Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco

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Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!

Black Death


Winter is here.

Winter is here.

(2010) Medieval Horror (Magnet) Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Jamie Ballard, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon, Tobias Kasimirowicz, Keith Dunphy, Tim McInnerny, Marianne Graffam. Directed by Chris Smith

Back in the Dark Ages, the bubonic plague must have seemed like the end of the world. A pandemic that seemed to spare nobody, there was only rudimentary medical science and literally no protection against its ravages. Entire villages and even districts were wiped out by it.

So when a village seemed to be emerging unscathed from the horrors of the plague, the Church was suspicious. Witchcraft must be involved. Ulrich (Bean), a no-nonsense knight if ever there was one, is dispatched to the town to discover the truth and if necessary, put a stop to it. He enlists Osmund (Redmayne), a monk who knows the area well.

Osmund is pious but no saint. His girlfriend (Nixon) has been sent ahead into the forest to escape the plague. Osmund had plans to meet her there before being drafted. He joins (albeit reluctantly) Ulrich’s troop which includes a gleeful torturer (Nyman), a grim warrior (Lynch) and a mute killer (Gernandt). The group has issues, including being forced to strike down one of their own (Ballard) who is stricken by the plague, as well as having to take on bandits.

Eventually they reach the village which is seemingly controlled by two individuals – Hob (McInnerny) and Langiva (van Houten). During dinner, the me are drugged and put into a water-filled cage in the swamp while Osmund is given a horrible decision regarding his girlfriend whom he’d feared was dead. And the fears of the Church may not be entirely unfounded when it seems that there is a necromancer in the village who is powerful enough to raise the dead…

Smith is best known in this country for Severance but has actually directed several nifty little horror films in Britain. He is known for some fairly gritty films, but this might be the grittiest. This is not a Sword in the Stone England where everything is clean and healthy but what it really was like; foul, filthy and full of pestilence.

Good thing he’s got Sean Bean. Bean, who has of late made his medieval mark on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO is just as great here. He is strong, a great fighter, an inspiring leader but not without faults. His belief in the Church is staunch and unwavering but his unquestioning faith leads him to do acts that are most certainly unholy.

Redmayne is perfectly suited for the role of the pious Osmund. Osmund is terribly conflicted; on the one hand there are the vows to the church but on the other his forbidden love. Redmayne captures this division nicely and Osmund’s terrible dilemma is made very relatable. Van Houten, one of the best actresses in the Netherlands (if you haven’t seen Black Book by all means go out and rent it) plays the femme fatale to the hilt, and gives Langiva a very sensuous edge. The veteran character actor McInnerny also has a deliciously bad side to him.

The two sides – the Church and the pagans – don’t distinguish themselves here which makes it tough to have a rooting interest (it’s Osmund by default). That makes for a pretty grim fairy tale and that can get taken to extremes. The battle scenes are pretty violent and there’s nothing clean about them. There are no Errol Flynn acrobatics, no Lord of the Rings legerdemain, just a bunch of guys hacking away at each other with pointy things which was pretty much what medieval warfare was all about.

You may wonder what point there is to the movie with the ending which is, like the rest of the movie, pretty much a downer. I’m not sure you really need to look for one. This is a pretty strong movie that has overtones of horror, action and fantasy. However, don’t look here if you’re looking for the feel-good movie of the year. Then again, if you’re looking in the feel-good movie of the year it’s unlikely you’d be in the horror section anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: Spot-on re-creation of medieval England. Strong performances by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overly brutal in the violence. Ending seems a bit pointless. Might be a bit too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense in places. There are also a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rupert Friend was originally cast as Osmund but was eventually replaced by Redmayne.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some behind-the-scenes footage (separate from the standard making-of featurette) and some interviews with the filmmakers.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $265,318 on an unreported production budget; I think it unlikely that the film was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centurion

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meek’s Cutoff

Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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