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Review: 47 Ronin

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I love samurai movies. I own the Criterion Collection edition of several of Kurosawa’s major works and they are among the prized pieces of my movie collection. With this in mind I went to see 47 Ronin. Despite claims that it was done in the same tradition as Kurosawa, I had no expectations that 47 Ronin would live up to that. All I was really hoping for was a faithful, artistic retelling of the Japanese legend. What I got was a disappointing mess. At almost every turn 47 Ronin managed to do the wrong thing.

The original legend of the forty-seven ronin is a classic Japanese tale about forty-seven masterless samurai lead by Oishi who avenge their master’s death. Their master, Lord Asano, had been goaded into attacking a court official, Kira, in Edo Castle over a perceived slight. Assaulting a court official was a grave crime and the master was forced to commit ritual suicide. Forty-seven of the disgraced master’s samurai vowed to avenge their master and waited two years to fulfill their promise. After completing their mission, they turned themselves in and were also required to commit suicide, an unfortunate but honorable end to their quest. The story has become an example of the best that the samurai culture has to offer; honor, duty and loyalty.

Japanese woodblock print of the forty-seven samurai

Japanese woodblock print of the forty-seven samurai.

The witch, played by Rinko Kikuchi, was a very bizarre and frequently creepy addition.  According to this movie, she placed Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) under a spell, which is what made him attack Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) with whom she is in league; rather than the original story plot in which Kira goads him into it.  The whole idea comes across as somewhat forced and unnecessary. There also was a big deal made of her eyes, which have Heterochromia iridum (fancy name for her eyes being different colors). While this was an interesting little touch, the movie spent considerable screen time on close-ups of her face, trying to show off this feature but without any real explanation. Do all witches have eyes like this? I’m fairly certain the answer is no. Even when she transformed into animals (all of which were pretty awful looking CGI) they still had the two-toned eyes.  She comes across as creepy.  She’s not spooky, Stephen King kind of creepy, but more like the “I need adult supervision” kind of creepy. One scene in particular between the witch and Mika (Kô Shibasaki) was both creepy and bizarrely sexual and just made me mildly uncomfortable.

It's the eyes.

It’s the eyes.

Hands down the biggest problem with this movie was of course Kai, the half-breed, played by none other than Keanu Reeves. /Sigh/ I’m almost at a loss of where to begin, but I think I’ll start with the character himself. Into this entirely Japanese cast the film makers dropped a half white, half Japanese character who was apparently trained by demons as a child to be a killer. He then escapes, is found by Lord Asano, and raised by the lord.  However, he was forced to live outside the lord’s house in a hut (Japanese xenophobia prevented him from being an equal).  Of course, the lord’s daughter Mika doesn’t care and becomes Kai’s companion.

Finally when Kai is grown up and the witch shows up with Lord Kira, he is the only one who can tell she’s a witch (apparently because he was raised by demons). I swear I’m not making up any of this, and in fact I’m leaving some of it out. It’s a mix of ridiculous and cliché that I could not have come up with after a week-long bender. I get why the studio would want to have included a white character, as there are not many big name Japanese actors, but to then add in all of this other crazy stuff just confuses the hell out of me. As for Keanu himself, he won’t be winning any awards for this performance, except for maybe a Razzy.  Reeves spent most of the film mumbling out dialogue and then staring blankly at either the camera or his fellow cast members.

This is about as emotional as he gets.

This is about as emotional as he gets.

For a movie that claimed to be the successor to Akira Kurosawa’s work, it falls spectacularly short of that high mark. The scale of the movie was probably the only element that came anywhere near it.  Kurosawa was capable of massive scenes, such as those in the movie Ran.  In this movie there were a couple of shots in which I could see that the film makers had done at least a little of their homework. These however were the only glimmers of hope, and the overwhelming majority were in the first thirty minutes of the movie.

When it comes to Japanese culture, however, the film makers were less than studious. Frequently, characters spoke out of turn or insinuated themselves into situations in ways that would have been unacceptable in Japanese society. There were also issues from time to time with the sword choreography. At times the fighting was much more of a western style as opposed to a Japanese style, using stabs and thrusts with a sword that isn’t designed for those kinds of moves. If it weren’t for the costumes, there were several times that I would have forgotten this story takes place in feudal Japan. Even the costumes often looked cheap and not in keeping with the standards that Kurosawa set for movies of this type.

Overall this movie was just a mess. While I didn’t feel like my money was wasted, I certainly cannot recommend this movie to anyone. If someone out there would like to make a movie about the forty-seven ronin that is really good, I encourage you to make it quickly so that we can all forget about this one.  I give it one Death Star.

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Filed under Andrew Hales, Movie Reviews, Movies

Review: Dark Star

DarkStar

“…instead of the most impressive student film ever made, we had the least impressive professional film ever made”. This is how writer Dan O’Bannon described Dark Star, a zany space adventure that is far more influential to both film makers and the movie going public than most people are aware. The plot follows the crew of the deep space scout ship Dark Star as they travel the galaxy looking for unstable planets to demolish. As they continue their travels, their ship is falling apart around them, and due to their near light speed transits only three years has passed for them.

This is one of my favorite B movies, hands down. It hits me in all the right places, from campy humor to science fiction adventure. It also tickles my geek fancy because so many people who became famous later were involved with this movie early in their career. There is lots of geek trivia to be found in this film. Although it was a student film that was expanded into a full length feature, as a B movie, the effects, writing and acting are really of a higher than expected quality.

Dark Star was a stepping stone in the career of one of Hollywood’s most prolific, though maybe not best, directors. Originally, it was the master thesis for John Carpenter, later known for movies such as Halloween and Escape from New York. This movie really set the tone for the B movies for which Carpenter would become known and established a higher bar when it came to quality of B movies in the 70’s.  Movies don’t necessarily have to be good to have an impact.  Low budget films are often the perfect place for new talent to make their name.

By today’s standards, Dark Star’s effects are unimpressive and beyond antiquated, but it was released in 1974, three years before Star Wars was released and changed the special effects game. While the movie obviously produced by people who were just starting out in their field of, the effects are campy without being over the top or just plain bad.  Rather than try to be overly ambitious, the movie creators chose to stick with simple ones that could be pulled off with relative ease. Many of these effects were designed by Ron Cobb who would later gain notoriety for his work as a conceptual designer on many blockbuster films such as Star Wars, The Abyss, and of course Alien.

Dark Star is the first film written by Dan O’Bannon, who would later go on to write Alien and Return of the Living Dead (the first movie in which zombies crave brains). The characters are reasonably well developed, especially O’Bannon’s own character of Pinback.  As it turns out, Pinback isn’t actually Pinback.  Instead he is Fuel Specialist Bill Frugge who was wearing Pinback’s spacesuit after the real Pinback committed suicide. When it came time for launch Frugge couldn’t figure out how to work the spacesuit’s radio to inform people that he wasn’t Pinback so he got shipped off instead.  Being out of place, Pinback provides an amusing commentary on events and a significant lack of professionalism.

Dan O'Bannon's Pinback

Dan O’Bannon’s Pinback

Dark Star also provides a believable look into what life would be like for a crew stuck on a small spaceship for three years.  The ship is falling apart, crew members have died, and those that remain have to stave off boredom and attempt to maintain their sanity.  One crew member spends all his time in an observation dome look out at the stars and Pinback himself has adopted a pet alien.

The alien is played by a painted beach ball with rubber monster claws for feet. The seams of the beach ball are even still visible underneath the paint. Despite this, the alien is still one of the best elements of this movie.  The scenes in which Pinback chases the alien through the ventilation system later became the inspiration for Alien.  (Dark Star is basically the story of truck drivers in space as a dark comedy, whereas Alien makes that same idea into a beautiful horror film.)  So while the beach ball alien bears no resemblance to the Xenomorph, it is, in fact, its early ancestor.

If this cost more than $10 I'd be very surprised.

If this cost more than $10 I’d be very surprised.

There is very little about this film that I don’t enjoy.  However, there are several times where the dialogue is too quiet because of that what is going on in the scene becomes lost. Since the plot is pretty thin that start this only serves to add confusion. The space suits are another complaint of mine. Most of the suit is fine—especially for low budget science fiction—but the chest pieces on both space suits are baking pans. I’m not joking here. One is most definitely a muffin pan and the other is a deep metal baking pan with an air filter attached to it. I know these guys were working with a limited budget, but have to believe that they could have scraped together an extra 20 bucks for some kind of busted electronics they could have used instead of such obviously recognizable household items.

Tell me that isn't a muffin pan.

Tell me that isn’t a muffin pan.

Dark Star is a B movie to be sure, but it is one of the truly outstanding ones. The number of people who got their starts on this movie and the other movies it has spawned or been referenced by gives this movie a longevity that would not be expected of what is essentially an overgrown student film. With everything that Dark Star has to offer, I give it 4.5 Death Stars.

4.5 Death Stars

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Editorial | Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Angel fans, rejoice!!  Fred and Wesley have finally gotten their happily ever after!!!  Ok, not really—but I still felt a little twinge of rightness in the casting of Benedick and Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of this film according to me.

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Together at last!

The first scene made me instantly cringe and prepare for a long hour and a half—awkward speech and several actors deliberately not looking at the camera gave me that “indie” feeling—but the instant that Alexis Denisoff (Benedick) opened his mouth—the second scene he was in, for those counting—all anxiety fled.  This man was made for the boards!  His delivery was spot on, and his facial expressions and body language completely clarified any contextual issues in a form of English that is five centuries old.

Amy Acker sparkled as the witty, aggressive Beatrice.  It is a character that can easily appear abrasive, but that is not a word that can ever be applied to Acker.  The dynamic between these two characters completely overtakes the primary plotline, which is the rocky road to marriage for Claudio and Hero.

Whedon, unable to leave his mark on the script, instead brands his work with brilliant direction and non-speaking asides.  Notably, Beatrice mocks Benedick during an interlude by a fire pit, and repeatedly brushes away the amorous advances of the man sitting next to her with barely a thought; Leonato, worn out by a two day bender, falls asleep in the middle of Claudio’s formal request for his daughter’s hand, and is sharply woken by Beatrice; the watchmen, recast as Don Pedro’s private security, lock their keys in their car and become frantic.  Another brilliant move was in casting Conrade, henchman of Don John, as a woman.  This allowed for an interesting twist in their relationship (pun entirely intended), and made Don John appear even more depraved.

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Because Nathan Fillion.

I occasionally felt that the dialogue could have been enunciated more clearly—several lines were lost in conversation—but considering how meticulous the Bard was about infusing his plays with tongue-twisters and puns, this is understandable.

The fact that the entire film is clearly a summer party and that it was filmed in the director’s own house, gives it a feeling of intimacy that is unusual for Shakespeare.  Ultimately, I left the theater feeling not as though I had just watched a Shakespearean play, but that I had just watched a group of funny, witty people carry out a party weekend in Elizabethan English.  Very funny, very witty people—and I want so badly to be friends with all of them.  Much Ado About Nothing is sweet, sexy, subtle, and smart. I highly recommend it.

“The play’s the thing…”  Yes it is, my dear Joss, yes it is.

Four out of five death stars.

4 Death Stars

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Filed under Editorial, Movie Reviews, Movies, Tracy Gronewold