Seven Samurai

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Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a film that left me stunned. So much action! Bam! What bold characters! Wow!

During a period of political instability in the 16th century, samurai were cut loose from their masters. Bandits roamed Japan pillaging and farmers lived in fear. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a small, farming village is attacked by bandits. The bandits leave since the farmers don’t have much to steal. The bandits took most everything before. However, they do plan to return when the crops come in.

The elder of the village suggests the peasants hire some samurai to protect them. The peasants aren’t sure, but “Grandpa” is revered and no one has a better idea. So a few scouts go to town to recruit.

They luck out and find wise Kanbei, played by Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura, who leads the motley crew. Other samurai includes trained swordsmen, a master samurai who’s head and shoulders above the others, and the bull in a china shop, Kikuchiyo, played by another acting powerhouse Toshirô Mifune. Kikuchiyo is an outsider even in the midst of this motley crew. He’s crude and has a sense of humor that has no idea what’s appropriate when. Kikuchiyo is so fun to watch because he’s incredibly physical able to move and fight like no one I’ve seen on film.

The film is dramatic, but also funny. No character is put on a pedestal. Most defy the idealized social roles most stories confer upon them. One of the high points of the film is a speech Kikuchiyo gives deriding farmers. He tells the other samurai that they’re fools to think these people are simple and honest. He calls them out as greedy, timid and secretive. After his heated speech, Kanbei says, “So you’re from a farming family?” Yep. You called it.

By the end of the film we see that Kikuchiyo was exactly right. The farmers show their true natures. It takes nearly 3 and a half hours to see the team assembled, watch them prepare and then fight in a couple of the most compelling battles I’ve ever seen on film.

From David Ehrensteins’ essay on the film from Criterion.com:

“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,” Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Ozu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”

The dish Kurosawa set before audiences was certainly different from what they had tasted up until then—particularly as far as period filmmaking was concerned. Instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical sixteenth-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic, like Gunga Din or Stagecoach. The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary—particularly in the case of the buffoonish Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited would-be samurai played with great gusto by Toshiro Mifune. Most important of all was the visual style of the film which, thanks to Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras, lent itself to many unusual editing techniques.

Seven Samurai is a classic that all film lovers should see.

The Soft Skin

Truffaut offers a realistic look at infidelity in The Soft Skin (1964) where Pierre Lachenay, a publisher and scholar known from his TV appearances, gets obsessed with Nicole, a flight attendant, and starts an affair with her. Pierre has a sort of budding butterball look. He could be the Pillsbury Doughboy’s French father. He is smart, yet bland. He’s married to an attractive woman and they have a young daughter whom he dotes on. He doesn’t hate his life, but when he sees Nicole on a flight, he becomes smitten.

He later sees her at a hotel and follows her to find out her room. It’s a bit stalker-ish, but not quite. Nicole who’s probably half Pierre’s age is interested. She hasn’t experience romantic love and is in awe of Pierre’s success.

Throughout the film Pierre and Nicole have difficulty meeting up. Their rendezvous always go awry. Perhaps an old friend meets Pierre and asks to go for a drink. He’ll respond that he must drive back to Paris and the friend will say that’s where he wants to go and figures they can drive together. All the while Nicole’s twiddling her fingers back at the hotel where they’re staying. Such obstacles crop up again and again. Ever nervous, Pierre bungles along with his poor plans and lies. Yes, Nicole is young, beautiful and energetic, but having the affair is offset by the stress of lies and running around only to be thwarted.

Eventually Franca Pierre’s wife realizes something’s off. After awhile Franca gives up on the marriage and asks for a divorce. Freed, Pierre agrees, but he soon finds that breaking with Franca does not lead to bliss in a new posh apartment with Nicole.

The film is beautiful and Truffaut’s direction is sophisticated and engaging. He films intimacy in such a classy, real way. He shows affairs as they really are, not all romance, not all due to a horrible spouse. Infidelity certainly doesn’t lead to a blissful new romance and a break with past problems.

L’Avventura

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Monica VittClaudia

I admit I didn’t much like L’Avventura, the story of a rich Italian woman who goes missing while on a weekend away with her rich, jaded friends. I concede that the actors were gorgeous and skillful; the sets and cinematography excellent, but the story was lacking and the personalities were exasperating.

The story’s simple. Anna is unhappy in a general alienated 1960s way. She bickers with her boyfriend and pouts a lot because life’s missing something. When she’s off on a boat with her friends she dives in the water and is never seen of again. I do mean that. We don’t ever see her and though I can appreciate innovation in plots, this was too much. While her friends and father search for her, her boyfriend (he’s no boy – these characters seem to be in their late 20s or 30s) and her best friend Claudia go to look for her. Looking for Anna becomes insignificant compared to Claudia and Sando, Anna’s boyfriend, who embark on romance spiced up with occasional pangs of guilt on Claudia’s part.

The film is striking and beautiful. I did buy into Claudia’s dramatic emotions as she pushed and pulled at Sando. Much of the film is a critique of the shallow lives of the rich. I didn’t quite buy it, true as it might be. The characters were simply playboys and playgirls and I found it hard to actually believe they couldn’t find something to dedicate their lives to. I suppose there are people like this.

Continue reading “L’Avventura”

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Finally I found time to watch a movie, albeit a short one that I watched in short stints as I ate lunch this past week.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. starred Buster Keaton as a long lost, disappointing son of a steamboat owner. Steamboat Bill. Sr. owns an old steamboat that gets condemned shortly after Mr. King, a local tycoon with a splendid new boat muscles into town. Bill’s son, whom he hasn’t seen in at least 20 years comes to town and the rough, salt-of-the-earth father is totally disappointed with his light-weight, citified son.

To make matters worse, coincidentally, the son’s sweetheart turns out to be the daughter of the tycoon, who so hates Bill.

Lots of slapstick ensues. While I could appreciate the acrobatics and the technical precision in the film, I wished for more–more like the social commentary Chaplin would have included. The DVD I had had a few extras, but I missed the audio commentary that many Criterion Collection films have. It wasn’t a bad film, but it could have been better.

Thirst

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Call me a philistine but Thirst (1949) is the first Ingmar Berman film I’ve seen. Hmm. I can’t say I liked it, though there were shots that were captivating like when two young dancers are seen in a dressing room mirror and their grouchy teacher’s seen in the mirror beside it.

However, this film about a married couple and their previous lovers didn’t do much for me. I was put off by their intense “go for the throat” arguments. The heroine, a young dancer who’s career’s ended, was egotistical, selfish and mean. No doubt Bergman wanted to show intense feeling when you want to kill or tell your partner to go to hell, but do we need 100 minutes of this? All the characters seemed both sadistic and masochistic. I suppose the raw emotion and language was modern for the 1940s, but it didn’t do anything for me, except make me not want to visit Sweden.

Seeing that last week I saw and enjoyed Passing Fancy, which I grant is a comedy so not comparable, it was perhaps harder to appreciate Thirst. In Passing Fancy we also see characters who’ve had it with each other, who tell each other they hate them, but the storm passes and other emotions exist. In Thirst when a couple reconciles a bit you believe they still want their partner to die and go to hell. Lovely. Charming.

Actually, Thirst seemed like a bit of hell on earth.

I won’t swear off Bergman, but I’m not in a hurry to see more.

I think I need to see more Poldark and Ozu to counteract the Bergman effect.

3:10 to Yuma

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I’m normally not a fan of Westerns, but if the Criterion Collection saw fit to offer Delmar Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), maybe this Western was worth a look. It sure was. Starring Glen Ford, whom I associate with TV sitcoms if anything, 3:10 to Yuma is a psychologically compelling game of cat and mouse. Ford plays Ben Wade, a slick, charming head of a gang of stagecoach robbers. After his gang kills a stagecoach driver while robbing the coach, his gang disperses to hide out. Ford miscalculates and allows a little romance to detain him and so he gets nabbed.

He’s in hick country and doubts the locals can keep his gang from him from breaking loose or getting rescued. Surely, he can outsmart these poor yokels. The central yokel, is a small rancher Dan Evans, who agrees to escort Wade to a town where a train to Yuma will take Wade to the nearest judge. Evans needs the $200 reward to save his cattle. Just as desperately Evans heeds his wife and sons’ esteem. That they seem to see him as a man who always plays it safe is getting to him.

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Some of the tensest moments are in a hotel room where these two character kill time till the train’s about to leave. The film’s strength is the psychology of the characters, that and the remarkable cinematography of the desolate Western landscape.

Good quote:

Bisbee Marshal: Do I have two volunteers?
First Posse Member: We gotta know what we’re gettin’ ourselves into.
Second Posse Member: Sure… might not be safe.
Bisbee Marshal: Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years… then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?

As with all the Criterion films I’ve seen, the extras were well worth my time. One was an interview with Glen Ford’s son, who’s written his father’s biography. The other was an interview with Elmore Leonard, who wrote the short story the film’s based on. I’ve heard Leonard’s name and associated him with short stories, but the interview was inspiring and insightful for writers. The power of this spare film, stuck with me for days. I’d definitely check out more of Daves’ films. [categorie film, review, New Years’ Resolution Film Challenge]

City Lights

The Tramp and the Blind Girl

I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.

Woman in Green

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Last week I had trouble blogging as the Chinese seem to be keen on blocking VPNs. So I have been catching up on old movies for my New Year’s resolution, I just haven’t been able to blog about them.

I enjoyed The Woman in Green, a Sherlock Holmes movie starring Basil Rathbone ad Sherlock and Nigel Bruce as Watson. The pair set the standard for Sherlock and Watson and I appreciate a Sherlock who consistently shows his good humor towards his sidekick’s foibles.

In The Woman in a rich older man, Sir George Fenwick meets and alluring younger woman. After a night out with her he awakes in a cheap hotel room unable to recall how he got there. When he finds a severed finger of a woman in his pocket, he fears that he’s involved in a series of murders. He’s soon blackmailed.

The police are perplexed by the murders and call in Holmes and Watson, who happened to see Sir George out with a beautiful blonde. Sir George’s daughter brings the finger which she dug up after she saw her father burying something suspicious in their yard. When Holmes and Watson go to interview Sir George, they find him dead. Soon Holmes suspects Moriarty‘s involved.

The movie still entertains without getting quite as gruesome as a more modern depiction might. Rathbone portrays Holmes as a sophisticated genius, who may be a trifle arrogant, but has the social skills to smooth problems over as needed. It’s a classic mystery, still fun to watch.

     

    The Most Beautiful

    Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

    Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ wellbeing.

    Band Practice After Work

    Band Practice After Work

    The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

    While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.