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Old School Review: “Ran” (1985)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Ran” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set during Japan’s medieval era in which an elder Japanese warlord seeks peace by dividing his kingdom among his three grown sons. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) awakens from a vision after a hunt with his three sons and subordinate clan representatives, to which he decrees his own abdication from the throne. Stunned by the announcement, Hidetora’s three sons each react differently. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest garbed in yellow, is set to be given the first castle while Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) in red, and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) in blue, are to be given the second and third castles in order of age and support Taro as the head of the Ichimonji clan. Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, while Jiro seeks it, and Saburo rejects the whole plan as one destined for failure. For his subversive outburst, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo, and Tango (Masayuki Yui) the lord’s adviser, when he openly supports Saburo’s frankness.

I’ve been working through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography lately, and recently the Criterion Channel (The collection’s streaming service) added the legendary filmmaker’s late-in-career masterpiece to their ranks, and I figured I’d give it a shot. Knowing nothing about the film except that it was an adaption of “King Lear” proved to be a bountiful fortune going into the near three hour film. Of the seven, or so, films of Kurosawa’s that I have seen, this may be my favorite of the bunch so far- and that’s saying something with “Ikiru”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo/Sanjuro” in that bunch! In doing some (very) light research before writing this review, I was surprised to find that Akira Kurosawa had trouble securing funding for this film for roughly a decade before it was finally released. Apparently Kurosawa had been going through a period akin to (but nowhere near as creatively apocalyptic) what Orson Welles went through after making “Citizen Kane”. After teaming with a French producer in Serge Silberman, the film found it’s foundation, and began winding towards one of the most engaging epics set within medieval Japan.

Having acquired most of his kingdom through brutal and ruthless tactics, this story is almost entirely about the consequences of Lord Hidetora’s actions and the ripple effect throughout his family as a result. After Saburo’s (and Tango’s) banishment things quickly go downhill for Lord Hidetora. As he moves into the smaller keep of the first castle he finds that Taro is being manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), into usurping Lord Hidetora after the transition of power to control the whole Ichimonji clan. Considering this an affront and needlessly offensive, Lord Hidetora takes leave of the first castle and heads to Jiro at the second Castle. There he finds himself to be more of a pawn in Jiro’s scheming than anything else. Broken by the betrayal of his sons, Lord Hidetora wanders off with his mercenaries and his fool Kyoami (Pîtâ) with no clear direction. Eventually Tango reappears with provisions to help the wandering party, but when he tells them of Taro’s new decree ‘to kill anyone found helping his father‘, they make a last ditch effort to take Saburo’s castle and fortify themselves there. Saburo’s men happen to be leaving as the group arrives anyways, and it isn’t long before both elder sons come to siege the castle and usurp their father from power through death or submission.

The rest of the film plays out like a season of ‘Game of Thrones’. The siege of the third castle in particular is brutal and impeccably staged. Kurosawa’s use of extras as the armies of Taro and Jiro clash with their father’s skilled warriors is beautifully organized. The chaos and bloodshed feel epic all while Lord Hidetora’s mind is blended, madness ensuing from the shock of all that has come from his abdication of power. The layers of history and karma striking back at the Ichimonji clan from within are glorious and well designed. I won’t divulge all of the details of the plot here, but its just so damn good! The way the story keeps digging at Hidetora’s past and forcing guilt and shame upon him for all that he has done is exemplary- just when you think it can’t get worse, it does! I found everything about this film to be just magnificent. From the score to the pacing, to the scheming and manipulative power moves, and revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan were just perfect in execution!

Seriously, if you enjoy film- this is one of the all time greats and I highly encourage anyone and everyone to give this film a shot. I can’t give this film enough praise, and I honestly need another rewatch to fully indulge in all of the film’s nuances and complexities. It may be a long watch, but it’s more than worth the two hours and forty-two minute runtime.

Final Score: Three sons and countless regrets

*Below is a link to Roger Ebert’s review of “ran” and a video essay by the “Every frame a painting” YouTube channel discussing Akira Kurosawa’s use of movement in his films. Both are simply great and give more depth to the film at hand, enjoy!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985

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Movie Pitch: DOOM (REBOOT)

Way back in 2005 there was an adaption of the infamous video game property DOOM starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban. That film ended up being a commercial and critical failure earning only a paltry 56 million (worldwide total) on a 60 million budget. The major problem with the film, in my opinion, was that it diverted from the simplistic and satisfying nature that made the games so fun. Instead the story placed the focus on a search and rescue mission wherein a squad of space marines are sent to Mars and discover that the monsters of the film are actually scientific aberrations created by infecting the humans of the Martian site with a Martian chromosome synthesized from the bones of a long forgotten genetically advanced race. What? Where are the demons from Hell? The film gave more questions in the end than answers, and it wasn’t paying homage to the true spirit of the games at all. Now, if I were given the opportunity to draft a reboot of the property I’d follow the basic blueprints from the recent video game update in 2016.

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The basic plot of the story is that in the future we humans became entrenched in an energy crisis, so, the solution that we came up with was to build a technical facility on Mars that houses a portal to Hell where we siphon the dark energy from the demon realm to charge our i-phones. Eventually acolytes or otherwise corrupted individuals,  such as Olivia Pierce, make a pact with the demon realm for power and unleash the demons onto the Mars facility halting the energy production for Earth. The DOOMSLAYER, or main character, is reawakened by Dr. Samuel Hayden (the facility director on Mars that now inhabits an android after his human brain was lost to a deadly cancer) as a last ditch effort to stave off the demonic invasion.

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After being awoken, the DOOMSLAYER (the caps make it more fun!) goes on a violent journey serving up bone crunching and head splitting action until he travels to Hell and severs the connection between worlds. It’s a fast paced and gory affair with heavy metal accompanying the glorious melding of science fiction and fantasy in this revamping of the video game property and I think this new iteration could be translated into a supremely entertaining action/sci-fi/fantasy film. The three main points of focus here should be similar to the game in it’s momentum, horrifying character designs for the demons, and the absolutely gruesome displays of violence. This would definitely be a hard-R rating, but with movies like “Logan” and “Deadpool” out there earning accolades and cases of cold hard cash,  this proves that there’s an appetite for over-the-top violence when done right.

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As far as casting is concerned, I have four characters that I believe the story hinges on, and four actors that seem particularly appropriate for the requirements of such an adaption. Firstly I’d pursue Tom Hardy for our hero in the DOOMSLAYER (still fun, every time). He’s proven in recent performances like “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Dark Knight Rises”, and “Dunkirk” that he can act particularly well with a lack of dialogue, but he’s also especially great at conveying personality and attitude through actions like in “Fury Road”, and the DOOMSLAYER requires a certain amount of attitude through characterization.

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As for Dr. Samuel Hayden I would cast James Spader in the motion capture and voice over role as the mechanical genius overseeing the facility long after his body had rotted away. Up until the writing of this article I had assumed that it actually was James Spader doing the voice over in the video game reboot, he sounds exactly like Spader’s rendition of Marvel Comic-book villain Ultron. That role was actually from Darin De Paul, but I say bring on Spader, the android doctor had a dry sarcasm embedded in his performance that would be perfect for the character actor to play off of without entirely riffing his Ultron performance, they are definitely two different characters with different motivations and intentions.

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As for the ultimate villain of the story, Olivia Pierce, I would cast either Tilda Swinton (who would be fascinating in this role-though I doubt she would take it on), or Elizabeth Debicki. Both actresses have the look of the villain down, plus I feel they could both give some extra characterization to a villain that does have motivations behind her actions, but they are slightly cardboard-thin in the game. We can give slight altercations to improve such things through the acting, but still I believe both women would pull excellent performances out of an over-the-top adaption such as this.

 

This last role isn’t one that was in the game or the earlier film adaption, but instead of doling out weapons upgrades to the DOOMSLAYER through another A.I. type character like the recent video game reboot did-I would create a sort of comic relief character that would function as this role. I would cast Charlie Day in this role. As a facility worker that hid from the demonic invasion, you could have Day play the role of the scared but capable engineer that has secret knowledge of the weapons division. He could pop in and out of the story communicating to the DOOMSLAYER and providing support by pointing out where things like the chainsaw, rocket launcher, or say the B.F.G. are hidden. He could also support in the closing of the portal to hell at the end of the film, severing the connection between the realms. The DOOMSLAYER could choose to stay in hell? Or we could have Dr. Hayden take matters into his own robot hands by transporting the crucible (magical blade used to kill Olivia Pierce in the game) back to Mars to research for energy creating purposes, but not the DOOMSLAYER. There’s a lot we could do with the ending, but nonetheless, I think having a comedic relief character portrayed by Charlie Day could be a benefit to the film’s entertainment value.

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The last major choice I would pursue with this adaption would be to secure the writer-director team behind the “John Wick” movies, Chad Stahelski, David Leitch and Derek Kolstad. I believe the style and fast paced nature of what they’ve accomplished with “John Wick” and its sequel proves that they know how to direct action-not just well, but creatively. They’ve shown that they know how to build mythology effectively, and provide flare and personality through the action on the screen. If they can transfer their slick gunplay action to the realm of the DOOMSLAYER, they’d benefit greatly from this material.

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Combine all of these elements and I believe we’d have a hit on our hands. The market and box office numbers in the last few years have proven that the fantastical and the hyper violent can be a boon both creatively and financially. With committed talent and a stripped down bare bones idea of DOOM in place, I’m pretty sure we’d have an entertaining and profitable movie to put in theaters. I know I’d want to watch this!

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Movie-Pitch: Adaption of “Ex-Heroes”

*Just a quick note, I’m dropping the “Monday” portion of these Movie-Pitch posts because, well to be fairly honest, sometimes I miss the Mondays, and I’d like to entertain the idea of quality movie pitches, and that doesn’t always happen on a clean schedule. I will continue to post as often as possible though, so thanks for reading, and enjoy!*

Do you like vicious blood spilling Zombies? How about bombastic super heroics? Then I have quite the Movie Pitch for you today. FULL DISCLAIMER though, I have not read the book I’m about to pitch to you reader, but the premise alone seems like an enjoyable romp. In 2010 Peter Clines authored a book called “Ex-Heroes” a zombie apocalypse tale set in a world inhabited by superheroes. After looking into the story of the book I found that it essentially reads like a summer blockbuster produced by JJ Abrams, not a bad thing, but only if he had the skills and urges of a seventeen year old. It seems that there is an adventure/horror tale in here that could be an excellent film adaption, it just needs the right talent behind it.

This is precisely why I think Alex Garland should helm this piece if its ever greenlit. Garland wrote the screenplay for “28 days later”, produced the new “Dredd” film, worked on the screenplay for Neill Blomkamp’s “Halo” movie when that was happening, and he wrote and directed this year’s excellent sci-fi film “Ex-Machina”. Obviously he knows good storytelling in a genre specific world. It seems the book might have missed some opportunities to tell a more nuanced story involving the human experience in all of this, which is understandable, with so much pop and excess being tossed around that’s a lot to juggle, especially without throwing in any existential dilemmas.

The characters need some work as well, if dozens upon dozens of reader reviews are worth their salt. They’re essentially all common caricatures of superhero lore. The boy scout, the elusive sex symbol, the anti-hero bad boy, the every-man teenager that developed powers, a lot of expected swaths of the superhero world. That is part of the allure though, putting these well known archetypes into a horror infused zombie setting is compelling, they just need fleshing out. Apparently there’s quite the lack of diversity as well, not only in the heroes, but in the characterization of other races. One threat that the heroes have to deal with is an all Hispanic L.A.gang that wants the weapons and ammunition that the heroes have stockpiled. I’m just saying, you can’t have the only representation of these heroes be all white and only have the threatening characters, and the situations they create, be purely people of color. That’s just bad juju and totally unrealistic too. Even blockbusters should work to reflect the world we all live in.

The book is told in past and present sections unfolding how everything came to be, which could work in film. Slicing the timeline like this is, in my opinion, a great story tool for this particular situation as it gives a bit of mystery to the whole question of “Wait, how did this happen?” This also allows for retconning characters backstories if need be. As I have not read the book yet, and I intend to eventually, I don’t have any specific casting choices, I have actors I’d like to see in this sort of movie, but I also don’t want to simply throw big name talent at the wall to see if anything sticks a la “Fantastic Four” either. (Forgive me because I am about to throw big name talent at the wall and see if anything sticks) The names Daniel Radcliffe, Elijah Wood, Brad Pitt, Anthony Mackie, Michael B. Jordan (I know, I know, FF and all, but he’s a damn good actor), Joseph Gordon-levitt, and Oscar Issac, come to mind. All could be fine choices, but I need to take the time to really know the source material first. There’s also the women involved as well. Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Famke Janssen, Charlize Theron, maybe even Emma Watson, or Emilia clarke too. I know, I’m not really focusing in or narrowing down on the performances, but I do believe there’s a world where these actresses, and previously mentioned actors, improve the quality of this story and elevate it above the state of the content to create a supremely fun genre piece. As long as there is an overall point to be made with this story, I think it has the potential to be something more than the promise of the premise alone. And that might be worth the effort.

That’s my movie pitch for this week! Thanks for reading!