Monday, August 15, 2011

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011)

Takashi Miike's films are often an acquired taste. His portrayal of graphic violence and sexuality, combined with his love for unusual narratives driven by even more unusual characters has made him a cult favorite here in the States. Miike is a film maker who has made a reputation by holding nothing back and by approaching every taboo with the gleeful attitude of a rebellious teenager giving the finger to the high school principle. His skill behind the camera, and his prolific output are nothing short of amazing though, and those talents have earned him the kind of respect other film makers who approach the same subject matter and portray it as graphically are consistently denied. He has succeeded in taking what is often considered exploitation and turning into both what his audience craves and what critics still consider "art". It's no small accomplishment.

Still, he has so far been pigeon holed as a genre/exploitation director, especially here in the States where our faux cultural sensibilities tend to be offended by the celebratory tone Miike tends to embraced when presenting the most graphic material. 13 Assassins proves beyond the shadow of any doubt that Miike is more than a one trick pony and that he not only makes great films for an audience that appreciates his brand of balls to the wall, no holds barred cinema, but that he can hold his own with any film maker (living or dead) that is considered a more "serious" artist. To put it bluntly, 13 Assassins is a great fucking movie. Period. Full stop. It's not a great cult movie. It's not a great action movie. It's not a great drama. It's a great movie, all around, incorporating pieces of things Miike has shown he's capable of before, but this time putting them front and center.

13 Assassins has a place among the great samurai epics in film history, from Ran to Seven Samurai to Samurai Rebellion to Yojimbo and so on. It succeeds in telling a compelling story using interesting, intelligent characters and a visual style that is spectacular in it's simplicity. It suffers from neither the weepy, syrupy, over baked emotional manipulation often at play in even the more successful dramas, and also succeeds in that it avoids the pitfall of having a cavalcade of wooden, emotionless drones performing feats of action movie heroism which are devoid of anything but empty spectacle. It is earnest, straight forward, and impossible to take your eyes off of. The small, quiet dialog scenes are as mesmerizing as the action.

The film benefits from a cast that misses nothing, making every scene worth the seconds it takes to tick by, giving the audience believable, strong characters who feel more as if they are the result of a piece of non-fiction research than a fictional writers imagination. They simultaneously seem to have their own full histories while also being completely spontaneous in each moment. They don't all share the same amount of screen time or importance in the story, but none of them ever feel as if they've been tacked on to add some dimension that would otherwise be missing from the story or the other characters.

By the time the action begins, it's already been established that these are characters who have dedicated their entire lives to the discipline of the samurai code and have spent that time both in practice and studies. When the film's big action set piece takes off, there are no feats of superhuman strength or ability, no wire work or C.G.I flying. It's a group of men who have spent their lives preparing and planning for a moment like this one, and because that's been so well established, everything in the scene is believable and because we've spent the time we have with these actors portraying these characters so well, it has weight and meaning. It's not just a blood and guts spectacle. Miike doesn't spare us many of the gory details, because he's Takashi Miike and he never shy's away from the gory details, but again, it's not the kind of scene that highlights the effects or the gore. It's always about these men and this story, and because of that, it is spectacular.

Takashi Miike has made a full fledged samurai epic of the variety which hasn't been seen in decades. In many ways, it's a lean story. There's no love interest here. There's no modern sensibility to the characters attitudes or actions. There's no hidden subtext or allegory about the modern age. There's definitely a subtext about power and the ugliness it breeds in humanity, but it's a universal idea that could belong in any age. It's that quality, the utter indifference to traps and cliche's of modern storytelling that makes 13 Assassins a humming, churning steam engine of cinematic beauty. In 1954, Akira Kurosawa set the standard for samurai epics by making what is arguably one of the greatest films of all time, Seven Samurai. Miike hasn't made a film that is equal to that, but he's done what might have otherwise been considered impossible by getting in the ballpark.

I highly recommend this one. Get your hands on a copy, soon. It's available via Netflix Watch Instantly, but this is one I'd suggest watching on Blu-ray if you're internet speed isn't up to carrying full 1080p HD. It's shot with such a natural beauty that it's worth waiting a few days to see it in it's full glory. I'll leave links for purchasing the DVD and Blu-ray below. I'm going to pick this one up for my personal collection, immediately.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

I was not very excited when I began reading that there was a new Planet of the Apes film in development. The possibility of yet another reboot, sequel, prequel or just about any new film made from the bones of a classic genre property seemed to me like a guarantee for yet another sub par film exploiting an audience loyal to the original material or property. And if we're all honest with each other, the original film was the only one worth it's salt in the first place. The sequels were certainly fun for genre fans, but they weren't very good movies. The original film hasn't stood the test of time all that well either, but it's charm and it's place in the cannon of science fiction films earn it some nostalgia points. Tim Burton's remake or reboot or whatever the hell it is that thing is correctly referred to as, was just flat out boring. All of this combined with the number of horrid remakes and reboots being pumped out now just added to the fear that Hollywood was going to take another really great science fiction concept, dip it in shit and serve it up to those of us who are genre fans as if it were a delicacy.

I was right to be worried, and right to be wary, but as the credits rolled, I really loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is definitely the best of the "big summer movies" I've seen so far this year, and I've seen a number of them. I haven't written reviews for any of the other films because I didn't really walk out of those films excited about them. Sure, Captain America made me a little more excited about The Avengers, but I didn't walk out feeling as if I wanted to go sit right back down in the theater and watch it all over again. Rise of the Planet of the Apes made me want to sit through it again, as soon as possible. It might be heresy to say it, but in pure film making terms, it surpasses all of the previous films in the series. It will probably not find it's way into the hearts of fandom the way the original film did, but it's definitely a more well crafted film. The original film definitely has charm, and I don't love it less having seen this film, but anyone with the least bit of objectivity can admit that the script was somewhat clunky, and even as it's part of the charm, Charlton Heston's over the top performance hasn't lent the film credibility over time. The performances in this film are just better, hands down, and though there are one or two pieces of the script which could be stronger, they never distract from what works in the film. Beyond that, if this had been one single film unto itself, with no connection at all to the previous films, I don't think I would have enjoyed it any less or any more. It is able to stand on it's own and still be a movie that is damn good and borderline great. It gives a few cursory nods to the other films in the series and the mythological cannon already established, but would be as good as it is without any of those films ever having existed and audience members who may not have seen them will still find this an entertaining and fully satisfying experience.

For those who aren't familiar with the basic storyline of the film, a brief synopsis should cover it. Rise chronicles the birth, childhood, maturation and even rise of Caesar. Caesar is the offspring of a chimp which has been brought to a lab in order to be used for testing a new viral treatment for Alzheimer's disease. James Franco plays Dr. Will Rodman, the genius behind this new treatment, whose father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with the disease. Franco's new treatment is supposed to restore brain functions that are lost to Alzheimer's. Caesar's mother is given this treatment, and since she has been recently captured from the wild, the lab staff have no idea that she is pregnant. Caesar begins to show unusual intelligence almost immediately, and Franco's character realizes his treatment does more than just restore brain function for those who have lost it to some degree, it will enhance brain function for those who have suffered no loss. Caesar advances extremely rapidly, becoming more than a pet or a project, but a fully realized character within the narrative of the film. Make no mistake, this is Caesar's film. He is it's center and it is all about him. Everyone and everything else in the film are part of his journey. For those of you familiar with the series, you can probably guess where this eventually goes (though you would be hard pressed to figure out how without seeing the film or reading a more in depth synopsis), and for those of you who may not be, it is a journey most definitely worth taking.

Director Rupert Wyatt manages to make the audience care about Caesar, a character that essentially has no dialog in the film. On top of that, this is a character that is 100% C.G.I, and it works. WETA digital has done some really amazing work in creating the ape characters in this film. Because they don't speak, everything has to be communicated through expressions, and shockingly, through the eyes. For a few decades now, one thing digital effects have failed to do is to give characters eyes that don't look lifeless and hollow. No matter how good effects have been so far, they just haven't been able to get that part of a living being correct. With chimps, being higher primates and as close to humans in appearance as they are, anyone who has seen pictures or footage of real chimps knows that there is something eerily familiar in their eyes, as is true of many of the great ape species. The effects are actually used in service of the characters and the story, which is one of the reasons Rise is as good as it is. Wyatt and the screen writers succeed in putting the audience in Caesar's corner because he is a fully realized character, and a really well written character at that. His growth from infant to child to fully matured adult is played subtly, with small steps of his journey being taken throughout the film. One of the strengths of Caesar's story is that it isn't necessarily a story of inevitability. He becomes what he becomes as much because of what he encounters as because of his own innate intelligence. Fate doesn't make him what he becomes, but it's not the story of a character being forced down his path by his antagonists either. Caesar is an active character, whose reactions to the characters and circumstances he encounters are part of what eventually make him the ape to lead the others out of captivity, but it's evident that he is making the decisions to take the steps that lead him there. And he's also not portrayed as some kind of wild eyed revolutionary. He decides to lead the apes out of captivity, not because of some kind of zeal for human destruction or the kind of irrational megalomania that infects most of human history's revolutionaries, but because it is the best option for him and his fellow apes. It's not even a very grand revolution, in terms of it's scope. It's an attempt to reach safety and a peace and place of their own. Mind you, Wyatt and company manage to communicate this with Caesar only using sign language on one or two occasions through the entire film, everything else is communicated through body language, facial expressions, and the holy grail of digital character effects work, the eyes. Andy Serkis deserves special recognition for imbuing Caesar with a real soul and being able to make the character the perfect blend of human intelligence and animal physicality. Creating Caesar this effectively is more an act of teamwork that probably any other kind of character in film, and with that in consideration, it makes it all that more astonishing how well done it is. Many people had to have been at their absolute best to pull this off.

James Franco delivers a good performance as the man who is more or less responsible for Caesar's evolution and as the man who raises him. His desire to find a cure for Alzheimer's combined with the humanity he brings to his relationships with both Caesar and his own father (Lithgow turns in a good performance as well) make his actions completely understandable. In it's own way Rise is a Frankenstein story as well as a story of revolution, and Franco is the scientist, but in this version he's not overcome by the arrogance that categorizes so many of the other scientists in these kinds of stories. His motivations are more sympathetic, and more heartfelt. Maybe it's part of the difference between creating a character completely out of thin air and creating a character using the kind of motion capture technology used in this film, but Franco's interactions with Caesar are always very centered and real. Part of the reason it's so easy for the audience to buy into Caesar's character is because of the way Franco interacts with him. He probably won't be winning any awards for a film like this, and it's not the kind of character that usually draws that kind of attention, but he's done some really good work in this film.

The only real shortcoming in the film is that it's "villains" are pretty one note and aren't very well fleshed out. They aren't villains in the sense that they are even particularly out to stop Caesar from taking the each step in his journey or that they are particularly fixated on him as the protagonist. This is the type of villainy created more out of the fact that they don't give a damn about Caesar in any particular way. He is essentially property, and he is seen as and treated as such. The villains in the film, from an executive at the company Franco works for to two animal control officers (played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton of Draco Malfoy fame) are either just empty, money hungry suits or cogs in a much larger machine that is broken within itself and allows them to exist within it because of that. Along the same lines, Frieda Pinto is saddled with the unfortunate role of obligatory love interest for Franco's Will Rodman. She's a beautiful woman, no doubt, but her talents are wasted in a role that really only seems to be there to help give Franco's character someone to talk at. I say "talk at," because hers is the character that is used in order to have things explained on occasion. It's not constant, which is to the films credit, but when the writers or the director felt it needed to be done, she's the one either having things explained to her or doing the explaining. She the dumb audience character. In other words, she's the character in the film because there are going to be some members of the audience who are just too dumb to keep up with storytelling that isn't explained step by step and piece by piece. Because Caesar doesn't speak, this is possibly the most visual storytelling we've seen all year, and definitely all summer it wouldn't otherwise be explained in dialog, it's all in watching the characters. And unfortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, Hollywood seems to be right when they assume some people are just not quick enough to keep up with that kind of storytelling.

The writers do deserve specific credit for earning the big moments in the film. Because this is a more character driven film than an action/adventure, there aren't many spectacular sequences meant to marvel the audience, but there are a number of great character moments. Caesar's character, the other apes, James Franco and John Lithgow's character's are well drawn enough that those moments feel like they've been earned and they feel organic. They never feel as if they've been hastily thrown in there in order to keep the narrative moving on to the next necessary scene. There's one in particular that got a great reaction from the audience because it was both completely unexpected and completely earned. The trailers and the television ads have of course given away the fact that there's a big action sequence in the film involving apes running all over the place fighting with humans, and it too is completely earned, not only by the rest of the film, but through more of those small character moments being peppered throughout that particular sequence as well. It feels both as if it is what has to happen and also as if it's happening organically and as improvised as the story suggests. Rupert Wyatt deserves a nod for being able to craft a film that is as character driven as this is, and that handles it's big action set piece with an equal amount of skill. It's an exciting sequence that creates tension by using those character moments in it's midst, but it doesn't over power the rest of the film. I didn't walk away feeling as if the film didn't use it's best aspects as much as it should have. It's not as if the film seemed like it would have been stronger, more interesting or more exciting if it had had more action. I walked away feeling like it was pretty perfectly balanced.

Fans of the original series are going to be wondering where this film fits in with the mythology already established in the other films. It's definitely a prequel. The first three films in the original series made reference to Caesar, the first ape with the ability to speak and who lead the apes to create their society. It plainly contradicts the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and to some degree Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the series. Even as Conquest has been my second favorite in the series, that doesn't bother me one bit, and essentially, Rise is not only a better film, but it also makes more sense in relation to the first film. The truth is that the first three films often contradicted each other about how the apes came to be the dominant species on the planet. When taking all of the information presented by each of the films, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the progression of the films and events makes no logical sense, what so ever. Rise not only functions as it's own stand alone film, but by being an origin story that does take at least the original Planet of the Apes as the material it has to match up with, we end up with a much more logical origin story, and essentially a much more intelligent and sympathetic origin. Conquests story of apes having been turned into household slaves and Caesar emerging from hiding after his parents had come back in time through the same means that had catapulted Charlton Heston's character forward, is at best convoluted, and at worst, completely ludicrous. Conquest was my favorite of the original series, right behind the original film. As an allegory, it's pretty cool, but as a film it's pretty ridiculous and all in all not as well made as Rise. Rise also provides a new and different explanation as to how exactly it is humans wind up in the subordinate position that Charlton Heston's character finds them in the original film. All in all, Rise does pretty damn great job of tying up a number of loose ends left by the original series and working over the aspects that were vague or completely nonsensical.

The final question is whether or not this film sets up for a sequel or another film in the Planet of the Apes world. It does and it doesn't. This film deals very specifically with one small portion of the larger story, Caesar's rise, and that's really it. It gives hints and clues in connection to other things, but it doesn't necessarily play as if it automatically assumes there will be another film. It's been relatively successful on opening weekend, so there's a good possibility there will be another film, but it's not something that the film makers seemed to be immediately assuming or taking for granted while writing or making this one. It doesn't show the fall of humanity, the establishment of ape society or any of those things, so there is room for another film in the logical sense. On a personal level, I thought Caesar was a great character, and I could be interested in seeing what the next part of his journey is, but that's really the only thing I can see garnering my interest in a sequel. I can see some possibility for an interesting character driven sequel in the way that Caesar and the apes deal with the fall of humanity and what their reaction to it is, but at the same time, I don't necessarily need to see a sequel either. I'd rather not see another film than see a film which tramples on what's been done so well in this one.

I can suggest this film to basically everyone. If you're not necessarily a fan of the original series of films, this stands on it's own enough to be engaging, enjoyable entertainment that you won't regret having spent the ticket price on. If you are a fan of the series, I think this film is good enough on it's own for you to enjoy, even as it seems to throw some of the original cannon out the window. I think fans of the original series may enjoy it particularly because of how well done it is and because it doesn't just seem like a cheap, easy way to cash in on their love for the series. Go check it out, soon.