Seven Samurai (1954)

September 13, 2011

“Seven Samurai” directed by Akira Kurosawa is the granddad of the action genre. It’s believed to be the first movie where a team is assembled on screen for a mission. We can safely say that “Ocean’s Eleven” would not exist if Kurosawa never made “Seven Samurai”.

The movie runs for three hours with an intermission. It tells a story of a group of farmers, whose village has been raided by a group of forty bandits. Desperate, the farmers follow the advice of their granddad to hire four samurai from the town to combat the bandits. They recruit Kanbe Shimada (Takashi Shimura), not only a great samurai in sword combat, but also a great strategist. Shimada decides that four samurai cannot fight off forty bandits. He recruits six more, including the hilarious Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a son of a farmer who passes himself off as a samurai. The farmers bring back seven samurai to the village. The rest is the purest cinematic experience of the action genre.

The samurai here are poor and hungry. They are desperate to get a well-paid freelance job. The farmers are poor and can only afford to pay them three meals (rice balls) a day. They jump aboard only because of the charism of Kanbe Shimada the lead samurai. Their self-esteem upholds the hardship of life. Notice how the samurai are killed never by a sword on screen, but by guns fired by the coward bandits. Notice all bandits killed by the samurai die under their swords, never a gunshot.

Roger Ebert writes in his great review that “Seven Samurai” also tells a story of the Japanese social class, of men who are obliged to play their social roles even though the ends look grim. That’s a great observation. However, I enjoy the movie more on the pure cinematic level. The story telling is so clear, we follow easily each strategic step taken by the master samurai. The acting is highly stylish, for example the clown samurai played by Toshiro, which could be distracting at first but it helps to distinguish each character, and there are many vivid characters.

Seven Samurai” is directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Buy it at The Criterion Collection.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

September 11, 2011

Upon my first viewing of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” ten years ago, I didn’t like it. It got better in my second viewing. Having watched it again recently, I’ve developed a strange connection and admiration for this film, the first feature of Alain Resnais. Perhaps one could only connect to it with enough experience and understanding of the subject matter.

The film tells a story of an unnamed couple of a French woman and Japanese man, who are having an intense love affair in Hiroshima fourteen years after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. The woman is simply called “Nevers” where she grows up, and the man called “Hiroshima” where he lives. They talk, wander, talk more, and wander again. In the night, against the backdrop of Japanese neon signs and empty streets. The emotions are resonant with those of Wong Kar Wai’s “In The Mood For Love”, although it’s strange to say that because that movie wouldn’t exist without “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.

Having done “Night and Fog”, now an important documentary about the Holocaust, Resnais was asked to make a documentary about the atomic bomb. In “Night and Fog”, Resnais illustrates the horror not by facts and evidences, but by juxtaposing images and a poetic account of a Holocaust surviver. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, he takes this one step further by telling the story of Hiroshima without discussing at all the atomic bomb. The film is full of hypnotic dialogues and music. Lost love, memories and forgetfulness are the couple’s main topics.

Stanley Kubrick once said that the atrocities of the Holocaust would not be able to be made into a movie without being humanized and turned into an entertainment one way or the other. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, we are asked to feel, to understand in the poetic sense, not literal.

The tragedy of Hiroshima is told in the analogy of the French woman’s personal tragedy. When she speaks of her dead lover and the madness, we feel her sadness that the memories have become nothing more than just an event without the emotional attachment. Or perhaps the emotions have been locked so deep inside, that she is not able to experience it without breaking the literals.

How long will the memories of the Holocaust and Hiroshima last until they become merely an event that we read in a textbook? By translating the emotions of Hiroshima poetically on films, the tragedy is recorded not by facts, but through a cinematic experience. In a way, this is a poetically true documentary of Hiroshima.

The film is described by many to be the catalyst of the French New Wave, along with “400 Blows” by Truffaut. It is beautifully filmed and uses many Nouvelle Vague methods such as jump cutting, non-linear story telling, etc. However, unlike its peers, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” ages better because the style here is only playing a supporting role, the protagonist is the poetry spoken by “Nevers” and “Hiroshima”.


 

Hiroshima Mon Amour” is directed by Alain Resnais, written by Marguerite Duras, starring Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada (who by the way, could not speak any French, and was only memorizing every syllable in his lines.) Buy it on The Criterion Collection.

Dail M for Murder (1954)

September 10, 2011

“Dial M for Murder” adapted from a successful stage play tells a story of a man who plans a perfect murder of his wife . It was filmed in 3D, and screened briefly in 3D too. Odd fact. Anyway, much like “Rear Window” released in the same year, “Dial M for Murder” is set entirely in a claustrophobic apartment, a challenge that must have appealed to Hitchcock to create suspense with the minimum set pieces, perhaps explaining why Hitchcock was interested to film it in 3D at the first place – to create the maximum depth and interest in a small setting.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a retired professional tennis player married to his once fan Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly). His saving is running out. His wife, who once loves and admires him, is now having an affair with another man called Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Mr.Wendice has plotted for years a perfect plan to murder his wife with the reluctant help of his college friend Lesgate. When things go wrong, Wendice derives a plan B. Will he succeed? Will he not?

The suspense is classic Hitchcock. Although the movie lacks the splendid set piece from his later movies or the self-reflection in “Vertigo”, it gets one thing perfectly right – keeping us at the edge of the seat by making us identify with the murderer and take the risk as he does.

The murder is discussed and conducted in a civilized manner. We see two gentlemans catching up the old time back in college. Wendice talks Lesgate into the murder scheme, not with a pointed gun, but with perfect logic and reasoning, which makes perfect sense on paper. We are the insiders, we know perfectly well the next steps. We are told that a perfect murder only exists in a novel, that the real life probabilities are incalculable and hence one small unexpected incident leads to the collapse of a perfect scheme.

A crime is truly suspenseful only when conducted in a lawful society, by seemingly law-abiding gentlemans. The consequence of failure is clear. The line is only crossed when the line is there. We are the participants as much as Wendice or his helper. We are the invisible voyers and partners in crime. That’s class A entertainment – experiencing the psychology of a murderer in a safe black room behind the screen. After all, murder is only fun on paper.

Dial M fur Murder” is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings.

Happy Together (1997)

September 4, 2011

The films of Wong Kar Wai endure multiple viewings, not because they are beautifully photographed, which they are, and not because they have great romance, which they also have, but because they embody the common consciousness of Hong Kong in the period of pre- and post-handover so well, and in such voluptuous colors. “Happy Together” is my favorite among all his films because it is the final statement of Hong Kong in the 1990’s. It was released in 1997, the handover year of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) are lovers. They arrive in Argentina from Hong Kong to debark a road trip for a holiday. They goes adrift, car is broken, so is their relationship. From that point, Yiu Fai and Po Wing are stranded in Argentina in a doomed relationship. That is my best effort to describe the storyline as there is not a clear one. The movie is more about the characters than a story.

Yiu Fai is the more quiet and sensitive of the couple, while Po Wing is explosive and seductive, bringing a balance to the duo. They run out of money. Yiu Fai longs for his homeland. He saves up for a return flight ticket from the modest income he makes from a Chinese restaurant, while Po Wing has no obvious plan and supports himself a lurid lifestyle by shuffling between foreign partners.

The two personalities draw an interesting analogy to the pre-1997 period of Hong Kong – the Hong Kong citizens who have been drifting for so long that they long to return “home”, whatever the home is, and those who still long for the foreigners during the colonization.

Po Wing is spontaneous and playful, at times explosive, the right mixture of a good lover until he goes beyond control. Yiu Fai struggles between Po Wing and a more stable life. A more realistic plan is to save up enough to return home and fix the existential crisis. His struggle interestingly suggests the internal conflict of the Hong Kong citizens before 1997. The eventual breakup between the couple, leaving Po Wing alone in Argentina and Yiu Fai returning home, illustrates the difficult breakup of the Hong Kong citizens from the british rule. The ending is that of a lost love, which is destined to doom, despite false expectation.

Whether or not Wong Kar Wai had these in mind during the making of this movie would be up to your imagination. The theme of lost time, obsession to a due date (1997 in the case of Hong Kong) and doomed lovers can be found throughout his work prior to 1997. His direction is changed after the 1997 handover and his later films illustrate a different consciousness that is analogous to that of the post-1997 Hong Kong citizens. Many viewers accuse Wong Kar Wai as a one off director whose films only contain style with little substance. Looking beyond the surface, one could find different meanings and motifs manifested by his characters which roam in the world of lost love and opportunity.

Happy Together” is directed by Wong Kar Wai, beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle, starring Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

September 2, 2011

“The Boys from Brazil” is by no mean a great movie, but it certainly has a hell a lot of fun. If you are a sucker for every World War II picture that typecasts everyone with a thick german accent in a sinister Nazi role, you are in for the show.

Adapted from a british novel of the same name written by Ira Levin, the plot is insidiously silly. It involves the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele aka Angel of Death (Gregory Peck) plotting a world domination plan of cloning Hitler. Stepping into the show is young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) who dies fairly early into the movie, followed up by the old legendary Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), obviously based on the real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who now must battle the Angel of Death and stop his evil plan.

Anything involving the World War II, the Nazis and Nazi hunters has to be an entertaining movie. It has all the ingredients for the perfect backdrop of an absorbing story – you get the absolute evil, the heros, the war, the apocalypse, etc. “The Boys from Brazil” is a pioneer in the way that it paves the way for movies like “Inglorious Bastards”, Tarantino’s own parody of the genre. A movie like this kind is not to be taken too seriously, but to explore the what-if and throw in a lot of fun along the way.

In real life Joseph Mengele escaped to Brazil after the war and was last seen in Paraguay. Real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal reportedly spent half of his post-Holocaust life trying to hunt down the Angel of Death, without success. The doctor is assumed to be dead by now given the old age. And I only wish someone would make a biopic of Simon’s manhunt of the notorious Nazi doctor!

The Boys from Brazil” is directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, adapted by Heywood Gould from a novel by Ira Levin.

Psycho (1960)

September 2, 2011

“Psycho” ages extremely well over the course of fifty years. Today some of the plot points have been reduced to cliché in parody after parody, but the movie is so well made that the artistry keeps it fresher in each viewing even after you know all the secrets, knots and twists.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are in love. Sam is divorced and in no condition to marry Marion because most of his money goes into alimony. Marion is sick of being stuck, and when given the chance, steals $40,000 from his employer. She runs away and stops by the Bates Motel, meets the owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his ill mother. Norman is likable and handsome at the first sight, but we quickly sense something is not quite right about him. He and Marion connect in the way that they are both trapped, and hiding a secret.

Then it comes to the most famous twist at exactly 47 minutes into the movie. Hitchcock shot it in one week, with 77 camera angles, 50 cuts, and the sequence lasts only 3 minutes (I didn’t count, the figures vary from source to source). It has to be the most studied murder sequence of all time. Notice the scene when the water goes down the drain, then dissolves into an extreme closeup shot of the lifeless eye and slowly zooms out as the life is draining away from the pupil.

Does it look like I am giving a lot of plot away? If you do not know the secret yet, expect the unexpected. In fact, Hitchcock insisted that all viewers should arrive at the cinema on time, and requested that nobody should give away the secret. In a more extreme measure, after he bought the right of the original novel, he also bought every available copy of the book to avoid the secret being given away.

This is also the last black and white film by Hitchcock, who shot this cheaply with US $800,000 and in black and white to get a cheap b-movie look. Against the studio’s wish, he even employed his television crew instead of his usual team that made his other sleek thrillers to achieve this purpose. It is as much a disguise as everything from the plot, down to the characters. He toys with us, misleads us, in order to surprise us. In a way, we are as much the victims of Hitchcock as the victims of the murder in “Psycho”.

And check out the beautifully designed opening sequence of the movie on Vimeo.

Psycho” (1960) is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Hitchcock’s Trailers

August 25, 2011

Stumbled upon “The 50 Greatest Trailers of All Time” from IFC, and found that the trailers that really stand out are those by Hitchcock and Kubrick, who beside being the greatest directors are also the greatest marketers of all time. The genius of Kubrick will be discussed in another post, and I’d love to share with you the trailers of Hitchcock which display real marketing genius of the greatest manipulator of all time.

A quick look in Wikipedia about the history of movie trailer, I found the following – (paraphrasing) trailer was invented in 1913 by Nil Grandlund, advertising manager of the Marcus Leow theatre chain. It was first inserted after a movie ended and only moved prior to the movie started when the marketer found that viewers would not stay after the movie to watch the trailer. That’s when the tradition of movie trailer as we know today really began, disciplining us to arrive at the theatre on time. That’s also when trailer really became a valuable and effective marketing tool for the movies. Trailer is usually composed of three acts much like a movie, and if you haven’t noticed, the formula gets repetitive very quickly, hence losing the marketing effect.

That’s where Hitchcock and Kubrick step in with their completely original trailers. These trailers alone are as interesting and entertaining as the movies they are advertising. Take the trailer of “The Birds (1963)” below for example.


There isn’t a single shot of the actual movie, but we see Hitchcock delivering a lecture on the evolution of bird and why it makes sense they should attack humans with perfect showmanship and his trademark gallows humor. Imagine back in the good old days you are sitting in the theatre, then out of nowhere Hitchcock pops up and gives you a lecture on the birds! Then watch this trailer of “Psycho 1960” also featuring Hitchcock.

This time, he escorts us to the murder scene where the movie takes place. Again the kitschiness and humor are done here with such seriousness, making it the perfect companion piece of the actual movie, which was anyway intended to be a cheaply made slasher movie. The last truly great trailer in my opinion is the one of “Eyes Wide Shut” by Kubrick, which I shall share with you in another post.

Prove me wrong if you disagree and share links in comments!

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

August 21, 2011

Most viewers today will immediately associate “The Man Who Laughs” to The Joker the most notorious fictional villain of our time. That’s about the only legacy this forgotten silent movie has left today. That fixated grin is the only linkage to the joker, and in fact the movie has much more to offer still today.

Directed by Paul Leni and released in 1928, “The Man Who Laughs” is the last breed of its kind before we abandoned story-telling to visual and sound. Watching this film, you will have this constant bittersweet feeling that the late master is mastering the art to the limit within the limitation of the medium. The production is still a highly watchable and at time entertaining piece of movie making, beside its historical value. Leni even experimented with recorded sounds, such as the crowd’s noise and ambient sound of the parade.

Adapted from a novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo in 1869, the story starts with an English nobleman who has offends King James II, he is sentenced to death in the iron maiden, his son Gwynplaine is sentenced to be mutated and forever wearing a large grin on his face with the help of a surgeon called Dr. Hardquannone. Gwynplaine meets Dea a baby girl he finds in the midst of a snow storm, chances upon a good hearted showman called Ursus. Together the trio survives the hardship and makes a living out of the circus business with the famous gig of Gwynplaine the joker, who reluctantly displays his horrifying grin to put bread on the table.

Roger Ebert wrote in his 2004 review that “Movie villains smile so compulsively because it creates a creepy disconnect between their mouth and their eyes. Imagine, however, a good man, condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime.” The horror of this movie, unlike the title otherwise suggests, is not the horror commanded by the laughing man, but instead the horror that is enforced upon him. The film is essentially a bittersweet melodrama that is told in the best of the german expressionist style, that casts a strong contrast between the good hearted Gwynplaine and the horrific chain of events around him, with unseen horror lurking in the darkest of the shadow.

Conrad Veidt shines as Gwynplaine. He also played in other famous german expressionist silent movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He had to wear a monstrous denture that keeps his grin, in doing so, limits his mouth movement. The whole thing works because first it’s a silent movie anyway and the story telling relies on Conrad’s facial expression rather than words, and second Conrad’s acting with the eyes conveys unspeakable emotions that at time make his character more sympathetic than if we could hear him speaking.

I highly recommend this movie if you have 2 free hours over the weekend and would like to revisit the art of the silent movie. Movie making has gone from the story-telling, that works much like a novel, to a spectacle of sometimes grotesque visual and busy soundtrack. Not that silent movie making is in any way superior than the talkies, but if you want a good old analogue entertainment in which the creators must work much harder on the craftsmanship with wild imagination and creativity to surpass the limitation of silence, pick this up via the internet or watch below.


The Laughing Man” is directed by Paul Leni adapted by J. Grubb Alexander from a novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

August 21, 2011

History is written by the victors so its said by Winston Churchill. It has served as some sort of a contemporary truism ever since. The collective wisdom is examined in depth in Judgement at Nuremberg, a fictional account of the famous post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. This time, standing on the trial are 4 notorious Nazi judges, with the most famous being Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), the judge among judges, once a symbol of justice in Germany.

The film explores the complexity of the war crimes committed by the state, and those who execute the orders. On one hand we have Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) who believes in absolute certainty that Janning and his fellows are as guilty as Hitler as part of the genocide. On the other there is Hans Rolfe (played by the excellent Maximilian Schell), the defend attorney and a fan of Jenning, who is on a mission to restore the dignity for his country in the attempt of restoring the glory of Jenning regardless he is guilty or not. Trapped inbetween is the chief judge of the case Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy). Like us, he comes the court knowing already the result of the hearing, but on the way he meets various good hearted germans, including Mrs. Bertholt, a minor character played by Marlene Dietrich. He is, however, a man who seeks the absolute justice, that is outside of the state law and sympathy.

Different from the other movies that deal with the same subject, Judgment at Nuremberg deals with the aftermath of the war. The story asks if these men in question should be condemned guilty just for the sake that they lose the war. Are the Nazi participants as guilty as Hitler in the crimes the state commits? What if their actions are based purely on their love for the country? If one is to betray his/her country, is he/she then also guilty in the context of the state law? All these will be answered in a satisfying conclusion, and on the way a lot of doubt and question regarding the quote from Churchill.

Judgment at Nuremberg is directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann. According to Wikipedia, this is currently one of the Top Ten courtroom dramas voted by the American Film Institute.

Wages of Fear (1953)

August 20, 2011

Wages of Fear” is the international breakthrough of Henri-Georges Clouzot which won the Grand Prize of Cannes Festival in 1953. Clouzot died at the age of 69, leaving behind a small but impressive portfolio. With his two masterpieces “Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique“, he has been described by film critics as the French equivalent of Hitchcock.

What we have here is a tightly packed thriller that functions essentially as the “men on a mission” flick. The story involves 4 scoundrels, who are stuck in an unnamed poor filthy Latin American town. To get out of the situation they sign up a suicide mission to drive two full truckloads of highly explosive nitroglycerene 300 miles from the town to an oil mill caught on fire. The only way to put down the fire is to explode the mill. They will get a $2,000 reward each if they succeed, or otherwise, well, nobody will care.

The men here care nothing but the reward that will finance their escape from the desperate town. We get to know Mario (Yves Montand), a slacker who nudges off his romantic interest upon serious men business, accompanied by Jo (Charles Vanel) who is some sort of a mentor of Mario. Once they head off with the other team consisted of Luigi and Bimba, we already get to know their personalities and their motivations. The nerve cracking tension begins once the joy ride kickstarts. There is not any sort of false heroism shown here, everyone is doing exactly their personalities program them to do, and sometimes for the sake of the situation.

There are several set pieces here Clouzot could work with, one of them is a halfway built dock over a steep cliff that the trucks have to drive through. This great scene is told not with false suspense but in a meticulously edited sequence that Hitchcock would envy. We see how the first truck passes through and that adds up to the suspense to the second truck since we know exactly what they will be facing.

Technically this is a faultless film. The gorgeous black and white photography conveys more accurately if in the poetic sense the harsh weather than color photography would do. There’s a saying that black and white is able to illustrate the subject matter in a more symbolic way than the realism of color photography that we take for granted. It’s beautifully proved here.

The ending is not a happy one, but we cannot blame Clouzot when what we get nowadays are senseless happy endings in most Hollywood movies with the only function to please the audiences. And in fact, the ending makes perfect sense since this is exactly what these mindless scoundrels should behave.

“Wages of Fear” is directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapted by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi from a novel written by Georges Arnaud.Buy DVD or Bluray at Criterion