Monday, July 25, 2011

Michael Palin's New Europe

John Paul Davidson, Roger Mills, 2007
Starring Michael Palin

Long after leaving the Pythons, Michael Palin built up a reputation as a world traveler. He made a number of BBC sponsored documentaries and television programs, including 2007's New Europe. In short, it's amazing. If you're as obsessed with Monty Python or Michael Palin as I am, or you really love travel shows, this comes highly recommended.

There are seven one-hour long episodes, all focused on post-communist Eastern Europe, countries that were closed to tourism and trade under the communist regime. He breaks neighboring countries down into episodes, visiting Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, and East Germany, among others.

What's interesting about this show is that the focus of each episode is on whatever Michael Palin finds interesting from history, food, music, art, architecture, tourism, etc. The broad scope and easy narrative style keeps it from ever being boring, plus he gives enough of a political background to keep even the most historically illiterate up to speed. And if you're someone who loves Eastern Europe and wants to see more of it, this show is informative and inspiring.

Palin does a weird mixture of things on the show. Sometimes he acts like a bourgeois tourist, other times he learns from the natives. He often gets involved in things you would only find out about with research, planning, and rudimentary language skills, like the amazing pagan festival he joins in on. There are also a couple of episodes where he does things that only Michael Palin could hope to do, like learn how to drive a train or host a fashion show. He does some truly amazing things that normal people could probably also do with some sweet talking or bribery, like taking lessons on how to drive ex-Nazi tanks in East Germany. I'm not kidding. Apparently they're run by a guy who thinks that tanks are too interesting to junk, so he keeps them in good shape and takes people out for rides.

Keep in mind that this was made in 2006-2007, so most of the information is still current and relative to any near-future travels you might have in mind. Check it out streaming on Netflix or as part of the 3-disc BBC box set and while you're at it, flip through his book, which includes material and photographs that didn't fit into the program. You can also go to his travel page and see what he's up to in more recent years.

I made it a whole review without making a single Monty Python reference, so I will leave you with this:

Monday, July 18, 2011


Takashi Miike, 2010
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki

During peacetime, an aging samurai, Shinzaemon, is secretly charged with the task of assassinating the young, sadistic Lord Naritsugu. He is the Shogun's brother and has legal immunity, but his devastating acts of cruelty and murder have forced the council to move against him. Shinzaemon begrudgingly comes out of retirement to gather a small band of warriors for this suicide mission.

Shinzaemon gathers 11 other samurai and their apprentices. Among them are the experienced, sassy Kuranaga, his second-in-command, who brings some of his students, and Shinzaemon's nephew, who drinks, gambles, and otherwise has nothing to live for. Most of the band are either older, experienced ronin samurai looking for one last battle, or newcomers hoping to prove themselves. They also accidentally collect a dirty, renegade hunter who guides them through the forest and stubbornly stays on to fight.

With some incredible planning, the assassins intend to confront Naritsugu and his men in a village they have emptied and outfitted with a variety of nasty booby traps. When Naritsugu is successfully re-routed from his original path and finally arrives, they are dismayed to find that he has brought 200 men, more than twice the number they expected. It is up to the skill of the samurai and their military-style fortifications to trap Naritsugu and stop him once and for all.

Jusan-non no shikaku aka 13 Assassins is essentially a remake of Eiichi Kudo's film of the same name from 1963. Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this film. I don't want to sound overly skeptical, because I'm a huge Takashi Miike fan, but I haven't been up to date with his releases over the last few years and wasn't sure what to expect. After the major disappointment of "Imprint," his Masters of Horror episode, I've tried to take his newer work with a grain of salt. Plus, I adore classic chanbara and tend to dislike modern samurai-themed films.

13 Assassins is an absolute joy. It's perfectly paced and has the right mix of adventure, justice dispensing, sword fighting, and general samurai awesomeness to thrill anyone who loves the genre. There are many welcome references to Seven Samurai and other beloved jidaigeki, a sub-genre of Japanese period drama that focuses on samurai and sometimes working class people from the Edo period. If you're unfamiliar, check out Kurosawa films like Ran and Throne of Blood, or the Hanzo and Lady Snowblood series for jidaigeki with a healthy dose of exploitation. A side element of the genre is the use of the supernatural. Films like Ugetsu Monogatari and Onibaba pit working class people against yokai. Miike snuck in an element of this with the character of Kiga, the hunter and guide, who may or may not be human.

There's a great mix of humor with the usual Miike touches of violence and depravity. In particular, there's a gruesome scene in the beginning of the film involving one of Naritsugu's naked, limbless victims. In general, the violence is spectacular. It doesn't feel at all like Miike's earlier, excessive horror films and is perfectly suited to the heroic-epic style of the film. The violence leads linearly towards the death of Lord Naritsugu, his men, and the end of the 13 assassins, though if you've seen films in the genre before, you have a good idea of where things are heading.

Another aspect I really enjoyed, and was again surprised by, were the well-developed characters. For the most part, all 13 of the warriors stand out clearly, even if they are just given little tidbits of personality and motivation. There is something especially touching about the fact that this is a group of men all born in the wrong century. They are sacrificing their lives to restore justice, but it is clear that they would rather be great warriors at one final battle, than live long, healthy, but flaccid lives in a stale time of peace.

I also have to applaud the acting. Koji Yakusho (The Cure, Charisma) is great as the serious, take-no-prisoners Shinzaemon. He's a wonderful actor in everything I've seen him in, but seems particularly suited to play a world-weary samurai. Hiroki Matsukada (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) is equally wonderful as the humorous Kuranaga, who is unmistakably deadly, but capable of some much needed mirth. Goro Inagaki is delightful as the spoiled, villainous Lord Naritsugu. Though he doesn't have an abundance of scenes, he does a lot with the little given to him and our understanding of his character shifts immensely throughout the film.

13 Assassins comes highly recommended and is one of my favorite theatrical releases of 2011. I saw the theatrical international cut, which is 126 minutes, but if you get a chance to see the 141-minute uncut Japanese version, go for it. The Magnolia DVD is the international cut, but the missing footage is included in the extras. If you have a Blu-ray player, you should probably view this like it was meant to be seen, in all its Blu-ray glory.