The story takes place in ancient Japan where the Heike Clan rule after a bitter struggle with the rival Genji Clan. Gojoe bridge is the entrance to their capital city and each night the guards watching it are murdered by someone, or something, unseen. The bridge separates the city from The Devil’s Wood which is a burial ground for the corpses of the more unsavory members of society. This fuels the locals to think it is a demon that haunts the bridge and has set it sights on their city. Enter Benkai (Daisuke Ryu) a swordsman and killer who has put down his blade and taken vows as a monk. He hasn’t used a weapon in seven years, but gets a vision that destroying the demon of Gojoe bridge, will bring him enlightenment. As he investigates, he soon discovers it is no demon that haunts the bridge, but master swordsman and heir to the Genji Clan, Shanao (Tadanobu Asano) who seeks revenge on the Heike. Can Benkai defeat this ‘demon’ when he still has quite a few of his own?
As directed by Sogo Ishii, and co-written by he and Goro Nakajima, this is a very dark and borderline apocalyptic swordplay thriller with a subtle yet strong supernatural undercurrent. The villain of Gojoe bridge may indeed be a mere man, but he believes he is a god come to restore the Genji and the power of that belief seems to make him virtually invincible. Ishii has already crafted an intense and bleak film that, despite being a bit too long, remains intense and atmospheric during it’s entire running time. This added supernatural element only serves to add an air of mystery and power to the already tense flick. The power of belief also seems to be a theme here as both Shanao and Benkai have strong spiritual beliefs that seem to strengthen them in their missions…or in Benkai’s case weaken him as his violent past still haunts him. There is also much said about man’s true nature as many innocents in the film meet violent ends at the hands of the evil that men do and Benkai is only truly ready to face Shanao when he casts off the monk and embraces the killer. Is Ishii saying that despite how hard he tries, man will always be destructive in nature? Maybe!..though he does conclude his film with what could be viewed as a slight glimmer of hope…or maybe it just means the cycle will just begin all over again, someday. The answers are not spoon fed to you. Despite the dark and grim tone and more moderate pace, there are some very thrilling sword duels and the final showdown between our two principals is worth waiting over two hours for. It’s very physical, very bloody…as is the rest of the film…and the supernatural overtones come out of the shadows for an explosive finale. The cast are all very good, Ishii has a stunning visual eye that is only heightened by Makoto Watanabe’s cinematography and the film gets added atmosphere from Hiroyuki Onogaw’s score.
In conclusion, despite a very long length and a more moderate pace, this is an intense, atmospheric and bloody film. It takes some interesting characters, especially our flawed hero and puts them in a very tense setting surrounded with supernatural elements. There are some dark themes running through it and even it’s conclusion may indicate that man’s destructive nature is a cycle, though depending on how you view certain events, there may be a glimmer of hope. An intense and involving film with some really strong action scenes and a darker tone than usually found in these type of movies.
3 and 1/2 swords!
Couldn’t find the trailer, but did find the whole movie
This weeks double feature consists of two Asian set action adventures that feature heroes from the West. One in feudal Japan with Keanu Reeves and the other set in ancient China with Michael Angarano. Both also are filled with fantasy elements and magic characters and plenty of martial arts action and swordsplay, not to mention renown Asian actors such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Enjoy …
47 RONIN (2013)
I enjoyed this film which, sadly, bombed at the box office and though it isn’t a great movie by any stretch, it was entertaining and had some nice fantasy elements mixed in with all the action. The story focuses on half-breed servant Kai (Keanu Reeves) who, along with 46 masterless samurai, fight against overwhelming odds to avenge the wrongful death of their lord. The vile and ambitious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) has used the power of witch Mizuki (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi) to cast a spell on rival Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) causing him to attack Kira in the presence of the visiting Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and thus dishonor him. Asano commits seppuku (ritual suicide) to save the honor of his people, but Kira is granted control of his clan and the hand of his daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki) in marriage. Asano’s Samurai are expelled and are now dishonored as masterless Ronin. Kai, who is rumored to have been raised by demons and has always loved Mika, is sold into slavery. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the lead samurai, bides his time and one year later, frees Kai and rallies the Ronin to attack lord Kira and free Mika and avenge Lord Asano’s death… all against the Shogun’s orders. It’s only 47 Ronin against a 1,000 soldiers and one powerful witch, but against these odds, the 47 warriors valiantly choose to wade into battle to get their revenge or die trying.
47 Ronin is a fictional story by Chris Morgan and Walter Hamada based on real events from Japanese history. As directed by commercial director Carl Rinsch, from a screenplay by Morgan and Hossein Amini, the film is moderately paced, but I liked that it took time to tell it’s story and didn’t rush into it’s climactic battle. Rinsch handles the large scale of the film well for a first-time feature director and seems to have a nice visual style to go with all the fantasy elements and the exotic setting. There is plenty of well-staged action peppered throughout and the heavy fantasy elements…as there are demons and a powerful witch involved in this story of honor and revenge…are mixed in well with the drama. Character development is a little on the weak side. We get to know the characters a little, but with 47, only a few get proper attention and even some of those we could have gotten to know better. Despite star billing and a central role, Reeves’ Kai is not the only character focused on and that helps make this more of an ensemble piece to a degree and less Reeves’ show. The cast are all quite good including star Keanu, who plays a noble character who just wants to be recognized fairly by the samurai and will do anything for the woman he loves, despite that she is out of his reach as a Lord’s daughter. The film is in English and the Japanese cast are all well spoken, perform well and there are many recognizable faces from current Japanese cinema. The budget is lavish as are the settings and SPFX and the action scenes have some nice energy and are excellently choreographed. I’ll admit the story could have used a bit more dramatic strength and the end conflict is exciting though, over a little too soon, but it is still an enjoyable action/fantasy with some nice old fashioned charm.
So, in conclusion, 47 Ronin is not a masterpiece and maybe not something all that memorable, but it is a well-made and entertaining enough adventure with some fun fantasy elements and exotic locations to give it a little something different. The action moves and while we could have used a little more character development and the story could have used a bit more weight, it was an entertaining 2 hours and I had a fun time with it. Go in with moderate expectations and it can be a pleasantly surprising flick and an entertaining watch. Certainly nowhere near the disaster it’s poor box office would lead one to believe.
Sure this flick has a heavy Karate Kid vibe, but we get Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the beautiful Li Bingbing as a villainous hottie so, why complain if we have seen this kind of story before. Charming and fun fantasy adventure has martial arts movie nut Jason (Michael Angarano) buying his favorite movies from old shop owner Hop (Jackie Chan) and finding a peculiar staff in his shop. When thugs force Jason to help them rob Hop’s store, the injured Hop tells the mortified and regretful Jason to take the staff and return it to it’s rightful owner. Jason is thus transported into a fantasy world in ancient China where he meets a drunken martial artist named Lu Yan (also Chan), a noble monk Sun Wukong (Jet Li) and pretty Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) who all agree to help Jason return the staff to The Monkey King (also Li), who is the staff’s rightful owner and is being imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). But to get the staff back to The Monkey King, Jason and his new friends must battle the powerful Warlord, his army and a very deadly witch (Li Bingbing), who all wish to see that the staff never sees the Monkey King’s skilled hands ever again.
Despite the cliche’ story and some very familiar plot elements, Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) crafts a really entertaining martial arts fantasy that is loaded with charm and filled with martial arts action. There are plenty of fantasy elements too, in John Fusco’s script, from a story by Wu Cheng’en and Minkoff really captures the look and style of one of the martial arts fantasy films that Hong Kong cinema is famous for. Aside from numerous scenes of hand to hand combat, we get characters imbued with magic, who fly and cast spells, all presented with some very solid SPFX and fight choreography. Obviously, the main attraction is seeing Chan and Li working together and the two do have a great on-screen chemistry and camaraderie that goes a long way to making this flick so much fun. Their scenes together really crackle with energy and they seem to really enjoy working together, which I hear they did. Both are a lot of fun in their dual roles, especially Li’s whimsical Monkey King. Lead Angarano holds his own as the naive outsider who learns not only martial arts, but to believe in himself. Cliche’, yes, but it still works. Yifei is pretty and proves a resourceful heroine as the vengeful Golden Sparrow who seeks to destroy the Jade Warlord, but succeeds in catching Jason’s eye too. Chou is a solid villain though one stereotypical of these kind of films and Bingbing is having a blast as the evil and powerful witch Ni-Chang, who is as beautiful as she is deadly. The fun cast also helps make this a treat.
All in all, I like this film a lot. I am a hug fan of Asian cinema, and that certainly includes Hong Kong martial arts fantasy epics and this film captures the spirit of those movies very well. It mixes the traditional format with a underdog/fish out of water story for a really fun and colorful fairy tale-like movie, of a meek boy who becomes a heroic man. Sure we know he’ll eventually face those mean thugs from Hop’s store again, but we still eagerly anticipate it, despite it’s familiarity and the film is so charming and fun, we can forgive the age old story and oft-told story elements. When all is said and done, we get two martial arts living legends together on screen for the first time and, if that’s not enough, a couple of very pretty Asian actresses who are as easy on the eyes as they are dangerous with their fists and feet. That’s more then enough to get me in a seat! A fun martial arts fantasy flick.
Yes, it’s true I have covered both these films before but, with Thor: The Dark World recently being released on home media, I decided to revisit it and the first film together. They actually make a really cool double feature with each film bringing it’s own style thanks to two different directors yet, they still blend very well together with their mix of fantasy and real world adventure. It is also interesting to see Thor as we first saw him, the arrogant hot-head, in contrast to the more noble and humble warrior he has progressed into over the course of the first film and The Avengers. That and his relationship with Jane Foster is resumed as well. A really entertaining night of popcorn entertainment with a little extra courtesy of two contrasting yet equally talented directors.
I’m not that familiar with the Marvel comics version of Thor, so, I have to take the movie at face value and as such, Thor is a lot of fun. The film takes place both on Earth and in Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) home realm of Asgard and Kenneth Branagh does a nice job of switching back and forth between both worlds and keeping the tone even and the narrative flow fairly smooth (more on that later). The film fits in very nicely with the world created in the Iron Man films and yet has it’s own style and flavor as it tells the story of arrogant Prince Thor and his path from banished and disgraced warrior to hero of both Earth and Asgard. The cast works really well together and in filling their roles. Hemsworth brings a nobility to Thor, as well as, keeps him charming during his arrogant beginings and then makes believable his humble awakening during the course of the film. Natalie Portman is energetic as the pretty scientist and love interest, Jane Foster and she and Hemsworth have a nice screen chemistry together that actually gave their growing relatrionship a realistic touch despite the fantasy story elements. Tom Hiddleston makes a good villain as the devious Loki, Thor’s brother and Anthony Hopkins is a regal and strong Odin. Kat Dennings is cute as Portman’s sidekick, Darcy and her antics are just enough to provide humor without being annoying and Stellan Skarsgard is fine as a fellow scientist, Dr. Selvig who grew up with norse mythology and provides some exposition for those not in the know. And I would be remiss in not mentioning Rene Russo as Thor’s mom. There is plenty of action and the SPFX are top notch especially in the portrayal of the mystical Asgard which is beautifully designed and realized. Thor’s flying was the hardest thing to pull off and they smartly keep it to a minimum and it works withing the context of the scenes. My only gripes are minor. The middle of the film slows down for about 20 minutes… though it does give the opportunity for some nice character interaction… but, soon picks up as the film heads toward it action filled last act. The earth sequences don’t quite flow as smoothly as the Asgard sequences leaving me to believe there was some editing to get the fim under 2 hrs but, it is not jarring. And, finally, the set of the New Mexican town just doesn’t quite look like a real town, it’s layout does make it look like a set, well built, but still a set. But these problems are small and don’t ruin what is an overall very fun and entertaining movie that has some nice fairy tale touches as well as plenty of action. Stay through the credits as usual with these films.
A solid 3 and 1/2 hammers!
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Thor was one of my favorites of the Marvel Phase 1 movies. I loved it’s fun mix of fantasy and real world adventure and thought Hemsworth made a noble and very likable hero. And now the Norse God turned superhero is back in his second solo adventure and a welcome return it is. Thor: The Dark World opens 5000 years earlier with an alignment of the planets being taken advantage of by the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to unleash a weapon called The Aether which will convert all the worlds into dark matter where only the Dark Elves may exist. Thor’s grandfather Bor (Tony Curran) defeats the invaders and they are assumed destroyed and The Aether is hidden away never to be found… or so Bor hoped. But, in the present, the worlds are aligning again and the long dormant Malekith and the remaining Dark Elves seek to destroy all once more and, as fate would have it, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon the hidden weapon and it is absorbed within her. Now hunted by Malekith, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brings Jane to Asgard against Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) wishes and must somehow find a way to stop Malekith, banish The Aether and save the woman he loves and all the known worlds… and the only one who can help him is his devious stepbrother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) imprisoned in Asgard’s dungeons by Thor’s own hand. This second solo adventure is this time directed by Game Of Thrones and Deadwood director Alan Taylor who creates a much grittier and down to Earth version of Asgard then the bright and magic kingdom-ish version we saw in the delightful first feature directed by Kenneth Branagh. It’s still recognizable as Asgard and it blends perfectly with the first Thor but, we get to see far deeper into the city and into it’s halls and pubs and get a more lived in and functional look at Thor’s homeland. The tone of the film is also darker at times and that was a nice change from the upbeat first film and Avengers but, so not to get too dark or grim, the film is punctuated with a lot of fun and humorous sequences especially those involving Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), the latter’s trip to Stonehenge being especially hilarious. I thought the humor and the darker story elements were blended just fine and there was plenty of action and strong drama throughout till the big free-for-all ending set in London where Thor and Malekith finally get to throw down. And the action and special effects do not disappoint, they are top notch as with all the previous Marvel films. The budget is onscreen in all aspects of the production from sets to costumes to FX. Taylor gets good work from all the cast. There are some nice character moments in between the drama and destruction and all the actors are now very comfortable in their roles and work very well together. Hemsworth is once again a noble hero who has grown since his first visit and the battle in New York. He and Portman still have a nice chemistry together and I liked their scenes especially when Thor has to explain where he’s been for two years. Dennings gets a bit more screen time and handles it well getting some of the bigger laughs and Hiddleston is once again scene stealing as Loki. It was also nice to see Rene Russo finally get a big scene and have a bit bigger part this time and Hopkins is still endearing as the weary but, majestic Odin. We also get some nice scenes with supporting characters Heimdall (Idris Elba), Sith (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (now Zachary Levi) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) but, those expecting expanded roles from this bunch will be disappointed. Newcomer to Thor’s world Christopher Ecceleston, is OK as villain Malekith but, he really doesn’t make a strong impression or stay with you after the film is over. To me his somewhat tepid villain is the film’s only real stand out weak point and a stronger villain or more screen time to really establish Malekith as a threat would have made this flick even better. Taylor’s interpretation of Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s script is highlighted by a moody score from Brian Tyler and some nice cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Overall, Thor: The Dark World is a very entertaining follow-up that gives us enough of the action, drama and suspense we are looking for and takes it in enough of a different direction to keep it fresh but, not straying too far as to alienate us. It’s not perfect, as stated the villain could have been stronger, there are a few slow spots here and there, especially in the first half and we can tell there was a bit of editing to manage the running time but, for all the entertainment we get, those minor flaws can be overlooked. A fun and worthy sequel to both Thor and The Avengers and certainly less schizophrenic then the mixed bag that was Iron Man 3. As with all Marvel films stay through the entire credits for not one but, two additional sequences and keep an eye out for a couple of really fun cameos. Another solid bit of entertainment from Marvel and Disney.