PICKS OF THE WEEK
13 Assassins (A-)
Japan: Takashi Miike, 2010, Magnolia
In an abandoned mountain village that they have turned into a huge, ingenious booby trap, 13 samurai, or freelance fighters, assembled by an idealistic master warrior, await their enemy: 200 heavily armed crack soldiers of the emperor. The 13, assembled hastily, full of spirit and courage, are led by Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a brilliant and spiritually noble samurai so disgusted at the bloody excesses of the current Shogunate that he has abandoned his old masters, and plans to send the very worst of them to hell.
The 200 guards trying to stop him are among the nation's finest soldiers, and they are guarding one of the most purely evil villains any recent movie have given us: an insane young rich-boy degenerate murderer named Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (played by Japanese rock star Goro Inagaki). Half-brother of the stupidly tolerant Shogun, Lord Naritsugu not only rapes and kills and chops people up, wantonly, at will, for his own amusement, but is offended at the idea that his right to rape and kill is disputed by anybody, especially the lower classes and any people inferior to his station -- which, to Naritsugu, means almost everybody.
13 Assassins, directed by Takashi Miike, is a samurai battle movie deluxe. It has moody landscapes, blistering action, and a great cast, especially Yakusho as the brave, just warrior Shinzaemon, Masachika Ichimura as Shinzaemon's old friend and Shogunate counterpart Hanbei, and pretty-boy rocker Inagaki as the homicidal madman heir Naritsugu. These three carry the bulk of the drama and they're more than a match for everything imagined by the director, the celebrated cine-rebel Miike and his screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (director Shohei Imamura's son). Or anything borrowed from their source: director Eiichi Kudo's 1963 black-and-white Thirteen Assassins, scripted by Kaneo Ikegami.
So we will eventually come to the midway point described above, before the last bloody act: waiting for the battle, as are the 13 new assassins, as are the 200 government soldiers. By now, we hate Naritsugu so much, and are so partial to the 13 -- including the clownish Koyata (Yosuke Iseya), whose part suggests a bit of Toshiro Mifune's hell-raiser in Kurosawa's Samurai -- that we are expecting something amazing. We will not be disappointed.
The final battle will last about 45 minutes -- not so long as the incredible hour long Battle of Borodino in Sergei Bondarchuk's complete 8-1/2-hour Russian War and Peace (the grandest of all movie battle sequences), but unusually long. Miike's battle is gripping, utterly engrossing, and so thrilling that Naritsugu himself starts raving about it while standing in the middle of the carnage toward the end. That's partly because we've spent so much time with all the characters, learning who they are, and what the stakes are, that every sword-slash carries some throb of meaning and feeling.
The movie 13 Assassins may lack the outlandishly elaborate special effects of most of the movie battles we see these days, but it's better: as full of character, drama, plot twists and wild humor as it is of spectacular action and scary bloodshed, holding us in thrall for the entire 45 minutes, and all the setup time before, in scenes charged with drama and emotion.
Here, with this material, the often perverse and deliberately shocking Miike shows how classical he can be, when he feels like it. The sometimes off-the-wall genre-bending artist who made Audition and Ichi the Killer and Full Metal Yakuza and dozens of other -- obviously knows just as well who Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi and Hiroshi Inagaki all are, and he shows us.
If you're expecting too much the old Miike, the helmsman of zombies, vampires, juvenile delinquents and mad gangsters, be advised that this movie resembles very little he's done before, at least that I've seen, in his staggeringly prolific and often madly audacious career.
One loves this kind of movie, done well, because it makes you feel. Strongly. One despises Naritsugu right from his first scene, when he demonstrates a bloodthirsty sadism and disregard for life that should shock even the most jaded Miike-watcher, because he also makes us feel, and react, and rage inside. And one loves the samurai, as we love all good samurai -- especially when they're so horribly outnumbered, so staunchly determined and faced with such appalling evil -- because they will fight, we know, to the end. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
The Cocoanuts (A-)
U.S.: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929, Universal
This is the very first Marx Brothers movie, based on their hit Broadway show (with songs by Irving Berlin and script by Morrie Ryskind) -- and you can see why, according to their fellow ex-vaudevillian ex-music hall vet Jack Benny, no one ever wanted to follow these guys on stage. They cracked up the house, any time they wanted to.
In Cocoanuts, Groucho is a crooked hotel manager/owner, trying to unload his lemon of a Florida hotel on some sucker. Harpo and Chico are professional vandals and swindlers. Zeppo is a pre-Allan Jones musical loverboy. Zeppo sings and woos, Harpo plucks the harp-strings. Chico shoots the piano keys. And Groucho, with his painted-on glasses and his big overgrown hairbrush of a black moustache, takes the English language and, along with Chico, turns it into a weapon of mass destruction. ("These plans are so simple a child of five could understand them. Run out and find me a child of five; I can't make heads or tails of them!")
Margaret Dumont, Groucho's great unstraight straight woman, is here in all her glory too, as the grand dame of all snobbery, and the watermelon of Groucho's eye. Whatever the provocation, she will never crack up. She will never even titter, even when Groucho clasps her in his arms and tells her he loves her. My God! She deserves a medal, that woman: the Croix du Mont.
Even though The Cocoanuts was co-directed (with Joseph Santley) by the French-born cine-stylist and sometime avant-garde experimentalist Robert Florey (who made, in 1927, the classic short The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland), the non-Marx Brothers parts of this movie -- and, I would guess, of the play -- are so obviously, even nose-thumbingly bad, so stilted and phony and herniated with clichés, that, when the Brothers come charging on, funny bones and blunderbusters blazing, it's as if they'd declared war on their own movie. And in a way they have. The Cocoanuts is a guerrilla attack on theater, on movies, and most of all on sanity. ("You can't fool me! There ain't no sanity clause!")
You want to know the biggest reason why you've got to watch The Cocoanuts? I'll tell you in one word: viaduct. (Extra: trailer.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Season of the Witch (C+)
U.S.: Dominic Sena, 2011, 20th Century Fox
It's good, or at least encouraging, to find a big movie super-production that has at least a little literary-dramatic ambition -- and the new Nicolas Cage show, Season of the Witch, certainly has at least some of that.
Produced to a fare-thee-well, flashily directed (by Dominic Sena of Kalifornia), jam-packed with lavish technological trimmings, and massive historical re-creations, battles and hell-raisings, the movie also boasts an excellent cast (Ron Perlman, Ulrich Thomsen and Christopher Lee, as well as Cage), spectacular location shooting in vast, gloomy Austrian and Hungarian forests and huge castles, and fantastic CGI supernatural imagery -- as well as the best pustule makeup money can buy.
All that, and a story inspired by Ingmar Bergman. Witch is set during the 14th century in the time of the Crusades and of the Black Plague in Europe, and it's the strange, mini-epic tale of idealistic knight Behmen (Cage) and cynical pragmatist Felson (Perlman), two heroic soldiers, decade-long buddies and veterans of the Crusades, and now deserters, who are captured by the guardsmen of the dying Cardinal d'Ambroise (Lee).
The two -- whose objections to the war are moral -- are summoned to the Cardinal's deathbed, where he is wasting away, oozing pestilence, surrounded by weirdo doctors in medieval beak-masks. And they are ordered to transport an accused witch (Claire Foy), suspected of having caused the Plague, in a wagon and cage, accompanied by a weird troop that includes Debelzaq, an obsessed young priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), Echhart, another soldier (Thomsen), Hagemar, a swindler-turned-guide (Stephen Graham) and Kay, an altar boy who wants to be a knight (Robert Sheehan). Their destination: a distant monastery, where the captive girl will be tried and burned at the stake by appropriate monks.
Now, this is something you don't often see in a multiplex: a combination artsy medieval quest movie and slam-bang action adventure show. Though the movie's extensive press notes never mention it, the major influence on Bragi Schut Jr.'s script is clearly one of the great art films of the 20th century: Bergman's 1957 Swedish masterpiece The Seventh Seal.
That great film was also set during the Plague years -- and it also had a quest, a knight and his sidekick back from the Crusades, an accused witch, priests, monks, a seminarian, lots of corpses, a traveling wagon, a castle and a grandiose supernatural heavy. (The demon in Season of the Witch; Death himself, with his chessboard, in Seventh Seal). Cage's reflective Behmen (the actor's hairdressing and wig allotment looks like it might rival Seventh Seal's whole budget), and Perlman's tough-guy Felson are the new movie's equivalents for Max Von Sydow's philosophical Knight Antonious Block and his cynical Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand).
Unfortunately, Season of the Witch is no masterpiece -- though the actors and filmmakers, in some ways, treat it as if it were.
The movie, though quite good-looking (as Sena's movies usually are) is done with a weird mix of sobriety and gaudy spectacle, and a straight-faced kitschiness that tends to be as grim and cloudy as the heavy Austrian-Hungarian skies above. Season takes itself too seriously to be all that much fun, and it's often too witch-kitschy and outlandish to be believably serious.
Hobo With a Shotgun (D+)
U.S.: Jason Eisener, 2011, Magnolia
This one started as a throwaway gag of Quentin Tarantino's: the supposed subject of a spoof grindhouse movie trailer. Maybe it should have stayed that way. As it is, we get to see, as if we wanted to, 90 minutes of neon-lit, bloody, trash-in-the streets mayhem, with super-hobo Rutger Hauer dropping off a train and wandering into a corrupt city, which he soon decides needs a shotgun pointed at it, badly.
Corrupt leaders, nepotistic killer-creeps, sexy hookers, gigglingly bad actors, and, oh yeah, some kind of local street game, played too often, where some poor schmuck who's displeased the local mad dictator gets his head jammed into a manhole cover, then jammed into a manhole, to await the piece de resistance: his head getting yanked off by a truck or car with a chain. (It'll never replace stickball or ringolevio.)
Hauer's Hobo is subjected to this indignity, among many others, including the whole damned movie. But at least he gets to fight back. What can the poor audience do? Shotgun in hand, precious minutes ticking away as more and more citizens get abused and more and more heads are yanked off, the Hobo awaits Hobo Valhalla and the revolution of the young and incensed, which arrives, sort of, by the last act. (Don't worry about the gore level, by the way. Insanely violent as Hobo With a Shotgun tries to be, the special effects are so inept that these manhole decapitations look as if some litterbug art teacher were staggering around town, littering the streets with bad sculpture.)
An obvious inspiration for Hobo With a Shotgun is Rutger Hauer's (and director Robert Harmon's and writer Eric Red's) mad-vagabond-on-the-loose highway thriller The Hitcher (1986), a bad, mysteriously overrated movie that has now been remade twice. Oddly, Hauer was pretty good in the original Hitcher, and he's better here, in this gory but knowing lower-budget shocker-schlocker -- which is even odder. The fact that the great blond replicant of Blade Runner can retain a scrap of dignity appearing in a yuckfest like this is a testament to the power of acting. Do the guy a favor and catch him instead in the current Dutch period drama Bride Flight.