47 Ronin [mild spoilers]: follows a group of disgraced samurai as they set out to avenge their murdered master. As it’s a Hollywood film it obviously contains every single ‘western portrayal of Asia’ pitfall imaginable – everyone speaking ‘Engrish’, exotic mystique, ninjas/samurai everywhere, forbidden gaijin romance, cherry blossom, western warrior, kanji writing, tradition, tradition, tradition… Because of this – and given the foul reviews this received – I was expecting something woeful, but this is pleasantly surprising. The visuals are fantastic: it is a touch over-styalised – some parts feel like Sucker Punch set in feudal Japan – but the costumes, textures, sets, CGI backgrounds are all eye-poppingly sumptuous: it’s up there with The Fall’s immaculate design. Story-wise, other than a few swashbuckling & sword fighting action set pieces, this is definitely more of a drama than you expect: the story arcs are all fairly standard until the ‘happy’ ending – a mass samurai suicide instead of a mass criminal hanging – yay! The biggest complaint you hear about this is that it’s nothing like the original story: WTF?! This is a blockbuster movie… and there are so many fictionalized accounts of this tale that there’s a specific entire genre term for it – Chūshingura! The weirdest thing about 47 Ronin is that it plays to two wildly different audiences – it’s half respectful and traditional samurai movie; and half Game of Thrones style middle-earth mayhem (battles, questing, magic & mythology). Overall, it’s an interesting, and beautiful, oddity that could have been great, but is by no means a terrible movie.
American Sniper [Spoilers]: follows the life of America’s deadliest sniper from childhood hunting and adolescent rodeos through four tours (+1,000 days) in the Iraq war. Unsurprisingly, this film boasts typical Eastwood directing hallmarks; it’s taut, oppressive, fairly downbeat, and contains superfluous racism; told with no-frills direction or distractions from the story, which is heavily centered around emotions and individuals. The one thing that’s most problematic – at least to foreign audiences – is the cheesy portrayal of Kyle’s blindly patriotic all-Americanism, and although it’s not a particularly glamorous account, the film feels like a glorified highlight reel of a war and sniping ‘legend’. Even the ending – after showing Chris Kyle graphically kill dozens of men, women, and children, and mention 100s more – the film couldn’t even show his fate, at the other end of the barrel. The biggest reason to watch this is Bradley Cooper’s magnetic performance, showing the highs and lows of being a famous/infamous killing machine. All things considered, American Sniper comes out as somewhat mediocre; it tries to show a fresh – personal – perspective of the effects of war, but uses the full range of war film clichés like the worried wife, absent father, soon-to-be-married guy getting his shit ruined, and a crow-barred-in big action finale; which is poorly shot and difficult to follow. If you have the time to spare something like Generation Kill (which this references at least a couple of times) is a far more effective, balanced and entertaining way of seeing America’s role in the Iraq war.
Game of Thrones (Season 1): several noble families with royal ties feud over the right to rule all seven kingdoms in a medieval-ish fantasy epic. One year prior, Spartacus was balls deep in rumpy–pumpy and graphic violence, which felt like it was pushing boundaries; then someone in HBO said had said: “lets take Spartacus as a starting point, then add as much over the top sensational stuff as you can. 3, 2, 1… GO GO GO!” GoT is loaded with full frontal nudity (sausages, chuffs, and udders), blood, gore, prostitutes, lesbians, and as much offensive language as censors allow; not to mention the taboos like breastfeeding and incest being pretty major plot points. Whilst these add to the show’s notoriety, it detracts from the Rome-like inter-weaving political storylines; continually reminding you that it’s actually being pitched at teenage boys. Other than the odd stinker (Arya Stark!!) the cast are generally decent; although different characters giving their roles different levity levels – from scenery chewing (King) to borderline comedic (Bronn). Peter Dinklage is the one actor that really sticks out from the vast ensemble – impressing and entertaining with his larger than life character. Due to the number of characters, families, locations and concurrent plots there’s a lot of dialogue-heavy slapdash whistle-stop history & exposition lectures between characters – some hit the mark better than others, but most are required. While there’s one big “Holy Shit” moment, Season One feels like a 10-hour teaser – promising better things to come; introducing white walkers (zombie-ish creatures), dragons, teeing up a war – but blatantly not following any of it through to anywhere near conclusion.
Danger 5 (Season 2): the team of global super spies are re-united, this time in the 1980s, to stop another of Hitler’s quests for world domination. It’s soon apparent that this is – paradoxically – undeniably Danger 5, but also quite different to the previous season. The writers tampered with the cocktail recipe a little too much; Pierre has totally changed for no explained reason, another lead was swapped out for a ridiculous brat-character, most of the established running jokes dropped, and 80s throwback has been done to death lately – giving it a less cool / kitsch feel than the 1960s format. On the other hand the show manages to remain funny, wacky, surreal, psychedelic, and a celebration of satire (there’s an episode called “Back to the Führer” – come on!). I hate using the word ‘random’, but the ‘randomness’, madness and surrealism of the gags is the main thing that raises Danger 5 and sets it apart from the mediocrity that you expect of most modern comedies. All of the changes add up to fewer laughs per episode, but despite this Danger 5 Season 2 is still a great show, that is equally bonkers – but has a significantly different look and feel.
The Hunted: the FBI turn to a master survivalist/tracker to hunt down one of his former star pupils, who has since become a rogue special forces operative. Tommy Lee Jones is guilty of a little overacting, although he does spend most of the runtime poking, touching and staring at his surroundings for clues – so I guess he’s making up for that. Del Toro does his tried and tested stone cold killer routine, but with such dialogue-light characters neither feels properly developed. The underlying issue being that you should really be giving guys of this caliber deeper, more rounded characters to play with. The film’s cut well for the action scenes, with a few standout heavy-handed, bloody fights – however there are a few moments where Del Toro feels more like a bogeyman than a human. The film’s full of good locations, good story, good leads – but it somehow fails to fully engage or grip you. Biggest flaw is the lack of mood music, when it appears it’s very low volume, and makes the film feel flat, and vacuous. Director William Friedkin could have got away with spending less on big stars for empty roles, and more for big music over flat scenes. The Hunted starts off with a bang, but loses focus and audience by about the half-way mark, relying on big, macho action to keep interest up.