Today's DVDs: 13 Assassins, Of Gods and Men and The Frankenstein Syndrome
13 Assassins stars Koji Yakusho and Yusuke Iseya, Takashi Miike directs.
The Set-up: A remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins follows the same storyline as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samuri/John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven and a host of similar films. That is, a small group of righteous warriors go up against a larger, much more powerful group under the command of an evil leader. In the case of 13 Assassins, it's a group of elite samurai that have been tasked with eliminating the sadistic brother of the shogun and his vast army.
What our critic Nick Pinkerton said about the movie: The fleetly shot climax is a true carnival of destruction, but an alienating spectacle, as [director Takashi] Miike doesn't find a fresh way to engage with the material when laying out the characters and their personal codes.
Here's our take: We disagree with Pinkerton. The individual samurai are well-defined (some of them get killed off pretty early, but we can still distinguish between the characters). Stand-outs are the group's wise and fierce leader Shinzaemon (played by Koji Yakusho) and trickster Koyata (Yusuke Iseya). Opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to honor, attitude and ability, Shinzaemon and Koyata show viewers there are lots of ways to be honorable, from stoic and proud to haphazard and reluctant.
It's difficult to be as bloody and graphic as Miike is in this without it being at the expense of the story, but the prolific director finds a balance - a violent, barbaric and sometimes "close your eyes and turn away" explicit balance, but a balance nonetheless.
Except for the fact that some 15 minutes were cut from the international version for the American release, 13 Assassins is among our favorite DVD releases this summer.
DVD/Blu-ray extras: Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions include the original trailer, a featurette on the making of the film and a digital copy.
Availability: 13 Assassins is available at Netflix (DVD and Blu-ray).
Also worth your notice: Based on the true story of a group of French Trappist monks who were kidnapped and later killed in Algeria, presumably because of they were not Muslim, Of Gods and Men is directed by Xavier Beauvois. The monks, who get along well with their Muslim neighbors, eventually come under attack, from both the government and guerillas. Of Gods and Men is a tender tale of faith - in God and in humanity - in a chaotic world.
There's no graceful transition from Of Gods and Men to The Frankenstein Syndrome so we'll just get on with it. Frankenstein, directed by Sean Tretta, features a group a scientists working on a secret research project. One of the researchers develops a serum that brings the dead back to life (there's something about stem-cells and other blabbity blah). A security guard is conveniently murdered, which gives the researcher a chance to try out the serum, but things go bad once he's brought back to life. Seems the transition turned the guard's protective instincts turn into violent aggression. Translation: Run!
Frankenstein is short on the science and long on the gore, just the way we like our horror flicks.