Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Every few years, Woody Allen reminds us that he's not just prolific but also that he's a genius. He's not a genius because he can make us laugh or think; no, he's brilliant because he very often can do both in equal measure, and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which recently opened the Cannes Film Festival is easily Allen's finest film since MATCH POINT and his funniest since 2004's MELINDA AND MELINDA. Some reviewers may choose to reveal a major plot element of this film, but many aren't, and I won't either because to walk into this film knowing as little as possible is the best way to see it.
The basic overview involves engaged couple Gil and Inez (Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams) vacationing in Paris. Gil is a novelist who makes most of his money doing script doctoring, but what he'd really love to do is move to Paris and write his next novel. He longs for Paris circa the 1920s, when many of his literary and artistic heroes all gathered in the City of Lights to work, bounced ideas off of each other, drank, and jumped from bed to bed. And while his wife to be, her friends and her parents all shop, visit museums and try out the trendier places to eat, Gil is content to walk the Paris streets at night and get lost, all the while imagining how much better life would be.
One night Gil actually does get lost as the clocks strike midnight, and an unfamiliar car pulls up to meet him. Without giving away too much, during the course of his adventures that and subsequent nights, he meets the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who has many famous friends and lovers (played by the likes of Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, THOR's Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, and Corey Stoll) to whom she is happy to introduce Gil. These meetings inspire Gil to put the final touches on his novel in progress, but beyond that, his relationship with Adriana makes him all-too aware of the loss of connection he has with Inez, who is spending a great deal of time with a pompous former professor (a very funny Michael Sheen), also vacationing in Paris.
Further complicating things, Gil meets another Parisian, Gabriele (Lea Seydoux of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), who he seems to have even more in common with than his muse, Adriana. The French first lady (singer and former model), Carla Bruni, appears in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS as a tour guide, too. The film is about many things, but above all, it seems to drive home the point that nostalgia is a dangerous and sometimes silly thing, and that just because you have chosen to romanticize a particular era or place doesn't mean the people who lived there thought it was so swell at the time.
As great as Sheen, McAdams, Cotillard, and so many of the other actors are in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the real surprise for me was seeing how much Wilson's rhythms and mannerisms resembled Woody Allen's, and he manages to make this happen with very little adjustment to the type of performance he has given in any other movie. It's beyond refreshing to be reminded that there's a quality actor buried under the laid-back persona that Wilson has hidden behind for so many years. And his reactions to all of the remarkable things that happen to him on his late-night adventures are note perfect, and we're right there with him. Again, without ruining any of the special qualities of the plot, I did want to mention that my favorite moment in the film involves Gil pitching a movie idea to a young filmmaker. You'll know the scene when you see it. I also had a great deal of fun watching a bearded Michael Sheen play such a complete and total ass. Actors don't often get to sink their teeth in roles with this little srceen time, but he bites deep and the results are a scream.
Almost without fail, when you read the cast list of whatever the next Woody Allen movie is, you are stunned at the caliber of the talent and the potential these great actors have together (for example, his next work reunites him with Penelope Cruz and includes Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, and Allen himself). Sometimes, what looks good on paper works; other times, it doesn't. I'm ecstatic to report that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is one of the great modern Allen works, one that works on every level as both a romantic comedy and a metaphor for the dangers of living in the past. You may not get all of the jokes and references if you don't have a college degree, but there's still plenty here to laugh with and appreciate. Best release of the week, without a doubt.
I've kind of lost track of what the beyond-prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (AUDITION, VISTIOR Q, ICHI THE KILLER, ONE MISSED CALL) has been up to in recent years. I used to see 2-4 films by him a year, but my avenues of seeing his latest works at reasonable prices have dried up in recent years to the point where the last new film of his I saw was 2007's genre-mashing Sukiyaki Western Django. But I'm happy to discover and report that Miike is back with one of the finest works of his career, 13 ASSASSINS, a mixture of blood-and-guts samurai fare mixed with a thoughtful take on the end of a once-glorious era in Japanese history.
Set in 1844, the film establishes that well-connected Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) as a real bastard, who rapes, pillages and systematically murders seemingly because not to do so would be boring. He's a right and proper sociopath, and he's in line to become leader of a good portion of Japan. The era is also significant because it stood on the eve of the samurai warrior tradition. While there was a time when samurai protected their masters with their very lives, at this time samurais were scattered to the wind without leadership or even a reason to live. When once of the nation's last remaining uncorrupted government officials convinces samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) that he should protect Japan's future by assassinating Naritsugu, the aging warrior decides it will be possibly his last honorable act.
The film is a fairly faithful retelling of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 classic THE THIRTEEN ASSASSINS, but naturally Miike's take on things focuses on the Naritsugu's truly brutal actions and the rivers of blood that flow in the film's final 45 minutes. But there's a great sadness that runs through this work that feels like a mourning for a time of respect and honor. Shinzaemon travels the countryside recruiting other roaming samurai for his mission, which eventually leads them to a small village that they take over and turn into a bloody funhouse that resembles the nastiest game of Mousetrap that you've ever seen, pitting 13 men against an army of a couple hundred, all committed to keeping Naritsugu out of harm's way.
Miike is a master of chaos, but 13 ASSASSINS proves he can also make certain that his elaborate battles are choreographed in such a way that they're relatively easy to follow. He spares us nothing in this bloody conflict as limbs go flying in every direction and blood saturates everything. I've been a big fan of Koji Yakusho in such works as BABEL, THE EEL, TOKYO SONATA, and the original SHALL WE DANCE, but it's great to see him with rage in his eyes. These are not men that were dragged to this confrontation kicking and screaming; they are happy to be in the role as political assassins because it reminds them of a time when they felt useful, appreciated and powerful. I don't believe this could have been made 10 or 15 years ago; this is the work of a mature director that understands pacing, building tension and the importance of developing strong characters. And if you can handle the extreme violence, expect a magnificent film with extraordinary performances framed in a bloody, muddy spectacle.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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