13 Assasins (2010)

Dir. Takashi Miike, 121 minutes, Japanese with English subtitles

Nicole and I rode the bus up to the Music Box to see 13 Assassins which if nothing else has ensured that I can now correctly spell ‘assassins’ on the first attempt.

Miike, who is famous in these parts for directing Audition (2000) (which I still haven’t seen) brings together a story about a band of conspiratory samurai at the end of the feudal era in Japan. Led by aging samurai master Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), their mission is to decapitate local feudal lord Naritsugo (Gorô Inagaki) who is a demented torturer and rapist and wants to destroy the fragile peace that holds the shogunates together.

Sad to say, my knowledge of feudal Japan consists of playing a board game called Shogun with my brothers in grade school and watching the utterly terrible The Last Samurai (2003), which as I recall was about the industrial revolution era and only referenced the olden days of samurai and shoguns. I seem to recall a very cool Japanese television series that was about feudal Japan that I used to watch in high school on a public access channel, but I only caught it occasionally and never really understood what was going on.

Hence, jumping right into a film like this made me feel I was missing out on a lot, including various Bushido references and master/servant relationships. Added to that was the fact that this film has a lot of characters. Of the thirteen assassins, most of them have back stories, but some of those back stories are presented in quick, one line summaries. Overall though, the pervasive theme is that each of them wants a clean, honorable death in battle and not to wither away and die without glory.

The film is violent, but not excessively gory. Much of the sounds and facial expressions tell the story of pain and suffering, even during the most shocking of visuals. You can’t ask for much more in tasteful violence from a story whose first scene is a ritual disembowelment.

The final battle sequence lasts for well over half an hour, and involves, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a series of “structured vignettes” in which each fighter gets his chance of taking on impossible odds. The plan against the shogunate lord is to turn a whole village into a boobytrapped “town of death” in order to compensate for the extreme mismatch (200 body guards versus 13 assassins). In terms of comparable western films, I can regrettably only think of The Thirteenth Warrior, which is not nearly as good; maybe it’s just that they both have thirteen in the title…

The martial arts action mostly involves swordplay and multiple beheadings, but is easy to follow and within the realm of the real, or as real as it gets when one guy fights a circle of thirty or so warriors around him. Notably absent are any women who do anything of consequence, but I’ll chalk that one up to the time period (if this had been a western film, there probably would have been a wisecracking Amazonian warrior who beats up a chauvinistic chump in act one). It’s nice to have a departure from the traditional summer action fare. If you have the time, I would recommend taking the trip out to the Music Box to check it out. On Mondays, shows are only $5, so I’m sure I’ll be back at some point over the summer!


Harsh Times (2005)

DIr. David Ayer, 116 min., Netfilx Instant

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this film, but it wasn’t fanboy, wannabe, south-central LA gansta fiction.

Wow, that seems harsh, like the times I suppose. Two vets (I think–is Freddy Rodriguez’s character a vet?) are pretending to look for jobs but really drinking and getting high all day. In their spare time, they jack the local gangbangers for their cash and guns, then hustle hard around town trying to score cash and look impressive around their various lady friends.

The dialogue sounds like it was written by a team-up of Adam Sandler and Adam Carolla instead of David Ayer. The worst lines from Training Day all congregate in this film, and I think I heard a Chris Rock line from a comedy video about going to prison used as a serious line in the film (I won’t repeat it here).

Between crushing forties and smoking joints, these guys run up real problems, but things become unhinged when Davis’ (Christian Bale) girlfriend in Mexico reveals she’s pregnant right before he’s due to ship out as a NARC in Columbia. He flips out, pointing a gun at her and drinking his way through a drug mule run across the border. I won’t ruin the most exciting span of the film, since it takes only fifteen minutes to play out. The conclusion is exciting, but the emotional payoff is ultimately void due to the poor writing and subpar line delivery of the dyad charged with moving the plot forward.


Welcome Back Roback

First, I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I have been working hard on Ph.D. student exam stuff and getting used to working in diverse development environments (including my new Ubuntu Linux operating system on my home computer). Figuring out a way to compose across PC/Mac/Linux operating systems while retaining rich text formatting and not creating a Frankenstein monster of a document has been a challenge (I think I have it solved with LaTeX, but that is another post).

I finally imported my old Blogger posts to this site and updated the scheme (though the CSS could be better–project for later). I have watched so many fun films and read a lot of books this year that I am way behind on writing about, but I’m also hoping to improve / expand this blog with descriptions of what I am working on and researching.

Today I applied for a conference at Loyola University to discuss and give a demonstration about using technology in the classroom. Right now, the panel session will cover community, customization, and collaborative writing in the classroom. The technologies I plan to talk about include Moodle, WikkaWiki (which at least two of my profs. at IIT use in their courses), phpBB (where I will demonstrate the course evaluation site that my teammates and I developed last semester), as well as good ol’ Google docs and typewith.me. Additionally, I plan to show off the Research Paper Toolbox that a dream team of tech comm students and I developed last year.

If anyone knows of other free or open source technologies that I am leaving out that relate to collaborative writing, please let me know, though I’m not sure how long the panel session will last…

I observed the Moodle.org development community for a long time, and set up an installation last year, but I definitely need to do a lot of work to have a live site by the conference (August, 2011). I’m hoping to use Moodle for my 100-level course next semester and WikkaWiki for my 300 level course on graphic novels. It’s probably insane to try to use two new course management apps that I have no experience administering in the same semester, but I’m sort of out of my mind like that. I plan to blog about my successes and failures and I will try to blog about the technology in education presentation (provided my fellow panelist and I are accepted).

My new blog site

Due to frustrations with my previous blog site, I will be moving my old blog entries here where I will blog about a variety of research and entertainment related issues (don’t worry, I will still write about films!).

Romeo and Juliet at the CST

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, dir. Gale Edwards, 11/9/10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Ms. Edwards, in her discussion of her collaboration with set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, describes her stage as a once beautiful place inhabited by “wealthy, feuding dynasties” where “the modern world has been imposed on top of the elegant world of the past, now violated and perched on destruction.”

It is clear from Friar Lawrence’s laboratory (a truly beautiful and intricate set piece) that despite the protestations of Ms. Edwards that “the world” of the theater “is described by the characters through poetry and imagination,” a great deal of attention was paid to the physical stage. Her attempt to liken this to a bare bones production is laughable. Brawls are physical and real, with six or more characters hurling barricades at one another during the play’s opening; the sound effect accompanying the Nurse knocking on Friar Lawrence’s door is akin to Thor striking at the forge in Valhalla, and Prince Escalus’ drone of doom has digital echoes to remind us that we are in a tomb, lest the altar fail to do so.

The cuckoo clock machinations of chandeliers swinging up and down, beds and biers spouting from the floor, and stage hands shuffling about the bellows makes for short changes, but places you in the belly of the motorized beast which is this rushed production. Somehow making two and a half hours look flabby, this lean-Shakespeare-machine churns out the production in short order, dispensing with the final scene in a matter of minutes.

The acting was generally adequate, though dangerous overtones of Baz Lurhrman’s Romeo creep into the DiCaprio-esqe reading by Mr. Lillico. Mercutio is done passably well by Mr. Shafir; his Queen Mab monologue is “by the book” but satisfying nonetheless. The worst performance was Mr. Musselman as the Apothecary who did all but twirl his mustache in his few lines. Perhaps avenging his being passed over for a larger part, he comically barrels out from behind one of the silly garage doors on the set like Lon Chaney’s Wolfman leaping from a stand of trees.

A nod to Mr. Haggard as Benvolio, who owned his performance and exceeded the limitations of the character. Similar in quality are Mr. Lively’s Friar Lawrence and Ms. Jones’ Nurse. What they lacked in intensity was perhaps due to Ms. Edward’s reading of these characters as abortive surrogate parents to the star-crossed lovers who must display some measure of detachment in order to fulfil the directorial reading.

Questionable choices included the deletion of the opening sonnet (perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous opening) and the ill suited “music from a motion picture” interludes that swell when the director bossily tells us how we should feel.

Finally, much was made of the lack of spark between Mr. Lillico and Ms. Farmer-Clary as Romeo and Juliet, but that portion of the play seemed an afterthought of the director. Much like the bed that literally descends into the bowels of the stage and returns as Juliet’s bier, the love story seemed to flicker then vanish into nothingness, leaving the audience as “unsatisfied” as Romeo in the orchard. The direction of Romeo’s scene in Juliet’s bed prior to his flight comes off as sleazy rather than sensual, like the actors from a Tennessee Williams play accidentally wandered onto the wrong stage. In fact, much of the energy of this production seems misplaced, perhaps a byproduct of the need to “spice up” a play that has seen overly abundant production.