Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Kurosawa Watch: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Watched:  05/21/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Akira Kurosawa

A really pretty fascinating, human movie about a princess being smuggled incognito across feudal Japan, The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a cinema classic that I'd missed til this point.  A large-scale, gorgeous film, it can read a bit like a fable, with the point - beyond its existence as a rollicking samurai movie - revealing itself in the final scenes, feels organic and still provides a bit of catharsis as the plot threads come together.

The story follows two bumbling, inept peasants who can't seem to do anything right.  They're greedy to a fault, believe themselves clever (they are not, and are constantly shown to make terrible mistakes), and probably terrible people.  They even arrived too late to participate in a war they thought would enrich them, and were caught and pressed into work digging graves.  Heading home, they stumble across a Toshiro Mifune, who is a samurai general travelling incognito.  He's stowed the heir to the throne of his clan in a hidden fortress.

Taking the wealth needed to restart the clan and the princess, the peasants, the general and the princess (posing as a mute country girl) travel across the land trying to reach home and safe harbor, the peasants unaware of their companions' identity and doing it for the massive amounts of gold that they're transporting.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Monsterverse Watch: Kong - Skull Island (2017)

Watched:  05/20/2024
Format:  Max
Viewing:  Third?
Director:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Selection:  Jamie

Confession time.  Or, possibly, self-realization time.  

I can be a wee bit protective of OG versions of popular entertainment content.  I think it's important to know where something which is part of the zeitgeist first appeared, the context, and - if I can - seek out that original bit of entertainment and understand how it came to be.  

My personal feelings on the original King Kong (1933), I've tried to make clear.  
I won't belabor too much on the original King Kong film here, but suffice to say, knowing most people are only familiar with latter-era version of Kong, I always want to direct the spotlight back to the original formula, because it's an amazing technical feat as well as a lovely film.

Crime Watch: The Untouchables (1987)

Watched:  05/19/2024
Format:  4K
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Brian DePalma

When I was 12, it was, for reasons lost to time, very important for me to see The Untouchables (1987).  Something about the trailers must have set me off.  But I had also, in 1986, sat through the entirety of the Geraldo Rivera debacle, The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault.  And while we all sat there in real time watching Geraldo Rivera show his whole ass to the world by famously finding nothing,* they filled that time with biographical and historical info on Capone and the 1920's mob scene in Chicago.  So it's possible Geraldo had no small part in why I wanted to see this movie.  

My excitement was such that I bought one of those movies magazines (that you can still get at Walgreen's) with "behind the scenes" material and lots of glossy promo pictures and whatnot.  But, this one was not just filler - they actually got into the actual history of Capone and his cohorts, many of whom have unnamed parts in the movie.  I also learned, hey, there had been a popular TV series of the same name back in 1959-1963.

When the movie arrived, I was 12 and had no idea who Brian DePalma was.  Or Ennio Morricone.  And certainly not David F'ing Mamet.  Thanks to a dad who was a Bond guy, I was versed in Sean Connery.  And I knew Costner from Silverado, certainly.  But unless it was Harrison Ford, I don't think I was yet watching movies to see anyone in particular.

What I remember from seeing the movie the first time includes

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Robo Watch: Five Nights at Freddy's (2023)

Watched:  05/17/2024
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Director:  Emma Tammi
Selection:  Dug and K

I have no children.  Thus, I have mostly managed to live my life without having to know anything about the phenomenon that is Five Nights at Freddy's as video game, toys, or - now - a major motion picture.  So, yes, I have not competed for my hypothetical child's attention over watching some emotionally stunted dipshit game streamer hoot and woo at this game.  Nor did anyone in my house get excited about this movie coming out.

It also means I will not ever respond to a movie when asked my opinion by saying "my kids loved it!"  Look, love your kids, and use your own criteria for what is good or not - but my personal opinion is not filtered through the sugar-fueled viewing of entertainment by people whose brains are still gelling.  

Also - If you ever want to know why the accountants and actuaries now running Hollywood want for everything to be based on existing IP, look no further than this movie, which had a built in audience and managed to take in $291 million on what looked to be about a $20 million budget. 

At the blog, you'll see me imply many a movie is pretty bad, but normally I want to leave room for the idea that something was not to my taste, or I may have had challenges as a viewer - and certainly want to acknowledge that movies tend to have fans, even if I am not one. 

But proving that something being popular or lucrative is kind of meaningless when it comes to how *good* a movie is...  friends, straight up: Five Nights at Freddy's is an awful movie. A successful, money-making, widely seen movie that was, honestly, a steaming pile.*  

So, here we are.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Dabney Coleman Merges With The Infinite

Texas-bred actor, Dabney Coleman, has passed at the age of 92.  

Fellow Gen-X'ers will remember Coleman from myriad roles, not least of which included films 9-to-5, WarGames, Tootsie, Cloak & Dagger and plenty of other favorites from back in the day.  

Coleman worked consistently from the early 1960's til just a few years ago, appearing on Yellowstone in 2019.  

Even More Swashbuckle Watch: The Four Musketeers - Milady's Revenge (1974)

Watched:  05/16/2024
Format:  BFI trial on Amazon 
Viewing:  First
Director:  Richard Lester

The Four Musketeers (1974 or 1975, depending where you look) is basically just Part II of the prior year's Three Musketeers, which we just watched.  For a bit more on this, I'd start with that post.  


So, yeah.  This movie was a slog for an hour and change of the 1:48 runtime.  It's got all kinds of pacing issues, is kind of plot-heavy, decides to pack in some characterization the first film sorely needed, and then, after 3 hours of movie insisting this is all slap-stick goofiness, wants for you to take this stuff all super seriously, and to be a drama which matches the events of the novel.  

With most action-comedies, that's not a problem.  We've seen The Guardians of the Galaxy pull it together into a tear-jerking sequence that feels like a fulfillment of the prior parts of the movie, and we're all in when the action hits and character threads are resolved.  But with this movie, the pacing is so deadly, the motivations of characters so wishy-washy (I have no idea if that's a book or movie problem) and kookily disproportionate to the actual matters-of-state at hand...  I really was having a hard time knowing why anyone was doing what they were doing for the last 70 minutes of runtime. 

I'll not quibble with a nearly 200-year-old novel that remains popular, at least in the zeitgeist.  

What I will say is that this is a directing and editing problem.  And likely a problem conjured by the Salkinds' desire to have two box-office returns for the price of one.  

I'm not even sure if the acting in this movie is good or bad.  I mean, it's *good*.  Oliver Reed turns in some great sequences in this movie, and Heston reminds you he's got swagger to spare.  But it's so hampered by everything around it.  Faye Dunaway is likely good, but Milady is an exposition machine.  And the sequence in which she murders Constance is barely motivated, overly contrived (how did Constance not recognize Milady?  they were face-to-face in the prior movie for several minutes) and in the framework of this movie, feels pettily unmotivated.  

And how we're supposed to feel other than "okay, I guess all that happened" at the end of the film seems completely broken.  Constance was the driver for the entire second movie's A-plot, and her death is treated as a "well, that sucks" moment.  And then we're treated to a montage about all the good times from the past two movies.  It is super, super weird.  

I mostly just felt like these two movies should have been one movie.

I'm mostly glad I watched it insofar as I now feel like I've got a grip on what's in the novel, to an extent - I literally can't remember the Disney movie anymore.  And cultural literacy can be helpful!

But, yeah, once again, I can see how these movies have kind of gotten lost over the years, especially as new versions keep coming out.  Apparently there's another two-movie series that's got a second installment coming or arrives, is in French and stars Eva Green (!).  And I recall a sort of steampunk version was out in 2011 or so.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kurosawa Watch: Sanjuro (1962)

Watched:  05/16/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Akira Kurosawa

Well, I watched Kurosawa's follow up to Yojimbo.  Sanjuro (1962).  

The movie sees the return of Toshiro Mifumbe as the nameless ronin - who takes on the name "Sanjuro" so folks aren't calling him "my guy".  

He's stumbled this time upon a group of nine samurai who have found corruption within the clan, but targeted the wrong guy as the source of the problem, ratting him out to the actual source of the problem.  They're about to get killed by said bad-guy when "Sanjuro" steps in, saves their skins, and joins their cause.

Look, Yojimbo was lightning in a bottle.  It felt like a western in its way, introduced the nameless ronin, and - structurally - lays the groundwork for a lot of what's to come.  Following up with a sequel by rejiggering a movie in pre-production to include the lead from the last movie was always going to be a little dodgy.  

So, it's not that Sanjuro isn't a good movie - it clearly is.  It's just not Yojimbo.  It's the difference between how an A+ feels versus a B+.  You don't get many A+'s.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Kurosawa Watch: Yojimbo (1961)

Watched: 05/14/2023
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Akira Kurosawa

So, I've decided to finally watch (a) some Kurosawa and (b) some samurai movies.  

I'm always a little embarrassed by certain gaps in my film-watching, and this is certainly one of them.  I've only seen, I think, three Kurosawa movies, and none of them in this millennium.  It's been a while.   And I just never get around to any samurai movies in my every day life.  Which is bananas.  Samurai movies have more or less paved the way for a huge portion of modern pop culture, in dozens of ways - from Star Wars and the warrior priest Jedi to anime to the various codes even our antiheroes live by (see:  Le Samourai).  Heck, even Samurai Jack was clearly supposed to be a particular flavor of movie samurai dumped into the future.  I have thoughts of whether all of Cowboy Bebop exists because for some reason this Japanese Western has a jazz score.  

They're socially acceptable action movies amongst film snobs, which... I will have comment upon.  

Yojimbo, in particular, was of interest as I was well aware it was Leone's inspiration for For a Fistful of Dollars, released just three years later.  And I've loved me some Spaghetti Westerns since at least college (when Jamie and I started dating, I had a Man With No Name poster on my apartment wall).  But, of course, the similarities between Yojimbo and, at minimum, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, are impossible to ignore.  There may be some Glass Key in there as well.  Which - go watch Miller's Crossing sometime and come back to me for your "compare and contrast" writing prompt.

It should be noted that learned people have disputed the Red Harvest claim, focusing on The Glass Key, to which I say "you're clearly wrong, my guy."

But credit where it's due:  Hammett may have created the (frankly, very good, very readable) books upon which Yojimbo is based, but I think Kurosawa was the one who wound up influencing film and made the concept part of the zeitgeist.

Let's just be super clear up front:  I loved this movie.  

I'm mad I put it off for so long.  I think I've watched every Godzilla movie at least once, and most of them twice, so subtitles and Toho are not a problem for me.  There is just not a good goddamn reason I put this off for so long, and now I'm going to drive everyone nuts by just watching samurai movies for a while, and you can all deal.

Sometimes you just come to a movie, and you say "every choice here is exactly right.  This is the way this story should be told.  This is the perfect way to shoot this.  The dialog is great.  The beats are dead on.  The score is nuts and *perfect*.  And the lead is the most charismatic SOB I've ever seen."  

By the way, for some reason in high school, I rented Kurosawa's Dreams even though I had no idea what it was, what it was about, who Akira Kurosawa was, etc...  It was in, and I judged a book by its cover.  I really need to see that again.  But what I recall is that the movie's visuals were almost overwhelming.  And I can't say enough for the work here.  Young film-makers go watch this.  Take note.  Watch how Kurosawa frames shots, uses levels, deploys the wind, shoots through obstacles.  How he doesn't linger on violence for violence's sake - when it happens its sudden, and brutal and - from our lead - lightning fast.  And then compare that to the first face-off we see between the rival factions.  

Ie:  Try to appreciate visual storytelling in film.

So what do you say about a movie that's more or less already universally loved?  

I dunno.  I'm kind of glad Jamie didn't watch it or I'd be competing with Toshiro Mifune now, and I am not winning that battle.  

Go watch this movie.  

Next up:  Sanjuro

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Happy Birthday, David Byrne

I very much remember the first time I heard or saw Talking Heads - because the two happened at the same time.  I would assume it was sometime in 1983 that the video dropped for Burning Down the House on MTV.  This would have made me about 9 years old, and it didn't take much to sell me on a video or song, but the band appearing in white tuxedos in what looked like a ballroom in a shoebox, and absolutely kicking ass - while also being replaced in some shots by folks who were *not them* in white tuxedos, did not need any literal translation.  It just made sense.

At the front of the band was a wild eyed man who looked like no other front-man in rock and roll.  He was thin, almost gaunt, with slicked dark hair and committed to the bit.  And in a landscape of Europop, American rock like Journey and Springsteen, and even the hints of punk that made its way to MTV, it was like seeing your awkward high school chemistry teacher strap on a guitar.

Radio play and MTV were enough for me.  I was into them, but I was also a kid happy with whatever form I was getting music.   I was aware from 4th grade that Talking Heads were not in step with the pop music scene, were not fitting neatly into any categories, but did their own thing.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Swashbuckle Watch: The Three Musketeers (1973)

we're literally missing a whole Musketeer here - D'artagnan isn't a Musketeer

Watched:  05/11/2024
Format:  Prime
Viewing:  First
Director:  Richard Lester


So, I'm kind of surprised this movie isn't more of a thing here in the US.  Or hasn't had a longer shelf life.  But I have thoughts on that.  

I've not ever read Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and my knowledge of the material comes primarily from having seen the 1993 Disney version with Oliver Platt, Keifer Sutherland, (checks notes) Charlie Sheen (?) and Chris O'Donnell looking incredibly out of place.  If a 31 year old memory serves, that movie was not at all about the same things as this movie.

If that movie were a star-studded affair, it barely holds a candle to the cast of this film.  Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward - and, apparently, Sybil Danning?