Criterion Sunday 267: 影武者 Kagemusha (1980)

The latter half of Kurosawa’s career is dominated by the two enormous epic-length huge-scale period samurai films he directed in the 1980s, the best known of which is Ran, an adaptation of King Lear (and which will come up soon in the Criterion Collection). However, Kagemusha deserves to stand alongside it and is, in my meagre opinion, possibly better than similar works (like Seven Samurai) from earlier in his career. Partly it’s because the time it took to mount the production meant Kurosawa had a clearer idea of how he wanted the film to look (as attested by the many colourful and detailed storyboards he painted in preparation). However, there’s also a real feeling to the predicaments each of the characters finds themselves in, most of all the kagemusha (or “double”) of the title, who must impersonate a clan chief (both played by Tatsuya Nakadai) and, upon the chief’s death, finds himself doing it full-time in order to confound the clan’s enemies. This sense of what it takes to be a major political actor, a role that even a humble thief can aspire to, gives the film a pathos, a real glimpse behind the machinations of power. There are of course other themes, like the encroachment of Western ideas (whether the brief glimpse of monks, or the sound of guns that overwhelms the traditional weaponry) and the danger of youthful hubris. But for all its length this is a human-sized story about leadership and power, and a beautiful one too in coordinating all the colour and movement across the screen.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 20-minute featurette interview with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who were both instrumental in securing American funding to complete the film, and wax lyrical about their love for Kurosawa, which makes sense if you’ve seen any of their films.
  • There’s a small gallery of side-by-side comparisons of Kurosawa’s immaculately painted storyboards with shots from the film, showing how he rendered literal these imaginative sketches.
  • One of the more interesting extras is a series of five minute or half-minute Suntory whiskey commercials made on the set of Kagemusha, some of which amusingly feature Akira and Francis clinking glasses while looking over images from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Masato Ide 黒澤明; Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄 and Masaharu Ueda 上田正治; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Tsutomu Yamazaki 山崎努; Length 180 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, TBC 2019.

Personal Problems (1980)

When comparing it to a lot of mainstream production of the 1970s, not to mention documentaries about African-American urban lives, this film feels like a completely different world. As the writer Ishmael Reed and producers suggest in a bonus featurette on the Kino Lorber release, Personal Problems derives from an opposition to the ‘Blaxploitation’ films being churned out by Hollywood during the 70s, and also presumably somewhat from a lot of the counter-cultural artists who contributed to the film, none of whom were likely to recognise much about their own lives on the big screen at that time. Reed invokes the alternative circuit of ‘race films’ that developed during the silent era, but aside from 1982’s Losing Ground (itself restored a few years ago) there’s not much that I can think of to compare it to.


This film is a sort-of-television show in the way it’s made (on video, which while never exactly visually stunning, has its own internal beauty, with the ghosting of figures during movement or the oddly unnatural colours), though its first iteration was a radio play. When you watch it, it feels more like an improvised theatre piece, and I suspect that’s the kind of milieu the actors were more familiar with — and indeed, I gather that a lot of it is improvised. In so doing, we see people that seem like real people (and, as mentioned by I think a fair few commentators, that means it has an almost documentary quality at times). I think of the three women near the opening of the film, just chatting at a bar, perched on some tables on a sidewalk. I think of the scenes in the kitchen between Vertamae Grosvenor and Walter Cotton (playing her husband; he’s a lot gruffer and angrier in the preliminary 1979 version included as an extra, but here his beard is thinner and he seems somehow less commanding next to her). She’s telling him to expect her brother, to which he’s not best pleased, then by the end of part one, she’s laying down some furious anger at all of them for disrespecting her home. The second part of the film/TV show/performance piece is a little shorter and follows the death of the elderly father character (Jim Wright). If the first part seems dominated by the voices of the women in the ensemble, this one is altogether manlier, though these men, gathered at a wake then later at a bar, feel adrift and despondent (as I suppose you’d expect given the narrative).

Still, overall, it feels like a film about people living their lives, true in a sense to the ‘meta-soap opera’ the writer promises, and to the melodramatic qualities of the form, but with characters who are more lived-in and weary than that might suggest. There’s little discussion of politics and contemporary society, aside from a memorable scene at a party where Reed’s character says he voted for Reagan to audible consternation (and that scene features an appearance from a grumpy young white intellectual, whom I must try to ensure I do not ever become), but there’s also a vivid sense of urban life in the era. Part of that may come from the grainy old video stock, but I think it pervades a lot of the film, not just the fashion but also some of the choices the characters make. Anyway, it’s a lovely, strange document.

Personal Problems film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Gunn; Writer Ishmael Reed; Cinematographer Robert Polidori; Starring Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton; Length 165 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 163: Hopscotch (1980)

It’s difficult in our techno-spy thriller era to take seriously such a bumbling joking character as Walter Matthau’s CIA agent here, Miles Kendig. He’s running rings around his bureaucratic superiors (most notably Ned Beatty antagonist Myerson), but I’m not sure it is always believable. It’s more akin to a comedic farce really, likeable I suppose and impossible to really hate, but very much of its time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writers Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (based on the novel by Garfield); Cinematographers Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy; Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 July 2017.

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)

There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter film posterCREDITS
Director Connie Field; Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 26: The Long Good Friday (1980)

On first look, The Long Good Friday is a film very much of its period with its clothes and hairstyles, its clunky technology and pulsating synth-led score, but there are a few reasons for the film’s resilience. It was made at the tail end of the 1970s as the UK was anticipating its new right-wing Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and thus a period of intense business investment and privatisation, and the plot taps into that, as Harry Shand (a mesmerising Bob Hoskins) tries to leverage his gangland supremacy into business success by redeveloping an area of the defunct docklands in the East End. Of course, as we’ve all seen in many subsequent films and TV shows (The Wire season 3 is one that springs to mind), whatever control gangsters may exert over people are as nothing to the coldly brutal machinations of global capital. However, the very area where this film is set was to become a symbol of 80s property developers’ greed and corporate excess — no doubt the local government corruption and dubious investment practices charted here was a factor in real life. (Indeed, the huge Canary Wharf project that did away with many of this film’s locations not long after it was made became a victim of the 1987 crash and it was quite some time before it recovered to become a shining beacon of capitalism.) Still, at the heart of the film is a simple tale of gangland revenge, as Harry’s business dealings are put in question by a series of anonymous attacks on him. Thus it very much hangs on Hoskins as an actor to hold things together, and in this he does marvellous work (the director’s confidence in his actor is suggested by the final long take of Hoskins’ face), ably assisted by Helen Mirren as much more than merely a gangster’s moll, but a strong and equal partner in developing Harry’s business concerns. There’s plenty of iconic lines as well as small appearances from familiar faces (it even nods to last week’s Alphaville with Eddie Constantine as the American businessman). It’s not always a vision of London that one wants to get behind, but Hoskins makes it compelling.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Mackenzie; Writer Barrie Keeffe; Cinematographer Phil Meheux; Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 8 March 2015.

Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother, 1980)

Historical dramas based in the period during the 1940s when World War II was being fought are hardly rare, but what remains interesting about this piece, newly-restored and extended with material cut after its original release, is that it bases its focus on a German story, and specifically that of a German woman (reputedly based on that of the writer-director’s own mother). In many ways, she is the “pale mother” of the title, an allegorical representation of the country perhaps, and subject to the many whims of fate visited upon it by the men in the story. In the central role is Eva Mattes as Lene, the beautiful young wife of Hans (Ernst Jacobi) at the film’s outset; Hans is not a Party member but when war breaks out is nevertheless conscripted into the Army. Hans’s best friend on the other hand is very much a party apparatchik who gets a cushy job in Berlin and lords it over everyone in a petty way. The film focuses on Lene’s struggle to make it through the wartime period, first in the city and then out in the countryside where it is presumed to be safer. There is no big comeuppance for any of the characters, as they continue to muddle through after the war has ended. Yet for all that it is bleak, and for all that it presents a vision of Germany that is far from optimistic or hopeful, it is still made with a great deal of sensitivity and craft.

Germany, Pale Mother film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Helma Sanders-Brahms; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Eva Mattes, Ernst Jacobi; Length 151 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014.

The Shining (1980)

This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.


RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Stanley Kubrick | Writers Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King) | Cinematographer John Alcott | Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd | Length 144 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013 || My Rating 5 stars masterpiece


© Warner Bros.

I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.

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