film

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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film

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

film

Review: Godzilla King of The Monsters (2019)

Written by Zach Shields, Max Borenstein, and Michael Dougherty, and directed by Dougherty, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is the sequel to the 2014 American reboot of the Godzilla property and the third movie in Legendary’s Monsterverse (Which includes Kong: Skull Island). Fast forward five years after the events of the first film, in which San Francisco was obliterated by Godzilla’s fight with the MUTOs, and we have the MONARCH organization keeping tabs on all potential “Titans” both known, and unknown. Returning are the MONARCH agents Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), but the focus this time around is on the Russell family. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) a leading MONARCH scientist, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) her separated and disillusioned husband, and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) their daughter.

Now, to be completely clear, I am one hundred percent biased in this review. The Toho Godzilla movie series is a beloved thing in my household, even though there are a few misses in it’s sixty-five year history (I’m looking at you “Son of Godzilla”). From the 1954 original down through the goofy “Showa” series, and my personal favorite era; the Heisei films released in the mid 80’s through the mid 90’s, the big G has been many things to many people. Destroyer, savior, hero, or villain, Godzilla has always been entertaining, and never one to be trifled with. The practical effects and sci-fi B-movie goodness of these movies have always held a special place in my movie loving heart. Which is why this newest entry in the longest running film series had me excited for it’s potential Monster mash-up goodness. Though to be fair, I was wary coming into this film, the previous film in this latest American reboot of the property was more frustrating than anything else. There were some good things in Godzilla (2014) for sure, but I honestly couldn’t stand the lead character portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He was so wooden and seemingly unaffected by everything happening around him, he had no sense of wonder, or terror, fear, joy etc, he felt muted and blank. Which was in stark contrast to Bryan Cranston’s character who was animated and motivated, propelled by heart and determination. Clearly, they had killed off the wrong character in my opinion. Those character choices combined with the head scratching decision to cut away from almost all of the Monster action left me in a daze walking out of the theater in 2014- everyone around me was proclaiming how great this new Godzilla movie was, but I felt none of their joy. Was I just getting too old for these things? Had I fallen out of touch with what made a good monster movie? What happened?

Which brings me back to “King of the Monsters”. This movie is an extreme departure from it’s predecessor, and it is a very welcome departure indeed. This is wholeheartedly a true Godzilla movie in every sense. Is it perfect? No, no it definitely is not- but did I have a great time watching it? Yes, I loved this film and it’s the only legitimately great American Godzilla movie in my opinion. This is clearly a movie made by people that love and respect the source material. Okay, so what makes it a great monster movie? Let’s break it down:

The Redesign of Godzilla

“King of the Monsters” came with a few changes to Godzilla, and they were all a move in the right direction. Not only was Godzilla slimmer for the sequel, but his spines that run along his back and tail were reverted back to the traditional shape that defined his look since the original. His spines now sport grooves that illuminate like the veins of a leaf before he bellows out his iconic blue beam of irradiated fire. However, most importantly, he sounded much closer to what he’s consistently sounded like for decades.

The Sound Design

Godzilla’s iconic roar may not have been as direct a translation to his Toho past as say “Shin Godzilla” was, but the filmmakers here clearly tried to infuse the roar that he had in the 2014 version with a more classic sounding undertone. In fact all of the main Toho monsters making appearances here sounded exactly like, if not very close to, their traditional sounds. Rodan’s titanic squawks were familiar, but Mothra’s chirps were pitch perfect and instantly recognizable. King Ghidorah’s gravity beams may not have had their static-y tones exactly, but everything else about his design and depiction was so good that it was easy to miss and forgive. The best aspect of the sound design and scoring of the film, in my opinion though, were the themes of each monster. Mothra’s theme was reassuring and gratifying, but the cream of the crop was Godzilla’s theme. Granted, it was the composer’s spin on his theme, but I was amazed we got that to be honest and it took place during the best rallying point in the movie- all was forgiven for that scene alone.

The Monsters and their Personalities

These giant beings have certain personalities attached to their grandeur, and the fact that each depiction of the four main Kaiju, err.. I mean Titans, was consistent with Toho’s canon was a dream come true. Godzilla’s dominance, King Ghidorah’s (or Monster Zero if you prefer, both titles are in the film) intense ferocity, Rodan’s eternal frenemy status with Godzilla, and Mothra’s divine benevolence all felt familiar and true to their usual character. All four Monsters were designed and showcased in grand fashion, and I’d be willing to bet that the latest renditions of these characters will be fondly remembered and beloved for some time.

The MONARCH organization Redesign and human cast in general

In the five years since the devastation of San Francisco, MONARCH must have been given a blank check from the government because they now have a multitude of worldwide bases and installations. They even have a giant airship that’s a combination between the imagery of the infamous US stealth bomber and the functionality of the “Super X” aircraft used in “Godzilla: 1985”. As for the human cast, they’re leagues above the last film. Dr. Serizawa has more to do in this film, notably I adored the fact that this film mirrors his actions in the original 1954 film, which both include the oxygen destroyer. Vera Farmiga’s wide-eyed desperation is serviceable and Kyle Chandler’s reserved hammy deliberations were appreciated- though I would have had him notch it up a peg or two. Admittedly Millie Bobby Brown’s character didn’t have anything particularly important to do other than be the emotional motivator for her parents and the rational actor in several scenes, but it wasn’t offputting either- just a bit underwhelming. My favorite human character (besides Serizawa) was Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Rick Stanton. Whitford’s dialogue was extremely hammy and it could most definitely be classified as overacting, but I loved every second of it. Some of you may deem it cringe-worthy, but in a giant monster movie- it works! I also thoroughly enjoyed Charles Dance’s no nonsense militarized villain of the film, he raised the threat level of every scene he was in- which is impressive given that he’s in a Godzilla movie.

So, if I had any drawbacks in the film, they would pale in comparison to the good things I have to say about it. For example, Rodan’s entrance in the movie is an exhilarating edge-of-your-seat sequence. His wings cause city destroying blasts of wind, he screams across the sky with his lava tipped wings grazing the ocean and destroys a multitude of military aircraft. Later in the film however, his power levels seem to be lowered, and he doesn’t feel as much of a threat as when he erupted out of a volcano. To be honest though, there’s not a lot of negative things I have to say about the movie. This film won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay, but if you enjoy big, loud, and fun summer blockbusters- then I’d be willing to bet you’ll have some fun with this one. I, for one, am amazed that this sort of film had a budget this size and was fairly true to the source material. Great job!

Final Score: 1 King to rule them all!