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Old School Review: “The Man in the White Suit” (1951)

Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick, and directed by Mackendrick, “The Man in the White Suit” is a satirical comedy set in the laboratories of several textile-based companies in early 1950’s London. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a chemistry genius working on the latest applications to fibers in the textile industry, though he prefers to work back in the corners, unseen. Sidney is initially fired from the first laboratory we encounter him in once the accountants find his costly receipts. Once he’s gotten a job over at the Birnley mill, albeit as a lowly laborer initially, he makes friends with the blue collar workers such as Bertha (Vida Hope) as well as Daphne (Joan Greenwood) the daughter of the industry mogul, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) himself.

Sidney eventually becomes an unpaid researcher at Birnley by gushing over new machines arriving in the laboratory, exposing his knowledge and skill. It isn’t long before he’s back at work on his everlasting fiber theory, and after a series of explosive attempts he succeeds in creating a fabric that never wears down, repels dirt, and is unrealistically durable. Both the heads of industry and the blue collar workers initially believe the eureka moment to be innovative, groundbreaking, grand even– until they realize what a perfect clothing fiber would mean to their industry and livelihoods. Sidney then crafts a suit, with a luminous white glow, to showcase his miracle. The rest of the film is devoted to the hi-jinks that befall Sidney as he attempts to contact the press and move his product to sale.

With both the Industry titans and the mob of the masses initially suspecting each of revolting against the other, it was quite entertaining seeing Sidney attempt to sidestep each group and outwit them. The industry titans try bribing and tricking him to sign away his rights to the fiber while Sidney’s working-class friends try to talk him out of this to save their jobs. With only Daphne on his side Sidney almost gets away with his miracle of fabric, until both the kings of industry and the working class realize that for once, they’re on the same side. The last few scenes are of Sidney literally running through the streets in his white suit being chased by mobs of people until he’s cornered. Someone from the crowd grabs at him, and tears a piece of the suit off. To their shock and relief the crowd of rich and poor alike burst into boisterous revelry as dozens of hands reach out to rip off pieces of Sidney’s suit. After the revelation that the chemically enhanced fiber deteriorates over time, Sidney is fired from Birnley’s Mill and seems down on his luck as he’s leaving the mill. That is, until he looks back at his notes one last time, his eyes widen, and he smiles as he defiantly remarks, “Of Course!” before running off down the street- presumably to find a new laboratory to perfect the latest correction to his everlasting fiber.

Final Score: 1 White Suit and 1 Man’s ambition

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Review: Crawl!

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen and directed by Alexandre Aja, “Crawl” is a tight thriller about a young woman helping her estranged father survive a hurricane while fighting off numerous alligators. The heavy marketing of Sam Raimi as a producer may have caught my attention, but it was the prospect of a competent summer horror film that got me into a seat for this one. That, and the fact that I tend to gravitate towards a good “man versus nature” story. The thing that struck me most in the first act of the film was that the film took itself seriously as a competent thriller. Which was more than I expected going into this one, I assumed it would be more tongue-in-cheek camp, something along the lines of the director’s previous work in “Piranha 3D”. We begin the film with our lead character Haley (Kaya Scodelario) in a swimming practice as a Hurricane begins to batter the Florida coast. The film wastes no time getting the plot moving along as Haley’s soon called by her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) to see about their father Dave (Barry Pepper), Haley agrees even though we see apprehension in her eyes.

After finding an abandoned apartment, Haley heads to the old family home (recently put on the market)

Haley gets to the family house and searches for her father, eventually leading to the crawlspace under the main level. The whole first act resides here, and that was a smart decision. After finding her father unconscious near some piping, she comes face to face with a large ‘gator’- the one that took a nasty bite out of her father’s leg. Haley manages to wake her father back up as they try to find a way around the ‘gator’ that’s perched itself right next to the stairs out. I won’t go through and breakdown every character action in the film but the filmmakers and cast did an excellent job of playing into natural fears that people have, claustrophobia, aquaphobia, mysophobia etc. The cat and mouse sequences between Haley and the ‘gators’ were very effective and pleasantly thrilling throughout! Those swimming practices paid off. The constantly rising water was also very effective in forcing the characters to push themselves and go for the riskier maneuvers.

Rising water works great as a ticking clock!

Keeping with the rising water, this forces the characters to move into the next floor or room, all of which come with new challenges and scares as the gators have new advantages and difficulties as well. There are a few qualms I should mention at this point- but they are few and didn’t truly impact my enjoyment of the film. Any and all side characters that are introduced in the movie are essentially only there to be killed by alligators- which is fine, there needs to be a legitimate threat introduced to instill urgency, but I was surprised with the speed at which these people were devoured by these modern day dinosaurs. There’s also almost no thought put into how our two main characters would realistically handle some of the admittedly gruesome wounds they have inflicted on them throughout the movie- like, you can’t push a major leg bone back into your leg and then walk and run on it just fine when needed- but hey, this is an hour and a half movie about killer alligators, it’s not “Citizen Kane” you know?

Barry Pepper stars in CRAWL from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Sergej Radović.

So, if you’re looking for a fun summer flick with some good scares and solid pacing under a tight hour and thirty minutes- this is it! “Crawl” was better than expected and a damn fine summer flick to kill a hot afternoon, check it out!

Final Score: 1 Father, 1 Daughter, and Dozens of Alligators!

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Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

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Review: Spider-Man Far From Home

*Warning! Due to the nature of the film, this review will contain spoilers: you have been warned*

Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and directed by Jon Watts, “Spider-Man: far from home” is the second iteration of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first film to follow up the two part culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga. As such the film had to juggle several major obstacles. In-between dovetailing the final film of phase three including the world’s reaction to the death of Tony Stark and retirement of Captain America, and expanding on the social dramas of Parker’s high school friends, AND giving us a satisfying and comics-accurate version of the fan favorite villain Mysterio- this film had many a hurdle to leap. Masterfully, all this and more is accomplished with style, wit, and heart.

So, the film hits the ground running with Nick Fury and Maria Hill investigating a natural disaster in Mexico with more than a few hints of curiosity surrounding it. As soon as a giant monster forms from the rubble around them, another new factor emerges- the mysterious Quentin Beck garbed in a cape with a cloudy fish bowl atop his head. Later in Europe we discover that this unheard of hero is working with the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop these Elementals from destroying the Earth- just as they had done on his own Earth from another parallel universe… or so he tells us. Okay, here’s where anyone who knows anything about the character of Quentin Beck knows that he’s lying. That is, IF, Marvel Studios kept in line with the traditional aspects of the villain Mysterio. Which to my delight- they absolutely did. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in this film as Beck was pitch perfect for the character and his backstory of disgruntled Stark Tech creative slid wonderfully into the background of the MCU as if he had been there all along. Mysterio’s illusions throughout the film were excellently rendered, but there’s one scene in particular where the film blurs the line between mediums of film and comic-book in what I like to call, The Nightmare Sequence, in which Beck thrusts Spidey into illusion after illusion after which he gets so shook up he starts to question reality. Over all, this was an excellent example of a fantastic villain used correctly, while being comic-book accurate, and molded to fit this medium and existing story structure.

As for our hero, Peter Parker may not have been in his traditional setting, but this was a story well in line with the familiar tropes of our favorite webslinger. Throughout the film Peter is under constant pressure, from Nick Fury, from his potential rival for MJ’s affection, from Beck, but primarily, and poignantly, from the expectations laid upon him after the death of Tony Stark. Stark wasn’t just Iron Man to Peter, he quickly formed into the parental figure where other films utilized the reliable but familiar role Uncle Ben played in Peter’s life. He may not have said that singular advice that so motivated Peter in various other stories and mediums, but the advice that the tin man did give Peter was essentially similar, and from a place of personal experience for our late armored Avenger. Pull all of those story strings with the right amount of tension and you put Spider-Man where is meant to be in most of his stories, his greatest growth always comes from his moments of greatest peril. This film has that crucial aspect for the character, and the film crew behind these two Spider-Man films have utilized that well.

I wanted to quickly highlight a few of the things that I thought elevated this film a little further than it might have otherwise been without them. Zendaya’s MJ had a lot more to do this time around and her character was expanded upon in a thoughtful and charming manner. Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his girlfriend for the summer Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) were a fun aspect of the trip and reminiscent of how fleeting teenage romances can be. Fortunately though, they never crossed over into the void of being overly cringey. The few scenes and jokes we got with Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) were entertaining and there’s even a quick moment where we get a peek into Flash’s personal life (it is very fleeting, but still appreciated). Oh, and how could we forget Happy Hogan? It must have been pretty amazing to be Jon Favreau on the set of this film, still keeping watchful eye on the film series he helped to craft into existence more than a decade ago now. I’m glad his character still has purpose and still matters in this cinematic universe, we should be so lucky to have him around! I can’t think of much else to add at this point, I highly enjoyed this film at the theater, and I’m very much looking forward to the next Spider-Man film starring Tom Holland and company!

Final Score: Hundreds of killer drones!

*Oh, and for the love of god: Stay through the credits for the best reveal in Marvel Cinematic history.

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Old School Review: “Dersu Uzala” (1975)

Written by Yuriy Nagibin and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Dersu Uzala” is an adaption of the Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir from his military explorations of the Ussuri basin of the Taiga in the early twentieth century in which he meets and befriends Dersu Uzala, a native hunter of the Taiga. This film won the 1976 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and a litany of other awards across international film festivals and awards ceremonies, and it’s easy to see why. While the film may not immediately strike you as an one from the master Akira Kurosawa, either from the Russian language used or the fact that the film was shot on 70mm (the first and only time Kurosawa would do so), it becomes apparent that an auteur is behind the camera when viewing the melodic composure of the cinematography or the impeccable blocking of actors through the wilderness. The story is stylized as an epic, but intimately told through the two main characters of Captain Arsenyev (Yuriy Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk). The film begins with the Captain and his crew traipsing through the Taiga until they find a suitable place to camp for the night wherein Dersu Uzala stumbles upon the campsite with the Russian exploratory group accepting him and offering Dersu the position of being their guide.

The elder hunter accepts this role and stays with the group for months, doling out tidbits of wisdom gleamed from a life spent in the wilderness. He often puts a point to the soldiers not to waste materials and resources, to respect nature and those wandering through it, and to make the Taiga better off than when you entered it. As the winter months press on, the Captain thins the group and sends most of his men off to different stations and bases. At one point he and Dersu alone head out to a frozen lake to graph any notable points of interest for their topographical survey. Eventually, after wandering far enough into the barren and frigid wastes, the wind picks up into a heavy gust, and despite all of Dersu’s expertise- he loses their tracks as they’re swept away in the blustery conditions. Which leads to easily the most frantic scene of the whole film, in which Dersu realizes that they must race to craft a makeshift shelter in the frozen ice- lest they die a cold death in the night. Hurriedly the two men quickly cut down the tall grass remaining from the autumn, they gather and gather and gather… until the Captain passes out from exhaustion. Luckily, Dersu finishes the straw mound construction and saves their lives in the process.

This film is split into two major parts, the first part being in 1902, with the majority of the second starting in 1907, five years after the Captain’s first foray deep into the Taiga. They had left Dersu in 1902 cheerful to be past the worst of the winter season and happy to have the help of a guide as experienced and knowledgeable as Dersu. Five years later in 1907 the Captain and his new recruits stumbled into Dersu once again to the delight of Arsenyev and those who had heard the tale of the small but wise “Goldi” hunter. The second part of the film is a sort of mirror image to the first part. In it we see a wizened man of nature succumb to the erosion of time, superstition, and degradation of the body come to bear on Dersu. Initially in part two, the group is stalked by a tiger in the wilderness- an important animal to Dersu’s people- and the spirit of the Taiga itself. Dersu effectively leads the group away from the tiger (which we never see in this sequence) but it is an effective foreshadowing of the threat that follows them on this journey. Later on in the autumn, Dersu and company encounter another tiger (we see this one up close) and Dersu accidentally shoots it. This act changes Dersu for the remainder of the journey, he becomes more anxious, argumentative, and mindful of every single action that could be conceived as a “negative outcome” for the Taiga. Later, when out hunting with the Captain in the dawn of winter’s wrath, Dersu discovers that his eyesight has begun to fail him and he immediately has a breakdown- how will he survive if he cannot even hunt for himself? Between his failing vision and firm belief of a curse set upon him by the spirit of the Taiga for killing a tiger, Dersu accepts the Captain’s previous offer to help Dersu by having him live with his family in the city. It isn’t long before Dersu realizes that his way of life is unacceptable in modern society. He cannot cut down trees, set up his tent, or shoot his rifle in the city- he cannot live this way. He asks to be let back to the hills. Understanding of this major decision, the Captain accepts Dersu’s request and gives him a new rifle for the journey. Not terribly long after this, Captain Arsenyev is called to identify a body bearing his card, it is Dersu- he had been murdered for the new rifle he possessed.

This was a departure for the great director, and one of the few films he released after 1965. In fact Kurosawa had attempted suicide after the commercial failure of his previous film “Dodes’ka-den”, which was paired with a complete lack of funding from most Japanese studios. This film, in collaboration with the Russian film studio Mosfilm, was his return to filmmaking after his darkest period. The director had passed his glory days, and at age sixty-five when the film was released, it makes sense that he would focus on a character that similarly had to deal with the encroaching crawl of old age and how to live in a world that had seemingly moved on from everything he knew. There are cues that this film came from Kurosawa though. The focus on the individual, the carefully constructed frames, a near reverence for mother nature and the natural order- and the subtle hint of morality; nudging the audience to give a damn about the things that matter in this world.

“Dersu Uzala” was a fascinating film and I recommend it, especially to anyone that appreciates Akira Kurosawa’s work. It runs a little long, but as they say, the juice is worth the squeeze. Fun fact on the way out, originally Mosfilm wanted Kurosawa to work with Toshiro Mifune for the role of Dersu, but Mifune’s agent declined, the actor couldn’t be attached to a film with such a long production. Give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Rifle, the latest model…

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Old School Review: “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set within feudal Japan, the film would lay the groundwork for Kurosawa’s later historical epics “Kagemusha” and “Ran” specifically. Here, once again, we have one of Kurosawa’s favorite leading men in Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the titular Macbeth. After a successful battle, both Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), warriors and friends under Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), return to his castle in ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest. On their way there, they encounter a ghostly spirit who tells them their future, Miki will be made commander of the first fortress and that Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison that same day. The spirit also tells them that Washizu will eventually become the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle itself! Though, she also foretells that Miki’s son will be the next Lord of Spider’s Web Castle after Washizu.

After they return to the castle, both men are shocked when the spirit’s predictions come true and each are given their new titles. Later when Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth here portrayed by Isuzu Yamada), she convinces him to hasten the second part of the witch’s prediction and kill Lord Tsuzuki himself when he next arrives. After some debate they agree and Lady Asaji helps to drug the Lord’s guards during a visitation while Washizu kills his superior in the night. They quickly frame and kill one of the guards, and Washizu is moved up the ladder for his deed in killing the Lord’s assailant. The rest of the film is a quagmire of beautifully orchestrated paranoia and guilt built upon Washizu’s acts and lies, especially once the power couple consider the other part of the prediction- that Miki’s son would follow Washizu as the ruler of ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest Castle. Eventually Washizu seeks out the spirit of the woods once more for assurance as the suspicions and sleeplessness build upon themselves, and it expertly leads into the end sequence in which Washizu’s forces feed on his paranoia and end up killing him by a legion of arrows- his men had begun to harbor suspicions that Washizu himself was Lord Tsuzuki’s killer as well.

When it comes to Shakespeare, admittedly, I enjoy the themes and story structure of his stories (particularly the tragedies) but never from the actual source material itself. This is more of a personal taste issue, but the Olde English is deafening and cumbersome. I recently tried to watch “Henry V” from 1944 directed by Laurence Olivier, but I simply couldn’t get through it. So, I was looking forward to another adaption by Akira Kurosawa. Granted I watched both of his adaptions in “Ran” and “Throne of Blood” out of order, and that may have been a mistake on my part because while I certainly appreciated this film, I was never astonished or transported by the magic of cinema with this film. Thinking back on it, it’s a great adaption, especially with the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role, but it wasn’t enough for me to Love it wholeheartedly as I did with “Ran”. This may also lie in the nature of this adaption and my taste in general. It’s a moody, atmospheric, tragedy littered with the themes of the source material of greed, political ambition, paranoia, and shame. It’s a damn fine film though and my own taste shouldn’t drive you away from a viewing.

Final Score: Dozens of Arrows!

*Here’s a link to a piece that Roger Ebert wrote about Akira Kurosawa shortly after his death in 1998, while it doesn’t have to do explicitly with “Throne of Blood”, it’s a good piece on the legendary filmmaker as a whole, and if you’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa’s work as I have, give it a read:

https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/akira-kurosawa-focused-on-individual-ethical-dilemmas

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Old School Review: “Ran” (1985)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Ran” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set during Japan’s medieval era in which an elder Japanese warlord seeks peace by dividing his kingdom among his three grown sons. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) awakens from a vision after a hunt with his three sons and subordinate clan representatives, to which he decrees his own abdication from the throne. Stunned by the announcement, Hidetora’s three sons each react differently. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest garbed in yellow, is set to be given the first castle while Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) in red, and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) in blue, are to be given the second and third castles in order of age and support Taro as the head of the Ichimonji clan. Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, while Jiro seeks it, and Saburo rejects the whole plan as one destined for failure. For his subversive outburst, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo, and Tango (Masayuki Yui) the lord’s adviser, when he openly supports Saburo’s frankness.

I’ve been working through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography lately, and recently the Criterion Channel (The collection’s streaming service) added the legendary filmmaker’s late-in-career masterpiece to their ranks, and I figured I’d give it a shot. Knowing nothing about the film except that it was an adaption of “King Lear” proved to be a bountiful fortune going into the near three hour film. Of the seven, or so, films of Kurosawa’s that I have seen, this may be my favorite of the bunch so far- and that’s saying something with “Ikiru”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo/Sanjuro” in that bunch! In doing some (very) light research before writing this review, I was surprised to find that Akira Kurosawa had trouble securing funding for this film for roughly a decade before it was finally released. Apparently Kurosawa had been going through a period akin to (but nowhere near as creatively apocalyptic) what Orson Welles went through after making “Citizen Kane”. After teaming with a French producer in Serge Silberman, the film found it’s foundation, and began winding towards one of the most engaging epics set within medieval Japan.

Having acquired most of his kingdom through brutal and ruthless tactics, this story is almost entirely about the consequences of Lord Hidetora’s actions and the ripple effect throughout his family as a result. After Saburo’s (and Tango’s) banishment things quickly go downhill for Lord Hidetora. As he moves into the smaller keep of the first castle he finds that Taro is being manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), into usurping Lord Hidetora after the transition of power to control the whole Ichimonji clan. Considering this an affront and needlessly offensive, Lord Hidetora takes leave of the first castle and heads to Jiro at the second Castle. There he finds himself to be more of a pawn in Jiro’s scheming than anything else. Broken by the betrayal of his sons, Lord Hidetora wanders off with his mercenaries and his fool Kyoami (Pîtâ) with no clear direction. Eventually Tango reappears with provisions to help the wandering party, but when he tells them of Taro’s new decree ‘to kill anyone found helping his father‘, they make a last ditch effort to take Saburo’s castle and fortify themselves there. Saburo’s men happen to be leaving as the group arrives anyways, and it isn’t long before both elder sons come to siege the castle and usurp their father from power through death or submission.

The rest of the film plays out like a season of ‘Game of Thrones’. The siege of the third castle in particular is brutal and impeccably staged. Kurosawa’s use of extras as the armies of Taro and Jiro clash with their father’s skilled warriors is beautifully organized. The chaos and bloodshed feel epic all while Lord Hidetora’s mind is blended, madness ensuing from the shock of all that has come from his abdication of power. The layers of history and karma striking back at the Ichimonji clan from within are glorious and well designed. I won’t divulge all of the details of the plot here, but its just so damn good! The way the story keeps digging at Hidetora’s past and forcing guilt and shame upon him for all that he has done is exemplary- just when you think it can’t get worse, it does! I found everything about this film to be just magnificent. From the score to the pacing, to the scheming and manipulative power moves, and revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan were just perfect in execution!

Seriously, if you enjoy film- this is one of the all time greats and I highly encourage anyone and everyone to give this film a shot. I can’t give this film enough praise, and I honestly need another rewatch to fully indulge in all of the film’s nuances and complexities. It may be a long watch, but it’s more than worth the two hours and forty-two minute runtime.

Final Score: Three sons and countless regrets

*Below is a link to Roger Ebert’s review of “ran” and a video essay by the “Every frame a painting” YouTube channel discussing Akira Kurosawa’s use of movement in his films. Both are simply great and give more depth to the film at hand, enjoy!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985