SXSW 2011: 13 Assassins

Even if you’ve never seen one of his films before, most cinephiles have at least heard about Japanese director Takashi Miike at some point in their lives, because he’s one of the most controversial directors working today. Those walking into “13 Assassins” expecting something sick and twisted, however, might be surprised to discover that it’s one of Miike’s most reserved films to date – a classic samurai tale that, while very similar to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in spirit, is actually a remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo. It’s a first for Miike, but he still puts his stamp on the material with some great visuals, buckets of blood, and one of the best (and without a doubt longest) fight sequences of the last 30 years.

The film takes place in Feudal Japan, where the era of the samurai is approaching its end and a sadistic young nobleman named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) lives above the law, raping and killing as he pleases because he’s the half-brother of the current Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira). But even Sir Doi realizes the danger that Naritsugu presents should he succeed him as Japan’s leader, and so he secretly hires a trusted samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate him. Though there are few worthy samurai still living within the country, Shinzaemon sets out to recruit a small group of warriors to ambush Naritsugu before he can reach the safe haven of Akashi and be promoted to second-in-command. But that’s easier said than done, especially after Shinzaemon learns that his old sparring partner, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), is Naritsugu’s private bodyguard – a position he holds with honor despite his master’s cruel ways.

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And just what kind of perverse behavior is Naritsugu capable of? Fortunately, Miike doesn’t indulge in showing too much, although we do see the remnants of one of his “sex toys” – a limbless woman who’s had her tongue cut out that one of Sir Doi’s senior officials presents to Shinzaemon to convince him to join the cause. Apart from that one grotesque moment, however, the film is pretty tame when compared to Miike’s usual grab bag of depravity, which is a little surprising because Naritsugu makes for such an interesting monster, wonderfully played by Inagaki with a disturbing, child-like curiosity for violence. The rest of the actors aren’t nearly as memorable as him, although screen veterans Yakusho and Ichimura bring a quiet intensity to the long-running rivalry between their characters that makes the long wait for their inevitable face-off worth it.

“13 Assassins” will definitely test your patience, because the first hour crawls by at a snail’s pace, with Miike taking the time to give each samurai a proper introduction. In fact, it can even be downright confusing between the large cast of characters (most of whose names you’ll never remember) and a prologue that flies by so quickly, you sort of have to put the pieces together on your own along the way. Still, it doesn’t present as big of an issue as you initially might think, because the film is essentially just a men on a mission story with one helluva finale. Though there isn’t much in the way of action before the final showdown, the last hour is a wildly entertaining orgy of swords, blood, fire and mud that goes on longer than it probably should, and yet never gets tiresome.

The scope of the battle is simply incredible, and it’s the kind of set piece that would make even guys like Michael Bay walk away from the film speechless. Still, it’s not the only reason for its success. The visuals are gorgeous, with Miike utilizing a muted palette that gives the movie an almost monochromatic look, while the occasional comedic moments help to lighten the mood and prepare the audience for the rousing, stand-up-and-cheer climax that’s just around the corner. It may not carry the same emotional weight as Kurosawa’s samurai classic, but “13 Assassins” is way more fun.

  

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What am I going to miss next?

I missed yesterdays big geek news of the upcoming Guillermo del Toro doing his “one for me” project with a long delayed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “From the Mountains of Madness” with a little help from James Cameron. Bummer, but we’ll survive that tragedy together.

And then Mike Fleming, and every fanboy on earth it appears, found that the Comic-Con trailer for “Thor” had magically appeared on line, Wikileaks style. Anyhow, just as I had prepared this post, the folks at Marvel who apparently have a control issue with their marketing plan much as the U.S. government would rather you didn’t know too much about civilian casualties or the like, pulled it. I mean like seconds ago — it was there and I was ready to go and then it was gone. If you didn’t see it elsewhere, it was all Shakespearian and stuff and had more than a touch of “King Lear” to it, which makes sense as it’s directed by Kenneth Branagh.

So, since I don’t have the Thor trailer, here’s not one but two trailers. The first, a bit of Branagh directing actual Shakespeare and the probably never to be rivaled best ever quasi-Lear in cinema history. Enjoy, as you taste my bitter fanboy tears.

You know, I love Shakespeare and all, but his stuff is so full of cliches. Well, you’ll see none of that from Kurosawa-san.

  

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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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A press day chat with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of “Micmacs”

Jean-Pierre JeunetIf you’re even a halfway serious film fan, you may have noticed that directors like Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino do not make movies set on Planet Earth, they make movies set on Planets Anderson, Burton, and Tarantino. I’m a bit less of an expert on France’s extremely popular Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but it’s obvious that, even when his films are set in Paris, they’re really set on Planet Jeunet. His films have their own look and exist in their own reality.

As with Tim Burton, Jeunet’s roots are in animation. Together with his early collaborator, cartoonist Marc Caro, he made two films that pretty much destroyed the idea of France as a land where all movies were gritty examinations of the lives of depressed intellectuals (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Dystopic but decidedly non-realistic, “Delicatessen” and, to a much greater extent, 1995’s “The City of Lost Children” broke through internationally, with the latter becoming a popular midnight selection and attracting a geek audience that might have ordinarily rejected subtitled films. That was followed by his first solo production and also his first and, so far, only American film. 1997’s “Alien: Resurrection” was a domestic commercial disappointment that generated mixed reviews and more than a little fan hate in the U.S. — even its screenwriter, fan-master Joss Whedon, has entirely disowned it — but it was nevertheless an international success which is still warmly embraced by its jovial director. After that, Jeunet broke through even bigger with the worldwide success of “Amelie” in 2001, easily one of the most widely seen French films in the United States of the last couple of decades — so much so that it was simply referenced as “the French movie” in last year’s “Up in the Air.”

Dany Boon in Now, Jeunet is back with his first film since his worldwide box office and critical hit, 2005’s “A Very Long Engagement,” with his own take on Chaplinesque/Keatonesque comedy with just a dash of Rube Goldberg not-quite-sci-fi. “Micmacs” stars comic Dany Boon (“My Best Friend”) as the hapless Bazil, whose father was killed by a landmine and whose health and livelihood was ruined by a bullet — each produced by a ruthless arms manufacturer. Homeless, he is befriended by a ragtag assortment of seven eccentrics with various unique skills. Bazil enlists their aid in avenging himself against the two firms.

The film has done reasonably well in its initial New York opening, and will be expanding to more theaters this Friday. It’s generally also been a hit with critics, very definitely including PH’s own Jason Zingale.

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Monday movie news

The movie side of the show biz world might not have anything of the magnitude of the big news from Team Coco to talk about today, but there’s plenty of interesting borderline-almost-news to mention in an ironic way…

* I don’t know whether there’s some sort of game of managing expectations going on or if interest really is limited to younger males and no one else, but I’m starting to hear rumblings that “Kick-Ass” is not expected to kick ass do hugely well at the box office this Friday. If so, then Matthew Vaughn has got to be one of the least lucky talented mainstream directors ever after generating so much excitement with his film, at least in the fanboy realms.

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My main rumbling comes via this Playlist piece which alleges that nothing has been done to expand the interest in the film beyond those who’ve never heard of the comic book.  Literally speaking, that’s not true because I’d never heard of the comic book before hearing about Vaughn’s film of it, though I am certainly a member of the Geek American community. The main thrust of the piece itself is actually on the possibly stronger hopes for “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” which, as a commenter offers, does seem to have more cross-gender appeal. It also has a well known star and the comic genius Edgar Wright going for it. We’ll see.

In any case, Vaughn appears to be doing what all prudent directors do before their next big film comes out, lining up the next gig just in case the current film really does tank. This story is a glorified rumor, but it does look possible that Vaughn’s next gig might involve a gangster/science fiction vampire comic book written by, of all people, controversial English talk show host and film geek, Jonathan Ross who is leaving the BBC because of a scandal caused, I kid you not, by tasteless prank phone calls. Here, he’d get a promotion. In any case, I’ll always remember him for “The Incredibly Strange Film Show.”

* Never fear, however, “Iron Man 2” will be here in 26 days. Of course it’ll do ridiculously well, but I remember some naysayers just before the first movie came out. Seems all those good reviews were a bit worrisome and even smart people like Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, if memory serves, were worried the movie was a little too good to make monster bucks.

Myrna Loy* The biggest news in my personal movie world is word via the Los Angeles Times of the resurrection of the statue that classic-era superstar Myrna Loy (“The Thin Man,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”) posed for when she was just a young student and which graced the front of my alma mater for decades. As the News Editor of the Venice High Oarsman (“Rowing, Not Drifting”) back in the pre-pre-pre-pre MySpace era, I was on the Myrna-vandalism beat. This gladdens my heart. A picture, however, would have been nice. Maybe I’ll get to work on that a bit later.

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