave me 4-5 genuine scares. The Woman in Black‘s scarier moments come from the idea that children are vulnerable to death and danger without proper parental protection. It’s a lingering omnipresent feeling provided by the film’s gloomy gothic atmosphere. The Woman in Black is picking off all these children and the parents cannot do anything to protect them. One noteworthy scene that gave me the creeps was a child victim who dies from drinking lye. The little child helplessly collapses, spits bloods and drops dead. Nobody can do anything but watch her die. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?

Which reminds me, to all the responsible parents out there: Please respect the film’s rating, do not take your child to see this because Daniel Radcliffe is in it. 13 is the minimum age for this movie.

I really enjoyed the ending. It was poignant and bittersweet. Although I didn’t think the very last shot was necessary (I’m not going to say what it is but people who end up watching the film can reply to me on that).

Overall, it’s a competent horror film with a fine lead performance cast in a role that plays to his strengths. It’s not great, but it is pretty good work. You can easily nitpick it to death, but I am not going to. I look forward to seeing more of Daniel Radcliffe in future films.