Monday, January 20, 2014

47 Ronin

Despite the scathing piece in Variety (and elsewhere), I went to see 47 Ronin. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. Sure, it was a lord-o-the-rings, 21st century 3D hyper-cinema blow-out affair, but you gotta expect that. And as much as I hate holding those dumb glasses over my own dumb glasses, I had a good time.

Mind you, I’ve seen quite a few versions of this story (popularly known in Japan as the Chushingura). But with Tadanobu Asano as the hated villain Kira, and Hiroyuki Sanada as the heroic avenger Oishi, man, this is a modern day revision I can live with.

Of course, Keanu Reeves is a piece of wood, but who cares? His character doesn’t get in the way of the central storyline. In fact, he hasn’t been this much fun since The Matrix

I think critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky captured the zeitgeist: “A multi-colored downer fantasy which combines bursts of imagination with a bleak worldview, resulting in something that rarely feels mainstream.” Yeah, that’s it. The film follows the original 18th century story of bleak, dutiful revenge with a faithfulness I did not expect. Watching this film reminded me of the dismal sales of my own samurai film books: This stuff doesn’t work for Americans. There is a deep cynicism that permeates Japanese period cinema that I like, but my fellow citizens do not. Put me back in my cage.

So if you’re asking me not if I should check this movie out, but, more importantly, why I should check it out, I would say because, despite the animated dragons and shit, there is a dedication here, a respect for the centuries-old subject matter, and an effort to integrate top-notch Japanese actors into the proceedings. These elements alone make this film a worthwhile experience.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wire Fu Fun

Been seeing a lot of cool stuff lately — Netflix keeps me busy with a plethora of new Asian releases. It’s just these damn winter doldrums that keep me from blogging more …

Badges of Fury (2013) is a total hoot, a frenetic buddy cop romp in the zany vein of 80s/90s Hong Kong cinema. Inside jokes, film references, and cameos abound, rewarding hardcore fans of the genre (for example, keep an eye out for Lam Suet as a cabbie).

The wire fu is off the hook, with fight sequences plunging down stairwells and busting through walls and windows. Jet Li, looking a bit rough these days, nevertheless delivers the goods (although it’s his decades-younger co-star Wen Zhang who gets the lion’s share of screen time). Buxom Ada Liu is worth a second look, and the whole “smile murders” thing is quite bizarre (a string of deaths wherein the victim dies with a goofy grin on his face). The breathless pace and old-school HK craziness will leave Asian film fans similarly grinning …

Sword of the Assassin (2011) is a Vietnamese period actioner, and a good one. Among the most expensive films to emerge from this war-torn country, the money wasn’t wasted; the film is visually stunning, with lavish, high-def vistas, meticulously crafted sets, beautiful costumes, and a top-notch cast. It’s such a treat to be blind-sided by people and places you’ve never known, enveloping you in well-worn dramatic tropes; the familiar and the unfamiliar combine to transport you to a new place you’ve always known (jeez, I’m getting kind of maudlin here, sorry).

As usual, since these were Netflix assignments, if you get their streaming service, these films will be available shortly. Hey, that’s pretty cool: If what I’ve written is of interest to you, just wait a couple of weeks and, with a push of a button, there it is. Enjoy!