Monday, November 21, 2011

13 ASSASSINS (2010) - A bloody, thrilling work of art

The year is 1844 in director Takashi Miike's samurai revenge flick 13 Assassins, and all is certainly not well in the islands of Japan. Years of peace and prosperity have left most samurai growing old, away from the battlefield and fighting boredom. There is, however, a new menace that threatens the livelihood of many Japanese. The adopted brother to the current Shogun and a powerful nobleman himself, Lord Naritsugu is the living, breathing embodiment of evil. Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) comes and goes throughout Japan as he pleases, murdering, torturing, and raping whenever he wants, and gets away with it thanks to his brother's protection. No one dares to raise a finger against him, even as he brutally executes a mother and her children with a bow and arrow in the middle of his court. Naritsugu is untouchable, or so he thinks.

Lord Naritsugu enjoys haikus, the occasional rape, and dismembering his subjects.
Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is a trusted and respected servant of the Shogun, but despite his important rank in the government, he knows he's powerless to do anything against Naritsugu's sadism. Doi's respect of tradition and his loyalty to the Shogun won't let him speak out against Naritsugu. After a fellow official commits suicide from shame after being wronged by the Lord, Sir Doi has no choice but to try and devise a scheme to get rid of that asshole once and for all.  Doi summons a trusted samurai to his court, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), and tells him of Naritsugu's atrocities. He shows him a woman disfigured by Naritisugu to get his point across: she's had all of her limbs chopped off and her tongue cut off for Naritsugu's amusement, and left to die. Shinzaemon is furious and vows to help Doi get rid of Naritsugu.

Shinzaemon - if his balls were any bigger, he'd have trouble walking.
Shinzaemon returns to his village dojo and starts to plan for what is obviously a suicide mission. He recruits samurai from among his family members, old friends, and desperate men looking for a job. His band of samurai includes his nephew, his most trusted friend, and his apprentice. Despite knowing that they will have to face Naritsugu's army and that their odds of success are slim, they're all eager to die trying. Shinzaemon, being the crafty bastard that he is, comes up with a smart plan to ambush Naritsugu and use his small group to achieve surprise. Of course, back in Naritsugu's court, some of his officials hear rumors of a plot to assassinate the Shogun's brother, and they suspect that Shinzaemon is behind it, setting the stage for the inevitable bloody conclusion.

It's about to get really violent, really soon.
What is there to say about 13 Assassins that all the famous reviewers haven't already said? It is a true work of bloody art. The story itself is nothing extraordinary, but the characters are well developed, and the execution is flawless. The sets, costumes and attention to detail is fantastic, even without a massive Hollywood budget. Apart from the great performances and the fast pacing, the real highlight of the movie is the battle choreography. The swordplay is some of the most violent, fast-paced and impressive ever put on screen. The final battle is a 40-minute long orgy of destruction and adrenaline as the 13 assassins stand their ground against hundreds of soldiers, with bombs going off, people getting sliced open left and right, main characters getting killed off unceremoniously and giving the viewer hardly a moment to catch their breath. The levels of badassery from some of the guys like Shinzaemon or Hirayama (the crazy bastard pictured below) are dangerously off the charts.

The final showdown is one of the most epic battles ever put to film.
Foreign films with subtitles are a big turn-off for a lot of people, and understandably so. 13 Assassins is such a fantastic action movie though, that any true fan of movies like this just has to watch it. Despite Takashi Miike's reputation for making really gruesome, violent movies, he's remarkably restrained in this one, and keeps a great balance between exhilarating action and political drama that propels the movie quickly to the amazing climactic finish. If you enjoy action movies, 13 Assassins is a must watch. It is immensely entertaining and it's so fresh, so energetic, that it blows away any other martial arts movie of the last decade.

Best scene: The amazing final battle - 13 samurai against hundreds of soldiers. Arrows. Swords. Explosions. Bodies everywhere. Rivers of blood. It is INSANE. Has to be seen to be believed.

Best line: "I will accomplish your task... with magnificence."

TL;DR - A violent, vicious, swordplay extravaganza. Thank you Japan - 9.5/10

Friday, November 11, 2011

PRIEST (2011) - Paul Bettany hates vampires

Priest opens with a neat animated segment that gives an overview of the world the movie is set in. A war between humans and vampires has been raging for thousands of years, with humans being hunted almost to extinction. Humanity's last gasp for salvation is the Church, which has turned the tide of the war by unleashing their secret weapon against the vampires: the Priests. The Priests are born warriors, trained to perfection to kill vampires and fanatically loyal to the Church, and thanks to them humans finally defeat the vampires and lock up the survivors in a series of reservation camps. The humans that survived the war have taken shelter in massive walled cities in a society which is completely dominated by the all-powerful Church. With the war over, the Priests have outlived their usefulness and have been disbanded.

Face tats are all the rage in the future.
 A few hardy humans still live in the wastelands outside the walled cities, and it's in one of those small homesteads that a young family is attacked by a pack of vampires in the middle of the night. The father, Owen, is left for dead after his wife is killed and their teen daughter Lucy (Lily Collins) is kidnapped. Back in the imaginatively named Cathedral City, a Priest (Paul Bettany) is approached by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff from the town where the family was attacked. It turns out that Owen is the Priest's brother, and he's told about Lucy's disappearance. The Priest goes before a council of Church authorities and asks for his reinstatement so that he may find the girl, but he's refused and forbidden to leave the city. He does so anyways, and teams up with Hicks despite knowing that it will mean a death sentence for both of them if they are caught.

"Edward Cullen? Never heard of him, bro."
 Hicks and the Priest follow the trail of the vampires to several reservations and vampire hives, hoping to find clues to Lucy's location. Back in Cathedral City, the Church brings back four Priests from retirement, and sends them after Hicks and the Priest, with orders to bring them back dead or alive. While on Lucy's trail, the Priest and Hicks discover that there's another, much more serious bigger problem to deal with than the missing girl. Black Hat (Karl Urban), an ex-Priest turned vampire, has been creating a new vampire army and is planning to restart the war. The Priest, Hicks, and a Priestess (Maggie Q), are the only ones that can stop those bloodsucking creeps.

Phil Collins is gonna be pissed you're messing with his daughter, pal.
Priest is based on a comic book, which means that due to the fact that I'm not a gigantic nerd (just a regular nerd), I've never heard about it. I can't comment on how faithful it is to the source material, but setting stood out well. The world design in Priest is cool: the cities are a mix of Blade Runner-meets-V for Vendetta, the post-apocalyptic wastelands look believable, and for once, we get some menacing vampires (no Twilight here) which look the part of hellish beasts. The action itself is nice, with plenty well-paced, exciting fights which are unfortunately let down by a bit of bad CGI every now and then. Some of the acting is a bit iffy, the dialogue feels forced at times, and there's a bit too much slow motion used. Thankfully, Paul Bettany is in good form. He's clearly the most talented guy on the cast, and it's hard to understand why this guy keeps getting mediocre roles. Bettany is an imposing presence, handles his fights well, and is the only one who can breeze through his dialogue without sounding like he's at rehearsal.

Damn that vow of celibacy!
Priest had plenty of potential going for it, especially the first half hour or so which is exciting and gets things off to a good start, but around the halfway mark it just starts to fizzle away into mediocrity with twists that you can see coming miles away. Watching Paul Bettany beat the shit out of some vampires while rocking that wicked face tatoo makes for a decent time killer, but the weak story and half-assed ending really lets it down. It's enjoyable enough if you catch it on TV or for a rental, but unless you're a fan of the genre or have a secret crush on Bettany, it's not really memorable at all.

Best scene: the Priestess takes out five guys on bikes with a gnarly looking hook on a wire, complete with a mid-air dismemberment. Holy schnike!

Best line: "You've got your gun armed? You're gonna need it." BOOM. Vampires.

TL;DR - Nice vampire killing action by Paul Bettany can't make up for a weak story - 6/10

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SHAFT (2000) - Can you dig it?

Samuel L. Jackson taking over the character of hard-boiled detective and suave ladies man John Shaft from Richard Roundtree is pure exploitation glory. No, scratch that. It's cinematic justice. Detective John Shaft is working the beat when he's called to the scene of a brutal bar fight. A young black dude got punched half to death by a racist prick named Walter Wade (Christian Bale), who turns out to be the spoiled son of a multimillionaire. Shaft looses his cool when Wade mocks the dying black guy, and punches him out in front of the TV cameras. As a result, Wade is let out on bail Shaft is reassigned to some backwater duty.

"Say WHAT one more time!" Oh wait...
 Two years later, while running drug busts, Shaft butts heads with a drug kingpin named Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright). At the same time, Shaft and his crew nab Wade after he shows up in New York after fleeing the country on bail. Wade and Peoples meet while in jail, where they strike up an uneasy sort of arrangement. Wade is let out on bail again, but after leaving the lockup, he hires Peoples to kill the last remaining witness that could put him away the assault at the bar - the bartender Diane (Toni Collette). Shaft is pissed off that Wade's been allowed to walk free, he quits the police force and vows to make sure Wade gets what he deserves.

Christian Bale's Walter Wade is one of the greatest douchebags to ever grace the screen.
Shaft is classic B-movie, exploitation material that only works because of Sam Jackson. One of my friends loves this movie, but complains that Sam Jackson just plays himself in every movie, but in this case it really doesn't matter: Jackson was born to play this role. There's no other actor alive that could have pulled off this role convincingly. Jackson is the man - the one liners, the insults, the body language, the wardrobe, and attitude - he just nails it.

The one and only Peoples.
Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale are on great form too. Wright as Peoples is perfect. I've talked to so many people who've saw Shaft a decade ago and the thing everyone remembers is how hilarious Peoples is. His accent and mannerisms have to be seen to believed; Wright is a total chameleon. Bale as Wade the racist, spoiled asshole is also great. He's channeling plenty of American Psycho into his performance and he makes it so hard not to hate Wade. Watching Peoples and Wade trade verbal jabs at each other made the movie for me.

No such thing as too much swagg for Shaft.
Shaft is a total guilty pleasure. It's trash elevated to classic action movie material by some great, over the top performances, a bitching soundtrack, and some decent action. You could watch a movie a day for the rest of your life and you'd have a hard time finding another movie as quotable as this one. Wade, Peoples and Shaft himself have so many great lines it's tough keeping track of all of them. Credit is due to the writers for being faithful to the vibe of the original without straying into self-parody, and for finding a fun balance between comedy and action.

Best scene: The apartment gunfight & the car chase that follows is solid stuff.

Best line: There's way too many good ones to choose from. All of Peoples' lines are great. "Tiger Woo... I laik heem."

TL;DR - Kick back and watch Sam Jackson lay down the motherf*cking law - 7.5/10

Sunday, November 6, 2011

MONGOL (2007) - Don't mess with Genghis Khan

Mongol opens with a Mongolian proverb: "do not scorn a weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger." If only some of the Mongols who continuously beat, torture, and enslave the young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) would listen to their own proverbs. History reveals that the ten year old Temudjin grows up to be none other than Genghis Khan, the cunning, cruel and hugely successful emperor of the world's largest contiguous empire, an empire which he conquered by bringing down the wrath of god with his legendary Mongol army to any one dumb enough to resist him. This 2007 movie by Russian director Sergey Bodrov shows the amazing story of how a resentful young boy managed to outsmart those around him and overcome incredible odds to rule millions of people.

You think you had a bad childhood? Think again.
 During a trip with his father Esugei, the Khan (leader) of a local Mongol clan, young Temudjin chooses a bride from a nearby tribe, and sets back for home with their entourage. On the road back to their village, Esugei is poisoned by an enemy clan, and one of his father's own men, Targutai, betrays Temudjin, becomes Khan himself and destroys the family's home and steals their belongings. Targutai stops short of killing the boy, because of Mongol customs, but swears he'll be back soon to finish him off once he's grown. Now a slave, betrayed by his family's own soldiers, Temudjin runs away, but falls through a frozen lake. He's taken in by a group of traveling Mongols, where he befriends, and becomes blood brother to a boy named Jamukha.

Temudjin and his faithful wife Borte.
 As the years pass, Temudjin grows into a wrathful man (portrayed by Tadanobu Asano), thirsty for revenge for the betrayal and injustice that others have put him through. Over the course of several scenes, he will find and lose his beloved wife Borte, be treated like garbage by foreign tribes, sold of as a slave yet again, and will ultimately be forced to choose between being Jamukha's servant or forging his own destiny.

You win some, you lose some (and get sold off into slavery).
Everything about Mongol screams epic. The setting, with huge expanses of forbidding Mongolian steppes filling the screen. The ominous, foreboding score. The performances, especially from Tadanobu Asano who oozes ferocity and subdued anger from every pore on his face. The battle sequences, filmed with thousands of extras, hundreds of horses and with brutal combat shown up close and personal. Most of all, the story itself, which is ambitious enough to condense decades of the life of one of the most important figures in world history into a little over two hours and pulls it off with flying colors.

When kids had nightmares in the 12th century, this is what they dreamed of.
Sergey Bodrov has crafted a truly great movie in Mongol. Bodrov managed to seamlessly combine a gripping story, flawless action and drama, a good score, rich landscapes (the cinematography of the Mongolian steppe is just beautiful) and loads of history into a thrilling piece of film. The fact that Mongol is filmed entirely in the Mongolian language may be off putting to some, but it really shouldn't. Seeing Asano growl through his lines as Temudjin in his native language is like a window into the past to see the kind of man the real Genghis Khan might have been. It's a shame that Bodrov's planned trilogy has apparently been abandoned, because there's so much fantastic stuff that remains to be covered and deserves to be put to film. In any case, Mongol remains a great movie on its own, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Best scene: The battle between Temudjin's and Jamukha's armies, with thousands of warriors filling the screen in one of the most impressive battles put to film this decade.

Best line: "Mongols need laws. I will make them obey, even if I have to kill half of them."

TL;DR - Thrilling portrayal of one of the baddest bastards to ever grace the planet - 9/10