Saturday, February 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteen Assassins' (1963)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's been quite a while since I wrote about Takashi Miike's 2010 remake of the 1963 samurai movie The Thirteen Assassins, and I don't remember a lot of details about it, other than that it ended with a massive, incredibly violent action scene that took up essentially the entire third act. The original follows the same structure, although director Eiichi Kudo doesn't have Miike's penchant for extreme violence (not that it would have been acceptable in a movie from this era anyway). The first half of the movie is more of a slow historical drama than an action movie, and there really isn't any fighting until the last half-hour, when the titular team of samurais stages an elaborate ambush in a remote village.

Their target is a powerful, arrogant feudal lord who raped and killed one of his subjects while he was a guest in her husband's home, and then killed the husband, too. The complicated process of authorizing his assassination, and the various political alliances that come into play, takes up most of the first hour, and it's a bit pokey and hard to follow. Even with helpful onscreen explanations of some of the terms used in feudal Japan (a pleasantly surprising addition to the subtitles), I still had trouble figuring out how the various characters and domains related to each other. As with the remake, I also ended up having a tough time telling most of the assassins apart, with their nearly identical outfits and hairdos.

Still, the stuff about honor and obligation is interesting as an examination of the historical period, and the attention to detail and methodical plotting give the movie a sense of realism by the time it finally gets to all the sword-fighting. Kudo doesn't have the same nihilistic worldview as Miike, and this movie's fight, while bloody and deadly, isn't the kind of over-the-top gory massacre that Miike presented in his remake. The deaths are more about honor and respect than about random cruelty, and the characters live by their strict moral code to the very end, even when that code requires them to kill people they respect. The callous, self-centered lord who set the plot in motion is the only person in the movie who behaves dishonorably, and the ripple effect of his actions leads many more respectable (but less powerful) men to their dooms. For Miike, that's evidence of the harshness of the world, but for Kudo, the fact that that these men would come together and give their lives to right a wrong that none of them directly experienced or witnessed is a kind of validation of human decency.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


The good news about Freeheld is that the true-life situation it depicts—lesbian police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), dying from cancer, unable to pass her pension along to Stacie (Ellen Page), her longtime domestic partner—should no longer be a concern thanks to the legalization of gay marriage. The bad news is that Laurel and Stacie’s legacy is being honored with such flat, uninspired drama, a movie-of-the-week-level narrative that does little service to the difficult fight they fought. Moore and Page (also one of the film’s producers) stumble awkwardly through Laurel and Stacie’s early courtship, and the movie also clumsily introduces Laurel’s law-enforcement skills with a barely developed subplot about a murder investigation.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner move things along briskly, so that Laurel goes from having a pain in her side to a doctor’s visit to late-stage cancer within a handful of scenes. Moore and Page bring out the heartfelt emotions in the story, but the movie frustratingly loses focus on them in the second half, as both Laurel’s police-force partner (Michael Shannon) and a flamboyant gay-rights activist (Steve Carell) spend time arguing with the local government (known as freeholders) on her behalf. A story about a lesbian couple fighting for their rights shifts to a story about various men deciding their fate. Both the movie and the men in Laurel’s life are well-intentioned, but both seem to be ultimately missing what’s important about her struggle.

Available on DVD/Blu-ray today.