Trailer: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Official)

Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike followed-up his 2010 critically-acclaimed jidaigeki film 13 Assassins with another foray into classical Japanese filmmaking with his reimagining of the 1962 classic by Masaki Kobayashi. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is not a straight out and out remake of the Kobayashi classic, but Miike’s film follow similar ideas and themes.

Miike’s latest first premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and is just now making it’s way to North America. The film is now available for viewing On Demand with Tribeca Film as it’s North American distributor. There’s one caveat about seeing the film On Demand and that’s not being able to see it how Miike filmed it and that’s in 3D which made it the first to make such a premiere at Cannes.

Here’s to hoping this film make’s it’s way into the late film festivals in Northern California so I get a chance to see it on the big-screen. Barring that I don’t mind watching it in the comfort of my new condo in 1080p HD.

Arleigh’s 13 Favorite Films of 2011

2011 was a year that wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination. From January right up to December there were not many films which I would consider event films. This is surprising considering all the superhero blockbusters which arrived during the summer and the final film in the Harry Potter film franchise. Even the prestige films which came out during the holidays never truly captured everyone’s imagination (though one film was very close to achieving it due to one Michael Fassbender).

What 2011 did have was a solid slate of titles which ranged from the pulpy to the cerebral. We even got films which were able to combine the two to come up with something very special. Not every film resonated with everyone and some even split audiences down the extreme middle with half hating it and the other half loving it.

The list below catalogs the films which I consider my favorites of 2011. Some titles on this list I consider some of the best of 2011 while some didn’t make that particular list but were entertaining enough for me to make this favorite list. Once again, the list is not ranked from top to bottom, but only numbered to keep things organized….

  1. Shame (dir. by Steve McQueen) – This character-driven film starring Michael Fassbender and Cary Mulligan was one of those film which got close to becoming the one film everyone ended up talking about as the year wound down. It’s an exercise in minimalist filmmaking as Steve McQueen doesn’t allow too much dialogue to get in the way of telling the visual story of sex-addict Brandon and his downward spiral from addiction to self-hate. Much have been said of how much Fassbender’s penis in full display was a reason why people flocked to see this little existential film, but I rather thought that was probably just a bonus for some and instead it was Fassbender’s uncompromising performance in the role of Brandon which made Shame one of my favorites for 2011.
  2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. by Rupert Wyatt) – this film was one which didn’t garner too much high-anticipation from genre fans leading up to it’s release. People had been burned by Tim Burton’s reboot of the franchise and saw this second attempt to reboot the series as a failure in the making. So, it was to o everyone’s surprise that Rupert Wyatt’s film managed to not just bring new life to a stagnating franchise but do so in such a way that it became one of the best films of 2011. Sure, there was some flaws in how the human character were written, but in the end it was the performance-capture work by Andy Serkis and the digital wizardry of WETA Digital which made Rise of the Planet of the Apes not just a wonderful and fun film this past summer, but also one which laid the groundwork for more stories in what is a franchise reborn with fresh blood and life.
  3. I Saw the Devil (dir. by Kim Ji-woon) – this little revenge thriller from South Korea was one which I happened to catch just before it left the theaters this part spring. It had played in one of the few arthouse theaters in the Bay Area that hadn’t closed down. I was glad to have seen this film on the big screen instead of on Netflix Instant the way most have seen it. It’s a brutal cat-and-mouse story of a South Korean secret agent who stalks and hunts the serial killer (played by Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik) who kidnapped and brutally murdered his fiancee. The film is not for the timid and weak of stomach as we see through the eyes of not just Agent Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hun) but that of serial killer Kyung-chul the dark corners of South Korea where hunter has become prey and vice versa.  South Korea has always been good for one great film that I feel personally attached to and for 2011 it was this film.
  4. Cave of the Forgotten Dreams (dir. by Werner Herzog) – I don’t think I could ever make a year’s favorite list of any year that had a Herzog release and not have it as a favorite of mine for the year. It happens that Herzog had two films come out in 2011 and both of them excellent documentaries. It would be his earlier documentary for 2011 that became a favorite of mine. It also happened to be his first (and according to him the only time) foray into 3D-filmmaking. Herzog makes great use of 3D filmmaking’s added epth of field to make the cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave come to life. If this was going to be Herzog’s only film shot in 3D then he made one for the ages and it’s a travesty that those who vote for documentaries to be nominated for the Academy Awards failed to even list this film.
  5. Attack the Block (dir. by Joe Cornish) – this scifi-action film from the UK became the darling for genre fans everywhere. It had everything which bigger-budgeted films of the same stripe failed to accomplish. It was fun, thrilling and, most important of all, had characters which the audience would get to know and care for. John Boyega as the gang leader and, ultimately, the reluctant savior of the block which has become under siege by an alien force is just one of the highlights of the film which boasts one of the best screenplays of 2011. Joe Cornish joins the likes of Neill Blomkamp as a filmmaker whose first feature-length film hits on all cylinders.
  6. Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. by Joe Johnston) – this film was to be the last leg of the Marvel Films before 2012’s highly-anticipated The Avengers film. It introduced the film’s title character and his origins for those not familiar with the name Captain America. This film could easily have been a throwaway one. A film to set-up this year’s The Avengers. Instead what we got was one of the most fun blockbusters in the summer of 2011. Joe Johnston goes back to his Rocketeer days and creates an action film that’s full of genuine nostalgia but not burdened by it. Any doubts fans might have had of Chris Evans in the role as Captain America had them wiped clean with his pitch-perfect performance as the title character. The film also had one of the most romantic relationships on-screen in quite awhile with Evan’s Steve Rogers and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter.
  7. Drive (dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn) – In my opinion, Refn’s existential take on the pulp genre with Drive is also one of the best films of 2011, if not the best of them all. Refn, with Ryan Gosling in the role of  the Driver, has created a film that mashes up so many different genres and does it so well that it’s hard to be sympathetic to those who felt they were misled by the fim’s trailer that it would be a nonstop action film similar to Fast Five. The film is not an action film, but a film which just happens to have some action in it. Action that comes sudden and brutal and none of the whiz-bangs other action films rely heavily on. It’s another film where Refn explores duality of the male persona. It helps Refn’s film that Gosling is so great as the Driver that the film never slows down too much before things revs up once more. The rest of the ensemble cast also does stand-out work with Albert Brooks as an aging, cynical Hollywood gangster leading the pack.
  8. Fast Five (dir. by Justin Lin) – Speaking of Fast Five…this was a film that surprised me in so many ways. It’s the fifth installment in a series that seemed to have evolved from being an action series whose main goal was to highlight the street-racing community and the ridiculous lengths people in it would go to in order to trick out their cars. This latest installment in the franchise has put the street-racing aspect of the series on the back burner and instead has remade the franchise into an action-heist series that just happens to have fast cars in it. This film was loud, fast and fun and despite some major leaps in logic in the storyline it never stopped being entertaining. It also brought back Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in an action film role that he had stopped doing these past five or so years.
  9. Hanna (dir. by Tom Hooper) – If someone had come to me and said that little Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones, Atonement) would turn out to be kickass action-hero directed by a British filmmaker not known for action films then I would dismiss such a thing as crazy talk. But crazy talk it wasn’t and all that came to pass with Tom Hopper’s excellent modern fairy tale in Hanna. Ronan as the title character was asuch a find in a role that didn’t just need for her to act like the little lost babe in the woods, but to also turn on a dime and kick ass with the best of action heroes past. It helped that everyone else around her were up to the task of supporting her performance whether it was Eric Bana in the role father (huntsman in fable lore) to Cate Blanchett as the cold-hearted CIA chief (evil queen) whose connection to Hanna drives the film’s narrative from beginning to end.
  10. Kung Fu Panda 2 (dir. by Jennifer Yuh Nelson) – in a year where Pixar had one of it’s rare misses (Cars 2 really was awful and such a blatant cash grab for the studio) it was there for the taking for top animated film of the year for everyone else to fight over. There was Rango and there was The Adventures of TinTin, but my favorite animated film of 2011 has to be Kung Fu Panda 2. It continues to adventures of the Dragon Warrior and panda kung master Po and his compatriots, the Furious Five. With the first film having done with him becoming the Dragon Warrior, this sequel was free to explore more aspects of Po’s life and personality such as his true origins and the tragic circumstances which led him to be adopted by his noddle-making goose of a father. The film is much darker than the previous one with it’s storyline exploring such themes as genocide and the destructive march of technology over nature’s harmony. It also had one of the best villains to come out in 2011 with Gary Oldman as the evil peacock, Lord Shen. Plus, it had scenes of Po as a baby Panda…A BABY PANDA.
  11. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (dir. by Tomas Alfredson) – a feature-length film remake of the BBC miniseries of the same name (adapted from a John LeCarre novel), this spy thriller/procedural was Tomas Alfredson’s follow-up to his coming-of-age vampire film, Let the Right One In. Once again he has taken a well-worn genre and infused it with his own unique style of storytelling which valued characters and how they all interacted with each other over action and thrilling sequences. With a cast that’s a who’s who of British cinema the film was able to condense many hours of the miniseries into just a couple and still not lose the complex and layered plot involving political intrigue and betrayal. This film also had one of the best performances by any male actor for 2011 with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley. With Fassbender being passed over and not nominated for Best Actor for the upcoming Academy Awards I would be very perturbed if anyone else other than Oldman took home the statue.
  12. Kill List (dir. by Ben Wheatley) – I’m not well-versed on the work by Ben Wheatley so I saw this film on the recommendation of many whose opinions I trust when it comes to genre films. To say that I was thoroughly surprised by just how well this filmed turned out would be an understatement. Kill List is one of those films which turns so many horror and thriller conventions right on its head, but do so to serve the film’s narrative instead of a filmmaker trying to show his/her audience just how clever they can be. The film moves at a gradual pace that leads to a surprising ending that has split audiences down the middle. Some have loved the ending and other have hated it. I, for one, thought the ending was the only way the film could end. This was a film that was able to balance the different aspects of what makes a thriller and what makes a horror film. The moment when the film transitions from the former to the latter was so seamless that it takes several viewings to find just where it occurred. The best horror film of 2011, bar none.
  13. 13 Assassins (dir. by Miike Takashi) – many will be saying that I’m cheating with this final entry since the film was released in 2010. I would agree with them, but then again this film wasn’t released in the US until early 2011 so in my own honest opinion it qualifies as a 2011 film. This latest from Japan’s eclectic and prolific filmmaker, Miike Takashi, is his own take on the Japanese jidaigeki and a remake of the 1963 film of the same name. If there was ever a best action film of 2011 then this film would be it. Miike would pull back from his more over-the-top visuals (though he still manages to insert some very disturbing imagery early on in the film) for a much more linear and traditional action filmmaking. It’s a men-on-a-mission film that pits the 13 assassins of the title against 200 or more bodyguards of a sadistic lord who must be killed for the sake of the country. The first 45 minutes or so of the film shows the film gathering the assassins and planning their ambush. It’s that final hour or so of the film with it’s nonstop action which qualified this film not just one of my favorite for 2011, but that year’s best action film. No other film could even get to it’s level.

Honorable Mentions: Warrior, Super 8, Batman: Year One, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, Sucker Punch, A Dangerous Method, The Adventures of TinTin, The Skin I Live In, Bunraku, The Guard, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Hugo, Tyrannosaur, Thor, The Interrupters, X-Men: First Class, Contagion, Battle: Los Angeles, Project Nim

Review: 13 Assassins (dir. by Miike Takashi)

“…being a samurai is a burden.” – Shimada Shinzaemon

Miike Takashi (Takashi Miike to those in the West) has always been one of my favorite filmmakers and I consider him one of the most unique directors working. To say that he has an extensive body of work would be an understatement. This is a man who is quite at home at releasing 2-3 films a year. He has dabbled in all sorts of genres from drama, thrillers, horror, scifi, musicals and even children’s stories. Those who discovered him in the West mostly remember him for his more extreme films such as Audition, Ichi the Killer and his Dead or Alive epic. He’s taken extreme film-making to some unpredictable plac. While some of his films never work one could never say that they were ever boring or uninteresting.

In 2010, Miike released what I can only say is one of his best films to date with his remake of Tengan Daisuke’s 1963 film of the same name. 13 Assassins is Miike’s take on the classic jidaigeki (Japanese Edo period pieces…think of it as similar in idea to Merchant-Ivory period pieces) which incudes such great films as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Yojimbo to name a few. This film also shares some similarities to the “men on a mission” war films which were quite popular during the early 60’s which included one of my other top action films in The Dirty Dozen.

The film is loosely based on some historical characters from the Tokugawa Shogunate era mainly that of Lord Naritsugu of the Akashi clan. In this film he’s portrayed as a sadistic young noble whose familial ties to the ruling Shogun allows him to kill and rape both commoners and nobles alike with impunity. When a high government official fears for the government and the country should Naritsugo ever ascends to a higher position in the Shogunate he takes it upon himself to hire a trusted friend and veteran samurai, Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho), to plan and pull off the assassination of Lord Naritsugo.

From this moment on the film takes it’s time in introducing the men who would form the film’s title. It doesn’t linger or take too long with each man, but we learn enough of these 13 assassins to form some sort of attachment to each and everyone that the loss of each man, once the battle begins between Shinzaemon’s assassins and Naritsugu’s 200 bodyguards, has emotional impact and meaning. Even knowing that this mission ultimately becomes a suicide task still doesn’t stop the surprise when one of these men falls to the blades of their enemies.

The assassins themselves were quite a diverse group of characters that could’ve been lifted off your typical “men on a mission” film. We have the goofballs with the talent for explosives, younger samurai eager to prove themselves in battle and to their masters, veteran samurai looking to do one more last job before they retire from the life right up to the last-minute addition of a fool whose unique skill sets becomes integral to the missions success.

13 Assassins begins the final 45 minutes of its running time with a non-stop battle which rivals anything we’ve seen put out by Hollywood in the past ten years. Unlike the sturm und drang actionfests from Michael Bay and those who seem to emulate his style of action film-making, Miike takes a much more restrained approach to the proceedings. This is not to say that the action in this film was boring. He allows the audience to know exactly what’s going on with long takes and minimal amount of edits. I don’t think he ever used too many quick cuts to help simulate chaos during the fight. Instead he lets the practical stunt choreography and the inventive set design of the village turned killing field to dictate the flow of the action. It’s quite interesting to note how a filmmaker such as Miike whose reputation in the West has been built on his style of extreme visuals and imagery on film would be quite adept at such a thing as traditional filmmaking that eschews heavy-usage of CGI, quick-cut editing and unnecessary montages to help propel not just the action but the film’s narrative.

Again, unlike the Bay-fest the West has been flooded with the last decade or so this film also has as one of it’s strength’s the story all the action revolves around. The story itself is quite simple when one really boils it down to it’s most basic premise. Evil lord sows chaos around the countryside and a group of honor-bound fighting men band together for one reason or another to stop this evil. It’s a story as old as Beowulf and as recent as 2010’s trio of such films with The Losers, The A-Team and the Expendables. What this film does with it’s characters which helps it stand out from that trio is how well Miike was able to balance not just the action with the story but how to make each character in the film seem unique despite being so stereotypical of such films at first glance.

The acting by the ensemble cast (a who’s-who of performers in Japanese, but mostly unknown to Western audiences) adds just the right mix of melancholy and dark humor not to mention some rock star-like work from it’s lead antagonist. Gorô Inagaki (himself not just a talented actor but one of Japan’s more popular pop star singers) as Lord Naritsugu brings energy as the evil lord to every scene he’s in not because of being so over-the-top but the opposite. He plays this villain as a noble bored with the peaceful days enjoyed by everyone and could only enjoy what life has to offer when he brings chaos to the proceedings. The fact that this involves him raping the women of a fellow noble and cutting off the limbs of a nameless young girl just shows how much out of touch he is with reality and at the same time romanticizes the age of war hundreds of years in the past. The rest of the cast does an admirable job in their own roles. To say that it was difficult to see one of them die on-screen would be an understatement.

13 Assassins was released in 2010, but really got it’s major showing in the United States in early 2011. Despite all of that and with the eclectic group of films I was fortunate enough to have seen in 2011 that made my “best of” list it would be this film that ranks as one of the best of 2011 and also one of my favorite films of recent times. Miike Takashi has shown himself to be now just a filmmaker provocateur whose reputation for shocking audiences have bee well-earned, but also cemented the true fact that he is a filmmaker (both in and out of Hollywood) who has the skills and know-how to escape being labeled as only a filmmaker of a particular genre. His restraint and decision to remake a classic film in the jidaigeki genre shows that while he hasn’t lost his panache for extreme brutality (and this film has them to satiate action and gore fans everywhere) he can also create a film using the subtle brushstrokes of traditional, old-school filmmaking. With this film he has made one of finest and cements his place in the roll call of best filmmakers of the last quarter-century.

Quickie Review: Visitor Q (dir. by Miike Takashi)

This 2001 film by Takashi Miike has to count as one of the most peculiarly disturbing films I have ever seen. Takashi Miike has been called the Japanese Quentin Tarantino, but that is an understatement. While Tarantino has made a career out of showing violence in his films, but hyperstylizes them that at times they seem to be exploitive. Miike doesn’t go for subtlety in how he approaches violence and sex in his films which marks him as a much more dangerous filmmaker than Tarantino could ever hope to be.

Visitor Q
(Bizita Q in Japan) is Miike’s take on the nature of violence and sex that has permeated the media with a nod towards reality TV. This film was especially revelant since it was filmed and first shown in Japan. This is a nation and culture that blames the West for its decadence and immorality when at the same time its entertainment industry churns out anime, manga and films that put Western entertainment to shame, i.e. tentacles and more tentacles and, when all else fails, more tentacles.

The plot is simple and straightforward. A failed former TV reporter tries to provide for his family by filming a documentary concerning the effects of violence and sex on the youth of today. The rest of the film from there ends up showing this father’s dysfunctional family involved in heavy drug abuse, their indifference to violence around them, incest, necrophilia, and a few other things I don’t even know the name for.

Bizita Q is a film that Marquis De Sade would have found very close to his libertine heart and ideals. But despite the disturbing images and sequences in this film, Miike does make a good point about the subject of sex and violence in the media and its effect on youth and just people in general. After awhile, those I was watching the film with stopped turning their face from the screen and began watching the film without flinching. This is a film that is definitely not for everybody, but if you are brave enough and have the stomach for it, Miike’s film is a good study in gross excess and surrealism in film. He straddles between fine art and extreme exploitation, and after the first few minutes falls on the latter, revels and doesn’t apologize.

Miike definitely is not Japan’s Tarantino, but he’s definitely much closer to being Japan’s own Pasolini.

Review: Ichi the Killer (dir. Miike Takashi)

Filmmaking in Japan has always been one of extremes in storytelling and technique. A country whose cultural and artistic history includes the vibrant and impressionistic stylings of Noh theater was bound to influence it’s filmmakers throughout it’s film history. One such filmmaker who has made a career at showing off his own brand of impressionistic and extreme film styles is the eclectic and mad genius Miike Takashi.

It’s difficult to try and find a Western comparison to Miike as he has jumped from genre to genre while sticking to no one particular. One year he would make a traditional horror film while the next he’ll make a gangster flick reminiscent of 60’s Peckinpah and 70’s Scorsese. He’s even done film musicals, westerns, fantasy and thrillers. To watch Miike’s work is to always be prepared for the unexpected and the extreme. One such film which fully shows Miike at his most extreme, unrestrained and controversial is his 2001 adaptation of a Japanese manga (Japanese comic book). Ichi the Killer (aka Koroshiya 1 in Japan) is a tour-de-force of excessive violence that outdoes even the gialli masters like Argento, Fulci, Lenzi and Bava. Miike’s use of violence in this adaptation puts it in the realm of nightmare surrealism that’s still to be surpassed and only matched in artistry by another auteur of film violence: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

The film at it’s most basic core is a tale of a vigilante, the titular character, and his opposite number, the equally dangerous and sadistic Yakuza enforcer, Kakihara. Ichi the Killer makes some changes from the original manga source, but keeps the convering two storylines of Ichi and Kakihara as they both wreak havoc on the Yakuza underworld of Tokyo until their bloodstained path intersects and the two finally confront each other on a Tokyo rooftop. To try and explain the rest of what Ichi the Killer was all about would be an exercise in futility. While the manga keeps the story pretty simple and easy to follow, in the hands of Miike the story took on a hallucinatory bent.

Storytelling has never been Miike’s strong suit. Only in Audition has his penchant for stylistic scene arrangement and directions been subdued enough to allow for a straightforward story. Miike shares alot in common with Dario Argento in creating dream-like (some would say nightmarish) sequences of images to propel a story from one violent encounter to the next. Throughout Ichi the Killer whatever semblance of a plot — one of revenge and depravity — gets heavy doses of moments where the story takes on the surreal. The ending in of itself really adds to the surrealistic tone of the film.

The characters in the film are very developed despite the over-the-top nature of the film. Every character in the film seem to have an inherent predilection to cause violence and pain. From the prostitutes to the children, violence and pain are the common denominator that everyone shares in this film. Of particular note is the character of Kakihara, the sadistic Yakuza killer who goes on a spree of torture and killing to find the person or persons who killed his mob boss. His “Glasgow Smile” predates Heath Ledger’s Joker smile by a good 6-7 years. Where the character of Ichi (played with an almost bi-polar quality by Nao Omori) takes on an almost superheroish role, Kakihara is a character study in the nature of sadomasochism at its most extreme. By film’s end Kakihara seems to be more of the hero of the film than Ichi. Kakihara’s enjoyment at inflicting pain and receiving it wa made more compelling by the performance of Tadanobu Asano. He gives a chilling and intriguing performance that’s infused with the rockstar-worship mentality that some Japanese action-stars are known for. Before Capt. Jack Sparrow, Asano’s Kakihara took the rockstar persona to new genre heights.

To say more about the film is really irrelevent since it’ll just be to point out that Miike’s film is ultra-violent. I must say that Ichi the Killer continues Miike’s visual commentary on the nature of violence and how despite its distasteful nature people will try to experience it to sate their personal curiosity. Ichi the Killer doesn’t so much as desensitize the audience to violence but shows them that we all have the capacity for infliciting and having it inflicted on us. Just watching the film could count as being both. The film is really not for a majority of the filmwatching community, but rest assured more people will have seen this film not because they’re fans of this type of film, but because they were curious.

The violence comes quick and lingers. This film is definitely not for everyone, but just like a carwreck many will be tempted to check it out just to see what everyone has been talking about. To call the violence in this film excessive is an understatement. Blood flows in this film in almost the same amount as those in Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive. And just like in Jackson’s ode to Romero, Miike’s use of violence is cartoonish to the point that I expected Itchy and Scratchy and Tom and Jerry to make an apperance. The term arterial spray takes on a new meaning with Ichi the Killer and people who have seen Tarantino’s Kill Bill can see where his inspiration for the Tea House sequence came from. The film is definitely not for everyone and bound to be the cause of much heated debates from those who actually see it. In the end, Ichi the Killer will entertain and repulse in equal measure as, I honestly think, Miike intended the film to do.