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Monthly Archives: June 2011

That is right the co-founder of JPFmovies DT comes in from out of the cold and looks at 13 Assassins (the 2010 version) Or Vigilante Justice—Samurai Style.

The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white Japanese film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku and is based on a true story.  The film opens up with a bang as a nobleman commits seppuku to make an appeal to the Shogun (it sure must have been an important appeal) because the younger brother of the current Shogun (the equivalent of a prince) is roaming the country committing atrocities against his own people.

The Shogun’s administration goes to any length to cover up the prince’s behavior to prevent embarrassing the Shogun and his lineage.  But the prince goes too far, he rapes a young lady while staying at an inn and when his deed is discovered by her newlywed husband, the prince kills him and out of shame she kills herself.  To make matters worse, to protect himself from any revenge and against direct orders from the Shogun, the prince murders all of the victims’ relatives—including women and children—save one, a women whose limbs were cut off and tongue taken out that the prince left alive as a “toy.” The senior advisor to the Shogun shows a friend of his (who was also victimized by the prince) what is left of the prince’s handiwork and gives his tacit behind the scenes directive to kill this maniac.

 

The samurai begins his mission by recruiting ten men from his own clan to volunteer for what looks like a suicide mission and even convinces his lay about nephew to join the cause (so we are at 11 assassins at this point).  After assembling these 11 warriors from within, he hires one ronin for 200 ryo (the currency at that time) and in a rather ballsy move goes to meet with his former classmate who is in charge of protecting the sadistic prince and in a roundabout way says they will soon meet on the road under combat conditions.

 

The band of assassins begins preparing themselves to carry out their mission.  They know that the prince is in transit to his home province and realize that their only chance to kill him is before the prince makes it to his castle.  While the prince’s procession is en route, they try to take a different road through the territory of another clan, but the procession is stopped at the border and told to turn around because the lord controlling the province will not have anything to do with the prince and his procession. 

 

So the procession is forced to take the conventional route which passes through a village the assassins had engineered to maximize their chances of killing the sadistic prince.  On the way to the village, the samurai get lost and come across a mountain man trapped in a tree.  They free the trapped man because they find out the man has been tied up simply for hitting on his lords wife.  To thank the samurai the mountain man offers to be their guide and get them back to the village.  Once they arrive at the village the mountain man expresses his distaste for samurais and their arrogance as well as their adherence to some abstract outdated code.  The procession begins to arrive shortly after the tongue lashing and the samurai tells the mountain man that this is not his fight and he is free to go.  The mountain man retorts that the samurai are not god’s gifts to warfare and that he is going to stay and fight to show them a thing or two by using his sling and rocks.  Because they have no time to argue, the mountain man becomes the thirteenth assassin.

 

As the battle begins the prince’s soldiers begin to die left and right, but the odds are still against the assassins as it is thirteen against 200 and they make a tactical mistake by not fully utilizing their own defenses and start to fight hand to hand before they need to.  Just watching these guys get through obstacle after obstacle to get to the prince is exciting but exhausting.  Eventually, two assassins corner the prince and kill him.  Then the mountain man (who has a short sword stuck shear through his throat) shows up and the remaining three of the 13 left leave the scene.

Back at the ranch, word of the prince’s death reaches the castle.  The administration needs to save face so they put out the official story explaining that the prince died of an illness rather than being killed by vigilantes.

Over all I think the movie kicks ass and is an all-around excellent film.  The movie not only has great martial arts action, but the story engages you to the point of making you wanting to revolt with the 13 assassins as well.  On a different level, the film relays problems of the samurai way of life, showing the huge self-imposed burdens samurais carry on their shoulders and does a very good job of depicting the amoral aspects of the samurai code.  For instance, the prince’s protector always justifies and rationalizes his conduct by saying it is not his place to question but only to obey.  The movie shows how the samurai fall because there is no room for that way of life in the modern age—because the samurai used words like honor and duty to defend the indefensible, their way of life needed to come to a close.  The irony really hits home at the end when the slacker nephew is told by his dying uncle to drop the way of the sword and seek a new way of life.  The mountain man asks the nephew what he is going to do and the nephew replies that he will become a bandit and take a boat to America. 

 

This movie also distinguishes its self because in today’s typical Hollywood film all of the loose ends would have been tied nice and neatly with the good guys winning over the evil prince and everyone goes home happy.  13 Assassins, however, does not leave you with the typical good triumphed over evil feeling.  Instead, it is more of a tragedy because all of the truly righteous samurai have died during the mission while the amoral (even corrupt) samurai depicted by the nephew survives drops the way of the sword and wants to become a bandit outside of homeland Japan.  I think the final line of the movie was brief but powerful with lots of layers that comment on the state of Japanese society.  What may look like on its face as a simple samurai ninja movie is actually a complex commentary on the inevitable changes in Japanese whether they be for better or worse.   

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Ever hear of a castle named after a bird? JPFmovies Looks at Owl’s Castle (1999)

Based on the 1999 novel by Shiba Ryotaro and directed by Shinoda Masahiro the same year, Owl’s Castle is thoroughly tangled in actual Japanese history and a terrific depiction of the politics of the times.  One of the great features of this movie is that it was shot on site at many of the original locations in Osaka and Nara. Owl’s Castle attempts to recreate the politically tumultuous times following the Sengoku Era during which the entire nation was engaged in civil war.  Traditionally three key figures are credited with resolving that anarchy and inching Japan along the path of political unification that would last about 300 years from 1568 until Japan finally opened itself up to the West in the Meiji Era circa 1868.  The three figures were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (ruled 1584-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).

 

Aspiring to the appointment of Shogun by the Emperor, Oda Nobunaga skillfully crushed many of the most powerful daimyos (military families – of which there were about 200 at the beginning of the Sengoku period), resulting in a gradual establishment of a working yet risky unified stability.  Following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, his top general Hideyoshi, though holding the lesser title of regent (kwampaku) rather than Shogun, established himself as the de-facto military leader and immediately set out to further solidify the remaining daimyos under a national government.  In the ruthless pursuit of complete military domination of the country Hideyoshi violently conquered any remaining groups he believed to be unfriendly.  In 1577, having overcome all his national enemies, Hideyoshi amassed a huge army of 200,000 and set out by ship from Kyushu to attempt a conquest of China via Korea.  When the King of Korea refused to allow Hideyoshi’s troops to pass through the country toward China, Hideyoshi fought his way as far north as Rakuro (PyongYang, North Korea). Through gradual realizations of the difficulties in logistics and their potentially being outnumbered by the Chinese, Hideyoshi’s ambitious vision was at last discarded at his death in 1598.

 

Owl’s Castle is set during the height of Hideyoshi’s rule and tells the tale of an assassination attempt by a surviving member of the Iga Clan, one of the groups vanquished by Hideyoshi.  The assassination plot ultimately involves infiltrating the immense and (thought to be) impenetrable fortress built by Hideyoshi, nicknamed Owl’s Castle.  Hideyoshi had built a monstrosity of a castle during the years 1583-1585, modeled after Nobunaga’s mammoth Adzuchi Castle (the ruins can still be visited in Shiga prefecture).  But Owl’s Castle was much grander than Adzuchi, Hideyoshi built a massive edifice using enormous granite blocks surrounded by deep moats and steep embankments.  The castle is known (in real life) as Osaka Castle. It remains to this very day and is considered the grandest and most elaborate castle in Japan.  The infiltration of this castle (and the ensuing escape) marks the dramatic climax of the narrative.

 

The plot itself involves a survivor of the formidable ninja school located in Iga Province (modern day Nara prefecture) which Hideyoshi cruelly slaughtered (including women and children) out of fear of their skill and growing influence.  The locations and regions conquered are historically accurate, making this film a dramatic exploration of the otherwise heralded campaign by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring order to the nation.

 

Most of the film is shot in wide panoramic cinematography, using the actual historical locations in both Nara and Osaka.  Thus we are in for an illustrated history lesson which includes all the major figures, maps, castle interiors, and social life and trends of the time—that is why I am going through the history so much.  For this reason alone you should watch this film.  In addition, however, Owl’s Castle boasts an amazing cast of popular talent, most of whom have plenty of experience in similar productions. The narrative itself, running at 138 minutes, is chock full of character studies and plot-relevant relationships and rivalries. There is also plenty of action ranging from military conquests to hand-to-hand ninja battles upon massive rooftops.  When put all together, along with the aid of an effective soundtrack, this film does deliver what it promises to Japanese audiences: a thoroughly engrossing tale enmeshed in the history and politics of one of Japan’s most formative and memorable periods.

 

Now on to the story itself.  After 10 years of seclusion hiding in an abandoned temple, the formidable ninja Juzo (Nakai Kichii) is called back into action to assassinate the nation’s leading military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Juzo watched his own mother and sister die horribly during Hideyoshi’s brutal conquest of Iga (Nara), which left only a handful of survivors.  The mission will require him to return to Osaka and infiltrate the new castle which Hideyoshi built for himself. Only a ninja of unparalleled skill will be able to scale and penetrate the formidable defenses Hideyoshi resides in.

 

During his mission, Juzo encounters a number of the survivors of the Iga massacre.  They, like him, live anonymously in lowly positions, but are eager to aid Juzo once they realize his mission. All, that is, except Gohei, another well-trained ninja of the Iga school whose allegiance now lies with Hideyoshi and whose aims involve attaining a high-ranking samurai position within the Hideyoshi faction.  The capture or death of Juzo during such an attempt on Hideyoshi’s life would provide the opportunity needed for Gohei to attain this coveted position.

 

Even during the governmental stability established by Hideyoshi, political turmoil and plotting continued making trust and alliances difficult for Juzo.  So he must not only survive the complexities of the political environment, but also develop and carry out a plausible scheme to fulfill the assassination.

 

In my opinion this is a thoroughly entertaining film filled with historical tidbits and is heavy on dialogue (which is not a bad thing).  The degree of dialogue, however, is also matched with highly detailed panoramic scenes of landscapes, architecture and the bustle of 16th century life in Japan.  The polished film visually presents you with top-notch scenes and historical re-enactments. Because it is complex and intricate, this storyline is far from boring while action permeates the film from first to last scene.

 

Anyone interested in Japanese history or jidaieki (history-based films) will enjoy this film and not be disappointed.  The film also presents a much more realistic vision of the ninja instead of the superhuman image seen too often in films, making it enjoyable by martial art and samurai fans as well.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law–Watch it even if you don’t like it it is only 12 minutes wasted.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law features ex-superhero Harvey T. Birdman of Birdman and the Galaxy Trio as a second rate attorney working for a law firm alongside other cartoon stars from the various 1960’s and 1970’s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series.  Harvey’s clients are also characters taken from the Hanna-Barbera series of the same era.  Many of Birdman’s nemeses featured that were featured in the original cartoon series are also often opposing counsel throughout the various cases. 

 

Harvey usually fills the role of a criminal defense attorney, though he will act as a civil litigator or other such job when the plot calls for it.  The series uses a surrealist style of comedy, featuring characters, objects, and jokes that are briefly introduced and rarely (if ever) referenced thereafter.  Also, because the series relies heavily on pop culture references to classic television animation, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law constantly delves into parody, even featuring clips of these series or specially-created scenes which mimic the distinctive style of the animation being referenced.  Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law is the first Williams Street cartoon to maintain continuity through the entire series.  Various episodes reference Harvey’s (or another superhero’s) former crime fighting career.

 

Instead of rigid plot structure, much of the humor is derived from the fact that superheroes and super villains are realistic and have human qualities, such as a mad scientist named Dr. Myron Reducto, who is a paranoid prosecutor obsessed with shrinking people with his ray gun.  Also, several of the plots revolve around the popular myths about classic Hanna-Barbera characters, such as Shaggy and Scooby-Doo being stoners.

 

The episodes are only 12 minutes each and are packed with absurd jokes and satire which makes the time fly by.  The show adds a layer of humor by reminding us of how the old cartoons used to be.  The comedy is great on so many levels that anyone can watch an episode and simply laugh the whole time.

In addition to the great writing, the voice cast is surprisingly famous.  Gary Cole (Bill Lunberg from Office Space “if you could just.  …  that would be great”) is the voice of Birdman and plays opposite Stephen Colbert (“The Daily Show”) who is Birdman’s utterly insane boss, Phil Ken Sebben.

Volume One has arguably the best episodes of the entire run including the Bannon Custody Battle—where Dr. Benton Quest and Race Bannon are portrayed as gay and fight for custody of Jonny Quest and his Indian sidekick—totally outrageous.  Shaggy and Scooby get busted for evading the police and possession of marijuana and Booboo is accused of being the Unabomber and that is just for a starters.  There is even an episode “Turner Classic Birdman” is even hosted by none other than Robert Osborn—host of the real Turner Classic Movies.  The clips are of entire episodes of the show so enjoy.

Adult Swim (which aired Birdman) has one hell of a creative staff.  Watch Birdman, even if you don’t like it, it is only a 12 minute investment of your time.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Point and Counterpoint: Bonnie’s The Divine Weapon Redux

In case anyone ever wakes you up out of a sound sleep at 4 a.m. and demands that you write a movie review right then and there (a purely hypothetical situation of course), you could not have a better subject than The Divine Weapon. This movie approaches what I will think of forevermore as the Red Cliff standard. While it does not offer nearly as many brilliant martial arts scenes as Red Cliff, it makes up for it in rich character development and historical education (don’t worry, the educational aspect of the film is completely painless).

If you had to guess which weapon is considered “divine,” what would you choose? The sword? The spear? The staff? Nunjakus? Some sort of gun? All these choices would be wrong – in this case it is the Singijeon, the Korean version of the Chinese fire arrow, an early automatic weapon that fires arrows with tips that explode a few seconds after impact. I found an image of this weapon, which hopefully JPFMovies can attach below—or you can see another image, very similar to this one, at the original JPFMovies review of this film, which was appallingly titled, “The Divine Weapon – Not a Bad Flick.” (https://jpfmovies.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/the-divine-weapon-not-a-bad-flick/)

At the stage picked up by The Divine Weapon, the Singijeon is almost complete – but its inventor deliberately blows himself up and leaves the remaining research to his daughter, a very strong woman who is determined to make this weapon for her country, Korea’s Joseon kingdom. She succeeds, of course, and with her help a badly outnumbered Korean army defeats China’s Ming forces as they attempt to take over Joseon. To help her along the way, she has a merchant and his clan (she fights with the merchant, who is played by a famous Korean actor whose name I am having trouble verifying, but eventually they fall in love), the court official who ensures that she has a secret place to hide and work (at the home of the merchant), and a group of monks who help to gather the salt peter which is a necessary ingredient in gunpowder (and if you’ve ever read a story of American pioneers making gunpowder, this process may enlighten you as to the mysteries involved in that process!).

I suppose I should tell you that the best thing about this movie is that it explains the development of the Singijeon and shows exactly what went into making gunpowder and testing the new weapon. But, while those things do contribute quite a bit toward making this movie compelling and fascinating, what makes it sweet is the love story. For that alone, this movie deserves a rose.

So take that, JPFMovies. “Not a bad flick,” indeed.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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The General (1926)–By Guest Reviewer Silver E.

The General (1926)

Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn

Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton

Expectations: High, I’ve seen this multiple times over the years.

4 stars

Buster Keaton’s The General is one of the most well-known and highly regarded films of the silent era. It stands to reason why I, a self-respecting student of film, should love this film, but I did not come upon this movie in some Film History course or happen upon it in a video store for greats from film’s past. No, I found The General, and Buster Keaton, through other means all together. It was all because of Jackie Chan.

In 1996, Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx saw a wide US release. It was a milestone for Jackie, finally getting one of his incredible Hong Kong films into US cinemas. I was fourteen at the time and couldn’t believe my eyes. I had never witnessed anything quite like it and I quickly became a huge fan, devouring every new film as soon as it was released. What drew me into his films was his wonderful sense of physical comedy and his dedication to performing all these wild, outlandish stunts himself. At some point, and I don’t remember how, I found out that the Chan style I had come to love was actually building and honoring the legend of a silent film star known as Buster Keaton. My obsessive mind could not sit still until I had investigated this for myself! The General was the first work of Keaton’s I saw and it left an immediate impact. This can easily be seen as the genesis of my ever-deepening love of classic films, although many seeds had been sown throughout my youth before this point.

In any case, The General hit me like a freight train carrying a ton of bricks. A movie from 1926 has no business being this enjoyable, I thought. I was stunned. From that point forward, there was no turning back for me. I was a true film lover. I’ve seen The General numerous times since and loved it just as much every time. So when JP told me I won the Oscar contest, I scoured my wishlists for something unexpected, something fitting, something that I would get a lot of enjoyment out of and I decided on The General. I hadn’t seen it in at least five years, so it seemed like a good time to revisit as well.

I can honestly say that The General still holds up. It’s a true masterpiece of Keaton’s filmography and of silent film in general. The story concerns railroad engineer Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) who has two loves, his engine (The General) and his girlfriend. When the Civil War breaks out he tries to enlist but is turned down. His girlfriend shuns him and says she doesn’t care to see him until he’s in uniform. Poor Buster. Northern spies steal the General (and Buster’s girlfriend along with it) and Buster can’t let that go unchecked, so he hops into another engine and the chase begins! Obviously the story here isn’t as developed and nuanced as some modern films, but those films have the benefits of sound and eighty years of film conventions to fall back on. The General has neither and yet will continue to be well-regarded as far as the eye can see.

Some may ask why this is. How can a silent film made eighty-four years ago still be entertaining? The only logical answer is Buster Keaton himself. His charismatic on-screen presence and his wonderful comic timing inform every aspect of the filmmaking process, taking a beautifully shot film into the stratosphere. His acting is spot-on for what you’d want in a silent comedy and everyone else in the production does a great job as well. To call The General a “silent comedy” though, is something of a misnomer. At first glance it is more of a prototype action film, featuring a number of high-tension chase sequences involving a couple of trains. The chase in and of itself was nothing new to the silent comedy though, in fact they were key to Keaton’s (and many others) success in short films. It is important to note though that this was before the days of scale models and what we consider special FX, so when you see two trains chasing each other, it’s actually two trains chasing each other. There is a power to watching this reality that cannot be duplicated in the modern action film. With The General, Keaton completely deconstructs the silent comedy and then builds it back up into an action/comedy hybrid… just like Jackie Chan would do with action films sixty years later.

That all being said, I think I finally get why Chaplin is regarded as the better filmmaker. As much as I love Keaton and The General, Chaplin’s best works such as The Kid or Modern Times have a resonant dramatic core that is only hinted at in The General. This doesn’t settle the age-old Chaplin vs. Keaton argument though, as each comedian and filmmaker sought to portray differing viewpoints on life. Where Chaplin’s films are more focused on the small moments, Keaton’s are more exaggerated and outwardly funny. The two giants sought to stimulate different sections of the mind. Both succeeded handily, but tonight’s viewing of The General ultimately showed me that Chaplin’s films generally come out on top for a reason, as much as it pains me to say it.

If you’ve never seen Buster Keaton in action, or perhaps if you’ve never seen a silent film at all, The General is a fantastic place to jump on board. Keaton’s comedic timing, coupled with beautiful cinematography and a genuine Civil War feel create a masterful film that stands the test of time. Highly recommended.

 

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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