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Ace Attorney
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by Jay Seaver

"No OBJECTIONs! Well, practically none."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I've never played the "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" video game, but I gather it's just as deeply silly as Takashi Miike's adaptation, which I submit must be a good thing. I also suggest that it's quite possible that by adapting something that is all plot and self-awarely silly, Miike has made the best video game adaptation yet, without undermining what makes the game popular, even if it is on the long side.

In the future, there is so much crime that giving everyone a full trial would be impossible, so the new system is "bench trials" - three-day rapid-fire exchanges of evidence and procedural moves at which point verdicts of "GUILTY!" or "NOT GUILTY!" will be rendered. Rookie defender Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya) is working with veteran lawyer Mia Fey (Rei Dan) - until she is murdered and he must defend her clairvoyant sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani). His next case will be an even greater test, though, as he's the only man willing to defend prosecutor (and one-time friend) Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito), who is accused of murder with his mentor Manfred Von Karma (Ryo Ishibashi) prosecuting.

One can only hope that the names these characters have in the Japanese dialogue are as joyously goofy as the ones in the English subtitles. Seriously, because I only know a little bit of Japanese, is "Keisuke Itokogiri" as funny a cop name as "Dick Gumshoe"? Even if those names are just preserving the whimsical way that someone translated the original Nintendo DS games, the rest of the movie is (as can be Miike's wont when someone gives him a bit of a budget to spend) a direct translation of the game's visuals, from the wild hairstyles originally meant to make characters distinct on a two-inch screen to the mish-mash of futuristic, contemporary, and period styles mashed together in every scene. Somehow, the knowing absurdity of the setting stitches it all together, and while it's not the relentless cartooniness of Speed Racer or Yatterman, it's worthy of a chuckle.

From what I've read, the movie adapts specific cases from the game series, and things do get a bit sticky there. Not so much because of the legal proceedings, which are an affront to police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court reporters, and anybody who has ever seen an episode of Law & Order, but because game mechanics don't necessarily translate that well to film. Games by their nature have a lot of repetition built into them to allow players to build their skill, and often give players rewards for completing seemingly unrelated tasks. That makes the script by Yukiko Ohguchi and Takeharu Sakurai kind of flabby and disjointed at times, and the three intertwined cases are actually complex enough that having them turn on seeming randomness may be faithful to the original story, but gets confusing for those who have never played the games.

The game cast makes up for a lot of it, though. Believe it or not, Hiroki Narimiya gives one of the year's best comedic performances underneath the awesomely aerodynamic haircut. He creates a great contrast between a look that's supposed to evoke the slick, confident attorney and the knowledge that he is in way over his head; watching Wright wrack his brain trying to figure out what to do next in court is just as much fun as watching him yell "OBJECTION!!!!" Akiyoshi Naako is a good foil as Wright's junk-dealer friend Larry Butz, while Takumi Saito plays Phoenix's opposite number as an ideal combination of smugness and dedication. And the kids who play them in elementary school flashbacks with the same haircuts and costumes? Adorable. There are a lot of other great little supporting turns, too, from Mirei Kiritani's charming Maya to Mitsuki Tanimura's brash Lotta Hart and Ryo Ishibashi's intimidating Von Karma.

That's the thing that makes so much of the movie worth it, actually - though some stretch on and having a ghost appear to give Phoenix advice is pure cheat mode, the filmmakers understand that the cases need to be dramatic as well as absurd. There's legitimate spectacle to the trials, even as things outside the courtroom can sometimes be a little shabby-looking or low-budget. You can't watch Ace Attorney without noticing the self-parody and basic silliness of the story, but it's good enough to get the audience involved anyway.

This probably won't work for everyone; in general, a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way, and "Ace Attorney" has a lot. And I kind of suspect that folks who haven't even HEARD of the game will at times feel left out. If you've got even the slightest bit of context, though, this can be a lot of fun.

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originally posted: 09/08/12 09:31:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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