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Old School Review: I live in Fear (1955)

Caution: There will be spoilers..

Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” is the legendary filmmaker’s most direct attempt at fictionalizing the very real social anxieties sweeping Japan post World War Two. The film opens on an unfolding case being discussed in family court. Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful, elder, Japanese industrialist that has been taken to court by his family for the unreasonable use of his funds to secure land in Brazil, the only place on earth Mr. Nakajima believes to be safe from Nuclear Annihilation. He wishes to purchase a farm in the South American country and to bring his family with him- to which the whole family objects. Granted, most of the family doesn’t want to uproot their entire lives just to assuage the fears of Kiichi, but as the film progresses we get the impression that the family would have gone on without acknowledging the man’s paranoia and mental health IF he hadn’t begun to use his wealth, their inheritance, to fund several projects that he thought would protect his loved ones from an irradiated doom.

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After much deliberation the family court approves the family’s petition, that Mr. Nakajima’s actions and intentions deem him mentally unfit. Naturally he appeals the notion and as the court machinations move forward Mr. Nakajima only becomes more frenzied with each passing hour. As he unravels, he fails to understand why everyone around him can be so calm when the very fact that the H bomb exists at all should concern every living soul with grave danger. One of the more powerful scenes in the film, in my opinion, happens during a visit to one of his mistresses (the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that our lead isn’t perfect) as he mistakes lightning and thunder to be another bomb dropping- he dives for his youngest son and startles him awake, at which point the mistress snatches her child up and looks at Kiichi with fearful eyes. Eventually he is so distraught by a son-in-law’s suggestion that even Brazil wouldn’t be safe from the fallout of nuclear war, that Kiichi takes drastic measures and sets the family foundry ablaze. The foundry was the source of the family’s wealth- which Kiichi eventually only saw as a deterrent to moving to safety.

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Throughout the film Kurosawa wisely placed Takashi Shimura as the moral center, and therefore soul of the film, in Dr. Harada. In the role as a dentist that’s been accepted by the local community to be on the board of the family court, Dr. Harada is often the one individual to question the group’s assumptions and point out when Mr. Nakajima makes logical points of contention. After Shimura’s spellbinding performance in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” in 1952, it was a cinematic pleasure seeing two of Kurosawa’s most lauded performers onscreen together. Granted, I’m watching Kurosawa’s films out of order, so this may not be as momentous as it felt to me at the time. The two actors play off of each other brilliantly, with Shimura’s reserved and quiet performance set against the rigidity and barely contained anger of Mifune’s Kiichi- it’s an excellent pairing of personalities.

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Kurosawa presents an argument in the film, which party is the sane one? Mr. Nakajima, who’s trying to save lives and avoid nuclear disintegration? Or the World around him that neglects his worries as trivial and misguided. Sirens wail in the background throughout the film and most of the characters have a sort of laissez-faire attitude about the whole idea of nuclear annihilation. Several even acknowledge that while Mr. Nakajima had gone too far- they couldn’t accurately articulate why he should be deemed mentally incompetent. The film’s final scene encapsulates this dichotomy visually with Mr. Nakajima institutionalized in a psychiatric ward. Dr. Harada leaves the institution, having just witnessed a man broken by paranoia, just as Nakajima’s daughter enters and both are anchored in a mourning and uneasiness as they each enter a world that harbors curious intent.

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In reading what others have said about this film I came across the perfect summary of where the film’s head-space lives. In an article from Slate in 2008, by Fred Kaplan, he extrapolates that if someone were to make a similar film on the American psyche post 9/11 “[they] might cover and somehow dramatize: the line between obsession and obliviousness, between whimpering terror and blithe denial; the undeterminable toll on our ‘unconscious minds’ from embracing either course; and the question of whether it’s possible to lead a fully conscious, sane life on some road in between“. All of which is crafted here exquisitely by Akira Kurosawa and his crew. This tragedy is worth a watch, if only to recognize how the outcomes of war can affect a society and it’s people.

 

Final Score: Two minutes, ’til midnight

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Old School Review: Wings of Desire (1987)

Caution: This movie is over thirty years old- there will be spoilers!

Written by Peter Handke and Wim Wenders and directed by Wenders, “Wings of Desire” is a German arthouse fantasy film about two angels stationed in Berlin that observe the inner thoughts and outer actions of the many citizens they choose to monitor at any given moment. The film can be understood in two parts in my opinion. The first half of the film consists of an introduction to how the angels go about their unending time, who they choose to listen to, and who to comfort in small and almost unnoticeable ways. This half illuminates the musings of the soul that these angelic figures eavesdrop on as they witness, observe, and record the thoughts and feelings of thousands in Berlin. The second half comes when Damiel (Bruno Ganz) wanders upon a circus and begins to fall in love with the female trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Afterwards Damiel,  whose been observing humanity for thousands of years now, becomes enraptured by the idea of leaving immortality behind for the bittersweet, romantic, and melancholic nature of life. He discusses this idea at length with his angelic counterpart Cassiel (Otto Sander), who seems to dismiss his friend’s fascination with the possibility of living a life with risk in it.

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What I love most about this film is it’s balance between the solemn deadpan nature of the Angels’ existence (shown exclusively in black and white) set against the multifaceted and blended world of the living- which is shot in waves of color. This is one of those films that you admittedly have to be in the right mood to digest. It’s more about absorbing the moving imagery and pondering the larger than life questions and ambiguities of life rather than a focused narrative, though there is a through-line of thought taking place. Poetic in nature and more interested in what people aren’t saying, “Wings of desire” shows an angel that is more concerned with what makes a life worth living rather than his own heavenly duties. Or to put it more bluntly, he’s gotten bored and uninterested in the angelic listening gig after a few thousand years. Marion triggers something in him, something that ultimately drives him to give it all up to be with her, to aide her in navigating her own sadness and to be a more present guardian.

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In some light prep for this review, another reviewer referenced this film as being a “modern fairy tale about the nature of being alive” and I couldn’t agree more. This comes mostly from what we hear, alongside the angels, from the minds of everyday people. One particularly fascinating character was that of Homer (Curt Bois), an elderly author or historian of some fashion. His comparisons with the Berlin of old, with the empty spaces or new buildings that have replaced the locations of memory are enlightening. Back in the library, with Cassiel peering over his shoulder listening and watching, Homer wonders about the nature of war and peace and the obsession that is paired with War- but not peace, “My heroes are no longer the warriors and kings.. but the things of peace, one equal to the other. The drying onions equal to the tree trunk crossing the marsh. But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure.. and that its story is hardly told?” Homer considers himself mankind’s storyteller, though this idea as expressed by the actor suggests that the self appointed title goes hand in hand with his humility- not pride. As this old man reflects on life and it’s mysteries in the library, his monologue is juxtaposed against footage from the chaos and death that besieged Berlin after/during the third Reich’s fall. This kind of storytelling seems to be a product of societies that have gone through incredible pain and loss on grand scales. There are similar, at least it seems to me, creative machinations at play in artists trying to sort out their country’s faults or miscalculations amid a general sense of nihilism, or existential crisis. This can be found in filmmakers in comparable situations, like Akira Kurosawa and his string of post-war films in Japan for example.

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Peter Falk (best known for his TV detective character Columbo) has a playful role here as a convincing version of himself. He too gets to muse in some hypnotic inner dialogue, preoccupied with his upcoming role in Berlin on the flight from America. It’s not until he reveals to both Damiel and us the audience, that he can feel the presence of Damiel the angel, and he knows that Damiel can hear him. This being due to the fact that Falk too was once an angel that gave it all up thirty years prior in New York City. This could have broken the immersion and illusion of the story but it’s wisely played down and not focused on too heavily. In the end if you’re looking for a somber stroll through late 1980’s Berlin while heavy with thoughts spiraling from anti-war nihilism to the nature of love and the awe in simply living- then I would certainly recommend it.

Final Score: Two Angels and a Circus

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Old School Review: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Written by Nina Agadzhanova and directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein “The Battleship Potemkin” is about a mutiny aboard the Russian battleship during the height of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is also the first silent film I have reviewed on the blog thus far. This film is so infamous by this point that there is little I can add to the conversation other than regurgitating the film’s numerous technical achievements that so many others have touched upon. If you haven’t given the film a watch before and you’re invested in learning about the history of cinema then I encourage a viewing- especially since it’s only a brisk hour and fourteen minutes long. Otherwise most modern audiences will bore with the lack of dialogue and color, which can edge out one’s attention span, even I had to stay focused during my own viewing.

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The film begins with the Russian ship returning home through the Black Sea from the recent war with Japan. The crew inspect the meat to be used that day and stir the captains and officers to complain of its quality. The ship’s doctor is sought to inspect it and when the camera gets a closer inspection to show the meat squirming with maggots he labels the meat satisfactory. Mutinous boiling rage fills the crew and they refuse to eat. This act of defiance comes to a head as the captain and officers round up the crew asking who is dissatisfied with the food, when a portion stand their ground they are ordered to be shot dead. Vakulinchuk, the voice of the ship’s imminent revolution, shouts above the clamor as the officers raise their guns “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” and thus the raucous mutiny begins. After the crew is victorious the battleship heads to the port of Odessa where the locals have heard of the uprising and feel connected to the hardships of the sailors as the lower classes of society were engaged in revolutionary war. This prompts a swift damnation by the Czar’s elite guard as they march down the steps of Odessa shooting into the crowd creating one of early film’s most infamous scenes.

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After this the crew aboard the Potemkin engage in debate over what to do with the supportive citizenry. Eventually they decide to help and target several locations of importance to the Czar’s government and fire away. This calls the attention of a nearby fleet of unknown allegiance and the remainder of the film is brilliantly played for anxiety with the score and inter-cutting of scenes of preparation for battle on the Potemkin as they go to meet the fleet. In the end the Potemkin glides through the approaching ships’ guard unscathed as they realize that they too are revolutionaries in arms. In doing some light research on the film’s history and how it helped to shape cinema nearly a century ago I read Roger Ebert’s 1998 review and he was right. I had already seen the parody of the massacre on the Odessa Steps years before (ie The Untouchables) seeing the source material. In fact, I will post a link below to his review of the film, which is far more in depth and personal of a review than what I have experienced with Potemkin.

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What is most impressive about the film in my opinion is the use of space in the film. Granted this may have simply been a side effect from having masses of people represent groups and ideals over individualized ‘characters’, but its still years ahead of its time and is even today a bit of a wonder as to how they accomplished this in 1925. This paired with the sheer choreography of hundreds of extras milling about the Odessa Steps and aboard the Potemkin makes for good eye-catching movement. Especially aboard the Potemkin, where the sailors can mill above and below where the main action is focalized- the staging makes for layered movement and gives the impression that the warship is gigantic in scope requiring a village of people for upkeep. The score was also incredibly important here, as the only sound in the film it helps to engage the viewer in the intended feelings of the characters onscreen. The brash and overbearing clash of orchestral audio waves crash as the Czar’s men advance with their rifles drawn, the inherent sadness and grief at the useless killing is portrayed in weeping stringed symphonies, and the finale assuages the audience’s anxieties with triumphant and victorious horns. Altogether “The Battleship Potemkin” is an important piece of cinema’s history while the film’s history itself is also quite fascinating given how many governments across the globe banned it fearing Potemkin‘s call to arms aimed at the masses. If you’re at all invested in cinema’s history, this is one you should see.

 

Final Score: a Mutiny and a Slaughter

Roger Ebert’s 1998 review of “The Battleship Potemkin”:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-battleship-potemkin-1925

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Old School Review: Pather Panchali “Song of the Road” (Apu trilogy 1/3) (1955)

Written and directed by world renown Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, “Pather Panchali” is his first film and the initial story in the celebrated ‘Apu Trilogy’. I came upon “Pather Panchali” and the Apu trilogy after hearing that these films are prerequisites for Werner Herzog’s classes on film. If they’re held in such high esteem by one of the most prominent filmmakers over the last half century- well, that’s good enough for me. “Pather Panchali” is first and foremost Apu’s (Subir Banerji) story, it is of his beginnings and of the people and places that informed his childhood. We begin, however, with the young Durga (Runki Banerji), Apu’s older sister, traipsing about the local garden stealing fruits for herself and for her mischievous ‘auntie’ Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi). The elderly Indir lives with Durga and Apu’s family in their ancestral home in bengal, India. We see Durga’s mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee), pregnant with Apu, overhear other women from the village gossip and complain about Durga and her family as thieves- and poor thieves at that. Money is a constant anxiety for the family then as it is now, Sabojaya’s suffering has only begun though, as she is the foundation of the family and who keeps everyone together throughout the film. After Apu is born in the night, and his father Harihar (Kanu Banerji) proudly holds him, we fast forward several years.

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The film is a mirror held up to the human experience, it reflects daily life in it’s cyclical rhythms, humble and lyrical in nature. We see life through the young Apu and pre-teen Durga’s (Umas Das Gupta) eyes, delighting in the small treasures of waiting for the sweets merchant and running through a field to see a train for the first time. We also see the quiet and lonely moments, one of great sadness in particular is of Indir Thakrun alone on the stoop at night in the rain as she sings, lamenting her dead family and friends, essentially coming to terms with the end of her life and wishing to die. Her unceremonious death later is at once horrifying as she is found by Apu and Durga, but also it has a sense of relief and release about it.

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One of the larger arcs across the story is that of Harihar, the dreamer. He envisions great fortune from his writings, eventually leaving the home to obtain consistent work and pay through his writing and practice as a Brahman priest. With Harihar’s head in the clouds and scraping to get by the duties of day-to-day life and structure for Apu and Durga fall to Sabojaya, and thus we spend a lot of time with her through Apu and Durga’s experiences. We witness her shame at the accusation of Durga stealing from another young girl, we see her resentment of having to share her home with Indir, who never listens to the rules and undermines her authority with the children. She has a lot to deal with. Mostly though we follow Apu and Durga simply experiencing life through childish awe and ambition. It’s a film that asks a lot of it’s audience, but it gives a window into another world removed from technology and modernity.

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After spending too much time out in the rain after a spat with Apu over trivial toys Durga becomes ill and bedridden. She worsens after a visit by the doctor and during a raucous storm in the night, she eventually passes away. Harihar returns home shortly after the destructive storm has wrecked their home to find Sabojaya distraught and broken. Once he discovers what has happened there is a feeling of helplessness achieved in the film that stayed with me well after the credits rolled. Once they salvage what they can from the rubble, the three take a caravan to Benares (Now known as Varanasi, the spiritual capitol of India) to start anew. Sometimes you have to accept change as it happens and evolve with it. As a Brahman priest, Harihar could provide for his family there as many make pilgrimages to wash in the cleansing waters of the Ganges river.

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The film has been derided as slow, unfinished, unpolished, and raw. I would argue, as many have before me, that that rawness is what makes it so powerful. Satyajit Ray had never directed performances or blocked scenes on a film before this. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer, had never previously shot a scene, or framed movement before. Even the (now legendary) sitarist Ravi Shankar, had never composed a film’s score before either. How they collected such natural and seemingly untouched performances from children will forever be amazing to me. “Pather Panchali” is a uniquely beautiful film because of how closely it reflects our own lives even though the setting of the film is near a century ago in a small village in Bengal, India. If time and place can become inconsequential to how relatable a story can be, then what you’ve got, dear reader, is something truly miraculous in cinematic form.

Though, admittedly this is an arthouse film. That may be a scary and insurmountable term for some, and a well known comfort for others, but if you have a love for cinema and storytelling you owe it to yourself to see this film and others like it at some point. This form of film isn’t necessarily the most profitable and consumable for the masses, and not everyone will sit through a subtitled black and white foreign film, but I’d suggest giving it your time if you love cinema. It has earned that much of you.

Final Score: 1 small family, 1 ancestral family home, and a lot of boiled milk

*Below is a video on the work the Academy did with the Criterion Collection to save the film stock of the Apu trilogy after a fire burned down the warehouse in London. Give it a watch to see the work and diligence put into restoring this piece of film history.

 

 

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Old School Review: Breathless (1960)

Written by François Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Breathless” is a classic French crime film that helped to form the New Wave style of films coming from French filmmakers at that time. The story centers on Michel Poiccard, (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a petty thief in Paris who frequently steals cars for joyrides and pickpockets cash from unsuspecting pedestrians. He reunites with an American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who’s studying to become a journalist after he impulsively murders a police officer on one of his more casual grand theft autos in the countryside just outside of Paris. Most of the film is spent following these two in the streets of Paris, in cafes and hotels, almost always smoking while they discuss many aspects of life with whimsy through their opinions and fluttery definitions about everything from the opposite sexes to how one should drive while behind the wheel.

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Now, admittedly, I wasn’t a gigantic fan of this film after giving it a watch, but I had to know what made it so renowned and gilded among cinephiles. Given the year the film was made I was surprised at the speed and abrupt use of jump-cuts in the film’s editing. However that didn’t seem enough to make it supposedly legendary, so I did some reading on the movie. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s in France were a rebellious era of filmmaking characterized by a coup of sorts against the established narrative form in French cinema. These new French filmmakers broke away from any sense of a studio system and shot their independent features on shoestring budgets, often without permission on locations, and usually focusing on characters that weren’t natural protagonists by the standard definitions. As for “Breathless” itself, filming took place anywhere between 15 minutes to 12 hours depending on what Godard had come up with that day. They filmed in Paris in stores and cafes mostly without being granted access in order to secure the spontaneous feel in the film that Godard was going for. There was a considerable amount of improvisation and Godard reportedly kept his journal of dialogue close and only shared what he believed to be necessary.

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In today’s world, the film may not seem all that special, but it did a lot to give independent filmmakers an origin, somebody had to be the first to get their shots without the permission from the gatekeepers, right? Indie film cred aside, the film may harbor some resentment from modern audiences for its characters’ opinions. I suspect that many American audiences today could be triggered by the subjects that the characters discuss and how they go about discussing them. To be fair, the perspective is from an entirely different culture and from a generation and a half ago. As we’re still very much embroiled in the #MeToo movement here in America, everything is still tender. Simply talking about sexuality and the roles of women and men in life and the workplace can be a careful tap-dance of attempting to recognize and listen to every person’s point of view, let alone expressing the viewpoints that this film does. The French culture approaches these topics in a fairly different manner, but especially so in the 1960’s, in a post war Paris, and given that the New Wave movement was focused on morally ambiguous characters to stand aside from the greater film structures of the time- so there’s a lot to dissect given all of the variables in play.

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The film does have it’s place in celluloid history, but I wouldn’t say that its the most entertaining film out there. Which is fine, not every story works for every audience. I’d have to see more from the New Wave directors before making a final opinion on the select era and group of filmmakers’ work, but the making of this film was more interesting to me than the final product. Surprised by the international praise of the film, Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t regret making the film because they defied the power structures of the filmmaking process and he was glad that they had thrown all that aside and opened the process up. In the end, I’m glad I gave it a watch, another film can be checked off my list and my perspective widens because of it.

Final Score: 100 cigarettes and 50 cups of coffee

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Old School Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961)

Spoilers will be included in this review. You have been warned.

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” is a Japanese Samurai film, set during the 1860’s, in which a lone Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) happens upon a small town that happens to be besieged by two warring clans with a blood feud. The Samurai then decides to play them against each other to free the town, and possibly make some money while doing so. As the opening credits scrawl by, our Ronin walks into frame as he wanders the countryside. He tosses a stick in the air when faced with a cross in the road, letting fate decide his path. He soon stumbles across a small farm in which he overhears an argument amongst a family. The son doesn’t want to work the hard but simple life of a silk farmer as his father before him and instead decides to join a gang as a hired warrior in a nearby town. The Samurai lets curiosity lead him and soon he’s sitting in a small tavern in that town ran by Gonji (Eijirō Tōno). The cantankerous old man lays out the situation for him and tells him he’s better off leaving town before everyone kills each other.

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Gonji reveals that Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) and Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) are the heads of the two warring clans, though Ushitora used to be Seibei’s second in command until Seibei claimed that he’d eventually cede his land and power to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa), a notoriously useless individual. Thus Ushitora broke away from Seibei and formed his own clan challenging the power structure of the town. Each patriarchal figure had made claims to power in the village, Seibei had the local silk merchant and mayor Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) in his pocket while Ushitora sought the local sake brewer, Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), proclaiming him the new mayor instead. After listening to the current state of affairs in the town the Samurai decides that the whole town would be better off with both clans eradicated and begins to craft sly machinations between the two.

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The Samurai then proves his violent worth by making a spectacle in the middle of town by killing three of Ushitora’s men and then aligning himself with Seibei. Seibei then decides that with the new Samurai on his side he must defeat Ushitora and his hired men that very day. When asked his name the Ronin happens to be looking out an open door and responds with Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the first name meaning Mulberry field (The same type of field he was looking at), and the surname being a wry definition of the thirtieth son, but he implies that it’s closer to a meaning of his age-though he admits he’s “..actually closer to forty”. After they agree on a price for his help in the coming battle Seibei goes to discuss logistics with his wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada), which Sanjuro secretly listens in on. Orin devises a plan to simply kill the Samurai once the fight is over so they don’t have to pay his high costs.

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As both clans appear on the opposing sides of town, rabid and eager to end their feud in a bloodbath, Sanjuro walks across to Ushitora and announces that Seibei has offended him and that he declines the fight. Sanjuro then climbs the ramshackle tower in town to watch the two clans fight to the death with a gleeful smirk. Though before anyone can get the nerve to kill, a scout on a horse reels into town to warn that a government official is on his way to inspect the town and it’s wares of silk and sake. To the disappointment of Sanjuro everybody drops their swords and quickly rush to make the town appear as if everything is normal. The government official stays a grueling ten days until another government official is murdered a few towns away, forcing an early departure from the corrupted elite.

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Sanjuro overhears two drunken assassins talking too much at Gonji’s tavern shortly after this, revealing that it was Ushitora who hired them to commit the other official’s murder. Armed with this knowledge Sanjuro captures the killers and delivers them to Seibei for a price, after which he heads to Ushitora and tells him that it was Seibei’s men who captured the two. Ushitora, shocked by this reveal, pays off Sanjuro for the information and then orders the kidnapping of Seibei’s son Yoichiro. Things get out of hand quickly after this as Ushitora makes an offer for Seibei to retrieve his son in exchange for his two murderers, but instead he double-crosses Seibei by shooting the two killers before Seibei can reclaim his son. Seibei had expected this double-cross however and had preemptively kidnapped Ushitora’s claimed mayor Tokuemon’s prized prostitute, Nui (Yoko Tsukasa). Sanjuro later finds out that Nui isn’t truly a prostitute but a bargaining chip as her husband Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya) had owed a gambling debt to Tokuemon and couldn’t pay off his debts, so Tokuemon took Nui instead.

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Sanjuro ponders this and eventually tricks Ushitora into revealing where Nui is kept and investigates with Ushitora’s younger, and far dumber, brother Inokichi (Daisuke Katō). Sanjuro quickly kills the guards, while distracting Inokichi, and then sends Nui, Kohei, and their child away into the night with the gold he received from both clans. He shows Inokichi the dead guards and sends him back to Ushitora to warn him of the attack and that Nui must have escaped or been captured back by Seibei’s men. This results in a fast escalation of violence and sabotage in the town. First Tazaemon’s silk stock is set ablaze, then Tokuemon’s sake barrels are destroyed as the town’s financial industry becomes ruined and unprofitable.

Eventually Ushitora’s youngest brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only gun toting gangster among the bunch, becomes suspicious of Sanjuro’s role in all of this and discovers evidence of his double-cross against Ushitora and beats Sanjuro without his sword. Jailed and bloodied, Sanjuro outwits Ushitora’s guards and crawls to Gonji for help. Gonji enlists the casket maker’s (Atsushi Watanabe) help in transporting Sanjuro out of town to heal in a small shrine in the cemetery, but before they leave they stop to witness Ushitora’s final attack against Seibei as they slaughter the opposing clan in entirety. As he recuperates Sanjuro practices throwing knives, but is pulled back into town when he hears that Gonji, who had been delivering food and ointments to Sanjuro, has been captured by Ushitora and his men. The final showdown is very reminiscent of the classic western trope of a showdown through the street on opposing sides as Sanjuro precisely and efficiently kills Ushitora and his remaining forces, he even bests Unosuke and his pistol, with his throwing knife. The final moment is given to Tazaemon though, who appears from the rubble beating a prayer drum, seeking his prey. Finally he finds Tokuemon and kills him, thereby ending the blood feud and violence. Happy with this conclusion, Sanjuro exits the town to the beginning of the credits roll.

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This was a great Samurai film from Akira Kurosawa. There was a lot to love with this film. The framing, cinematography, the performances and action, everything was a tightly knit piece of genre entertainment and I genuinely loved it. I started with this Samurai film after finding out that Sergio Leone’s first film in his infamous “dollar trilogy” A Fistful of Dollars (starring Clint Eastwood) was a remake of this film. You can definitely see the love of this film in Leone’s remake, and I really enjoyed recognizing how that transition was made between the two. If you’re looking for a classic Samurai film from one of the best filmmakers of the twentieth century, you can’t find much better than this!

Final Score: One Samurai, two clans, & a dog

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Old School Review: Stalker (1979)

 (As this film is more than thirty-five years old, there will be spoilers. You have been warned)

Written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with screenwriting cowriters Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote the novella “Roadside Picnic” on which the film is based upon, “Stalker” is the final film that Tarkovsky made under the banner of the Soviet Union. It’s quite the meditative quest with dashes of science fiction amid the philosophical and theological musings that the three main characters debate about throughout their journey. In this indiscernible future of a post apocalyptic scenario there lives a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), the main characters of the film are known only to us through their occupations, a man that specializes in the freelance guiding of various clientele into the mysterious and dangerous “Zone”. The Zone is an uninhabitable area near the cityscape that the remainders of humanity avoid, the heavily armed military guards the entrances to the Zone and stalkers must navigate past them in secret to gain access to the untouched land. Although nobody seems to know the truth of its origin, the urban myth surrounding the Zone cites a meteor that crash landed near there causing chaos decades earlier. Curiously the military sent in brigades of soldiers and armament to investigate the situation and were never heard from again. Hence the containment of the dangerous area. This time around the Stalker plans to transport two men, The Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and The Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) into the Zone.

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So, you might ask, “Why would people want to go to the Zone if it’s so notoriously dangerous?” Well, word has it that within the Zone there lies a structure forgotten to the world, decaying and deteriorated, yet within that old building lies a specific room that supposedly grants the deepest desires of all who dare to enter. The Professor wants to win the Nobel prize while the Writer has lost his inspiration and wants to rid himself of his writer’s block.

As the journey goes along, and it is a journey- a slow one at that, the film is full of incredibly long takes and shots of the three characters traversing the dangerous cityscapes, the railroads leading out of town, and the vast and green wilderness of the Zone. Anyways, as they travel about the Writer and the Professor wax poetic and casually lob sardonic insults at each other and their proposed fields of work while the Stalker constantly checks the landscape for danger. Much of the film inserts a mysterious tension brilliantly played on by Tarkovsky by alluding to the Zone as a nonlinear force, traps can ensnare unknowing people that traverse blindly into the tall grass, and the Stalker talks of the Zone as something that is in constant flux. Traps that used to exist are now safe paths while other routes that had been impassable before become the only ways through. He evens goes so far as to say that people bring these changes with them as they enter, its not that the Zone is actually changing at all, but that it is shaped by the intentions and thought patterns of those who enter it.

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At nearly three hours, this is a beast of a film to get through if you’re an impatient viewer. There are no real actions sequences here friend, this is a different sort of film where a calm imagination and an adoration for dreamy visuals will do you some good. It’s also notorious for it’s incredibly long takes, “The film contains 142 shots in 163 minutes, with an average shot length of more than one minute and many shots lasting for more than four minutes.” While there are definite allusions to theological yearnings, I feel that this is a film where, much like the Zone itself, you bring most reflections of who you are to your understanding of the film and it’s story. I can understand where someone might see that the Stalker’s pains at the end of the film could be an expression of Tarkovsky’s feelings on a world without religion and hope, without people that believe in something greater than themselves. Though for myself it felt more along the lines of an allegory for the allure and humility of mystery versus the arrogance of believing that you know how the world works and that there are no such mysteries left to be discovered. There is some overlap in the ideas in a macro sense, but that’s just what I felt from my viewing of the film.

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The production of the film sounds like a disaster three times over if you know the details. Tarkovsky shot the entirety of the film on three separate occasions. The first failure was due to a Russian film studio not properly converting the film’s stock as Tarkovsky used a brand and type of film that they weren’t fluent in. I believe the second effort was mostly due to shooting location concerns and the hurdles of laws under the pressure from the Soviet Union’s specific requirements of art during that time. Over the course of the production they shot an alarming amount of footage, “..consuming over 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) of film.” There’s also the fact that this was the last film Tarkovsky made before leaving the Soviet Union, and through the main character of the Stalker we can see Tarkovsky’s torment over the notion of wanting to leave. To create, and live, more freely, or to stay with what he knows. Stalker even says that back home in the sepia tones of the city (versus the color footage of the Zone), he feels as though he is incarcerated throughout his everyday life. “Almost all the dreams recorded by Tarkovsky in the period 1974–77 seem to have been about being in prison—in one case, being in prison, escaping, and wanting to get back into jail again: 

     ‘At last, to my joy, I saw the entrance to the prison, which I recognized by the bas-relief emblem of the USSR. I was worried about how I was going to be received, but that was as nothing compared with the horror of being out of prison’ .”

Getting even more meta about the topics in play, in the film the Writer and the Professor never even enter the room once they finally reach it, for the Stalker has warned of what happened to his former mentor, another stalker nicknamed Porcupine. Our main stalker tells us that while stalkers are forbidden from entering the room, Porcupine eventually did so after the death of his brother. He went and asked to reverse his brother’s death- but the room saw through to his subconscious desire to be wealthy and instead granted him wealth beyond reason. Porcupine hanged himself a week after this. Another analysis dives into this theory of deeper hidden desires within Tarkovsky about wanting to leave Russia. “Stalker at some level (pos­sibly even at the level of “deepest desire”) is about the wish to leave Russia for good: the first twenty min­utes enact a very recognizable Cold War fantasy of breaking through bar­riers. At the same time, there is the corresponding feeling that it would be impossible, and actually wrong, to do this. Thus, all the time that Tarkovsky was fretting against the “unbearable restraints” of the socialist bureaucracy he was fated to serve (and thinking that, perhaps, there might be a way out—for example, by accepting the invitation to come to Italy that had been sent by his friend Tonino Guerra), he was also “digging in,” preparing to stay.

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Allegories and musings aside, this is a very beautiful film to watch. If you are a viewer more inclined towards the visual arts over dialogue and actions in your storytelling, then this film may have something for you. Since my viewing of another Tarkovsky film in “The Mirror”, I’ve come to notice that the Russian filmmaker has a unique tendency to fill the screen with the natural world with a specifically unique voice. You might get the feeling that Tarkovsky himself was more at home in the forests and fields of Estonia rather than the bustling streets of Moscow. Though, he may have unintentionally sealed his, and other crew members’, fate while shooting on location for this film; “Several people involved in the film production, including Tarkovsky, died from causes that some crew members attributed to the film’s long shooting schedule in toxic locations. Sound designer Vladimir Sharun recalled:

We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris‘ .”

This definitely falls more on the art-house side of cinema, but I think it’s good to constantly challenge your palate when it comes to the films you watch. How would you ever know whether or not you would enjoy a film such as this if you never give it the opportunity to challenge your assumptions? Stride towards a greater variety of art in every direction, besides, its more fun that way!

Final Score: 2 Elitists, 1 Stalker

(sources) The quotes I have inserted into this review came from these three articles on the film and I found them to be quite interesting, click the links and give them a look!:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/7/16418780/movie-of-week-stalker-tarkovsky-blade-runner

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4739-stalker-meaning-and-making

http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/stalker/