Criterion Sunday 190: Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV)

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Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 88: Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein | Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov | Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell | Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond | Cinematographer Laurie Rose | Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.


Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


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Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


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Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½

Criterion Sunday 2: Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)

Kurosawa was the director who largely introduced Japanese cinema to Western audiences (with Rashomon a few years earlier), and that makes sense given his fondness for American genres and tropes. Seven Samurai, despite its 16th century feudal Japanese setting, has plenty about it to recall generic war movies and Westerns, so it’s appropriate that it re-entered the Hollywood vernacular a few years later as a Western, The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s film concerns a small impoverished community terrorised by vagabonds, who need to hire itinerant samurai to protect them. If this is the core of the story, then its running time of well over three hours is concerned more with developing the identities of each of these samurai, though Toshiro Mifune’s over-eager youngster and Takashi Shimura’s patient elder samurai steal the show. There’s a showdown at the end, and amongst it all is plenty of solid character work and the same kind of unfashionably unshowy message about war that Renoir did so well in La Grande illusion.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Isao Kimura | Length 207 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 21 March 1999 (also previously on VHS at home, Wellington, May 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 October 2014)