Criterion Sunday 116: 隠し砦の三悪人 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 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Misa Uehara 上原美佐, Minoru Chiaki 千秋実, Kamatari Fujiwara 藤原釜足; Length 139 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016.

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Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore | Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston | Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director J.J. Abrams | Writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt | Cinematographer Dan Mindel | Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015

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

Jurassic World (2015)

Let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this film, which at times has seemed more interested in creating brand partner synergies for commercial tie-ins, than being actually-any-good as narrative entertainment. Sadly that seems to have been the legacy of Spielberg’s (still quite excellent) Jurassic Park, though it’s hardly something it invented — just that it managed to tap into an enthusiasm for dinosaurs that remains largely unabated over 20 years on. Still, even given that, I remain confused as to why there was an ad before the film for a Lego tie-in. There was no room in the movie for the aforesaid product because it’s a 12-rated action film for a good reason (CGI-created dinosaur terror and mayhem; certainly the human characters weren’t much more than ciphers). Anyway the film’s clear product-placement winner was Mercedes-Benz, just for that smash cut to a perfectly-framed car ad angle of their vehicle after one of the kids says the line “you wanna see something amazing?” Oh to imagine how excited their execs must’ve been when they saw that. Just thinking about such a scenario really brought on some serious feels (not all good, let’s be honest); certainly it prompted more emotions than when a bunch of human dudes were eviscerated in the film (would that they were marketing executives eh).

I could go on about how this cartoonish dehumanisation of violence is an effect of the kind of corporatised culture which was surely intended as a point of satire in the original, but has long since been subsumed under the creature effects and merchandising. However, whatever baggage I might (not unreasonably I feel) load this franchise up with, the thing is that Jurassic World was quite an entertaining ride. Chris Pratt retains an easygoing charm, even if his relationship with prickly park boss Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) remained little more than a doodle in the corner of a page credited to FOUR screenwriters. Perhaps the tenacity with which Claire manages to perform at high speed on all terrains while never shedding (or breaking) her high heels should therefore be applauded as some kind of feminist triumph, but I’ll stop short of that. Still, the kids-in-peril weren’t too annoying, while Irrfan Khan as a wealthy industralist (an heir of sorts to Richard Hammond) and Omar Sy as the French dino-wrangler were nice smaller roles, even if there was no one who could measure up to Jeff Goldblum. And on the whole the mayhem was coordinated rather well, even if it did rip off some of the setpieces almost wholesale from the original film, to lesser effect.

So for a Summer blockbuster it just about works, I just don’t expect to be revisiting it with any warmth in 20 years’ time.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Colin Trevorrow | Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Genesis [2D], London, Tuesday 16 June 2015

Criterion Sunday 16: Miyamoto Musashi Kanketsuhen: Ketto Ganryujima (Samurai Trilogy III: Duel at Ganryu Island, 1956)

The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.

Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014

Criterion Sunday 15: Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no Ketto (Samurai Trilogy II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955)

Like many second films in trilogies, this second instalment of Inagaki’s story of 17th century swordfighter and cultural hero Musashi Miyamoto seems to lack a focus, although unlike the first film it heads towards something of a cliffhanger. Musashi travels to Kyoto to pick a fight against a samurai school that is home to his former friend Matahachi, calling out the school’s sensei, though the men there are at first dismissive of Musashi’s talents, drawing him into a massed battle scene once again reminiscent of the denouement of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film also introduces a challenger to his position of swordfighting dominance with Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta), a matinee idol of a man who intitially just follows Musashi warily, intent only on observing him. However, despite the increased number of battle scenes, the heart of the film remains his relationship with the women, primarily Otsu (Kaoru Yuchigusa), who continues to follow him, as well as the younger Akemi, who had tried to tempt him (unsuccessfully) in the first film. Finally, the style changes a little, and though the colours are still vibrant, there seems to be a rather darker tone, not to mention a studio-set feel to proceedings, slightly more stylised than had been the case in the first film. Still it keeps Musashi’s education moving forward, and sets up the third and final instalment nicely.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014

Criterion Sunday 14: Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai Trilogy I: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954)

One of the things that becomes clear from watching the Criterion Collection releases is that someone there really likes samurai films (known as chanbara in Japanese, a subset of jidaigeki or ‘period films’). And when I say likes them, I mean really REALLY likes them. There’s a 25-film boxset of Zatoichi films coming up (quite a lot) further down the line, as well as many others in between, but here, an early release, is this trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Such was the popularity of its titular hero (Musashi Miyamoto, referred to as Takezo in this film, as he does not receive his samurai name until the end) that this wasn’t even Inagaki’s first trilogy of films about Musashi. He was a legendary swordsman, not to mention author and artist, who came to prominence at the very start of the 17th century in Japan, and Inagaki sets out to depict his journey. To see these films now, it hardly seems surprising to see the great Toshiro Mifune in the title role — after all, in this very same year, he also starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — though the two roles are quite different. In Kurosawa’s film, he’s a bit of a fool, but here he commands respect — or at least comes to do so by the end, for this first film is dedicated to Musashi’s earliest exploits. A lot of these revolve around the women who fall in love with him, though it’s Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), the jilted fiancée of his friend Matahachi, who has the most lasting relationship with the wandering ronin. The narrative arc of the film is towards Musashi’s maturation (he is even locked in an attic with a stack of books for three years at one point), rather than any big conflict or battle, and the route towards this is via a series of incidents, through which familiar characters start to thread. This all works rather nicely, no little thanks to the richly colourful cinematography, and fine ensemble performances. It would be for subsequent films in the trilogy to develop his fighting skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kaoru Yachigusa | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)”

The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

PREVIEW SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller | Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted | Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good