Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Seven Samurai (1954) - Akira Kurosawa

    The beauty of a grand sweeping epic that we thought forever gone.  The restoration of Seven Samurai in 1998 proved to be one of if not the greatest miracles of film.  Since the initial American release of the film, the picture has been butchered.  Enormous amounts of the film were cut, which resulted in a still unsuccessful film.  Back was all its splendor and glory, and monstrously long running time.  Like all the best epics though, this doesn’t feel like three and a half hours.
    It was a monster from the beginning.  Akira Kurosawa had gone back to Toho, the MGM of Japan, and he planned to make his first real historical film, or jidaigeki.  He also wanted to put to shame the other jidaigeki that had been crowding Japanese cinema screens.  He did just that making an all inclusive epic set in the 16th century.  It follows the exploits of three groups of people.  There are the farmers, who are lower class peasants with a somewhat honest profession.  Then there are the bandits, the dishonest opportunists who prey off of the ill equipped peasants of the world.  Then there are the samurai, the defenders of the earth who are men of respect and integrity.
    All of these groups though become interchangeable through Kurosawa.  Toshiro Mifune’s samurai Kikuchiyo is the best case.  His parents were farmers, which means he could have easily picked up their trade.  Yet they died at the hands of bandits.  He wandered around and probably would have become a bandit, had they not murdered his family.  So he ends up a samurai, the most undisciplined one, but the most eager, exciting, and admirable.  He has no official rank and his inclusion in the group is based more on his daring and determination as he follows the other six samurai like a stray dog.
    He has nothing in common with Takashi Shimura’s head samurai Kambei Shimada.  He is portrayed as next to Jesus in this film. He never makes a wrong decision, and it is no surprise that he is the first samurai approached by the farmers.  Had he not been picked first the rest of the group may not have been formed.  It is through his respect and dignity that he manages to round up another six master less samurai or ronin.  Saint he may be, he is still a warrior, which means he does still kill.  It is after his selfless act of heroism, removing his sacred top knot and disguising himself as a priest in order to rescue a young child taken hostage by a thief, that a few samurai wish to be his disciples.  He is the first piece to fall into place and throughout the film he always knows the right move.
    The rest of the samurai have their own personalities, some of which are highlighted better than others.  Gorobei Katayama, a clever and good natured whose specialty is archery; Heihachi Hayashida, a good-humored samurai who makes up for his mediocre swordsmanship by cheering up the group; Shichiroji, an old friend of Kambei's; and Kyuzo, a master swordsman who initially refuses to join the group but relents.  Kyuzo is something of an idol for Kikuchiyo whose lack of swordsmanship he tries to make up for in bravery and fearlessness.
    The basic plot is that a village of farmers are attacked every year and they have had enough.  They hire seven samurai to help fight the bandits and protect them.  Although greatly outnumbered, and promised nothing but three squares and the fun of fighting, the samurai accept.  It is this that helps support claims that this is pro socialist.  No one is motivated by money, other than the seemingly evil bandits, or capitalists.  There is also the strength in numbers so common in communism.  The farmers can’t defend themselves alone.  It takes the samurai to get them to work together, and proof that the individual is virtually powerless.  Throughout the film Kambei has to reiterate how important teamwork is to everyone.  He is willing to sacrifice a few of the outlying houses in order to keep the village as a whole secure.  He goes as far as to berate Kikuchiyo for leaving his post in order to steal one of the bandits three rifles.  Despite how heroic the move might seem, Kambei realizes that it was reckless and could have cost them plenty.
    This is not the same collectivism of say the Soviet cinema as evidenced by the samurai being given distinct personalities.  They all have their own quirks and mannerisms.  There are also a few farmers shown in detail.  There is also the breakdown of the dream at the end when the farmers turn their back on the samurai, forgetting what they have done in order to concentrate on planting rice.  This may be used as evidence that eventually communism won’t work.  Either way, Kurosawa might not have had any political intentions in mind, but it was hard to make any film in the 50s without someone projecting political ideology on it.  Kurosawa, like Renoir before him was a humanist director.  People are neither good nor bad, and to quote Renoir’s Rules of the Game “Everyone has their reasons”.  Therefore it seems uncharacteristic how the bandits just appear to be pure evil in this sense. 
    There is a scene where Kikuchiyo returns with some samurai armor that we are only left to believe he got by killing a traveling samurai.  As he is berated, he states that the villagers needed the armor and that Kambei himself said he needed to get armor.  In an extended monologue Kikuchiyo goes on to rip apart the farmers for hoarding rice, food, and even sake but he says that they can’t be blamed after what they’ve been through.  Despite treating the samurai as their saviors they’re still holding out on them.  We see later on that when the farmers offer sake on the evening before the final showdown that perhaps this final wall is being broken.  After the samurai decide to start sharing their rice with some of the children who are forced to eat the much less appetizing millet, the class divisions in this society begin to break down.  It’s as if saying we can only be equal when we share everything equally. 
    The relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is perhaps the most interesting in the film.  Shino’s father decides that his daughter is far too pretty and will likely be ravaged by the samurai when they arrive.  Like many of the farmers they feel they need the samurai but are terrified of them and wonder if they’ll be any better than the bandits.  He cuts her beautiful long hair and has her dress as a boy.  When he sees her in the woods picking flowers he asks her gender, when she replies she’s a boy he proceeds to berate her thinking she should be training for the upcoming fight.  It doesn’t take long for him to realize the truth and it involves a great deal of awkwardness.  This scene along with the one where her hair is cut are classic examples of the exaggerated acting style present throughout the film, and a lot of Japanese cinema of that era, but more on that later.  Their love seems almost tragic, forged in the heat of conflict at the end of the film she simply turns her back on him, which is perhaps one of the things that leads Kambei to declare, “Again we have lost”. 
    Not a moment of the film drags, even in the extended version.  Kurosawa makes certain of this, keeping his shots short and to the point.  Lots of senseless dialogue is trimmed out, and a great deal is implied rather than shown.  The battle scenes are all shown in great detail.  They are fast and moving, in more ways than one.  Before you know it this film will be over, so don’t worry for boredom.  Some people do still complain though, oddly enough preferring the John Sturges remake The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Hard to deny the running time, and so much of the film is set up in anticipation of the final showdown.  If these character building scenes bore you, just try to stay awake until the battle starts off.  Rather than have a symphony of destruction ala Sam Peckinpah, Kurosawa decides instead to show his action in bursts.  There are waves of attack and if you’re attentive you know that the magic number is 30 bandits.  A few are killed each attack, the second wave being the most costly for the village.
    Over the years Seven Samurai has gradually been accepted as Kurosawa’s best film.  Rashomon may have been the one to break the gate open, Seven Samurai seems to be the most consistently praised.  Seeing how it’s been over a decade since the monumental restoration a whole new generation has grown up watching this film without realizing there was ever a much worse alternative.  Not surprising there was some preference for the Sturges’ remake for years considering the only available version was butchered.
    I would hesitate to call it a perfect film though.  The acting styles take a lot of getting used to.  The general performance style in most Japanese films, particularly the jidaigeki was anything but naturalistic.  Everyone seems to be shouting or shrieking, people run fast and fall down, sentences are blurted out rather than spoken with any eloquence and this can all seem very foreign indeed.  Mifune was guilty of this exaggerated style perhaps more so than anyone else in the script but somehow hit fits his character who although brave is extremely reckless.  It’s fitting that his one last act of heroism is to charge at the one remaining bandit whose taken refuge amongst the village women.  He takes a bullet but charges with his sword perhaps showing that the time of the rifle was inevitable, but the sword was still mightier in this age.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Film Journal 2012 - July

Well golly it’s August 1st.  In less than two weeks I’ll be another year older (29), so feel free to buy me presents, and Chicago’s annual comic convention that is now referred to as Wizard World will be taking place.  None other than the legendary Stan Lee will be making an appearance, which in 16 years or so of going to this convention this is the first time that’s happened, so its really big news.  This is probably why they are charging an extra $10 just for Saturday, and even more if you don’t pre-order your tickets.  So for the first time in over a decade I’m going on Friday instead.  Why am I telling you this?  Why not, I’m pretty stoked poverty be damned.

Kinda went all over the place this month.  Started with a nice barrage of horror films, then got a few more of the Essentials in, and ended with some experimental films (which I already blogged about) and finished everything off with two of the worst films I’ve seen in damn near ever.  For the record my girlfriend’s birthday is today, so that’s the one and only reason why we watched Blank Check and Night of the Twisters.  Most of you are probably familiar with Blank Check in a “I kinda remember that movie sort of way” but probably have little idea about Night of the Twisters.  Well in 1996 a movie named Twister was really popular, you probably heard of it at some point, Van Halen did a sweet song for the soundtrack.  Anyways true to form a TV station decided to make a quick made for TV knock off with bad actors no one ever heard of, a small budget, and special effects that are laughably bad even by mid-90s standards.  I mean this film can’t even do a proper rear projection for driving scenes and this is 1996, Hollywood figured it out years ago people.

Anyways this insufferable mess continues with a whiny kid (all bad movies have a whiny kid I’m sure) and well no less than five tornadoes touch down in rural Nebraska and he finds his family they live happily ever after, now he has confidence to go bang some girl from school, and his “fat” friend who eats all the time continues to love food.  Sound like a movie you want to see?  Didn’t think so, if you’re thinking “it’s so bad it’s good” you’re wrong, this is bad-bad, no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

I will say that watching Night of the Twisters made Blank Check look like Citizen Kane.  As bad as the movie is this is one of those so bad it’s good films.  It’s very fast paced and there are enough dated mid-90s references and incomprehensible plot points that can make this a damn potent drinking game.  I was reminded of a day when Karen “Duff” Duffy was a relevant person.  Granted back in the mid-90s I watched a LOT of MTV because a long time ago the M used to stand for “music” and when you have summer vacation, that’s what I’d watch.  The fact that I completely forgot this person existed gave a nice whiff of nostalgia.  Truth be told she hasn’t exactly gone away, her most recent film role was as a voice in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

This is Duff, there saved you a Google search

There are plenty of other recognizable faces in Blank Check whose names you won’t know but you’ll recognize their faces.  Miguel Ferrer (yes son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney), who you’ll recognize from Robocop (he did coke off a prostitutes breasts before being shot in the knees and killed by the dad from That 70s Show), as well as Hot Shots! Part Deux, and even Twin Peaks.  There is also Michael Lerner who you might remember as “the fat Jewish banker guy who always plays an asshole, usually in a position of power”.  He even got an Academy Award nomination for playing his typical part in Barton Fink, this time his resemblance to Louis B. Mayer was a good thing.  There’s also Tone Loc and Rick Ducommun who you’ve seen in Groundhog Day and The Burbs.  Anyways put all these C and D-listers together and what do you get?  That’s right crap.  The plot is so simple I remembered it from the trailer that I hadn’t seen since 1994, and I never saw the film either.  So many things don’t add up (mathematically as well as logically) and well you remember this movie was made for like 8 year olds dude, 8 year olds.  So that’s why I watched ’em, figured it needed an explanation.

The A-List

Ah the antidote to garbage, watch more of the 100 Essential films.  Since I’m also working on revising my all time top 100, this serves as a nice dose of extra research as well.  This month we watched:

Nashville (1975)

Nothing says “America” quite like watching Nashville on the Fourth of July.  This particular fourth, we were blessed with a million degree weather, a month long drought and as a result many local villages were cancelling their fireworks.  Since I have cable TV and the internet such primitive entertainments like fireworks don’t seem quite as exciting, so Nashville it is.  This is Altman’s best film by a long shot.  I love how the film looks like such a mess on the surface.  All these seemingly unrelated plot threads hanging around, everybody talking over everyone else, and even the songs which were written and performed by the actors themselves range from damn good, “Easy” won a best song Oscar and Ronnee Blakley  was a legitimate singer before making her acting debut here, and kinda bad (read Henry Gibson).  I pick up on more details each time I see the film and I still love it.  Whether it’ll be in my top 100 whenever that list is done remains to be seen, but if any Altman related film will be in, it’ll probably be Corn’s-a-Poppin’.  As a side note I also finished watching Star Spangled to Death on the same day, how's that for patriotism?

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

After sitting through my least favorite Vincente Minnelli film to date Tea and Sympathy (I haven’t seen I Dood It or A Matter of Time), I needed a film about a troubled youth to redeem this decent in theory but unforgivably dated and awful melodrama about a boy who likes feminine things and his inexplicable social leprosy.  Well when discussing all time greatest troubled youth pictures does any film even hold a candle to Rebel Without a Cause?  This is the nth time I’ve seen it, haven’t really kept count and well Nicholas Ray was a god.  This is one of his best films for sure, and one of the few that he seemed to have some control over, as well as a budget.  You’ll notice the same decaying mansion from Sunset Boulevard (thank you Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself), a Planetarium which seemed a lot cooler in 1955 than before, and even a very young Dennis Hopper as Goon (not to be confused with Chick, Crunch, or Moose).  Even though this film is also dated, and 24 year old Dean was a bit old for the role, it still holds up remarkably well on two things alone.  One is Ray’s direction which employs any trick it can to put you on the same page as the characters, and the other is Dean who gives one of the screens greatest and most iconic performances here.  People want to say he’s overrated because of the legendary cult that surrounded him after his early demise, but looking back at this and East of Eden the man could rival Brando.

Here's Goon, Chick, Crunch etc

I will say I have no idea where all the adult supervision was on the field trip.  I mean there were no school buses to take the kids so they all drove themselves.  Then when Crunch, Goon, etc were tormenting Dean’s Jim no one seemed to be around to say “Hey we have to get back to school, etc”.  After his tire is slashed, Dean threatens with a tire iron only to throw it over the cliff in frustration, ok how the hell did he get his tire changed then?  Oh well that aside the film is still damn amazing and I can’t think of any film from the 50s (and many tried) to so accurately capture different stages of teenagers incapable of understanding their parents and vice-versa. 

Killer of Sheep (1977)

I first saw this on my 24th birthday at the Music Box.  This was one of the two films on The A-List that eluded me forever.  I even met Charles Burnett earlier in 2007 and asked him just what the deal was with Killer of Sheep and why it’s never been released on any format?  He told me it wasn’t meant to be screened commercially, he didn’t bother to clear music from the film, and looked at it more a personal film that was mean as much for himself than other people.  Thankfully Milestone did the leg work, and put it out on DVD after it’s brief theatrical re-release along with My Brother’s Wedding and several short films.  I was a little let down at first.  After all you look for a film for the better part of 6 years it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.  Watching it again though with fresh eyes I was amazed.  The film has no real plot to speak of but it is a landmark in many ways.  It is one of the few, if not the only film that shows a working black family just getting by.  No one resorts to drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, and these average black people don’t bother dressing in drag and bugging their eyes out at the camera like Tyler Perry would like them to.  Even Spike Lee, whose first feature She’s Gotta Have It comes close to this still resorted too much to being the entertainer whereas Burnett’s film feels almost like cinema verite. 

As a side note on this film, early on some of the neighborhood kids go to the train tracks and throw rocks at each other.  Seemingly insignificant scene, and it’s repeated later on when they are jumping across the roofs, but for those who’ve seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will remember Dee and Dennis’ trip to the public pool where they get hit by rocks.  They make the point that only poor people and savages would throw rocks at each other for fun, cut to Charlie and Mack throwing rocks at one another.  I hadn’t seen this episode (don’t even think it was made yet) the first time I saw this movie, but I couldn’t help but chuckle the second time around thinking about it. 

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Well this is now the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film I’ve seen the most.  After watching it again I’m not sure too many new layers of depth emerged.  I was able to focus a little more on his camera work then before, and knowing the ending the film is such an ironic joke.  Fassbinder just toys with his Maria’s happiness, and gives her only the shortest glimpses of what a normal life could be like.  As she says late in the film she’s had “2 and a half days” of marriage.  There’s a reason this gets listed as his best feature.  It had a sizable budget by Fassbinder standards, and coming after the breakthroughs of Herzog and Wenders internationally it was part of a wave of West German cinema that was making huge strides internationally.  It was really the right film at the right time.  Although the other two films in the BDR trilogy don’t hold up as well, and they have nothing to do with Braun plot-wise, this film does easily stand alone and above nearly all of his work.    

…And the battle for the worst

Usually I watch only good movies.  Some are duds every now and then, and in some cases I don’t have any film worthy of naming the worst of the month.  July was the opposite, in fact the competition for worst film of the month is fierce.  I thought The Orphanage (2007) would be an early front runner, then came Amos Gitai’s self indulgent Arena of Murder (1996), a disappointing Garrel film Un Ete Brulant (2011), and an absolutely awful Zhang Yimou film Keep Cool (1997).  In fact Yimou was always one of my favorite directors, once upon a time To Live was my favorite foreign film ever, and after seeing Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, and others I only thought higher of him.  I’m one of the few people that love his bloated over the top martial arts epics so Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower are all masterpieces in my opinion.  However it seems the more I dig around the more bad films I find.  Not One Less was a disappointment (and that actually got decent ratings), A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop is downright awful (it’s a quasi remake of Blood Simple so go figure), but Keep Cool was just the worst of the bunch.  Former cinematographer Zhang seems to employ the attention span of a two year old here.  He takes his camera on a non-stop tracking and moving odyssey that might leave you with a bit of motion sickness.  Perhaps this is a cultural thing where things that are funny to the Chinese don’t translate well here.  After all this is a comedy, but good god try laughing at this film.

One of many infuriating and agonizing scenes from Keep Cool
There were plenty more bad films, Night of the Twisters has to take the gold on this one.  But even Guy Maddin whose films I generally love let me down tremendously with Keyhole (2011).  I wasn’t a fan of My Winnipeg when it came out and was looking forward to his next feature for redemption.  Then came this, and I thought oh no, he’s gone digital just like Lynch.  Despite a valiant effort, the film is a mess of incomprehension and by the end its hard to even give a shit about what it’s about or even trying to figure it out.  I’ve also watched a couple Otto Preminger films that left me cold.  The Moon is Blue (1953) was a box office hit apparently because the word “virgin” was used.  It was a play first, and the cheap production values and the fact that the characters never, ever, ever, ever stop talking even for a second means that this should have stayed on the stage.  Laughable to think this was controversial, could have used a little more banging and a lot less talking.  I also watched his forgettable Forever Amber (1947) which seemed quite a bit more salacious, but well I’m just done with bloated over produced Technicolor period pictures from Hollywood.  I think they were trying to make some version of Gone with the Wind transposed to England in the 18th Century, but it failed quite miserably.  I mentioned in the last blog how much a waste of time Blow Job (1963) was.

And there you have it, here’s the rest of the bunch:

The Orphanage (2007) 4/10
The Changeling (1980) 8/10
A Serbian Film (2010) 6/10
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) 10/10

Our Hospitality (1923) 10/10
Sherlock Jr. (1924) 10/10

The Amazing Spider Man (2012) 6/10

Star Spangled to Death 10/10
Ornamental Hairpin (1941) 8/10
Nashville (1975) 10/10

City Lights (1931) 10/10

A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) 8/10
Reason, Debate, and a Tale (1974) 9/10

Tree of Life (2011) 10/10

Field Diary (1982) 6/10
Arena of Murder (1996) 3/10

A Mother Should Be Loved (1934) 6/10
Klondike Annie (1936) 7/10
Maranhao ‘66 (1966) 8/10

Miracles for Sale (1939) 9/10

Keep Cool (1997) 2/10
Un Ete Brulant (2011) 4/10

It Should Happen to You (1954) 9/10
Bhuvan Shome (1969) 9/10

The End of the World (1988) 7/10
Human Remains (1998) 9/10

Tres Tristes Tigres (1968) 6/10
A Movie (1958) 10/10
Cosmic Ray (1962) 10/10

King of the Jews (2000) 9/10

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 10/10

Tea and Sympathy (1956) 4/10
Blow Job (1964) 2/10
Flesh (1968) 5/10
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) 10/10

Trash (1970) 6/10

Road to Glory (1936) 7/10

Little Toys (1933) 7/10
Indonesia Calling (1946) 7/10
Island of Flowers (1989) 10/10

Killer of Sheep (1977) 10/10
The Moon is Blue (1953) 6/10

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) 10/10
Keyhole (2011) 5/10

Forever Amber (1947) 5/10

The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) 8/10
Blank Check (1994) 2/10
Night of the Twisters (1996) 0/10

Best Film of the Month - Tree of Life
Worst Film of the Month - Night of the Twisters
Best New Discovery of the Month - Island of Flowers