Kagemusha (1980, Kurosawa Akira)

When I was a kid, I was always curious about Kagemusha because of the VHS box art. It was a silhouette of the battle armor, giving it a real eerie feel about it. Like it was a sequel or remake of Night of the Demon. Later, I learned it was not a supernatural samurai movie. I started getting into Kurosawa about the same time I discovered aspect ratios and laserdiscs and I never got around to seeing much… Most Kurosawa discs were Criterion and expensive or Fox and expensive. I actually just came across my laserdisc copy of Kagemusha, still in shrink-wrap, which I got on remainder.

It’s an incredibly impersonal film. IMDb confirmed it’s based on historical events, which explains why much of it feels like a history lesson. It’s a long two hours and forty minutes too, but I don’t think anything could actually go. Actually, I think the film would probably benefit from more. There are a handful of human relationships that work in the film–most of them since there are so few–and there are a lot of moments that work. But these moments often interrupt expository scenes and lecture moments.

Kagemusha is still a good film, it’s just not very deep. It was apparent, an hour in, the film could only end one way (and it did). But this realization made the next hour and a half a little labored… Just because we know it can only end one way doesn’t mean the film should treat us like we know it. There’s also an attempt at commentary on warfare that pops up in the third act and, while it could start a different film, it certainly doesn’t rightly end this one. But, it’s still good… it’s just not exciting (it’s no Night of the Demon, for instance).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa and Ide Masato; directors of photography, Saitô Takao and Ueda Masaharu; music by Ikebe Shinichirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Takeda Shingen / Kagemusha), Yamazaki Tsutomu (Takeda Nobukado), Hagiwara Kenichi (Takeda Katsuyori), Nezu Jinpachi (Tsuchiya Sohachiro), Otaki Hideji (Yamagata Masakage), Ryu Daisuke (Oda Nobunaga), Yui Masayuki (Tokugawa Ieyasu) and Momoi Kaori (Otsuyanokata).


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La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz)

Someone told me to see La Haine about six years ago. I don’t know why I never got around to it then. Later, in college, I saw some of Kassovitz’s Café au Lait and I remember having some major problems with it. La Haine doesn’t have any major problems, maybe just a significant, minor one, having to do with predictability.

La Haine kept reminding me of Scorsese, but not a film he’d ever made. There’s a Taxi Driver reference that put me in that frame of mind, but the one night pacing of the film reminded me of After Hours. Both films do it well, but have nothing else in common. The acting might be the strongest part of La Haine. I finally understand some of Vincent Cassel’s appeal (he’s really good in this film and I imagine the problem with him in anything else I’ve seen him in is the English). Still, he’s nowhere near as good as Hubert Koundé, who reminds of Sidney Poiter the way Mark Ruffalo reminds of Marlon Brando. The third lead, Saïd Taghmaoui is fine, but he’s the closest thing the film’s got to comic relief (though I kept wondering what I’d seen him in–The Good Thief).

For the majority of the film, Kassovitz doesn’t preach. He has a birds-eye shot moving through the projects that isn’t preachy, he has these lovely unresolved tensions between the three characters–he has a guy seeing a cow–and never gets preachy about it. I don’t even know if the predictability is meant to be preachy, but when you open with a voice over anecdote from one of the characters, there are limits to how much it can matter, how often you can refer to it. The experience of watching the film cannot be summarized into this anecdote… and Kassovitz tries to fit it in and it fails. He went from being gentle to clanking garbage can lids together.

Regardless, it’s an excellent film and it actually has me queuing Café au Lait, which I never thought I’d do….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Kassovitz and Scott Stevenson; music by Assassin; production designer, Giuseppe Ponturo; produced by Christophe Rossignon; released by MKL Distribution.

Starring Vincent Cassel (Vinz), Hubert Koundé (Hubert), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sayid), Karim Belkhadra (Samir) and Edouard Montoute (Darty).


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The King and Four Queens (1956, Raoul Walsh)

Clark Gable is an exceptional movie star. I’m not sure how good of an actor he is–his performance in The King and Four Queens is not, for instance, nuanced and textured, but he carries it from the first minute. Movie stars today–the ones who can act–rarely carry their “fluff” roles (I’m thinking of Nicolas Cage in particular). Gable does such a good job carrying the film, entertaining the audience, it’s very easy to overlook all the problems with King and Four Queens.

He’s not alone… both Eleanor Parker and Jo Van Fleet are great too. Van Fleet is given a fuller character to work with but Parker and Gable’s scenes are nice too. Parker holds up against him in these scenes, which are quite good. The film’s pacing is completely off–it’s a small story (and a short film, eighty-two minutes)–mostly because the other three actresses are light. None of them, except maybe Jean Willes, are bad, they just don’t hold up against Gable and Van Fleet. Even so, some of those scenes are very entertaining. On the scene-level, The King and Four Queens has a great script… it’s just in the whole package, there are significant pacing problems.

I know a little about the making of the film–there were significant cut scenes and it’s the only production from Gable’s company, Gabco. Even with the unsatisfying conclusion, it’s an enjoyable experience. I haven’t seen a post-war Gable film since the last time I saw this one (maybe six years ago) and it’s incredible how well he carries the film. The title–probably giving away his role as producer–refers to MGM’s title for Gable in the 1930s, “The King of Hollywood.”

The film comes on TCM every once in a while in a watchable, but visibly unrestored print. This print’s widescreen, however, and I can’t imagine seeing it pan and scan (though I once did). Raoul Walsh likes to move his camera and hold his shots. He’s another of the film’s pleasant surprises.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Raoul Walsh; screenplay by Margaret Fitts and Richard Alan Simmons, based on a story by Fitts; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Howard Bretherton; music by Alex North; production designer, Wiard Ihnen; produced by David Hempstead; released by United Artists.

Starring Clark Gable (Dan Kehoe), Eleanor Parker (Sabina McDade), Jean Willes (Ruby McDade), Barbara Nichols (Birdie McDade), Sara Shane (Oralie McDade), Roy Roberts (Sheriff Tom Larrabee), Arthur Shields (Padre), Jay C. Flippen (Bartender) and Jo Van Fleet (Ma McDade).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee)

When I was a wee lad, I loved Ang Lee. I loved him only for The Ice Storm, never having seen Sense and Sensibility or his Chinese language films. I avoided Ride With the Devil after the reviews (both professional and from peers) and Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon was a truly sleep-inducing experience. I gave up my Lee love after that one, though, and when I came across The Ice Storm on Netflix, I realized I’d forgotten it. I hadn’t forgotten the book, of course, since I started reading Rick Moody about the same time I stopped seeing Ang Lee films. After reading the book, I recognized the differences, but now, watching the movie again, I can’t specifically remember them. The novel is a novel and the film is a film. The Ice Storm is the best example of a great book being adapted into a great film that I can think of….

Maybe what Lee needs is a subject as confining as The Ice Storm. Most of the shots are inside and his work there is amazing. I can’t remember a film where the focus effected me as much as this one. The story moves between 8 characters and–sometimes, not always–Lee uses the focus to signify which character’s POV we’re in. There’s a lot of juxtaposing and rhyming, but the film maintains a lyric sense about it. The music is used in an interesting way, because sometimes it does something, other times it does something similar, but entirely different. Half of the film takes place during the titular ice storm, but the film manages not to de-emphasize the first hour. The pacing makes the second hour feel like a (somewhat longer) third act, which it isn’t.

All of the acting is good, with Jamey Sheridan probably turning in the most unexpectedly excellent performance. Elijah Wood is really good too. But, it’s just such a dreary film, it’s hard enough to experience without talking about. The film–with its sudden exterior shots, just as encroaching and constrictive as its interior ones–is probably drearier than the novel even. There’s maybe five of these exterior shots–wooded path, daytime, but they resonate so strongly. They do work that the written medium cannot do, which is a hell of compliment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Schamus and Lee; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Carver), Henry Czerny (George Clair), Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver), David Krumholtz (Francis Davenport), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver) and Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey).


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