Bunraku (US - BD RA)
Gabe sees another pretty and empty Eastern/Western mash-up movie...
The recent semi-proliferation of the bizarre spaghetti western/martial arts mash-up genre is a cinematic mixed blessing. There’s a unique quality in the strange and colourful universes of Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, the Bad, and the Weird and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, Sngmoo Lee’s good looking, but dull The Warriors Way represents a possible decline for the subgenre. Now I have watched Bunraku for further comparison, and it isn’t improving my outlook. The story follows two very different warriors who enter a pseudo-post WWI Shanghai-like town in search of Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), the most powerful crime boss east of the Atlantic. ‘Drifter’ (Josh Hartnett), an obvious analogue for The Man with No Name, is a no nonsense cowboy. In this world (which may or may not be post-apocalyptic) guns have been destroyed in hopes of ending violence, so Drifter only uses his neigh-invincible fists as a weapon. Yoshi (Gackt), a not so obvious amalgamation of several different Jidaigeki characters, is a young samurai seeking vengeance for father’s death. These warriors meet, fight, and eventually join forces against Woodcutter, and his evil band of nine assassins, headed by the seemingly invincible Killer No.2 (Kevin McKidd). They are guided into battle by a mysterious bartender (Woody Harrelson), who somewhat oddly fills the tradition ‘guru’ role in the story.
Writer/director Guy Moshe’s enthusiastically embellished graphic design is at times engaging enough to overlook the film’s more obvious shortcomings, and occasionally he even brushes with something akin to inspiration. The title refers to a kind of Japanese puppetry, and the film opens with a brilliantly CG augmented paper puppet/animated credit sequence that sets the visual and thematic tone and basic story concept. The best way to describe this visual and thematic tone is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Sin City meets Dick Tracy, and thus includes all of the influences found in those films. Of all the recent martial arts mash-ups it has the most in common with Sukiyaki Western Django due to this staged, hyper-colourful look, and more outstandingly silly flavour. There are golden era musical elements, kung-fu elements, comic book elements (all subtitles are presented in comic panel frames), Noh theater elements, Dogme 95 elements, video game elements, and a strange mix of anachronistic styles that create something almost original in its non-originality (if that makes any sense). Despite the occasionally obvious use of digital enhancements, Moshe and his technicians do their best to do things in-camera, in keeping with the concept of the characters being paper puppets on a paper stage. I really want to get lost in these stylistic extremes, but find myself more prone to be impressed with the technicality rather than the achievement.
Moshe’s direction is pretty impressive, though; especially during a single take fight sequence that pulls back to reveal the scope of the two-story stage. The action isn’t exactly breathtaking, but is captured more competently than many major Hollywood productions. His indulgence does get the best of him, and it’s often at the detriment of the performances. Bunraku’s pre-sight warning signs aren’t only ascribed to my issues with similar films– it also features a A/high B list cast, and didn’t get a real release. Sure, Josh Hartnett and Demi Moore haven’t really been ‘on fire’ lately, and Woody Harrelson and Ron Perlman aren’t known for saying ‘no’ to a paycheck, but that’s an awful lot of recognizable talent for such a limited, no fanfare theatrical release. Unfortunately, my suspicions proved mostly correct here, and few of the actors give more than a half-assed effort, save perhaps Kevin McKidd, who appears to be having real fun reveling in the two-dimensional aspects of his role. Hartnett, and musician-turned-actor Gackt’s stoicisms eventually started to grow on me about two thirds of the way through the film, but only enough to recognize that they and Moshe were capable of better. In her defense, Demi Moore is just barely in the movie at all.
It’s quite difficult to develop an interest in the story, which feels like an afterthought of meaningless plot twists and trope fulfillment, but it’s even harder to develop an interest in the characters, which is much more detrimental to an experience so dependant on the audience’s visceral reactions. This vague sense of narrative (honestly, I can’t recall any specific plot point), and the set-pieces it connects blend into an amorphous blob of ‘stuff happening’, and is then stretched into an unwieldy, nearly two hour runtime. I was all Bunrakued-out after about an hour twenty, which is especially sad, because the last 15-20 minutes are actually pretty good. The humour is the weakest element, and the one that tore me out of the experience more often than any structural or narrative problem. The more cartoony gags are especially tiresome, which is strange coming from someone who likes Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan movies so much. The narration, which does adhere to the style as far as I’m concerned, is also generally goofy rather than amusing, or even necessary. It’s just too obvious a reference to the kind of Noir tradition Moshe is hoping we’ll recall. A waste of the talented Mike Patton.
Bunraku is a particularly pretty motion picture, and its visual excesses are only held in check by the fact that it was shot on standard 35mm film. The film qualities give way to nice texture and fine grain, but keep details and blends from being as needle sharp as similar films shot on digital HD. The overall detail levels are still quite sharp, however, and despite the garish look ‘real’ elements, such as skin and hair textures, are quite natural. The simplicity of the backgrounds, and the relatively consistent use of shallower set focus (I imagine in SD it’s not as apparent that background elements are so commonly slightly out of focus) both make for some relatively quiet deep set details, but there’s still quite a bit of complexity in the colour choices to make 1080p enhancement a valuable resource. The vibrant Colour is the transfer’s biggest deal, though, and there really isn’t a crayon in the box not utilized at one time or another, though red, yellow-green, cyan and orange are among the most used. The palette is set like a comic book, meaning it often appears that characters, costumes, props and backgrounds have been printed. Theses colours are overwhelming at times, especially the almost ungodly reds of some backgrounds, which lead to some minor blooming, some heavy hot-spots, and occasional black-level wash-outs, but overall I’m very impressed with the purity of hues, and the brilliant separation of even vaguely similar hues. Outside the grain, I see very little in the way of artefacts, except maybe some minor noise on the brightest colour blends.
Bunraku’s visual excess are met at almost every turn with matching audio excesses, which makes for a nice, aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Generally speaking no sequence in the entire film is left bereft of multi-channel enhancement, and very little is lost in the rush of effects, music and dialogue. Even the most basic, plain, dialogue heavy sequence features a lot of not-so-subtle ambience, and this ambience is rarely set distinctly in one spot for too long. Audio is used to broaden the scope of the stagy, simplistic sets, and extends to some incredible scope on the background sound effects. Directional effects wrap over almost the entire film. Some of these come out of on-screen elements, but even more are abstract, representing a camera move, or a cut. The fight scenes are crafted using a mix hyper-realistic impact noises, and cartoon-like effects, which always play strongly into the stereo and surround channels. Composer Terence Blanchard’s score is kind of hit and miss, but can be brilliantly on point, and tends to grow with the film. Despite his jazz-based pedigree (he’s written the music for I believe every Spike Lee films since Jungle Fever, including the absolutely perfect Malcolm X score) Blanchard delves into several different genres here, and the big band jazz themes are actually the weakest, due in part to a very artificial, keyboard-based sound (found mostly in the horns, which is weird). When not sounding artificial, the score is incredibly rich and warm, featuring a wide stereo spread, and heavy, punch LFE support.
The disc’s only extras are a commentary track with director Guy Moshe and actor Kevin McKidd, a trailer, and trailers for other Arc Entertainment releases. The commentary is a relatively fact-filled, but ultimately stoic experience that slows considerably as the film progresses. At points Moshe and McKidd sound like they’re having fun, but they mostly stick to the facts, explaining the film’s background, style, and inspiration. The production design and technical planning are, unsurprisingly, the basis for a lot of the discussion, though it sounds more like Moshe is more defensive than proud of his work. He keeps comparing his super-simplified characters and story to those of other, better films, but not in terms of quality, in terms of excuse. His story is thin because the story in Once Upon a Time in the West is thin, apparently, which misses the point of the richness of subtext and unforgettable characterizations found in Leone’s film. McKidd mostly acts as emotional support whenever his character isn’t on screen, but does ask a few pertinent questions throughout. The track is at its best when Moshe is pointing out minor stylistic bits I’d missed on the first viewing, suck as the paper-like sound quality to some of the sets, and a background sign that tells the Japanese audience that some bad translations were done on purpose.
It’s incredibly difficult to put your finger on what it is precisely that makes one nonsensical, highly stylized, form over function movie better than another. I’m the guy who counts Dario Argento’s Suspiria among my all-time favourite films, and I’ve long defended generally disliked films like Revenge of the Sith and Hannibal with huge emphasis on their visual merits, why wouldn’t I fall head-over-heels for something as visually rich as Bunraku? I guess it’s the lack of anything interesting outside the imagery, the boring characterizations, or weak sense of humour, but I’m suspecting it has more to do with the excessive 118 minute runtime than anything else. Had this been a brief, more tightly constructed hunk of nonsense I might’ve found myself too enthralled to notice anything wrong. I’m still going to recommend that interested viewers give the film a look, because there is enough going on to sate some of the right brain appetites out there. Potential viewers just need to prepare themselves for something empty. This brashly colourful Blu-ray release looks mostly gorgeous, and features a continuously aggressive DTS-HD MA soundtrack, but has only an average commentary track for extra material.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st November 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Director and Actor Commentary, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Guy Moshe
Cast: Josh Harnett, Woody Harrelson, Gackt, Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore
Genre: Action, Comedy and Film-Noir
Length: 125 minutes
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