Saturday, November 18, 2017

Movie Reviews: Blade of the Immortal, Downsized

Blade of the Immortal
directed by Takashi Miike
When I watch these stylized samurai action films either in their original Japanese form like this one or in the American homages like Kill Bill, I always wonder why doesn't anyone wear armor. It's probably because as an arrogant and somewhat loony character in a Joe Abercrombie novel disdainfully stated "Armor is part of a state of mind in which you admit the possibility of being hit." And all of these warriors, assassins and magicians are convinced that their awe-inspiring skills preclude anyone wounding or killing them. Most of them are wrong of course. The real reason that armor is often non-existent or non-functional in these movies is so we can watch the blood sprays when arteries are severed and internal organs are pierced by cold unyielding steel. And this movie is all about the violence. It is a true vision of bloody mindedness. Obviously if violence is not something you care to watch then this movie isn't for you. It is based on a manga.

The storyline suffers a little bit from the brute force overemphasis. Blade of the Immortal only occasionally displays the dramatic tension and release which is essential to really good revenge themes, whether played straight like Man on Fire, Kill Bill, True Grit, The Hound demanding chickens in Game of Thrones, or deconstructed in films such as Gran Torino or Unforgiven. This movie lacks the emotional center that normally animates such films. It's very rare in this movie that there's a sense of impending bloodshed and the apprehension that accompanies it.

This is because the bloodshed almost never stops. This can work in some action movies (see both Raid films) but is a little off here. The story is set in feudal Japan during a time where there are increasing pressures to centralize control and authority. The days of independent feuding samurai and their lords will be coming to an end. 50 years before the current events an outlaw samurai named Manji (Takuya Kimura) faces off against a group of rogues and bandits. They treacherously kill his little sister. Manji opens hell on them. He kills them all but is mortally wounded while doing so.  A mysterious witch appears, and for reasons of her own gives Manji "blood worms" which heal his wounds and reattach severed limbs. Short of near utter body destruction Manji can't die. Manji must wander the land righting wrongs until he has expiated his sin. Maybe. Well as Tolkien wrote in his works, mortal man is supposed to die. Death is actually a gift to humans, not a curse or something that we should fear. Fifty years of magically extended life have left Manji in a very bad mood to say the least. He desperately craves death but can't find it. Immortality is not the gift. It's more of a curse than anything else.


Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) is the tall soft spoken androgynous leader of a group of warriors . He intends to subsume all the martial arts/weapons training schools in Japan under one group, his own. You can get down or you can lay down. Despite his slight figure and almost feminine face Anotsu is a deadly warrior and killer. He prefers the axe over the sword, something which traditionalists find disgusting. He kills another dojo instructor who will not submit to him. Anotsu orders the other students killed. He allows the instructor's wife to be raped and later killed. However Anotsu will not countenance the rape or murder of the instructor's daughter Rin (Hana Sugisaki). The underage Rin has plans to become a deadly killer herself but for now she needs to find someone to take revenge for her. So it's a good thing she runs into Manji. Manji doesn't really like Rin, finding her annoying and naive. But she does have an uncanny resemblance to his long dead little sister, which makes sense as the same actress played both roles. And aren't little sisters supposed to be annoying and naive? Despite everything Manji finds himself drawn to protect Rin and help her achieve her revenge.

This movie is a little under two and a half-hours. I thought it was a little long. The color palette and cinematography are striking and enjoyable. The movie deftly reveals more secrets and motivations to complicate Rin's quest for revenge. It also brings in more killers of note, most memorably a beautiful woman whose deadly skill with spear and poleaxe is unhindered by platform heels and high slit dresses (Erika Toda), another immortal who's chosen a different moral path than Manji, and a brutish man who collects the heads of those he's killed. This is a striking movie which is begging to be remade and set in the American postbellum South or Old West. As in most of these movies, neither the hero nor the top bad guy is  ever worried about being outnumbered by 200 to 1. Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!!
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Downsized
directed by Rhonda Baraka
This is a made for television movie which unusually for today's market tells the story of a black family without going over the top in ghetto stereotypes. IIRC there was no overbearing obese matriarch. No one cross dressed. And there weren't endless jokes about unpleasant body functions. Strange I know. Films like these are always interesting to me because regardless of whether or not they are well written or entertaining they show what films look like when people tell their own story instead of (a) playing to mainstream stereotypes or (b) having someone else write the story. This film was thoroughly predictable but I didn't mind that all that much if only because it's so rare to see black people in these sorts of roles. It also starred a real life husband and wife couple so there appeared to be more comfort between the actors. 
Michael (Boris Kodjoe) and Ebony (Nicole Ari Parker) are successful yuppies or buppies if you like who are coming up on 25 years of marriage. They have wealth, income and four kids together. Unfortunately sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. They were high school sweethearts who only got married in the first place because Michael got Ebony pregnant. The early marriage caused both people to have to mature a lot sooner than they otherwise would have. Husband and wife have been wondering for the longest time if 25 years of being together can make up for a shotgun marriage. I mean when you get married that young don't you have regrets about what you missed? Sure they have success now but what about what could have been.


Each spouse feels that their choice was unfairly constrained. Can you really love someone if you got married under parental and social duress? Both Michael and Ebony have decided, mostly but not always amicably, that it's time to call it a day and go their separate ways. They agree that their oldest daughter's impending graduation from law school is a proper point to divorce.

But Michael has a change of heart. He thinks that despite everything that he still loves his wife. He wants the family to stay together. Michael is willing to lay everything on the line to convince Ebony that he loves her and still wants to be with her. So he takes everyone on a month long vacation back to the first home Ebony and he had. He wants to work out all the kinks and problems in the husband-wife relationship and the mother-child and father-child relationships. No video games, no internet, no cell phones, just people honestly talking and interacting with each other without distractions. Ebony isn't thrilled with this stunt. Ebony's mind is made up. Ebony thinks that there is no reason to draw out the inevitable. Ebony is not interested in tugs on her heartstrings or hail mary passes. Ebony has known Michael for almost her entire life; she knows every single play he's going to run. No bonus points for guessing how this movie turns out. Both actors are very attractive people so I think that people will like looking at this film for that reason alone if nothing else. Although the film has a few comedic moments it's not really a comedy so much as it is a feelgood drama.
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