As I’ve said many times, when it comes to storytelling: Take me someplace new! Last night I watched a rather unregarded movie, Bunraku (2010), and it delighted me by doing exactly that.
Now when I say “rather unregarded” what I mean is that both critics and audiences haven’t reacted at all well to it. It has a dismal 19% (critics) / 48% (audiences) rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only a 28 (out of 100) on Metacritic. That’s pretty unregarded. But I’m not sure they judged the movie on its own merits so much as against their own expectations.
It’s possible I’ve mellowed in my old age, but as far as I can tell, I’m still the same old highly critical SOB I’ve always been!
Bunraku is essentially a nameless stranger seeking revenge story. What makes it unique is the highly (and I do mean highly) stylized production design and performances.
I think this might be what puts a lot of people off — in some regards it’s more like watching a stage play.
A key thing to understand is that Bunraku is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre that goes back to the late 1600s.
You have to expect, therefore, that a movie called Bunraku would pledge allegiance to those roots.
And, boy, does it ever.
In the opening sequence (always a key point in a film) a narrator speaks of the ubiquity of conflict while the visuals show us highly stylized “origami” creatures fighting (starting with early evolution and proceeding on to larger and larger animals and finally humans). You see that puppeteers are moving these creatures around.
The strong sense of origami pervades the production design. Many things have that “angular panels” look of complicated origami. (Note, for instance, the different triangular tiles in the street and many walls.)
In general, the production design has a highly staged feel (and, indeed, the entire movie was shot on a sound stage — the exteriors are obviously not exterior at all). It was almost as blatantly stage-like as Dogtown.
Its production design is also strongly reminiscent of Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in how so much of the background is CGI or obvious set pieces. (Another very stylized film it reminds me of is Sucker Punch, by Zack Snyder.)
The script and performances are equally stylized, and I think that’s really the part that many either don’t get or just don’t like. It’s not only stylized, there’s a fair amount of symbolism as well, so it’s definitely not a popcorn movie.
It’s not surreal, however. It has a strong narrative, and within the stylized behaviors, the characters all have clear motivations. (I recently watched Slipstream, starring, written, scored and directed by, Anthony Hopkins, and that one was surreal. Interesting, but surreal. And opaque. There was nothing opaque in Bunraku.)
Josh Hartnett (representing the west in the “east meets west” symbolism) plays the nameless stranger seeking revenge against “Nicola the Woodcutter” (Ron Perlman), the most powerful gangster boss “east of the Atlantic.” The world is a post-apocalyptic one where increasing conflict and war has led to a society that got rid of all guns and now lives by the sword (and martial arts).
The Japanese musical artist known as Gackt (Gackt Camui) plays another character, Yoshi, a samurai also seeking revenge. (The Yoshi character draws a strong, direct line to the Japanese Bunraku, although the film is set in North America. And, obviously, Yoshi is the east to Hartnett’s west.)
Woody Harrelson plays a role as a wise and helpful bartender (and most definitely channeling Cheers), and Demi Moore has a fairly brief (and sadly almost pointless) role as Nicola’s (unwilling) girlfriend.
One criticism seems to be the “bad acting” but that means these actors suddenly got bad. (Which is possible, actually. Acting has a lot to do with the direction, and really bad direction can result in even a good actor giving a bad performance.) An alternate explanation is that the characters are, in fact, Bunraku puppets and are supposed to act like that.
Maybe I’m being accommodating, but I think the second explanation is right. It matches the basic thrust of the production. (Which is not to say that director Guy Moshe necessarily was perfect, but I think he may have gotten exactly what he wanted from his actors.)
Were I still in the habit of buying movies, this one wouldn’t have made the Buy List. I’m not even sure it’s a movie I’ll watch again, but I found it very engaging.
Put it this way, the two-hour running time passed very quickly. At one point I paused the viewing so I could get another beer. I was surprised it was already at the one-hour mark! I would have bet closer to 30 minutes.
If you are a film gourmet — that is, if you like films that are interesting or unique, rather than just those that taste good to you — then Bunraku is a film well worth seeing (even just for Kevin McKidd’s wonderfully evil “Killer #2”).
All things considered, I still award it (albeit just barely) a Wow!
Okay, so there are some oddball films for you to consider (if you like that sort of thing). No doubt you’re wondering, “What about the eyeballs?”
Recently I watched a “science fiction” film from 2014, I Origins. Which is about eyeballs. Well, sort of.
I Origins is more regarded (although reviews are mixed) than Bunraku, but I have to say it impressed me much less. The movie is filled with interesting ideas, but many of them are at odds with each other, and many of them don’t go anywhere worthwhile. It’s almost like director-writer, Mike Cahill, is thinking out loud.
Sadly, many of the movie’s problems are apparent while watching. Further reflection after just makes it worse. It’s a pity, because some of the ideas could have turned into a pretty interesting film.
The film strongly references the Watchmaker analogy that the eye can’t have evolved anymore than a watch could have. Clearly a watch is a made thing, and so — goes the argument — must be an eye. But Richard Dawkins debunked this very well in his famous book, The Blind Watchmaker.
Ultimately the film suggests Dawkins was wrong, God is real, and — further — that reincarnation is true (mixing western and eastern religion in a muddled mess). Also, that daily events aren’t always coincidental (I did get a kick out of the 11:11 thing).
It turns out that reincarnated people have the same iris pattern (something we believe is as unique as fingerprints) in their eyes they had in previous lives (hence the film’s double connection to eyeballs). Which, when you think about it, makes no sense whatsoever. Surely a different body — different DNA! — requires a different iris pattern.
The film tries to be about science (and often fails miserably — the test Gray performs at the end would have any scientist screaming with rage — while doing very well in some areas), tries to be about god, tries to be about reincarnation, and generally misses all its marks.
It’s worth seeing if you’re a gourmet of science fiction (or just to enjoy actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), but otherwise not.
I give it a Meh (on my six-point Wow!, Ah, Eh, Meh, Nah, Ugh! scale).
If you’re looking for an odd-ball science fiction movie with a strong dash of surrealism, I’d recommend Southland Tales (2006), which was a lot more fun and (I thought) much more successful. And it stars Dwayne Johnson (and others you know), which is why it’s fun (it gets an Ah)!
Lastly, a brief mention of two recent thumbs up films:
Lucky Them (2013), which stars Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church, is about lost love and how we remember it. You can read the linked Wiki article for details. It’s a nice little drama that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Collette is the kind of superior actress who elevates anything she’s in (like Maggie Gyllenhaal does), and Church seems to be having a very good time playing a weird, awkward rich guy. We also get a single scene with Johnny Depp as the MacGuffin!
It’s quite engaging and gets an Ah rating (really good, but not awesome).
And finally there’s Vampire Academy (2014) which I ventured to watch, and was pleasantly surprised by, only after catching snippets of it channel surfing. I assumed from its description it was another Twilight sort of thing — mindless sop for (dumb) young women.
Instead it’s a decent self-aware satire (vaguely along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The film is based on a novel by the same name. I can’t tell if the novel is satirical, but I’ll assume it is. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re into vampires. I give it a low Eh.
The director, Mark Waters, directed some other films I’ve liked. His first effort was The House of Yes. He also directed Freaky Friday and Mean Girls (screenplay by Tina Fey), which were high-fluff but fun.
On the other hand, he also directed Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
(Speaking of vampires, one more: Afflicted (2013) is a really strange take on the whole vampire thing. Also worth a look if you’re into vampire movies, especially those that spin the old tale in new ways. This one also rates a solid Eh.)