Reviewed today: 13 Assassins, Darren Aronofsky Screen Talk, Route Irish.
4.00pm: Darren Aronofsky Screen Talk [fan site]
No matter who sponsors the big Edinburgh comedy award each year, everyone's still going to call it the Perrier Award regardless. Now that's branding. Similarly, people are still going to refer to the director and actor sessions at the LFF as Guardian Interviews, even though they've been run by a number of different sponsors over the past few years - currently it's American Express whose branding is continually displayed on screen behind these live events. "They aren't paying me anything for that," says Darren Aronofsky, nodding up at the screen.
I've talked before about directors that I associate closely with this festival, and Darren Aronofsky has to be one of those. His debut feature Pi played here in 1998, the year I started doing daily coverage of the LFF on the web. Since then, all bar one of his films have played at the LFF: and the one that didn't was notorious for Sandra Hebron dissing it in public. (Back when the LFF official site had a forum, someone asked her why The Fountain wasn't in the Festival that year, and she said it was because she'd seen it. They don't have a forum on the official site any more.)
Still, Aronofsky and Hebron appear to have made up now, and the director's latest film Black Swan played at the Vue as an enormous gala on Friday night (while we were in Submarine in one of the smaller screens). Mike Goodridge of Screen International, who's our host for the afternoon, starts his interview with a discussion of Black Swan, to a small chorus of howls from people who haven't seen it yet. In a comparatively (but not entirely) spoiler-free few minutes, we get a teeny weeny clip of the film, and Aronofsky chats a little about how even after his recent successes, it was still incredibly hard to raise the money, mainly because financiers share The Belated Birthday Girl's own objection to the film - "but it's about ballet..." He likes the elements of camp and melodrama inherent in ballet, and wanted to play up those elements in the somewhat ludicrous story he'd dreamed up.
We'll see how he managed with that eventually, I suppose. But as Goodridge leaps back in time to 1998 and Pi, it's amusing to see in a comparison of clips that Aronofsky has more or less come full circle: twelve years ago he was using impressionistic techniques to depict Sean Gulette cracking up on the New York subway, and now he's doing the same for Natalie Portman. The clip from Pi has him cringeing in his chair with embarrassment - "it's like reading poetry from a 12 year old" - but it clearly illustrates his approach to the creation of images, as he always keeps in mind where the audience is at any given point so he knows how to disorient them. His followup Requiem For A Dream extended those techniques still further, but also showed that he was developing a talent for dealing with actors. "You need to get their trust... give them a safe environment where they can go as far as they want and know you won't leave them out in the cold."
And then it all went a bit wonky with The Fountain. Up until a couple of weeks ago, it was the only Aronofsky I'd never seen: catching up with it on telly, you can't fault its visual ambition, but narratively it's all over the bloody shop. It was a notoriously troubled production: it started as a big budget movie with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, fell apart after a year or two's work ("I'd just spent six months in Australia building Mayan pyramids"), then came together again as a medium budget movie with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. He's still proud of what he achieved - his reaction to the clip shown is "How can anyone have an issue with that film? It's fucking cool!" - but thinks that maybe it needed to be a $3.5m budget rather than $35m. But actors seem to love its overheated cocktail of romanticism and emotion, and Hugh Jackman is still being approached by the film's scarier fans on a regular basis.
It took a story of personal redemption - The Wrestler - to put Aronofsky's career back on track again. Scary to think that both Sylvester Stallone and Nicolas Cage were both in the frame for the lead at one time or another, but in the end it had to be the film that resurrected Mickey Rourke's career as well as his own. "And look at what I've unleashed on the world! Or at least on the women of New York City." After that and Black Swan, it'll be interesting to see where he goes next. He's curious about the idea of working on a big commercial franchise: in the past his name's been attached to reboots of Robocop, Batman and Superman, although the less appetising prospect that's been most recently put forward is Wolverine 2. Aronofsky is philosophical: "I'd just like to make a movie for once where I'm not the only person in the room who wants to make it..."
6.00pm: 13 Assassins [official site]
It's funny to look at some of the press for Hong Sangsoo's Oki's Movie, and see how astonished people are that he's released two movies in one year. Takashi Miike's done the same this year, and it feels like a step back - he used to be able to churn out half a dozen in the same period. Still, it has to be admitted that the productions are a lot bigger than the classy DTV fodder that he used to produce. Earlier in 2010 we caught Zebraman 2 in Japan, a splendidly daft superhero movie of sorts: and now there's 13 Assassins, a good-looking remake of an old samurai classic.
It's a film of two halves. In the first half, we're introduced to the Shogun's half-brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). He's a rotten bastard, abusing his power to rape and kill purely for his own amusement. Something needs to be done, but it can't be done officially because of Naritsugu's connections to the Shogun: so Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) is secretly given the nod to assemble a dirty dozen of samurai to get rid of him. With the aid of passing beggar and comic relief Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) to make it a baker's dozen, they race off ahead of Naritsugu and his 70 attendants to lie in wait for him in Ochiai. The second half is entirely given over to the mother of all battles that takes place in the town.
It's a broken-backed structure that seemed familiar when I first came across it, and I eventually worked out why. The original 1963 version was directed by Eiichi Kudo, and it was the first in what was called his Samurai Revolution Trilogy. I've seen the second one of the three - it was called The Great Melee when I caught it as part of Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters, though other titles are available - and it's got an almost identical story. Half of it's dedicated to plotting against a tyrant, the rest of it's dedicated to the kicking of his ass.
When Kudo was making his trilogy in the mid-sixties, it was against a background of global revolution, which gave the films a resonance well beyond the historical period they depicted as they showed tyrannical rulers being brought down by collective effort. Miike doesn't attempt to go near that subtext, but he does focus interestingly on the whole death cult within the samurai: the way that honourable death in battle is seen as preferable to a dull peaceful life. Evil Naritsugu is notable for his perversion of this philosophy: as his troops are being wiped out by the dozen, he delights in the carnage and starts making plans to keep his country in a permanent state of war from now on.
You can kind of see his point when you see the enthusiasm with which Miike stages the second half of 13 Assassins. Shinzaemon has come up with a plethora of ways to turn Ochiai into a town-sized version of the house in Home Alone, and the huge setpiece battle is notable for its invention as well as its magnificent choreography. Miike is sometimes written off in the West as a purveyor of violence, which is a shame as he's much, much more than that. But he purveys violence better than anyone else has so far at this year's Festival: we get frantic swordplay, huge explosions, and a refreshing lack of the tacky CGI gore that's bedevilled Japanese samurai cinema since Zatoichi. Plus, he's calmed down a bit from the early days of his career: sure, someone's cut in half from head to toe like in Ichi The Killer, but it's done so subtly you just might miss it.
British producer Jeremy Thomas may be on board to give 13 Assassins some international clout in terms of its distribution, but it's no The Last Emperor. It's much more fun than that.
8.45pm: Route Irish [trailer]
To Western audiences, the whole death-or-glory ethic that drives Japanese soldiers in the movies is a little disturbing, and it's interesting to compare it with the more pragmatic approach of the British soldiers in Ken Loach's new film: ready to do the job, but also ready to walk away if they don't agree with what they're being asked to do.
Fergus (Mark Womack) has done just that following a stint in Baghdad, part of it spent as a private security contractor. He managed to get a job out there for his best mate Frankie (John Bishop), and is distraught to learn that Frankie's been killed in an attack on his vehicle. With the help of Frankie's widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe), Fergus investigates the events leading up to the killing, and starts to doubt whether his friend really was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As Loach says in his introduction, today's an interesting day to be talking about illegal activities in Iraq. And the role of contractors in this mess - 'the privatisation of violence,' in Loach's memorable phrase - is something that really needs to be brought out in the open. I like the idea that he and regular writer Paul Laverty had to force a debate on these topics: make a thriller. Lure people into cinemas with the prospect of a good story and some action, and sneak in the politics by the back door. It's a plan that worked splendidly when Loach covered double-dealing in Northern Ireland 20 years ago in Hidden Agenda.
Unfortunately, Route Irish doesn't work that well as a thriller, mainly because of a fundamental structural flaw: for the most part, it consists of Fergus stuck in Liverpool without a passport (ooh, clumsy plotting), gathering information from his sources back in Iraq. Nearly all the information we get comes second or third hand, over mobile phones and Skype links, and it distances the viewer from what's going on. It only really takes off as a thriller when, inevitably, the fight makes its way back to Fergus' doorstep.
But Loach has been doing this sort of thing long enough to know that nobody pays to see raw polemic in the cinema: you need characters that audiences want to follow. And as ever, the performances in Route Irish are top notch, including the feature debut of Edinburgh Diaries regular John Bishop. (It probably helps with the transition that the first time we see his character Frankie, he's in a pub telling a story just like the ones he tells on stage.) The Q&A after this film is a breathtaking insight into Loach's process: getting the actors to hang out together and develop their own backstories for the characters (the three leads got to do this for a couple of weeks before they were told that Frankie would be dead at the start of the film), or only being given part of the script so that they're surprised by plot twists on camera. "We call it 'being Loached'," says Andrea Lowe with carefully concealed rage.
Notes From Spank's Pals
13 Assassins [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - In 13 Assassins, Miike has made a fine, straight down the line Jidai-Geki, showing again his skill as a director whatever the genre. A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, it tells the story of the gathering of a band of assassins, secretly under order from the Shogun's advisor Sir Doi, to take out the cruel Lord Naritsugu (wonderfully played by SMAP member Goro Inagaki) before he is appointed to high office. It plays a bit like a larger scale 7 Samurai, only with 13 members of the band, with Japan rather than a village in need of protection, and with the Shogun's half-brother Naritsugu as the bandit. The first section of the film shows the gathering of the band, and introduces us to the members, while the latter part gives us a terrifically played out confrontation with Naritsugu's far greater numbers in a town fortified for the purpose.
All the performances are excellent, with Yusuke Iseya's non-samurai of the band, Koyata, reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune in 7 Samurai, and with Koji Yakusho masterful as Shinzaemon, the leader of the assassins. The confrontation at Ochiai is inventive and brutal, without any of the cartoon-like spurting blood often associated with the genre, and leaves no doubt that no-one in their right mind would want to return to the warring states' era. Miike has said in interview that he wanted to make this film to challenge himself, to see how, or even whether, a film like this could be made these days. 13 Assassins shows that it can be done, and done very well. Miike has set himself a challenge, and has more than met it.