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Probing the Character of a Masterless Samurai
A wandering ronin and his young son continue their journey through feudal Japan, taking contracts when afforded the opportunity and facing assassination with each step. This chapter seems dedicated to clarifying our disgraced samurai's complicated code of honor. Though he'll gladly slice through an almost unlimited number of strangers in battle, Ittō's vision isn't clouded by a perennial bloodlust. We see restraint in several dangerous situations, respect for principled opponents, loyalty to his word and, in the film's most memorable scene, a willingness to take vicious punishment in lieu of the innocently accused. The story feels more episodic than ever, with various scenes playing out like a classic movie serial and an unresolved conflict lingering at the credits. Given the rate at which they were churning these things out in the early '70s, maybe there's something to that. The action is reliably good, still fresh and creative after three feature-lengths, though the gigantic slaughter instigated at the climax (ambushed, Ittō single-handedly takes out fifty men and a trio of mounted officers) does stretch things a bit. Wise, then, that the film went back to basics almost immediately after, closing the action with an eerily quiet, respectful duel amidst the dust of that epic battlefield.
Blood and Gore, But Also Depth and Development
Disgraced former executioner Ogami Ittō continues his brooding storm through the Japanese countryside, his three-year-old son Daigoro along for the ride in a booby-trapped carriage. Now some distance into their march to vengeance, the pair have drawn so much notoriety that they risk ambush and assassination at every turn. It's not paranoia, either: Ogami dispenses with blade-wielding enemies at nearly every chapter break, downing at least two-dozen men and women before the film is through. The opportunity isn't abused. In true poppy '70s samurai fashion, each challenger (or cluster of challengers) wears a distinct identity and a unique fighting style, like a colorful garden of deadly blossoms. They all bleed day-glo red, though, often in a towering arc of spray that paints landscape and fallen comrade alike. In Baby Cart at the River Styx, for the first time, we see vulnerability from the master swordsman and a little headstrong personality from his young child. We also see uncertainty from a prominent rival, another first, and restraint in the midst of a bloodlust. Some of the fighting is a little awkward, and the formula is threatening to wear thin, but overall this represents a wonderfully stylish, entertaining continuation of the journey that was so well-established in the first film. An excellent genre-definer.
Wolverine's Finest Hour is Also Jackman's Last
A very hard R for Hugh Jackman's last call as Wolverine, easily the most unapologetically dark, violent take we've ever seen from a Marvel property. It's a jolt at first, but also necessary to effectively and immediately shift the tone from the campier tendencies of the greater X-Men franchise to the sad, defeated near-future of this timeline. There's a bucketful of carnage, but also a wealth of character moments, particularly between Xavier, Logan and Laura, the young mutant also known as X-23. This area has always been trouble for Fox's X-films, with so many faces cramming the screen that it can often be tough to remember names, let alone a convincing motivation. This time, that scope is kept intentionally narrow, and it bears ripe fruit. Particularly during the gut-wrenching final scenes, which not only deliver a strong sense of closure to all three arcs, but also reveal the troubling reality that tomorrow's heroes may have already been corrupted by the path they've unwillingly marched. Outstanding work from the leading actors, particularly Jackman and Stewart, who have a long and successful chemistry together, and a surprisingly bright supporting effort from Stephen Merchant, of all people. It's a bold finale that should finally give mature fans of the genre something wet and meaty to sink their teeth into. Refreshing proof that not every superhero story needs to be bleached for a younger audience.
Kôkaku Kidôtai (1995)
A Tantalizing, Timeless Blend of Art, Music, Philosophy and Suspense
Deep dives into the nature of consciousness with a side platter of police action, gunplay and high-speed pursuit. At first glance this may come off as stiff and impenetrable, but like the thematically-similar Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell offers untold rewards to repeat viewers. The nature of our memories, how they define us, and the dangers of nefarious interference upon them; these are some pretty heavy topics, and it should come as no surprise that it takes some time to really let it all sink in. Reflective and immersive, the film spends a lot of time ruminating on the meaning of life - both in conversation and in the long, lingering glances of city still-life it indulges upon between bursts of action. In these scenes, Kenji Kawai's magnificent score really gets a chance to shine; haunting and alien, it's a strange beauty and a perfect pairing for the uneasy-in-your-own-skin themes explored by the film. The art direction is a similar brow-raiser, effectively bringing the residents and landscape of New Port City to life in a style that remains loyal to Masamune Shirow's original work while also carving out a bold, fresh identity of its own. It's rare for a twenty-year-old film about technology to still remain relevant in a modern light, but this one somehow seems even more appropriate today. The advent of smartphones and tablets alone has brought the essence of human interaction up for debate, and this lonesome vision of a near-future Japan now seems hauntingly prescient. A conceptual powerhouse, it does have faults - far too many stationary talking heads, breathlessly spouting plot points - but inarguably deserves its status as one of eastern animation's cornerstones. I fear its subtlety and nuance will be lost upon Hollywood's forthcoming live-action adaptation.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Conceptually Quaint, Dated and Hollow in Execution
Young Will Shakespeare, suffering a bout of writer's block, happens across an intense love and draws inspiration for new material from the whirlwind romance. For a best picture winner, this is awfully mediocre stuff. The plot is simplistic and over-familiar, the acting merely acceptable, and the constant nods and winks to the budding auteur's work quickly grows excessive and wearying. Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes are attractive people and make convincing googly eyes at one another, but their relationship is so swift and passion-fueled that it never feels like more than a fiery seasonal fling. Judi Dench took home a best supporting actress statue for her work as Queen Elizabeth I, though she barely makes a cameo appearance and most of her work seems done by the wardrobe department. Irritatingly blunt at times, particularly when it tries its hand at comedy, I appreciate the freshness of the concept if not its flimsy, dated execution.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Emotive, Innovative, Captivating Pixar Magic
Tables turn as a charming young girl bursts through her own closet door and sends shivers through the monsters on the other side. Everything about this is wonderful, from the essentially Pixar concept to the warm, sentimental relationships at its core. Even the animation has held up quite well, which isn't always the case with these early CG efforts: humans still look a bit wonky, but most of the cast seems drawn straight from the pages of a Caldecott winner and that kind of bright, absurd character works beautifully. John Goodman and Billy Crystal carry most of the heavy-lifting as Mike and Sulley, blue collar creatures with an easy, free-flowing rapport, but three-year-old Mary Gibbs threatens to steal the scene every time she gets the chance with her adorable almost-words and penetrating good cheer. Exceedingly well-balanced, with the kind of imagination that keeps mouths gaping and so much heart, even the boogeyman might have to fight back a tear or two. One of my favorites of the entire Pixar catalog, it swings hard and connects on every level. Sweet, sad, silly and stupendous, a timeless classic that I was glad to share with my kids.
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
A Middling Continuation of Gru's Adventures; Lightly Entertaining
Picking up right where the original left off, evil genius Gru has seen the error of his ways and transitioned into life as the single, adoptive dad of three young girls. The sudden reform has left everyone (an army of minions, a long-time collaborator and Gru himself) a bit stir-crazy, so he seeks new thrills as a turncoat, tracking and identifying his former rivals for a stuffy government agency. Illumination has leveled-up their equipment since the first film, which makes for a far more polished visual product, but the story is less lively and fuzzy than its surprising predecessor. Of course the minions are everywhere, getting the star treatment before their inevitable spin off, but the girls are relegated to watery secondary story lines and there seem to be a lot of missed opportunities. Gru's job with the g-men, for instance, seems like a ready-made setup for introducing all sorts of wacky new characters and enlarging the world, but instead it merely hones in on a single new villain and ventures no further. The introduction of a love interest is hesitant, overly convenient, and never really clicks. There's plenty of fun stuff for younger audiences, of course, and some of the sight gags are clever, but most parents will find themselves daydreaming through the bulk of this one.
Swift, Dark, Visceral Samurai Action with a Familial Twist
After being framed for treason and losing his wife to an after-hours assault, a former state executioner seeks revenge as a ronin, walking the dusty trails of rural Japan with his three-year-old son in tow. The hallmarks of a generic '70s samurai/kung fu movie are all over this one, from the exploitative camera-work to the bad makeup and sprays of hyper-saturated blood, but despite the obvious tropes it delivers some deep, ruminative storytelling and efficiently lays the groundwork for the five sequels which are soon to follow. Often, we're shocked by an act that seems vile and emotionless, only for a subsequent explanation to flip the script and offer unexpected rationalization. The audience constantly sees Ittō (the protagonist) in different lights, filling the character out from all angles while the man himself (stoically played by a convincing Tomisaburo Wakayama) maintains a stiff, honorable composure. Despite the eccentricities mentioned above, I was impressed by the fight scenes, which are shockingly - yet appropriately - swift and decisive. With his blade drawn bare, Ittō doesn't fool around: he kills with immediacy and precision, though he's often fighting such steep odds that the battles aren't over too quickly. A real jewel for fans of the genre, which storms through a few clunky patches and sets itself up to soar in later installments.
Doctor Strange (2016)
An Innovative Visual Spectacle, Burdened by a Flat Character Arc
An egotistical, world-renowned surgeon loses feeling in his hands and must search for meaning in what's left of his life. Seems like a fairly easy, if overdone, template for the next chapter in Marvel's sprawling cinematic universe. Yet, strangely (har har), there's very little character progression and the doctor's personal arc falls thoroughly flat. Following a brief stumble through his rolodex of former colleagues and a very short humbling at the hands of spiritual masters, Strange makes no personal advancement. He merely shifts from being the world's greatest surgeon to its resident sorcerer supreme. No penance, no spiritual enlightening, just a short rocky patch in his perfect life and then a nearly-immediate gratification. Shallow character development among the supporting cast, particularly in Mads Mikkelsen's villainous foil (underdeveloped rivals being a dirty habit in the MCU), doesn't provide the crutch that might have smoothed things over somewhat. The effects work is dazzling and creative, providing much more than we saw in the trailers, but that's really the only draw here. Jaw-dropping battle scenes and fabulous twists on reality are its bread and butter, and worth seeing for the spectacle alone, but the lack of a deeper context is disappointing.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
An Efficient Parody of Police Blockbusters, Lighter Than Shaun of the Dead
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright get together to continue the work they started with 2004's Shaun of the Dead, this time dropping a parody of cheesy police action flicks. Like its predecessor, it works on a satirical level, but also as a standalone - albeit one with far less heart than we saw in Shaun. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a straight-laced London constable who's so fanatical about his job, the top brass worry they'll look bad by comparison and ship him off to the minor leagues. There he partners with Frost, a slobbish underachiever, and swiftly uncovers a vast criminal conspiracy. Fuzz relies heavily on one-liners and sight gags, which are generally pretty effective, but lacks a real emotional hook. That makes for an entertaining two hours, if not for endless re-screenings. The best work comes from the supporting cast, with Timothy Dalton leading the pack as the town's squinting, scheming, mustachioed mastermind grocer. And, of course, Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall are downright show-stealing as the two Andys, resident detectives more concerned with needling newbies than cracking cases. I could've done with a lot more of those guys. A good film, with some big laughs, but no more than that. It's tough to avoid constant comparisons to the team's preceding effort, which isn't a fair match.