Bright Lights, Dim City

In a post-apocalyptic world where guns are banned, heroes still don’t carry lighters.

I keep track of upcoming movies the same way a seasoned astronomer will keep track of approaching astrological events, checking up on them every now and then to see if more information has come to light and impatiently awaiting the day when they will grace us with their presence. I mention this because a good while back I remember first hearing about Bunraku, which was being called a “genre-bending martial arts western,” and this alone marked it on my lists of movies to keep an eye on, alongside other favorites like Trick ‘r Treat and The Cabin In The Woods which seem to stall forever but turn out to be well worth the wait. Bunraku doesn’t fulfill these expectations, however, it does fascinate out of sheer ambition to do so.

Though undoubtedly full of flash and innovation, Bunraku is yet another warning for why spectacle cannot replace depth in order to engage the audience. It’s positively bursting with colorful visuals, unique fight scenes, and a world which is clearly loved dearly by it’s creator, Guy Moshe, but is bogged down by weird characters, cheesy dialogue, and a meandering story which, despite what it’s lead may claim, never comes full circle.

Filmed in 2008 but delayed a theatrical release (Perhaps a blessing) due to budgetary concerns, Bunraku tells the story of two mismatched warriors, The Drifter (Josh Hartnett, who summoned more convincing emotion in his brief role in Sin City then here) a gunslinger without a gun but with a mean right punch, and a samurai without a sword, Yoshi (Gackt Camui, not remotely convincing as a skilled but temperate warrior) who arrive in a Town with no name, intending to take on Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman, whose shaggy beard is bizarrely out of place here) who owns the city and rules with a tyrants’ hand.

In many ways, Bunraku is the exact opposite of the aforementioned Sin City in everything from tone to lighting. Both have a narration which serves to enhance our understanding of the characters and the situation they find themselves in, but where Sin City’s characters narrated their own and gave us a deeper affinity for them, Bunraku’s aloof narrator is more interested in sly observations about the scenes themselves, and filled with so many interesting, yet ultimately distracting tidbits it’s like a director’s commentary that’s become too smart for it’s own good. Imagining the film without dialogue or narration is a tempting proposal, if not for the confusing motivations of it’s cast.

Take Josh Hartnet and his Lee Van Cleef-esque mustache. Even though The Drifter is cool,  (He tips his hat with the sound of a revolver spinning) his motivations are shaky, and any character growth he experiences feels shallow and forced. The film’s real crime is to build such mystery around him, and then refuse to answer any of it in favor of just making him a typical badass. He also has a bad habit of expressing the majority of his emotions with small tilts of his head, which makes his relationship to Yoshi hard to buy.

Josh Hartnett and Gackt are mismatched partners in a bar with no sake. This can only end well.

If he’d been played by a more veteran actor and given more of a script, Yoshi’s motivation could have created a more complex character deserving of some real empathy, since his desire for peace is clearly at odds with the cartoonishly violent world. Gackt however cannot pull this off to save his topknot however, going from one scene to the next with a sallow expression on his face, except when he’s getting the stuffing beat out of him by The Drifter.

Woody Harrelson as “The Bartender” brings the two together to form an alliance against Nicola, but his character rarely gets to do more in scenes then watch the fights between the two and casually sip whiskey, offering advice when the situation calls for it. It’s a role that doesn’t showcase even a little of his grandiose potential, and even when he gets a good line, it just doesn’t work.

He has a hinted, if not explicit connection with the weakest link of the movie, Alexandra (Demi Moore, who I swear hasn’t had a role since her bit in the serial killer thriller Mr. Brooks) the concubine of Nicola who muses her character’s motivation out loud in her first scene and then proceeds to feed the preceding ones with looks of annoyance and sorrow.

Nicola and his main “Squeeze” have zero chemistry. I blame that rug he’s wearing.

The big man himself, Nicola, is fond of dryly delivered monologues that try to substitute for character depth, and looks like a “Psycholo” a la Battlefield Earth with the lanky locks of The Beast from Ron’s staring role in the 1987 TV series. Nicola is a bad guy all dressed up with nowhere to go, and so he mostly chews the scenery behind a giant straw hat that would have given him an aura of mystery if he had just stopped spouting his life’s story. He sounds joyless rather then tired, and rather then sympathize with him the audience just wants him to stop stewing in his castle and go out on the street if he’s so desperate to live.

The one piece of constant entertainment is, of course, the right hand man, “Killer No. 2.” (Of 10, who are all identified with rather clever paper tags that zip across the screen whenever an unseen member is announced) He’s a dandy little albino who moves like a snake and kills with bombastic flourishes that hide his blindness so well I didn’t pick up on it until Alexandra starts crunching walnuts to his pained ears. Kevin McKidd (HBO’s Rome) is clearly having fun his eye spectacles, swanky suit and fedora turning him into a new wave Alex of Clockwork Orange infamy.

Killer No. 2 practically tap dances around the competition for most entertaining AND best dressed.

Saturated in blues, purples, and reds like a neon filtered crime novel, and featuring sounds effects not heard since Adam West’s Batman, one can’t be anything but mystified by Bunraku’s highs and lows. It’s an ultra-stylized trip down a rabbit hole of the action genre, so entertained by it’s own world it forgets the viewer is watching as well. One could make the joke that it’s too 2-Dimensional and falls under it’s own structure, but the real problem is that it’s too enthusiastic in expanding its elements out into a glorious origami flower to notice it’s audience can barely keep up with their own.

Best line-“I’m a product of a fucked-up generation. I can’t even seem to find a sunset to walk off into”- The Drifter

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Savage Hearts

O learns that just because you know how to use a knife and fork doesn’t mean you’re not a “savage”

Violence is one of the most common subjects found in movies, with much of the time the caveat seeming to be that because it’s “just a film” the handling of it is not as important as is entertaining the audience. Despite this flippant attitude however, some filmmakers have used the format to question the nature of violence and it’s relationship to the audience, and have had a profound effect on how we view it within our culture. Oliver Stone is not a stranger to this, with his landmark film Natural Born Killers striking deep at the parasitic relationship between violence and media, and his new film Savages, based on a book by Don Winslow, is at it’s most ambitious an attempt to show the downward spiral of violence and how the inability to behave like civilized persons eventually leads to ruin.

The story recounts the high times (yup) of marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass fame) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch from Saturday Night Lights and the more recent John Carter) Who live in Laguna Beach and produce the finest ganja money can buy, with Ben’s philosophy guiding them not to get greedy and work only to make their customers satisfied.The third part of their equation is Ophelia (Who’s changed it to just “O,” being no stranger to the history that name carries in Shakespeare) who is an ordinary Cali girl except for the fact that she’s deeply in love with both of them.

They would be happy to continue with their lives, if not for the encroachment of the Baja Cartel led by Elena La Reina (Salma Hayek, From Dusk Till Dawn) and her sadistic head enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) who wants them to partner with them. The two try and negotiate, and when that fails, outright decide to leave the business, but the BC isn’t about to let them go and persuade them to stay in the biz by kidnapping O. While Ben is desperate to meet their demands, the world-wearier Chon expresses doubt that they will let either of them go alive. “You can’t make peace with savages,” he says, and he’s right. The two also cross pass with Dennis (John Travolta) a double-dealing DEA agent who may have just the information they need to get O back. But in order to save her, they run the risk of becoming the savages they are fighting against.

Ben and Chon couldn’t be more of opposites, with O making the observation that “The only thing they have in common is me.” Chon is an ex-navy SEAL who came back from Iraq with a case of Non-Post-traumatic-stress-disorder and a handful of marijuana seeds they cultivated into an empire. Taylor Kitsch fills him with the sense of knowing that comes from seeing atrocities until they cease to be shocking; along with a grim humor that disguises his dog-eat-dog view of the world. Ben on the other hand works as a humanitarian abroad and though his travels have shown him the desperation of the less fortunate world, he’s still unprepared for the Cartel’s ruthlessness. Aaron Johnson captures a kid who is confronted by people so alien that he’s unable to reevaluate his philosophy and can only focus on saving O.

Blake Lively’s O is a smiling hippie girl offering endless love to her men, but is hopelessly lost in the world of brutality she becomes a prisoner to. Perhaps out of naivete, or out of hope, she connects with Reina, who sees a little of her daughter in her innocence all the while struggling to find a way to preserve the power her reputation has and being able to live with herself.

The only mask Lado really wears is his human one.

The most vicious character turns out to be the one most perversely fun to watch, Lado, played by Benicio Del Toro with cold eyes and a slimy mustache and jet-black pompadour like the star of a demonic Mexican soap opera. When he shows up at a guys house with a truck full of day laborers and asks whether he wants his grounds done, you can’t help but get a little chill from the casual menace he hints at.

Savages is bloody, violent, and yet maintains a strange air of distraction from it’s gruesome content, so that the film is not saturated with grimness, which is refreshing. It’s hard to say whether it’s because the film is too glib or the moral dilemmas are not meditated on, but it gives the experience on the whole sense of emotional dissatisfaction. We can feel for the plight of O, and Reina’s hardened soul, but we cannot empathize because they have little face-to-face human interaction (Many conversations take place over Skype), with Ben and Chon’s time together presenting us with the only one’s capable of reflecting on their actions, which they don’t have time do to.

It also makes a relevant statement with its depiction of the Cartel’s and how the need to expand their empire pushes them into closer contact with the states, and the bloody effects of that. It’s unsettling to imagine a couple of chillaxin’ Nor Cal growers getting roped into the deadly world of drug trafficking, and this gives it a feeling of realism even if It’s character’s don’t connect with us.

The film doesn’t suggest that the pair’s actions are any less justified than the Cartel, only that they pursue them for different reasons. The cycle of violence comes to a head in an ending, which, while maybe a bit gimmicky and too neat, proposes that while we are equally savages, we are all capable of overcoming it and being human as well.

Gentle Into That Good Knight

Christian Bale and Michael Caine reflect on Bruce Wayne’s future, hopefully one where his voice won’t have to suffer for the city.

When Christopher Nolan began his take on the  character of Batman, he surely had no idea how his film would change the perception of superhero films in the eyes of the public. His idea was merely to create a film presenting Batman as larger than life, show how a man could become a symbol for something greater, much like the comic version has become to fans. But now Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have become the UR examples of what superhero movies are measured against, and like a double edged batarang, this is true for the final film in Nolan’s trilogy.

Picking up eight years after DK ended, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, looking weary and unable to summon those powers of playboy youth he once had dominion over) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, nursing wounds both physical and psychological from the past years. His dear guardian/confidant Alfred (Michael Caine, heartbreaking in his desire to see his dear friend live a normal life) tells him he needs to stop playing at vigilante and concentrate on what the actually life after Batman will be, but rumors of a brutal mercenary, Bane (Tom Hardy, turning brute strength into a delicate art) in Gotham, as well as a mysterious “cat” burglar “ (Anne Hatheway, layering her voice and body with sly playfulness) tempt him into the cape one again.

Elsewhere, he is pursued by Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who wants him to invest in a clean energy project that could cement the cities’ need, and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) an idealistic young officer who is working with James Gordon (Gary Oldman) to keep the city safe, despite his haunted conscience. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) also keeps up his supply of reliable gadgets coming; with a particularly impressive flying vehicle being his Cote de Grace this time.

With this being the final film in the director’s series, Dark Knight Rises works to raise the stakes and travel deeper into Bruce’s character then ever before, and mostly succeeds in the task of showing our favorite dark hero as deeply altered and the effect his double life has had on the perception of his future. We see Bale, leaning on a cane and understand that his resolve can no longer match his body, and know that he is headed for a fall, but we also know that as long as there is life in his body, there must also be a rise.

Tom Hardy’s voice may sound fractured, but his physical prowess will teach you to fear.

            His greatest challenge comes in the form of Bane, whose synthetically chilling voice belies a man of frightening strength and resources, and who orchestrates the destruction of Gotham with religious devotion. Tom Hardy is unrecognizable even without the clawed respirator grafted onto his face like a skeletal mask, with a massive body and presence in every scene he’s in. The showdown between the two is an exercise in skilful brutality, and terrifying in its implications; if the Dark Knight cannot fell this foe, what hope does the rest of the city have?

All the rest of the performers bring their A-game to characters of similar motivation, with standouts including Anne Hatheway who toys with Bruce even as he insists that there is more to her than an opportunist, and still finds heart as one of his few allies in the growing storm. Their chemistry is pitch perfect, and provides a much needed lightness to his time as the tortured hero of Gotham.

Those night goggles serve a clever aesthetic purpose as well.

Scenes from Rises stick in the mind for their poetry of action and ideology, even when that ideology is slightly hard to accept or requires comic book logic to come to light. The journey of Batman from a vigilante, to a symbol, and at last immortalization as a legend is beneath all the things we come to expect from a thrilling action movie, explosions, and ticking clocks, and those who are in it for these along will no doubt be satisfied. But for the pursuers of the myth, the fans and critics who saw the first movie and recognized a spirit that went beyond the images on screen will no doubt find flaws that will nag at the mind.

This is fine, accept them and do not fear them. For the story of Bruce Wayne, passionate yet in a way, helpless in his struggle to preserve the innocent will always be a story for our time, just as memorable as Indiana Jones or James Bond. Yet these are static characters, doomed to be archetypes that can never learn from their mistakes or escape the formula of their making, entertaining, but never reaching for anything higher. The Dark Knight Rises however shows us the power for transformative change, and ends on the note that this power is not limited to becoming a symbol, but can also work to bring back the man who was thought lost so many years ago, and at last give a lasting resolution to the man who would be Batman.

Amazingly Promising Start To A New Story

Andrew Garfield’s performance as Peter Parker is more down-to-earth than what his current situation suggests.

Marc Webb’s (500 Days of Summer) take on spider-man is tighter, less hokey than Sam Raimi’s, and feels more like it’s own movie rather than a comic book adaptation. It has plenty of references to the source material, but does it in a far more organic fashion that doesn’t rely on comic book logic. Those of us who know the story will be presently surprised when it comes to how the film handles the finer details, including where his web shooters come from and how he tests out his powers, as well as an interesting variation on the much repeated mantra about power and responsibility.

The story is much more focused on Peter’s sense of identity, which comes from the loss of his parents at an early age, and the discovery of an old acquaintance Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who worked with his father. After a visit to his lab, he’s bitten by a spider being used to test the application of cross-species genetics, and ends up able to stick to walls and finally stand up to the various bullies at his high school.

At first he’s merely content to use his newfound powers to perform better tricks on the half-pipe, but when a moment of selfishness results in the death of his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) he becomes a vigilante searching for the man who’s responsible. He attracts the attention of a classmate Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) whose father George Stacey (Dennis Leary) is the chief of police and is also hunting Spider-Man, making for some awkward dinner conversation when Gwen invites Peter over for dinner. But the hunt for Spider-Man is put on hold after a dangerous creature appears in the city and threatens to unleash a biochemical weapon, and necessitates that Peter must spring into action and become the hero that until now he has only been playing at.

This new Spider-Man is more fun and snarky, and treats the apprehension of criminals as more of a game than a job. He quips his way through fights, tying up enemies with webbing and performing aerial acrobatics that may even rival Tobey McGuire’s 2002 performance. One particularly neat sequence features him cocooning a bad guy in web by crawling spider-like over and around him. However, his abilities are also better defined, so that he does not come across as an invincible spider-ninja as in the first one, but more of a very skilled hero whose power comes from his proficiency with them.

The kid behind the spider-mask is a very different from the Peter Parker from before however. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) invests him with a kind of nervous determination, and then gradually peels back the layers to show how the losses in his life make him all the more determined to find his place in the world. Garfield’s portrayal really does feel like it will resonate with the current generation more thanks to his flaws being subtler and his troubles far more relatable than just the quiet genius that gets picked on a ton.

He’s also not much of a geek this time around, with the exception being his hobby taking pictures and his construction of his web shooters. His relationship with Gwen Stacey is one of uncertainty, yet sweetness, with Emma Stone portraying an everygirl sort of presence (As opposed to Mary-Jane’s unobtainable beauty) and her relationship with her father adding a deeper dimension to her relationship with Peter. The ending moments insure that they will have plenty to grow and develop as the series continues, which is a welcome reprieve from the “tortured hero” of past films.

“I’m going to throw you out the window now, okay?”
I can’t be the only one who senses some dramatic irony here…

While not forgettable, the villain Peter faces is both complex and sadly stunted. Rhys Ifan’s works to elicit sympathy based around his desire to re-grow his lost left arm, and his connection with Peter is better elaborated thanks to him knowing his parents and sharing a genuine sadness for the boy. When he goes full-scaly though, he loses his complexity, and though his creature design is quite impressive, it’s a shame the directors show so much of him since he would be far more effective if his presence were merely suggested. His ultimate goal is not a terribly original one, but given Connor’s condition and desire to “bring an end to weakness” it actually feels like an organic motive, even if it is, pardon the expression, straight out of a comic book.

Two other factors stick out as highlights of the movie, the first being it’s humor, which contrasts well with the darker aspects of the narrative. This is probably best exemplified in a cameo by (who else?) Stan Lee, who is entirely silent like he was in Iron Man, but manages to be hilarious thanks to the background and the way it pauses the action.

The second is how much this Spider-Man feels like the first part of an actual story, with various elements of the 2002 film only given cameos from the background (Such as Norman Osborne and Oscorp) and the hints after the credits of a deeper plot that is connected with Peter’s parents. Like them or not, Raimi’s films were largely stand-alone movies which carried certain conflicts and characters from each to the next, but mostly centered on a unconnected villain each time. But by the time the credits role by, the film alludes to a larger story that will involve Peter more intimately and perhaps weave a more amazing story than it’s predecessor