Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hopper #7

As we approach the end of the best movies that 2013 has to offer, I should say that this has been a very good year for films. While I’ve yet to see a film that stands out above all others, this year has been consistent and continually provided good film after good film. 

“47 Ronin” (2013)

Keanu Reeves has an interesting relationship with Hollywood. Once the poster boy for many action films and comedies, due in large part to his success with “The Matrix” and the “Bill and Ted” movies, Reeves has now decided to follow the route of Ben Affleck and become a director.

Unfortunately, unlike Affleck, Reeves only seems to understand how to make one type of movie: Asian action pieces. Not even very good ones at that. 

His first attempt was “The Man of Tai Chi.” If you’ve never heard of it, then count yourself lucky. A bland and forgettable kung-fu film that has maybe one or two lines of laughable dialogue that becomes what you remember the most about the film.

Which brings us to Reeves’ newest film, “47 Ronin.” A film that tries so hard to be taken seriously, yet never seems to get past its laughable premise and in the end becomes an unremembered work directed by the “Constantine” guy.

In Feudal Japan, a young boy by the name of Kai (Reeves) appears out of the mysterious forest where the magical and deadly Tengu dwell. Kai is taken in by the shogun leader of the nearby town, but is shunned by everyone but the shogun and his daughter for not being full Japanese.

One day though, the emperor comes to visit the village, when the leader is possessed and attempts to assassinate a visiting Lord Kira. The shogun is killed shortly after by his own hand, but his replacement suspects that witchcraft was behind it all. The emperor then orders that Lord Kira become the new ruler of this village, and that the replacement shogun be sent to prison and Kai sold into slavery. Now it is up to the new shogun, Kai and 45 others to take back their land and defeat the evil Lord Kira and his magic wielders. 

The main problem of this film comes from there not being enough attention on that which deserves attention. For example, in films like “Seven Samurai” and “13 Assassins,” both of which are Japanese and focus on a struggle to take back land from a warring faction, you get to know every one of the samurais and assassins. You know their quirks, strengths and why they’re on this mission. “47 Ronin” however never takes the time to tell us the names of each of the ronins, let alone their personalities. 

How are we supposed to care about this brave and courageous group of misfits fighting to take back their homeland and their pride, when I have no idea who even five of them are?

On top of that, it falls into a trap of explaining everything instead of letting the characters develop personalities. Many characters speak only in exposition, relaying information on the plot to the audience, rather than telling us how they feel. Entire scene will go by between Lord Kira and his magic wielders where they talk about the enemy advancing, but not what they think about any of that. 

Is it really too much to ask for Kai to say, “I feel like this is a bad idea?”

An interesting note that I was unaware of until the films’ end was that this film is based on true events. Not that there were actual magic Tengu warriors or shapeshifters that could turn into dragons, but that there were 47 warriors that stood up to an actual Lord Kira. There is even a graveyard of these warriors which still stands today in Sengaku-Ji, Japan.

In that respect, I feel like “47 Ronin” is a watered-down “300.” Supposedly based on true events, but have taken artistic and thematic liberties to add elements of fantasy and make-believe to their work. 

The difference between the two films though is that “300” embraced its silliness and never attempted to be serious and was kind of fun to watch in that regard. “47 Ronin” on the other hand takes itself far too seriously, and is so bogged down in explaining events and exposition that it doesn’t have time to enjoy the situation that it presents. 

Overall, “47 Ronin” attempts to be like many films, including “300,” “The Matrix,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Seven Samurai” but is never able to get off the ground from its own premise. Keanu just can’t catch a break, can he?

Final Grade: D

“The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013)

Part of me really wants to hate this film. Another part of me adores this film. I feel like love is winning over hate. 

If you know much about Martin Scorsese or have seen his work, then you know that he really enjoys gangsters and that he attempts to make them look like normal guys who chose this lifestyle, instead of other filmmakers who make them out to be bad guys. His work in films like “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” are a good example of that. 

Now that we’re in the 21st century, the depiction of gangsters has changed drastically, much to Scorsese’s irritation, I’m sure. The humble and soft-spoken days of Don Corleone and Tony Soprano are long gone. The gangsters of old are no more.

Yet it seems like Martin Scorsese has found a way to keep telling those stories, but though a new type of gangster: The stockbrokers. 
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) owns the largest estate in New Jersey, a yacht that is so huge that it can store a helicopter, the fastest sports car imaginable, can afford $25,000 dinners on a whim, has a wife that has been dubbed “The Duchess of Bay Ridge” yet constantly cheats on her with million dollar hookers and still has enough time to take drugs at nearly every interval in the day. 

All of this because of his illegal business in the stock market. 

The film follows Belfort from his humble beginnings as a call-taker on Wall Street, to his power hungry and money-obsessed moments of success, to the FBI hunting him down and his attempts to evade them at every turn and continuing to live his exuberant lifestyle. 

If you’ve seen “Goodfellas” then you can probably guess why I want to hate the film. Because this is the same movie, even down to the dramatic narration that takes specific care to mention why their lifestyles are so fun and addicting and speaking directly to the audience. Heck, Dicaprio even has a nearly identical voice to Ray Liotta. 

It moves like “Goodfellas,” talks like “Goodfellas,” and has the same life philosophies as “Goodfellas.”

Yet, for that very same reason, I kind of enjoy the film. Since when was it a bad thing to feel and act like one of the best gangster movies of all time?

This film takes the time show us why Belfort would choose this way of life and why it can be so rewarding. Not just the money, because he’s willing to throw that away like garbage, but because of the power. He feels like he could do anything he wanted and get away with it, even bribing a federal officer to get him off his back. 

Like “Goodfellas,” the characters of this film believe that they are in their own little world. That those who live in the “normal world” like us are sad and pathetic losers who are essentially waiting for handouts instead of doing it ourselves. They’re so caught up in what they’re doing that they can’t see anything other than their own ego.

This makes them the best kind of douchebags imaginable. 

The kind that are so self-absorbed that they are fun to watch and keep you guessing on how events will unfold. They’re not relatable or sympathetic, but they’re not supposed to be. They just want as much power as they can get, which is admirable. At the same time, you still want to see them get their comeupins. So it’s the best of both worlds. 

The people in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” are scumbags who rip off those less fortunate than them and don’t care about anyone other than themselves. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Final Grade: A

“American Hustle” (2013)

I’ll keep this brief: The majority of “American Hustle” went right over my head. Half of the time, I had no idea what was going on. 

It is not because of the period or the plot itself, but because of its execution of the plot and how the characters whisper important plot points and never mention them again. 

The plot revolves around a trio, consisting of an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and two con-artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), attempt to outsmart a politician (Jeremy Renner) and to find out just how corrupt his office really is. Along the way, they have to face difficulties through trust issues, fellow con-artists, developing romantic relationships and Bale’s crazy and obsessed wife (Jennifer Lawrence) revealing their plans to the politicians. 

Part of the problem might be that the movie has an incredibly fast pace, with some scenes going by so fast that they leave you wondering what just happened. Even worse, the film never attempts to slow down and explain itself, never allowing those who get lost, like me, to catch up and understand the plot. 

So if you miss even one plot point or important factor that effects the outcome of events, then be prepared to stay confused and disoriented. 

This is made even more difficult when Christian Bale feels like mumbling or whispering the majority of his lines. While that certainly builds up his character, it also does not help the story and the coherency of the film. 

To be fair, when the movie isn’t trying to be about corrupt politicians and trying to coax information out of them, the film seems rather gentle and sincere, especially with scenes involving Bale and Adams. The beginning of the film shows the two slowly falling in love and how they feel about each other, with Bale showing Adams that he is a con-man, only to find out that Adams is wonderful at conning as well.

These scenes are simple and straight to the point, which is why they stick out over any other scene. It’s a shame there are so few of them.

This movie might improve upon multiple viewings and with subtitles. Yet with just one watch where the movie moves too fast for its own good, “American Hustle” does not turn out well.

Final Grade: D+

Final Thoughts: 

Even though “47 Ronin” and “American Hustle” left me cold or confused, there were parts that I enjoyed about both them. 

I wish “47 Ronin” opened with a narration saying it was based on true events, because that would be have watching certain struggles of the Ronin against hordes of samurai much more impressive. I thought it was a good-looking fantasy with some neat designs, but then it pulled the “this film was based on true events” card which changed my whole outlook of the film.

As I mentioned, “American Hustle” did well with scenes near the beginning involving Bale and Adams, but also was nearly flawless at replicating the look and feel of the 1970s. This film did not once feel like any other period in time and it was greatly appreciated. 

Still, the clear winner this time around was “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” with its almost satirical look at the lust for power and how far some men will take it. DiCaprio gives it his all in this performance, often screaming at the top of his lungs, and it really does look like he is enjoying every second of it. He is a joy to see whenever he is on screen. 

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