October 12, 2011

Movie Review: Bunraku

When people were asking me what movies I saw lately and I start going down the list, I would invariably get wide eyed looks of confusion when I got t Bunraku. I cannot say that I blame them, as this is not a wide release film, it is highly stylized, and has not had much of a promotional push. I am actually surprised that I stumbled across it, much less actually had the opportunity to see it. I only needed to figure out what Bunraku meant. Well, not really, but I was curious. The movie itself looked pretty interesting and looked to be in a stylistic vein similar to that of Sin City, The Spirit, and The Warrior's Way. In other words, don't expect much action at the box office (as a side note, about 4-5 walked out on it at my screening of 9 people).

Bunraku is an interesting title made more interesting by the fact that it doesn't really tell you anything about the story. The term, aside from being the title, refers to a style of puppet play that uses large wooden puppets operated by puppeteers on a stage. It makes sense after seeing the movie. There are a number of animated segments and interstitials that are CG creations, but look to be in the style of puppets. I also suspect that the bunraku style is used to tell archetypal tales, which the movie also feels like.

The setting is the future, a future where mankind finally went and hit the button. That's right, there was a nuclear war and the remnants of humanity are creating a new civilization. One of the first things to be banned from this new world order was guns and weapons of mass destruction. If you had a disagreement you are best served using your fists or a blade. And so the world took on an Old West sort of feel, or Old East if you prefer, an in some cases a combination of the two. It is one of these combo towns where our story takes place.

The town is run by a guy known as The Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), a ruthless fellow who calls the world's 9 top killers his bodyguards. His number 2 is a savage swordsman played by Kevin McKidd (he looks a lot like James Woods here) and he leads a gang of thugs against any group who wish to challenge for control. He is not a nice guy and is not prone to mercy.

The story centers on a cowboy with no gun and no name (Josh Hartnett) who has come to town looking for revenge on the Woodcutter in the name of his father, and a young idealistic samurai named Yoshi (J-pop star GACKT) who is looking to reclaim an item stolen from his father which is in the Woodcutter's possession. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a helpful bartender played by Woody Harrelson and an enigmatic woman played by Demi Moore, whose past intertwines with that of the bartender and the Woodcutter.

The early parts were strong as we are introduced to the characters, learn some of their motivations as all the players enter the picture. However, the middle slows down somewhat and falls prey to a level of talkiness that would seem to tel a lot but actually tells little or muddies what we know. It is just a bit sub par, however, that is broken up with some nicely staged fights. Everything picks up at the end when our two unlikely heroes take on the 9 killers Game of Death style, where each has his own room to fight in.

Frankly, I think this will take  second watch to put everything into place. It is not that it is complicated by any stretch, but some of the explained back story gets a little convoluted and does not always feel that important. Still, this is a good movie with a great visual aesthetic, some nice energy and some good performances.

Josh Hartnett delivers one of his better performances as the unnamed cowboy. He offers up an imposing presence and does a nice job dealing out and taking punishment. As for GACKT, I liked his samurai act, looking natural in the role and holding his own in a style completely different from Hartnett. I liked the East meets West buddy style employed, it works nicely and allows their two separate tales to dovetail into a more singular plot thread.

This is an exercise in style over substance and it works. It may have talky moments and a lot of voice over, but in the end Bunraku is an entertaining piece of familiar experimental cinema. The main story is a familiar one, it is easy to see where it is going despite some weaving of back story through the middle. Writer/Director Guy Moshe does a fine job of injecting a unique visual vision to the proceedings.

I think you know if you are interested in this. It is not a movie that is going to have widespread appeal, but it deserves to be given a chance. Flaws and all, this is a good movie with a strong visual sense, some high energy action, and a feel that you don't get every day.


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