47 Ronin (2013)

I watched 47 Ronin a couple nights ago after looking it up on Wikipedia and seeing that it is based on a popular Japanese legend with and actual historical basis.

Based on the trailer (see above) I saw that it would feature mystical themes along with samurai culture. Asian mystical themes are always fun for me. And I enjoyed James Clavell’s novel Shōgun tremendously. So, despite 47 Ronin’s dismally low Rotten Tomatoes scores I hoped the picture could at least hold my interest and entertain me enough to keep watching, even if I didn’t love it. In general, I fairly easily allow myself to go where a film wants to take me. Anyway, I hoped for the best here.

Summary point: I did stay interested throughout, and I did find parts of it enjoyable. It is a very flawed film, though.

I mentioned Shōgun which is about a European man who is (most unusually) initiated into samurai culture in feudal Japan. And this film tries to blend in to the traditional story of the 47 ronin an element loosely resembling Shōgun: Keanu Reeves’ character Kai is mixed race European-Japanse who struggles to gain acceptance within feudal Japanese culture. (There are powerful racial prejudices in the society.)

Kai’s story is also framed within Japanese mysticism.

Best I can tell, none of the story about Kai’s character has anything to do with the actual story or cultural legend of the Forty-seven Ronin in Japan. Lacking a conceptual frame of reference beyond what I have already noted, that did not particularly bother me however. I ‘went with’ with these fanciful additions to the story in the interest of being entertained.

I don’t want to spoil, but I will say that the basic plot is that a particular samurai lord loses his samurai status, with the same applying to his house, and they become ronin. For those unfamiliar with the ronin concept, ronin are former samurai who have in some way lost face and as punishment are prohibited by decree of the region’s shōgun to die honorably by committing seppuku. As the title suggests there are 47 of them for this house. They however plot a revenge of the villain who orchestrated the house’s downfall. The character Kai is a member of the disgraced house, although he is not a samurai because of his mixed race. He is however their most powerful fighter.

I would say that, for me, the film barely worked more than failed in terms of 1) caring about characters, 2) whether the story held my interest, and 3) its direction, i.,e., the overall orchestration and craftsmanship of the cinematic storytelling.

I did not find this movie 47 Ronin to be a riveting or deeply immersive tale. Rather, I maintained more of a mild curiosity throughout. For me the film seemed to gradually dissipate in energy. Toward the end it felt to me like the picture was essentially going though the motions with regard to the final battle.

I did however care about Kai and his love interest Mika. I wanted to see what happened to them, and whether they might actually end up together despite the overwhelming odds against it. But I did not care much about any other character in the film, though.

The CGI for this picture is decent. Not extraordinary, but definitely good enough to get the job done. That said, good CGI that is a basic standard that filmgoers expect nowadays for any type of fantasy film. So the CGI would only have been remarkable if it was outstanding or poor.

If you’re intrigued by samurai culture and far east Asian mysticism, and don’t mind that the material is diluted and bastardized by a standard Hollywood treatment, then this film may be worthy of consideration and relatively worth your time. I usually don’t give stars for films, but if I did it would make two and a half for what it is and sets out to do–and that is mainly because the subject matter in general is something I particularly enjoy.

47 Ronin (2013)

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

To be honest I’m not much of a Clive Owen fan. For example, I found his performance to be the weakest amongst the lead characters in the brilliant Sin City. On the other hand, I guess that shouldn’t be held too much against Owen given how strong the other characters and actors in that film were. (In a race someone has to come in last place, even when all the runners are strong.) Also, to be fair, I feel Owen did acquit himself fairly well in Children of Men and King Arthur. So I was willing to give Clive a chance on Shoot ‘Em Up, mainly based on the good review I heard for it on NPR back when.

And sure enough, this flick is actually pretty darned good.

Bullets spray continually throughout this film and people are killed in all sorts of unusual ways. So be prepared for that.

Owen plays “Smith,” a man who strictly by chance finds himself in the position of rescuing a newborn baby from a bunch of bad guys are trying to steal the little guy after killing his mother.

To the chagrin of the villains, Smith is a former Black Ops operative with the marksmanship skills rivaling that of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. And in terms of getting out of a tight spot Smith is comparable to the John Smith character (Bruce Willis) from Walter Hill’s flawed but still (for me anyway) enjoyable Last Man Standing.

Paul Giamatti gives an offbeat performance as the chief villain, Hertz, who is a bit reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini character from the Princess Bride. Despite his overcompensating swagger he can never be, will never be, a match for Smith. And to drive this home, the film uses an ongoing joke comparing Smith to Bugs Bunny since he east carrots all the time. Smith is essentially Bugs to Hertz’s Elmer Fudd. In the cartoon there isn’t a shred of doubt who will win, but we still enjoy Bugs getting the better of Elmer. Same thing here. We just sit back and enjoy how creative and amusing the hero is in defeating his opponent.

The picture opens with a scene that is sure to please fans of this genre. The use of a particularly unlikely weapon is probably one of the most creative that I can ever recall seeing.

Monica Bellucci is very good as a prostitute that Smith enlists to help him.

Anyway, Clive Owen climbs the ladder a bit in my appreciation of his work for the job he does with this film. He makes it all work, and I certainly bought in to him as Smith. Shoot ‘Em Up is a great fun if you’re a fan of this type of action film.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

District 9

District 9 is one of those films that took me completely by surprise, which most always a good thing and typically makes me a happy viewer. I was expecting a dark, gritty science fiction film, and it is that. But it has a wicked sense of humor that once I picked up on it made me almost giddy. This film is chock-full of cynical humor and some pretty darned good action. This will sound a bit out there, but if you mixed together various elements of The Office, Enemy Mine, Cry Freedom, Black Like Me, and RoboCop that’s kind of what we have with District 9.

I don’t think I’ll be giving away too much by sharing the most basic plot, which is simple: a gigantic alien space craft mysteriously appears one day hovering over Johannesburg that is teaming with creatures that some civilization somewhere in the galaxy is trying to get rid of, and therefore dispatches to earth. Evidently someone out there is sending these aliens to the galactic “projects.” And sure enough that’s what is pretty much what is done with them on earth–although it is worse than that, actually. It is collectively decided by all the world’s governments that the aliens are to be segregated in an internment slum (in Johannesburg, no less).

It starts with a documentary style that to me is vaguely reminiscent of TV’s The Office in its humorous undertones. The satire is hilarious, and elicited belly laughs from me. The scenes of the human protagonist serving eviction notices to aliens segregated in a Johannesburg barb-wired ghetto paid for the price of the blu-ray (in the Walmart bin).

I really don’t want spoil much more than that. But the story and action that follows is fun. It is hella violent of course.

There is within this film a more serious social commentary about how easily racism is stimulated, i.e., the notion that bigotry seems deeply etched into the core of the human psyche. However, the film still nurtures some positive and hopeful themes amidst all of its cynicism.

Sharlto Copley does a fine job as the human lead character, and the CGI animated extra-terrestrials are quite entertaining.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, aren’t bothered by heavy violence, and enjoy jaded humor, then give this film a go.

District 9

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is the sort of film that I must applaud on general principles in pursuing a vision that is so creative and off the beaten path that it is truly like nothing I have ever seen before. For these things alone I would be tempted to recommend it even if I didn’t like the characters, story, or direction. However I did in fact enjoy all three.

This picture is essentially a science fiction tale that is built upon a metaphysical premise: we are born again and again into lifetimes in which our souls are tied to others through similar themes that recur in different variations. It is about reincarnation. The film makes an analogy with musical composition, in which variation upon key musical themes and motifs intertwine and coalesce to create the greater whole of the musical piece. One of the characters is a musical composer who during his short life produces his opus, the Cloud Atlas Sextet.

The film enters science fiction territory with the final two chapters which are set in the future. The CGI is quite good for the futuristic elements.

The style of narrative for this film will be challenging to some. Six stories are told in which two principal characters are bound either as lovers or close friends, and sometimes the other characters appear as supporting characters or villains. I will not spoil the reader about the specifics of these stories. But the viewer will soon notice that the same characters recur in different lifetimes, often playing very similar roles (though not always). There are thirteen souls that intertwine through the six time settings. Those time periods/places are:

  • Pacific Islands, 1849
  • Cambridge/Edinburgh, 1936
  • San Francisco, 1973
  • London, 2012
  • Neo Seoul, 2144
  • Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall

The theatrical and prosthetic makeup is well done on the whole, so you may not immediately recognize the actor at first sight. In fact, in some cases it is virtually impossible to tell that it is the same actor. This all should flow effortlessly for the viewer, so in my opinion it’s best the first time to just innocently experience it. I will say, though, that for a second viewing I intend to use this Wikipedia chart and this wiki on my iPad as I watch to keep track of how the same souls apparently reincarnate and interrelate.

There are varying degrees to which the characters evolve from one lifetime to the next in terms of developing virtue or becoming more evil. Some are evidently on an increasingly virtuous trajectory through the succession of incarnations. Sometimes a character backslides in one incarnation but gets on track again in the next. At least one becomes progressively more evil to eventually devolve into what appears to be a kind of rakshasa that haunts another character’s mind psychically. Some start out fearful to aid their fellow human being, but eventually are healed and reformed into braver, more prosocial persons (a supportive mate seems to help here). At least one character moves in exactly the opposite direction, i.e., from brave to fearful (yet we may remain hopeful for him). One even becomes an archetypal figure who is eventually worshiped by the masses.

The film mentions, but shows more than says, the experience of a kind of ‘soul-binding’ that takes place between two souls due to reincarnation, which has people feel instant attractions and affinities, and even the stunning experience of love at first sight. I have resigned myself that this is something that is fated to be one of life’s many mysteries. But if reincarnation is something that is real, and we’re ultimately evolving toward more sophisticated knowledge and awareness of life, it would sure be nice if one day we could ever get a clear answer as to why such ‘soul-binding’ happens!

The actors are all great. Everyone is wonderful, but standouts include Doona Bae, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Winshaw.

Anyway, this is a film that cannot be fully appreciated in a single viewing. I will have to watch it again at least once. The movie is a long one, by the way–it lasts about three hours. Hopefully I will get in another viewing over my upcoming quarter break from school.

Just as the characters in the film are haunted by the Cloud Atlas Sextet (several of them upon hearing it “know they have heard it somewhere before”), I admit that I am somewhat haunted by this film.

Cloud Atlas

Science Fact: the Scientific Search for Life Beyond Earth

So, as much of a science fiction geek as I am, I am every bit as much, if not more, a science fact nerd regarding the scientific exploration for the presence of life beyond our home planet. Among my Links (click the ‘sidebar’ navigation icon) I’ve featured two separate RSS feeds that I created, one for the search for habitable exo-planets (i.e., rocky planets in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone from their star) and another for space exploration missions and research within our own solar system (the search for evidence of life increasingly becoming the focus). I have now combined them into a single feed:  Search for Habitable Exo-planets and for Extra-Terran Life in Our Solar System. (And I’ve removed the two earlier individual feeds since they’re now combined.)

This is a fun feed, as it provides a steady stream of science news regarding this very exciting realm of research. Below is a sample of the sorts of articles you’ll find regularly appearing in the feed:

NASA gallery of artists’ conceptions of exo-planets

What Are Exo-planets?

‘Second Earth’ to be found in DECADES as experts claim ONE BILLION planets may hold life

NASA’s chief scientist thinks we’ll find alien life by 2025. Here’s how we’d do it.

Solar-powered spacecraft set to scour Europa for signs of alien life: Nasa reveals mission to blast off in 2020s

Distant Moons Orbiting Massive, Jupiter-like Planets May Support Life

‘Venus zone’ narrows search for habitable planets

Massive clouds erupted 260km into Martian atmosphere – and no one knows why

Search for Alien Life Should ‘Follow the Methane,’ Scientists Say

Methane ‘belches’ detected on Mars

Science Fact: the Scientific Search for Life Beyond Earth

Spawn

I watched Spawn  this evening (1997, the live action film, not the animated one).

I had been thinking of watching the picture upon the advice of a friend who recommended it as a movie that can still be enjoyed for how bad it is (he enjoys Howard the Duck in that way, for example). On the heels of just having strongly liked the critically savaged I, Frankenstein, I figured, hey, maybe I can get a streak going.


Before I discuss Spawn, please allow me a digression first: although it was mainly a coincidence taking place alongside my decision to watch Spawn (a superhero who is black), over the last week I read two articles that got me thinking about the casting of African American actors in the superhero film genre: Michael B. Jordan: Why I’m Torching the Color Line and Selma’s Ava DuVernay tipped to direct Marvel’s Black Panther. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four (newest) reboot set for release August 7th. And while I know nothing about Marvel’s Black Panther character, I’m eager to see an African American superhero that really catches on in the mainstream in light of the recent popular explosion of superhero films and TV series. Perhaps Black Panther will be that superhero. Or maybe not. But Black Panther appears in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War  (May 16, 2016) and he gets a film of his own slated for release Nov. 3, 2017. Time will tell.

African American stars have not had a particularly easy time getting great roles in superhero films, although arguably the best well established ones to be found in the source material are white characters. Hancock did not work for me, as likeable as Will Smith always is as an actor. Nor am I particularly a fan of the Blade film series. Wesley Snipes does a fine job portraying the character, but I just don’t care much for the character himself–nor the whole vampire thing, for that matter. And as much as I like Halle Berry, Catwoman was a pretty lackluster film for me. However, Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-men series has been a lot of fun to watch unleashing her powers, even if Storm hasn’t been a central character.

(Spoiler ahead for Avengers: Age of Ultron !)

Anyway, I feel some weirdness about how things are going regarding efforts to give moviegoers a truly popular African American superhero. At the close of Avengers: Age of Ultron we are shown that the new team adds Iron Patriot (aka “War Machine” played by Don Cheadle) and Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). But both of those characters have thus far in the Marvel films played second fiddle to superhero A-listers Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. Honestly, neither of those character concepts (Iron Patriot or Falcon) excites me much. Both basically assume the mantle from an established popular white character. I realize I must wait and see how the new Avenger team gels, though. It is a fairly oddball group overall. And that might work out pretty well for various storylines and character development, actually.

Okay, anyway, on to Spawn… Which, um… well… it’s… just really, really bad.

You can read a synopsis of the film here at IMDb.

When I first started watching this movie I immediately tried shifting into a mental framework of imagining that the film was simply the pages of a comic book brought to life. That is, I pictured in my head that that every scene I was watching was a projection of the distinct panels from a Spawn comic book. Comic books are usually intentionally corny and melodramatic–it’s a convention of the medium. And Lord knows this film is as well. So I played with the idea that it was the intention of the director to depict the comic book style of dramatic overstatement. So that actually kind of worked for a little while… maybe for about 15 minutes or so. But as time wore on, it just took too much effort to conceptualize the film in that way.

The film was made at a time when comic book superheroes were portrayed more whimsically, with a kind of wink and a nod, i.e., they were self-consciously more ‘spoofy’ than they are today. It was shortly after this film was made that the broad shift toward a more confidently serious storytelling sensibility began with, I would say, 2000’s X-men, followed by 2002’s Spider Man, 2004’s Hellboy, and consolidated by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy beginning with Batman Begins in 2005. (Arguably 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman helped set a more serious dramatic standard as well, but both still had strong whimsical overtones.)

The Spawn character concept is fairly interesting actually, at least at a broad level. There’s something to work with there, I think. But as Spawn is portrayed in this film, I did not feel very sympathetic toward him. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to? He was apparently a heartless and cold-blooded killer in life, after all. But I think I was supposed to have sympathy for him. We’re supposed to root for the superhero usually, right? You can’t really root for his enemies here (unless you are seriously jacked up). You sort of have to root for him by default. But whether the blame falls mostly upon Michael Jai White, or the director, or script writers, or all of the above, the character didn’t really make me feel for him much.

For all I know, maybe the main villain the “Violator,” a hideously grotesque clown, was portrayed by the usually excellent John Leguizamo consistently with how the character appears in the comics. But what I am certain of is that at least in this film version, this is just one of the most downright annoying villains I have ever seen. The Violator is certainly evocative and memorable. But it’s tiring to watch him unleash one bad joke after another.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Martin Sheen give such a hammy performance before. The performances by everyone else are fine, though.

The story does not unfold in a way that gradually builds tension or increases emotional investment. It’s sort of a perpetual miasma experience.

The special effects are underwhelming. The CGI is not too bad for Spawn’s armor, which does help a bit. But the CGI for the Violator’s true form is on the ‘meh’ side. And the CGI of the devil is actually poor.

So what do we have when we add all this up? For me… we have 1) a main character that I don’t care much about, 2) just about the painfully worst villain I have ever seen, 3) a story that fails to gradually build and increase my interest, and 4) (on the whole) poor special effects.

The film ironically (i.e., in terms of how bad it is) does work toward making me want to finally one day see some African American superheroes that are truly A-list. So the film has that value for me. And I actually do think the Spawn character concept has potential if it were in better hands, and with a decent budget. Although after this debacle I doubt we’ll ever see that.

Here’s where Spawn falls on my favorites list for superhero genre films:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Iron Man
  6. X-Men: First Class
  7. Hellboy
  8. The Wolverine
  9. Thor
  10. Sin City
  11. Daredevil (Yes, and I realize few fans share my appreciation)
  12. Man of Steel (when grasped as setting the stage for Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice)
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  14. X2: X-Men United
  15. Spider-Man
  16. Iron Man 2
  17. Thor: The Dark World
  18. X-Men
  19. Kick-ass
  20. Superman (1978)
  21. The Dark Knight Rises (Yes, ranked here, above The Dark Knight and Batman Begins)
  22. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  23. I, Frankenstein
  24. Batman Begins
  25. The Dark Knight
  26. Superman Returns
  27. The Amazing Spider-Man
  28. Batman (1989)
  29. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  30. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  31. X-Men: The Last Stand
  32. Iron Man 3
  33. The Fantastic Four (2005)
  34. Spider-Man 2
  35. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
  36. Spider-Man 3
  37. Kick-ass 2
  38. Green Lantern
  39. The Incredible Hulk
  40. Constantine
  41. The Phantom
  42. The Crow
  43. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  44. Mystery Men
  45. The Punisher
  46. Hulk
  47. Judge Dredd
  48. Elektra
  49. Batman Forever
  50. Batman and Robin
  51. Batman Returns
  52. Superman II
  53. Superman III
  54. Catwoman
  55. Blade
  56. Hancock
  57. Spawn
  58. Unbreakable
  59. Darkman
  60. The Shadow
  61. Superman and the Mole Men
  62. Batman (1966)
  63. Howard the Duck
Spawn