Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: Bunraku

I'm not sure what the makers of this 2010 movie meant by titling it after the Japanese art of puppetry in which the puppeteers are always visible on the stage, dressed in all black like ninja.  Perhaps they were implying that they intended to make a movie in which you can see the people behind the camera.  If that was their intent, it's certainly true.  You can see that the people behind this film must like comic books, anime, kung fu action movies, samurai films, and highly stylized films like Sin City.

What the filmmakers clearly didn't want for this movie was a coherent story or characters that are in any way similar to real people.  Everything in Bunraku is highly stylized, just like the sets.  Most of the characters don't even have names; they have titles, such as Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd) and The Bartender (Woody Harrelson).  One of the main protagonists (Josh Hartnett) is never given a title or a name.  The other character who serves somewhat as the audience POV character does have a name, Yoshi (Japanese pop star / actor Gack't).  The decision whether to give a character a name, a title or nothing seems to be arbitrary.  

As I mentioned, the story isn't very coherent.  Yoshi and the nameless guy both seem to want something from the big bad guy, Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), who gets both a name and a title.  Voiceover narration explains that the movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which guns have been outlawed, so everyone fights with swords and knives except for Yoshi and Hartnet's character, who use their fists.  This provides ample opportunity for lots of well-choregraphed fight scenes.  The movie opens with a particularly striking fight scene in which Killer #2 eliminates a whole gang of opponents with slick dance-like moves.  I must say McKidd steals every scene he's in.  Gack't isn't bad, either.

The rest of the performances, however, aren't much to brag about.  Hartnett is playing the typical mysterious stranger and doing his best grim and gritty Clint Eastwood impression, but it's not very impressive.  His only saving grace as a character is the decision to give him a paralyzing fear of heights.  Ron Perlman is mostly wasted, having to mouth a lot of pompous and meaningless dialog.  Harrelson suffers the same problem, and doesn't get much else to do until the end of the movie.  

The film also includes Demi Moore as Nicola's main squeeze, Alexandra, but her appearance provides no enjoyment at all.  Presumably the director was looking for a reason to have another big name in the cast.  Her character was also intended to give some backstory for The Bartender, but it isn't very successful.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about this movie other than the plot and dialog, though.  It looks really cool.  The stylized sets and the costumes are fun to look at.  There are lots of amusing little stylistic tricks, such as showing the English subtitles for Japanese dialog in text boxes that resemble the dialog boxes in comic books; adding video game sound effects to a car chase scene; The Bartender telling a revised version of Spider-Man's story as if it was an ancient myth; and even the narration that resembles the thought balloons you might find in a comic book.  Everything is color-coded, too, not in the sense of good guys in white and bad guys in black, but by having different scenes toned or lit in different colors.  There are also some scenes that are entirely animated, or presented in silhouette.  The few "exterior" scenes that are included are clearly shot on a soundstage using fake trees and rocks that don't even pretend to look realistic.

Only at the end of the movie does the story really gel, and the characters become more real.  I think that's the problem with this movie.  They waited too long to make me care about these people.  Despite that, I rather enjoyed Bunraku in a cheesy, too many in-jokes sort of way.  Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Confessions of a Voiceover Snob

I just finished reading this article, tweeted by film critic Roger Ebert.  It made me think about something I've harped about on several occasions after seeing a movie that included voiceover or narration. 

I've been a voiceover snob.  Like others mentioned in the article, I've poo-pooed films that use voiceovers or narrators to add to the film.  I say, "Show, don't tell".  I sneer and label the director and screenwriters inadequate to the task of telling a story through the medium of motion pictures.

But after reading that article, I took a second look at my attitude and decided that I've been wrong, at least some of the time.  Not every film with voiceover or narration is using it as the result of bad writing.  

I remind myself that film is not just a visual medium; it's a medium of sound as well.  Or text, if we're talking about silent or films.  Silent films often included explanatory text as well as dialogue in the intertitles.  I love silent movies.  It's never bothered me to read a title card that explains some bit of background.  Why, then, do I criticize  filmmakers for using the auditory version of this technique? 

There are times when the voiceover narration is bad, when it does exactly what I accused it of doing: trying to make up for an otherwise inadequate script (or perhaps an inadequate budget).  But that isn't true in every film.  Take, for example, John Carter, which I saw recently.  The film opens with a voiceover by Mark Strong, explaining a little of what has happened to Mars.  It tells you who the major players are and why such a desolate world can contain the highly developed technological societies John Carter encounters when he travels there.  It's relatively brief and not too detailed.  It's not much different from the famous opening crawl of Star Wars, which for some reason (probably nostalgic fondness) has never provoked my irritation.   John Carter had a more than adequate budget, and a reasonably good quality screenplay.  It would probably have worked just as well without the voiceover, but for audiences who may never have read any of Burroughs' Barsoom books or even heard of them, it contained some helpful information.  Having the characters talk about all that stuff might have been boring, and interrupted the flow of the action.  It's an action movie, after all.  You don't want the characters to stop and have long expository conversations.

There are other times that voiceover is wrong.  When I saw the remake of Conan the Barbarian last year, as soon as I heard Morgan Freeman providing the voiceover at the beginning, I cringed.  Morgan Freeman has become almost too common as a narrator.  His popularity has become a joke.  He's also not in the film.  Perhaps it would have been better to have someone who's in the film do the voiceover.  Making the voiceover script less pompous would have worked better, too.  I doubt anyone went to see that movie who didn't already have some familiarity with Conan.  

But that film aside, I shall stop immediately declaring that any film with voiceover is automatically not as good as it would have been without voiceover.  I shall take each film as it comes and judge the voiceover on its own merits.  Sometimes it will enhance, sometimes it will detract, just like any other stylistic choice.  I shall cease being a voiceover snob forthwith.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Movie Review: Constantine

This 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves has come to be a favorite of mineAfter watching it recently with friends who'd never seen it, I decided to write a review.

Spoiler Warning
I'm going to describe some elements of the plot, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.
Based on the Hellblazer comic from DC’s Vertigo imprint, the movie chronicles demon-hunter John Constantine’s efforts to prevent the end of the world. The story doesn’t start out that way, though. Constantine is presented as a bitter, cynical man who knows he’s doomed to Hell and wants to buy his way into Heaven by banishing demons. He’s aided by an assortment of odd characters who provide him with supporting abilities and information and are faithful to him despite his off-putting personality.

But when he meets an L.A. cop (The Mummy's Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister has died under mysterious circumstances, Constantine finds himself drawn into preventing an apocalyptic plot. Of course Constantine has to become the hero, whether he wants to or not. Fortunately the filmmakers found a way to make this happen that wasn’t trite or predictable.

One of the interesting features of this story is that it presents the Catholic view of Heaven and Hell as the prevailing reality. They didn’t try to shy away from specific elements of Catholicism, like the concept that suicide is a sin or the importance of Latin as the language of the Church’s holy mysteries. Constantine is also shown as a chain-smoker, something you don’t see much in movies with a present-day setting. And the locations where the story takes place aren’t slick and clean as they might be in other films; everything is run-down, worn, and slightly dreary, reflecting the way Constantine himself sees the world.

The vision of Hell that’s presented in the movie isn’t a particularly original one, but it’s visually interesting, especially the imagery of the demons Constantine has to battle. They aren’t the clich├ęd horned and hoofed variety, which is good because that imagery wouldn’t be frightening and these demons are at least a little bit scary. The movie wisely doesn’t spend too much time in Hell, but manages to get the point across that Hell is a Very Bad Place quickly and effectively.

The story also builds suspense nicely as it introduces Constantine and Angela, the police detective who becomes his ‘client’, and explains how the story of her sister’s death intertwines with the coming threat of Armageddon. Information is provided at just the right pace, and scary moments and plot revelations are timed for maximum impact. The whole thing works like a smoothly oiled machine, without any jarring moments that take the viewer out of the story. I’ve heard some complaints that Keanu Reeves wasn’t good in the part, but I found his performance just fine. My only quibble is that he seems a little too clean-cut and healthy for the nicotine-addicted Constantine.

This movie isn’t breaking any new ground, but it handles its subject material well. I was particularly pleased with the casting of the always interesting Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel. She really makes the movie for me, along with Peter Stormare as Old Scratch himself. It’s hard to find a new way to present good and evil, angels and demons, that makes them interesting, but the makers of Constantine managed it. 

 If you can’t tell already, I like this movie a lot.  I think Constantine is an underrated gem.

Movie Review: Death Trance

First, a warning:  If you prefer movies that have a story with a beginning, middle and conclusion, you may not care for the 2005 Japanese film Death Trance.

If you prefer movies where the characters all have names, you might not like Death Trance, either.

We'd put this movie in our Netflix queue out of curiosity, and the synopsis indicated that it might be a fantasy action-adventure in a historic or semi-historical setting.  It isn't.

Death Trance takes place in a world where monks look after evil artifacts in Buddhist shrines, and warriors roam the landscape carrying both katanas and guns.  Mostly they roam on foot, although a motorcycle did show up in one scene.  Why the world is like this isn't explained.  The combination of anachronistic details and the lack of backstory reminded me of anime.  I don't know if this movie is based on any manga or anime, but it certainly made me feel like I was watching a live-action anime adaptation.

The plot is pretty basic:  Someone has stolen an artifact from a temple, an object that could bring about the end of the world.  A young, inexperienced and under-prepared monk is sent to retrieve it.  That summary probably makes you think you know what to expect from this movie, but you're wrong.  The nameless monk is the POV character, but he isn't the hero.  I'm not sure anyone is a hero in this film.  

The monk doesn't have any trouble tracking down the man who stole the artifact, a character referred to only as "Coffin Man".  None of the other characters have any trouble finding him, either.  They run around the forest in weird costumes, repeatedly trying to take the artifact from him.  Stephen Seagal's son Kentaro shows up as one of the Mad Max-esque characters who want to possess this object, his voice clearly dubbed by someone who sounds tougher (and probably speaks better Japanese).  And a six-year-old girl with almost no dialogue manages to be very creepy.  Nobody wins, or maybe Coffin Man does, depending on your definition of "winning". 

That description makes the movie sound vague and probably not very appealing, but it was actually fun.  It has a sense of humor and doesn't take itself too seriously.  It was clearly done with a small budget because there are hardly any sets, but it doesn't look cheap or tacky.  The fight scenes are exciting, and the enigmatic anti-heroes are cool.  It's a little like a Japanese version of High Plains Drifter.  

While this kind of movie probably isn't for everyone, if you're interested in seeing something fun and a bit unusual, give Death Trance a look.  If you can't take it seriously, you can amuse yourself by making fun of all the 'nameless anti-hero' movie tropes it borrows and turns on their ears.