The Sword of Doom (1966)

I thought Jef Costello of Le Samouraï was the most cold-blooded killer in film but that was till I saw The Sword of Doom. A Japanese film set in the days of samurai, The Sword of Doom introduces viewers to Ryunosuke, a lone samurai. The embodiment of evil, Ryunosuke kills and rapes for something to get an advantage. Despite the masterful, choreographed sword fighting It’s hard to watch. I hoped that Toranosuke, a master who led a school for samurai, would vanquish Ryunosuke and that hope carried me through this film.

It’s no exaggeration that Ryunosuke is pure evil with no redeeming quality. He killed dozens with no remorse. He shows no chivalry whatsoever. He breaks a promise to the wife of a samurai he fights, rapes her, and her husband then divorces her. She winds up stuck living with Ryunosuke, who treats her badly, but then again that’s how a sociopath treats everyone. 

The cinematography is striking as is the choreography of the sword fighting. Even though Ryunosuke is completely loathsome, actor Tatsuya Nakadai (of The Human Condition, Yojimbo,  Sanjuro and dozens of other classics) deserves praise. 

When I lived in China, someone told me that the Chinese like the beauty of violence a lot more than Westerners do. I wonder if this is the case with The Sword of Doom. As repugnant as the hero was, I must say the film was beautiful. 

Below’s the beginning of the essay The Sword of Doom: Calligraphy in Blood by Geoffrey O’Brien. To read the whole essay, click here

Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom is likely to strike the unalerted viewer as an exercise in absurdist violence, tracking the career of a nihilistic swordsman from his gratuitous murder of a defenseless old man to his final descent into what looks like a rehearsal for global annihilation, as, in a kind of ecstasy, he slaughters a seemingly endless army of attackers both real and phantasmal. 

Geoffrey O’Brien, criterion.com

While it’s beautiful, I don’t think it’s essential to watch The Sword of Doom. I don’t recommend it for people sensitive to violence.

Le Samouraï (1967)

Icy and aloof, hitman Jef Costello enters a night club, surveys the room, smiles at the chic woman playing the piano, proceeds to the back office and shoots a man. We don’t know the reason for the hit and we never do. 

The police are called and haul Jef and some others in for questioning and a line up. Some  witnesses’ think Jef is the one and and others insist he isn’t. The piano player knows he did it, but tells the police he didn’t. Why does she do that? 

Though Jef has ice water running through his veins, a beautiful red head agrees to give him an alibi and she sticks to it. The police sense she’s lying but even when they ransack her apartment, she sticks to her story. 

Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï doesn’t feature any samurai’s. In fact, compared with Kurosawa’s or Tokuzo Tanaka’s samurai, you wonder what’s going on? Where’s his posse? Jef Costello is a loner par excellence, a ronin (i.e. a samurai without his feudal lord). Yes, up the chain Jef’s got a boss, but he has no idea who. We do. We see the big boss decide that someone needs to take Jef out. That plan goes awry because Jef’s that good. He’s unbeatable so the boss thinks maybe he is useful and should take on another contract. 

The police investigator admires Jef’s impeccable skills, but is determined to win. Yet his network of detectives can’t catch the elusive Jef. 

I haven’t seen a character this icy. He lives in near poverty in a dingy, gray apartment with a poor bird as his only companion. Even when he kisses significant other, no emotion registers. Yet he’s compelling.

Melville pares down the film to the minimum. Dialog is spare. Alan Delon, who plays Jef, took the role because when Melville pitched it to him, he realized there was no dialogue for the first 8 minutes. While it’s in color, the film mainly consists of grays, black and white. The only red is blood. 

By using the elements of silent films, Le Samouraï compels because it’s so simple, so stark.  

Ned Kelly (2003)

19th Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is a folk hero down under and like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been the subject of many films. Starring Heath Ledger, Ned Kelly (2003) recounts the life of this hero turned anti-hero. As a boy, Ned saved the life of a drowning boy and was honored with a green and gold sash.

Yet as his family was poor and his father was imprisoned for stealing meat and after he got out took to hard drinking before he died an early death. On top of this as a poor, immigrant family the Kelly’s were downtrodden and this shaped Ned’s worldview. He was arrested for bushranging. The film begins when Ned’s released from jail for another robbery. His views on the Law are established and harden police target his family. After a problem with the law, Kelly’s mother is arrested to smoke out Ned, the one they’re really after. This leads to the bank robberies and events which culminate in a historic shoot out. 

I’d learned of Ned Kelly on a walking tour of Melbourne. The film includes all the events which made him a folk hero — how he robbed banks and then burned all the mortgages and loans so that no one had to pay the bank back and how Ned fashioned protective armor for head and body to protect his gang and himself from police bullets. Ned certainly was clever.

Yet the film seemed to drag and lacked the wit and charisma in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the film seemed mediocre. It could do with some editing and a tighter story. The writers seemed to have been working off a check list, drowning scene, check, bank robbery with burning the mortgages with a flat-footed line from the banker, check, romantic interlude, check, etc. Ned Kelly’s certainly got a dramatic life. Perhaps one of the other biopics does a better job of portraying it. I can’t recommend this one. It’s not horrible, but there are better things to watch. 

Playtime (1967)

Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime could be a silent film, but it isn’t. There’s minimal dialogue and no meaningful conversations. The film is a critique on modern life – the sterile office space, the noisy, empty social life, and tourism that distances people from what they traveled thousands of miles to see. There’s no story. Time passes. While Tati plays his famous Mr. Hulot, Hulot’s just a bystander, another person lost in modernity. The film does have several clever gags and uses the set well. The glass office building just adds confusion to the business inside. The new nightclub opens while the adhesive for the floor tile is still drying. The hour or so in the night club is a series of catastrophes when everything from the glass entry door to the tiles, and decor break causing all kinds of trouble.

All in all, I missed a plot and developed characters. The film dragged for me, which is odd for a comedy. I suppose if you wanted to study gags, it would be worth your while to take a look, but you don’t need to watch the whole film. 

Tempest (1982)

I got the this movie by accident. When I read Shakespeare’s The Tempest for my book club, I wanted to watch it performed. I got this film which is a loose version. I put this aside as I wanted Shakespeare’s language. This weekend I watched this 1982 version with John Cassavetes and Gina Rowlands. 

The story of a midlife crisis, in Tempest acclaimed architect Philip Dimitrius is dissatisfied with his work and his marriage to a lesser extent. His wife Antonia and daughter Miranda (Molly Ringwald) try to give him support and space, but he can’t find meaning with his life and gets more and more irascible. No red Ferrari is going to help this man though a good philosophy course could. He has nothing to give anyone though he does offer a bit of encouragement to his wife when she announces that she’s returning to the stage.

The film jumps back and forth between the New York Park Avenue and a desolate Greek isle inhabited by goats and a crazy guy named Kalabani (Raul Julia) where Philip and Miranda and Philip’s girlfriend Aretha (Susan Sarandon) wind up.

Philip’s search for meaning has him consulting his father, his client, an uber weathy business man. Nothing helps. He kvetches, gets drunk, embarrasses his wife and yells at Miranda. I had no sympathy for him whatsoever — until he sees his wife out with his client Mr. Big Bucks. When he confronts Antonia, she asks for a divorce. Off Philip goes to Greece with Miranda in tow. In Athens he meets a Aretha, a singer. Romance ensues. When Antonia and Mr. Big Bucks track him down, he takes Miranda and to a desolate island. 

The film has many parallels to the Shakespearean play. The deserted island, the betrayal is Philip and Antonia’s divorce (though Philip played a role too), rather than immersing himself in alchemy, in exile, Philip immerses himself in baseball statistics. Kalabani, like Calaban, shows the hero how to live on the island, and in turn the newcomer shares life off the island with him. 

For much of the film, the story jumps in time and from New York to Greece. Cassavetes, Rowland and Sarandon were dynamic and engaging, yet the story often drags and my attention waned particularly when I got to much of the noisy, neurotic, upper crust world. The complaints about marriage were very much like those in Woody Allen films and got tedious. 

The island was beautiful and the main characters were rather compelling, but I wouldn’t say this is a must-see film. At 2 hours 20 minutes, an edit would have improved the film.

Whisper of the Heart

From M’s famed Studio Ghilbli, Whisper of the Heart begins with the much loved John Denver tune, “Country Road.” The Japanese love “Country Road” and you’ll hear it in schools, businesses, hummed by people walking around. (The Carpenters and Beatles are also BIG.) 

Spunky, bookworm and middle schooler Shizuku wants to write some new “Country Road” lyrics for her junior high graduation, but this perfectionist can’t get it quite right. Her high school entrance exams, which are super important to the future of all Japanese students in determining their options in life, loom, but Shizuku has other priorities and shrugs off test prep. Her best friend Yūko Harada leans on Shizuku for advice in dealing with a love triangle, while also offering understanding.

While delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku follows a fat cat (literally a cat that’s too well-fed) and discovers an intriguing antique shop where there’s a seemingly enchanted cat figurine called the Baron, who longs for his love. The shop owner is a wise old man, i.e. mentor, who helps Shizuku with her search for understanding and direction.

A patron of a library that still has a card catalog and check out cards where you can see the names of previous checkouts Shizuku notices a weird coincidence that a mysterious reader has borrowed exactly the same books she checks out. Who is this person? Shizuku imagines a paragon, but when she learns his identity is infuriated that it’s a boy who annoys her to no end. To make matters worse he loves her. 

Could things be more aggravating for this girl?

Whisper of the Heart shows so much of Japanese culture from the junior high where entrance exams hang over everyone’s head, teasing is rampant, yet kids do want the best for their classmates, in a way only kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten and belong to a culture that prioritizes group belonging can. 

I was struck by how upset Shizuku was because as a third year middle school student (probably 14 or 15 years old) she hadn’t yet figured out her career direction. I liked how assertive she was no matter whom she was dealing with and how reasonable the adults were. Parents, the teacher in the lunchroom, the antique shop owner, all had some wisdom and insight to share. There was a teacher who reprimanded students who weren’t studying or ready to answer a question, but isn’t that okay? Isn’t that his job? 

In Japan high school is optional, though well over 90% of students do go to high school, thus this was why Shizuku and Amasawa consider foregoing high school. I was impressed with Amasawa’s dedication to crafting top quality violins and actually working towards that end. That’s another very Japanese quality of the film — dedicating long hours to excelling in a field. 

I loved the details in the animation, which includes rust on stoplight poles, lace curtains, dingy concrete walls and a myriad of perfect details. 

I highly recommend this charming film which will transport you to Tokyo and introduce you to a delightful girl. 

Omega Man (1971)

Starring Charlton Heston, Omega Man takes place in a post-apocalypse Los Angeles. It’s 1977 and a bizarre pandemic has left the city deserted except for Dr. Robert Neville (Heston) who right before the mysterious virus took hold, he vaccinated himself with the vaccine he developed. It’s weird and cool to see L.A. so dusty and barren. Neville keeps himself sane by talking to imagined car dealers and clerks and to his bust of Cæsar.

Loneliness isn’t Neville’s biggest problem. Like a 1970s Cinderella, he must be home in his fortified flat by sundown when the zombies led by a former newscaster named Mathias come for him. These zombies were stricken with the virus and have become albino’s who can’t take the light. They want him dead and they want to destroy the art and culture he’s preserved.

Mathias’ crew nearly gets Neville, but he’s rescued by Lisa and Dutch, whom are living out in the countryside with a handful of children who’ve also escaped the virus — for the time being. Neville welcomes the community and accepts the mission of curing Lisa’s brother who’s one step away from zombiehood. He figures he can make a serum from his blood to cure the boy. Lisa accompanies Neville and her brother back to the city. Romance ensues in scenes when the zombies aren’t attacking.

Some of the action scenes weren’t all that plausible, like the way Mathias’ right hand man falls from a balcony. There’s some deus ex machina contrivances in spots, but I let myself get caught up in the novelty and Neville’s wit.

Omega Man can be over the top and the heroics and action are over the top, but it feels good to see a good guy keep his head and fight against evil. The end isn’t what I expected as recent movies would end differently. It seems studios think they must satisfy their audiences with a certain ending. Pfiffle. I’m open to what makes sense and applaud the daring. 

Ida

Set in Poland in 1962, Ida is a stunning, quiet film about an orphan who grew up in a convent is about  to take her vows. Her superior tells her she should meet her one living relative, an aunt before she takes her vows. The taciturn, obedient Ida agrees. 

Aunt Wanda turns out to be a judge whose personality is diametrically opposed to Ida’s. When Ida gets to Wanda’s apartment, Wanda’s lover leaves. Atheist Wanda smokes and drinks too much. Aunt Wanda tells Ida that her parents were Jewish and both were killed by the Germans in WWII along with Wanda’s infant son. They embark on a search through rural Poland for their graves. 

This journey changes both women, but not in predictable ways. it’s greatest strength is it’s cinematography. The black and white scenes are framed simply and elegantly. The story is minimal and the tension between aunt and niece is compelling. There were a few incidents that seemed implausible, but on the whole the film is well worth a watch.

Stalker (1979)

If you give it a chance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker mesmerizes and baffles. Made in the USSR in 1979, the Stalker takes place in a decaying, post-apocalyptic world that’s both repulsive and dripping in sludge yet hypnotic. 

Plot: In a dystopian city, two men, the Writer and the Professor, pay the Stalker to lead them into the forbidden Zone. If they can make it into the Zone into the inner sanctum, the Room the Stalker tells them their deepest desire will be fulfilled. Don’t worry the Writer is sharp enough to call the Stalker into question.

Every step of the way, they face danger. Violence? Imprisonment? It’s unspecified and you never see the who or what is the actual foe, which makes the tension all the higher. 

Thoughts:The dialog is poetic and philosophical. Throughout the story the men bicker, cheat and challenge each other. I did admire them for at least trying for more, for betterment despite being surrounded by the ugly and hopeless.

Writer (left), Stalker, Professor

Drenched, oily, dark, craggy the setting is incredible. Even in the Zone, the paradise they aimed for, the verdant fields are overgrown and look like Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster. There isn’t one inch of space that’s clean or inviting. And this atmosphere will haunt me and intrigue me.

I doubt this film could be remade by any other nationality. Every aspect is just so modern Russian. It visualizes what an oppressive, corrupt kleptocracy is: toxic, neglected, fetid, bleak.  

While the story is oblique and the characters, while sympathetic, are unlikeable, Stalker intrigued me so much that I’m sure I’ll watch it again and again. The visuals get inside your head, but not in a bad way.

Stalker is a challenging film. It often moves slowly, but the camera work of these slow scenes is tremendous. The frame of the story, particularly with Stalker’s mutant daughter who may have paranormal powers, mystifies rather than enlightens, but Tarkovsky makes it work. Few could.

Free and Easy

Free and Easy with Buster Keaton is a talkie with lots of physical humor. Keaton plan Elmer Butts, a nerdy sap, escorts local beauty queen winner Elvira and her overbearing mother to Hollywood. Of course, everything goes awry from the moment they start their journey. Every mix up is blamed on Elmer, some rightly so. 

On the train to California, while Elmer is stuck at the back of the train, Elvira and her mother meet a dashing movie star. Elvira is smitten with this flirtatious actor. 

A series of mishaps befall Elmer. He just doesn’t fit into the Hollywood scene and he knows it. However, he has a chance to play the hero, when he’s mistakenly given a chauffeur uniform and a car and sees Larry canoodling in the back of the car as he took innocent Elvira back to his mansion without a chaperone, he springs into action.

I watched this film almost accidentally. I’d checked out a three film DVD set from the library. The DVD I wanted to watch didn’t work, but the one with Free and Easy did. It’s a comic film and has Keaton’s famed pratfalls and his woebegone demeanor, but it was awfully hokey for a talkie. The story and characters were rather thin. It wasn’t awful, but unless you wind up with a disc that doesn’t work and one that does, I don’t see the need to see this film.

I’ll add that there’s a special feature, So Funny it Hurts, in which an old friend of Keaton’s explains Keaton’s troubled relationship with MGM.