IFFR 2012 Review: ACE ATTORNEY leads the witnesses!
One of the happy surprises of this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam was a visit by the prolific and beloved Japanese director Miike Takashi. The IFFR and Miike have been friendly towards each other ever since "Audition" had a few legendary screenings over here back in 2000, and it was a very odd year when there WASN'T a Miike film during the last decade.
And indeed this year he again did not arrive empty-handed exactly: the IFFR got the World-Premiere of Miike Takashi's big-budget film "Ace Attorney", an adaptation of a VERY popular string of courtroom-based adventure videogames. And unlike a lot of his other output this one is squarely aimed at mainstream audiences.
Note that we at ScreenAnarchy also got an opportunity to interview the man himself (link)...
So, what is the film about? And is it any good?
In the near future, crime will have risen to such a high level that the courts cannot cope any longer if they just use regular law. Instead, prosecutors and attorneys have moved to something called "turnabout law": accuser and defender now have to produce, defend or attack all the evidence within three days, in tournament-like bouts in front of an audience.
Having barely won his first such trial, fledgling attorney Phoenix Wright suddenly gets a huge case dropped in his lap when his boss gets killed and an innocent is framed for the crime. Phoenix sets out to expose the truth and fight for justice, but inadvertently he opens a cesspool where prosecutors leave no dirty trick unused, evidence gets tampered with, witnesses are silenced, ancient cases get reopened and trials lead to more trials.
And that's without even mentioning the ghosts that keep appearing and a Japanese relative of the Loch Ness monster popping up in a nearby lake...
Can Phoenix Wright keep his head above water and his friends out of jail?
The Games and the Movie:
The movie "Ace Attorney" is based on the first five court cases from the long-running series of Capcom videogames starring attorney Phoenix Wright. In these games, you (playing as Phoenix) need to visit locations and gather evidence, and during trials you need to use this evidence against the testimonies of the prosecutor's witnesses. The gathering part is old-style adventuring, while the trial parts in court resemble a dating-sim.
In Japan alone more than four million copies of these games were sold since the early nineties, and the characters from these games are well-known to the general Japanese public. Catchphrases like "OBJECTION!" and "TAKE THAT!" complete with character poses have become popular, not just amongst gamers but the collective mainstream as well. Cue a film version.
According to director Miike Takashi the biggest challenge was to create a film that would cater to the avid fans, yet which still could be enjoyed by people who had never even heard of Phoenix Wright.
I have to be honest here and say that I know the games and am a fan of them (*). When I heard Miike Takashi was making this film, I hoped he would use the first two court cases, which together would make for a pretty neat intertwined story.
But the script is a wee lot more ambitious than that. Those first small cases open a can of worms which doesn't get closed until the end of the fifth trial, and therefore the producers (and Capcom) decided that the film should cover all five trials. Whoops... that is a whole lot of story, and a pretty convoluted one as well.
So "Ace Attorney" lasts a whopping 135 minutes and needs them all. That the film never falters under its own narrative weight is a marvel, and probably its biggest success.
The first press screening earlier in the week left many reviewers dissatisfied, some angry even, and there were people saying the film was disastrously crap. Yet at the paying public's World Premiere, the atmosphere was very different. The crowd ate it up, gamers and non-gamers alike. A couple sitting next to me had expected a serious drama or murder mystery (they hadn't seen the trailer, obviously) and I felt obliged to warn them that this was not going to be anything like "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". Yet they obviously had a lot of fun with the film, just as I did. At the moment this review was published the film is in the top 10 of the audience awards list with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 which is very high indeed.
For those fearing Miike Takashi has lost it or has had his unique brand of insanity buried under mainstream expectations, think again. Videogames (older ones at least) tend to paint their worlds in broad strokes, making you fill in many of the gaps and details by yourself. In this case, you see Miike doing the filling-in. The future aspect of the story gets gleefully used and abused to set up all sorts of visual gags and implausible machinery. As for having his characters stay rigidly close to their in-game counterparts, Miike opted for caricature and has everyone hamming it up for laughs. The distinguishing hairdos (a necessity in ancient videogames, to tell figures apart which consisted of only a few pixels) get embellished right out of the realm of the possible, and are even used for some of the best jokes. But despite the spoofy approach the drama surrounding these characters still gets treated with a lot of respect, and the film retains a lot of heart because of that.
"Ace Attorney" looks expensive and cool, is fast-paced, story-driven, surprisingly exciting and above all: immensely entertaining.
Interestingly, the subtitles used names from the Western versions of the games, while the Japanese soundtrack used the original Japanese names. During the Q&A after the film, Miike revealed that there are plans for a worldwide release of "Ace Attorney", with each region getting dubs and subs using the character names from the Phoenix Wright games released in that region.
A bold statement but who knows: it might work... I was surprised at how many people here in The Netherlands turned out to be a fan of these games.
This is definitely a love-it or hate-it affair, and if you don't dig the silly caricature tongue-in-cheek atmosphere which inhabits the universe of "Ace Attorney", you will tire of the film way before its halfway point has been reached.
But if you DO have fun with it, this is the fastest way to spend almost two and a half hours. The story is convoluted yet easy to follow, the visuals and styling pretty unique and the world a quirky yet dangerous barrel of fun.
I loved it and so did most of the audience during the World Premiere last Friday.
"Ace Attorney" is amongst the best films I've seen this year at the IFFR and it is quite probably the most entertaining. Highly recommended!
(*) If you want to try them, well... the DS-version of the original first five storylines (the same as on which the film is based) has been converted to run on iPhones and IPads and costs only a couple of bucks in the iStore, which is a small fraction of earlier releases.