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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film

Old School Review: Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” is a courtroom drama focusing on a debate over the verdict between the 12 jurors. It is also the first feature by director Sidney Lumet. This film was one that I’d been seeking for awhile now, and when the Criterion Collection had a sale on their physical media recently, it had to be part of the purchase. I’ve seen a few of Sidney Lumet’s films (“Dog Day Afternoon”, “Serpico”, & “The Verdict”) but I knew this one was heralded as excellent. The premise is simple enough, Twelve male jurors congregate in deliberation to decide the fate of a young Puerto Rican teenager. At first vote 11 of the 12 jurors vote guilty, with 1 juror, #8 (Played by Henry Fonda) voting not guilty. There must be a unanimous decision by the jury for the death penalty, and thus juror #8 stakes his claim and begins to open up the discussion.

As the film begins with the end of the court case we only get information about the details of the matter through the jurors’ dialogue. Sidney Lumet fully utilizes every trick imaginable in a one location film. The long take in the beginning of the film as each jury member enters the room is elaborate and the perfect opening to the film. We get a little bit of information on each character that will inform us as to who they are and how they operate as individuals. The film cleverly addresses why Henry Fonda’s character would have reasonable doubt about the case, and it addresses each character’s opposition and why they think he might be guilty, or not, as Fonda slowly starts to convince them one by one. After the first few rounds of voting, Fonda baits a few of the jurors into proving his point for there being reasonable doubt. It’s pure genius honestly. The way Lumet uses the camera, pushing and pulling on faces and actions, using visuals to aide the representation of changing power dynamics in each scene- it’s just brilliant.

This is a movie about the performances though, and they are some of the best in all of film history. Lee J. Cobb in particular as juror #3 was electrifying in his performance. As the film advances we get more background information about this broken man and how his past relationship with his son has heavily influenced how he maneuvers through the debate. If there was to be an argument for the antagonist of the film, juror #3 is the best case for such a label in the context of the story. Though Ed Begley as juror #10 is a close second, his personal prejudice against people of color and those unfortunate enough to live in the slums becomes clearer as his points of debate diverge from the rest of the jury’s reasoning and motives. In a stark and beautiful scene late in the film, juror #10 is quietly, and physically, shunned by the entirety of the room as his blatant racism becomes too much for the others to ignore or accept. The profound nature of the script lies in how each character’s turn to “Not Guilty” lies in the characterization that relates to their own lives. The best example of this may have been juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), the cold and calculating character defined by logic alone. He had the pillars of his argument shattered by Fonda when he used his argument of memory recall against him. The final point that convinced him to change his vote was reliant on the witness that claimed to see the murder, at night, from across the street- hadn’t been wearing her glasses. Juror #4 also wore glasses, and realized this flaw in his argument, and accepted this change.

I could go on and on about the performances in this film and Sidney Lumet’s mesmerizing use of the camera- but you’ll just have to trust me on this one, it’s a damn fine movie. I highly urge anyone and everyone to give this one a watch, I tend not to use the word Masterpiece when talking about films in general- but this one deserves the credit that word delivers.

Final Score: 12 Angry Men (duh)

film

Old School Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, “Wild Strawberries” is the famed Swede filmmaker’s twenty-fourth film and one of his most humanistic and compassionate. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an esteemed medical scientist in Stockholm, is to be celebrated for his contributions to the field with an honorary degree in Lund. Accompanying Isak on the 400 mile road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). During the drive Isak is disturbed by several dreams which cause him to reexamine his past for better, or for worse. They stop occasionally to stretch their legs, check on old family vacation spots, and even to pick up a few hitchhikers.

In reviewing “Wild Strawberries” I tread on well worn pathways walked upon by generations of indie art kids, collegiate film fans, and those genuinely taken by the love that celluloid gives- but also every single hipster-trash-baby looking to be perceived as “Cool” by simply being aware of the works of Ingmar Bergman. So, I get it. Reviewing old films- especially old films that reside on a litany of lists and boxes waiting for the day it can be checked off or filled in, they can come with the baggage of appearing pretentious and reeking of seeking validation. Speaking of baggage, this whole film is essentially about just that. How does one reconcile with not just the existential issues of strangers, but of close family members, or even lovers? Not to mention the baggage that comes with simply being human?

Isak Borg, being the distinguished scientist in the medical field that he is, has become cynical over the years. His dreams force him to reexamine what was and what could have been, how his regrets and mistakes have forged who he is today. These dreams, or nightmares really, coerce the doctor to question how he treats others, to ask himself whether or not he has become calloused and cold-hearted. There are two groups of hitchhikers that inspire this reevaluation of the doctor’s life. One of these groups consists of a troupe of three college-aged youths, two men with quarreling ideologies and a woman, Sara (Bibi Andersson), that has both of their hearts in her hands- who coincidentally looks exactly like Isak’s lost love- who just so happened to marry his brother instead of him. The other pair of hitchhikers are a stubbornly vicious married couple that wreck their car nearly hitting Isak and company. After awhile the married couple become so absorbed by their contempt for each other with vitriol that Marianne pulls over and leaves them to be toxic on their own time. Both groups mirror parallels in Isak’s life and continue his assessment of self as the journey carries onward.

The other parallels of the film lie not only in Isak recognizing similar patterns in his past, but also in those closest to him. In the beginning of the trip Isak and Marianne visit Isak’s elderly mother for a few minutes, and after arriving in Lund nearing the end of the film, the pair meet up with Isak’s son and Marianne’s husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). Isak recognizes this same aloofness and lonliness that plagues him in both of them. He gradually accepts who he is, connecting his past self with his present, and acknowledging his time left in this world. If you haven’t seen this film, I encourage you to give it a chance. There’s a reason the name Ingmar Bergman is still relevant in the world of cinema today.

Final Score: 5 Hitchhikers and a patch of Wild Strawberries