The Seven Samurai

It’s been a lo-o-ong time since we’d been to see anything at the Stanford Theatre, but when I saw they were doing an Akira Kurosawa film festival, I persuaded Debbi to go with me to see the classic Japanese film The Seven Samurai (1954). I’ve actually never seen any Kurosawa films, and I’ve always figured I should see at least this one. (No, I’ve never seen The Magnificent Seven, either.)

Set in 16th-century Japan, a peasant village is under threat of a large band of mounted bandits. One of the peasants refuses to just give in, and after consulting with the village elder they go to a larger town to recruit samurai to come defend them. After some initial difficulties, they find an older rōnin, Kanbê, who is willing to help, and he is able to find six others to assist him in the defense, including a young appentice, Katsushirô, and a wild reckless samurai, Kikochiyo. Returning to the village, the samurai find the peasants are suspicious of them, but they earn their trust and start building defenses and training the peasants in basic military skills. After the barley is harvested, the bandits attack, and the samurai lead the villagers in defending their town, even though the samurai receive no payment other than the food the peasants have to eat. (You can read the full synopsis in the Wikipedia entry.)

The Seven Samurai is a long film – nearly 3-1/2 hours – and it often drags. One of the joys of watching films from other eras or cultures is in seeing how conventions in filmmaking differ from what we see today, and yet there are only so many meaningful glances you can take before the film bogs down (I have the same problem with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, although I enjoy the film overall quite a bit). The first 45 minutes are quite difficult to get through, as it mainly concerns the peasants and their plight. Once Kanbê appears, the film becomes more exciting and more amusing, especially the sequence of recruiting the other samurai. Indeed, the humor is by far the best facet of the film.

Dramatically, the film is very uneven. The acting ranges from strong to poor; the an playing the apprentice, Katsushirô, is quite stiff, and he has a relationship with Shino, the daughter of one of the peasants, who’s played by a woman whose style could best be described as hysterical. Their scenes together were often painful to watch. The other samurai are generally very well acted, especially Kanbê (who Debbi observed resembles Morgan Freeman in his appearance and mannerisms) and Kikochiyo, the latter of whom is over-the-top in all the right ways, his best scene being the one in which we learn something of his background, although he has several other good scenes.

Although the battle sequences appear very well done for their day they sometimes feel a little too contrived and implausible. It’s easy to see how the film influenced later films involving a few going up against many (of which the TV show The A-Team has to be the reductio ad absurdum). And it’s not a cheerful film, with a rather downbeat ending for the samurai, although a satisfying one in terms of the characters. Kurosawa clearly demonstrates many of the skills of great screenwriters and directors, but I don’t think he pulls them all together as well as, say, Alfred Hitchcock was himself doing in the 50s.

I would say The Seven Samurai is mainly of interest to people fascinated by film history, or historical films for that matter. It has much to recommend it, but I think it falls short of being truly great, not least because of its length and pacing. I’m glad I saw it, but I doubt I’ll feel the need to see it again anytime soon.

Changeling

I was interesting in seeing Changeling when it hit the theaters last fall, but somehow ended up missing it. Thanks to the wonder of On Demand television (which I imagine will put video rental places out of business even faster than NetFlix is) we were able to watch it last night. I recall writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) talking about it in the lead-up to its release, and as he always does he made it sounds really interesting. And sure, while he’s promoting his own work, Straczynski does tend to play fair when talking about it.

The actual film in fact exceeded my expectations, considering I was originally disappointed that it didn’t have any fantastic elements despite the premise: In 1928 Los Angeles, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother to Walter (Gattlin Griffith). When Christine one day has to go in to work unexpectedly, she comes home to find that Walter has disappeared. The LA police – famously corrupt in that era – are at first uninterested in the case, but five months later bring Christine’s son back to her. Except that as soon as she sees him, she realized the boy isn’t Walter, but someone prentending to be Walter. Railroaded by Police Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, who plays the lead in the series Burn Notice) into accepting him anyway, she soon collects objective evidence supporting her position.

So you can see why I might think such a story written by a science fiction author, and titled after a creature from folklore might have a fantastic premise underlying its story, but in fact the film is based on a real incident involving abducted children and their apparent murder, and is played absolutely straight. The film’s Wikipedia entry has several statements that the story was considered too fantastic by some despite its being largely true.

The story has an interesting episodic structure in which each episode seems to belong to a different genre. Walter’s disappearance is worked for pure suspense, while the abducted children starts as the tail end of a detective story before turning into a slice of a horror story. Police corruption and indifference is a major theme, and Christine also does a turn in a mental institution (and it sure seems like 1920s mental institutions were good places to stay well away from). There’s also the reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who has been crusading against LA police corruption and who becomes Christine’s strongest ally.

The acting in the film is its strongest asset, ranging from good to excellent. Jolie’s performance as Christine is quite good, wavering between personal strength and seeming well out of her depth, her voice becoming tremulous at many moments. But the outstanding performance is by Jason Butler Hamner as Gordon Northcott, the man accused of the abductions, who seems convincingly psychopathic while also being a huge coward. He has perhaps the most demanding role in the film, and he does a fantastic job.

As a period piece, the behavior of the LAPD feels very odd and scary compared to what we see in modern crime dramas, and yet still similar in many ways. (This may be an indication that I watch too many police procedurals on television.) The story feels like part of a bygone era without feeling stale.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes running time, the film has plenty of time to go into its various subjects in depth, and director Clint Eastwood approaches the story in a very matter-of-fact, low-key manner, which works quite well. There are a few dangling elements, some of which can be resolved by reading the historical record of the incident, and other of which are ambiguous because, well, they were never fully cleared up, but which leave the viewer with some things to think about afterwards, which is fine for a film based on a real and complicated incident.

In summary I recommend this film if you’re into any of the elements described, especially if you enjoy a story about improbable circumstances portrayed without sensationalism.

Harry Potter VI

Last Sunday we went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the new film in the series. My expectations for the films at this point are moderate at best: The book series bottomed out with the awful Order of the Phoenix and never really recovered. The original of this one was padded and poorly plotted, although it had some good character bits in the middle.

The story basically survives intact in the film, although with many of its warts still showing: Many sequences are slow, especially the beginning (in which Dumbledore and Harry persuade Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts) and the end (the retrieval of the Horcrux is tense, yet tedious). But the stuff in the middle is still quite entertaining: Harry, Ron and Hermione falling for various other students, Harry awkwardly captaining the Quidditch team (I rather wish the series had more consciously explored the theme of Harry being thrust into a leader’s role while being anything but a natural leader), and Harry learning potions with the help of the textbook of the Half-Blood Prince. The flashbacks to Voldemort’s past are interesting and not as overdone as they are in the book.

The film has been getting strong reviews, and overall I enjoyed it despite its flaws, but it’s not nearly as good as the best in the film series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, although with stronger source material it might have been its equal.

It’s interesting to see all the actors growing up. Daniel Radcliffe looks less buff than he did in Phoenix where his appearance seemed a little odd. Rupert Grint seemed to grow into his body awkwardly, especially in Goblet of Fire, but he seems to be past that; he’s the actor who’s changed the most in appearance as he’s grown up. Emma Watson has changed the least, looking much the same at 18 as she did at 11. Tom Felton’s features have become much more defined as he’s grown up, and he doesn’t have the smooth, dark-elfin look he had when he first played Draco Malfoy.

I can’t believe I’m going to sit through two films to see all of the final book, Deathly Hallows, which was another padded book; that means a lot of the padding is surely going to make it into the films (which already run long at over 2-1/2 hours apiece). But no doubt I’ll do it.

“Up” Date

One last, more personal, note about Up. Spoilers ahead in case you haven’t seen the film.

The opening montage of the film in which we see how the disappointment’s in Carl’s life shaping him into a cranky old man really resonated with me. My thought while watching it was that its message is not to put off following your dreams, not to let the little day-to-day things get in the way. My temperament is that of a steady, day-to-day guy, and from time to time I worry that I’m spending all my time just going through the motions and not doing anything truly memorable, the sort of thing I’ll look back on when I’m old and think, “That’s something I’m glad I did.” I also haven’t had any great ambitious goals in life like Carl and Ellie did to go to Paradise Falls.

The later montage shows Carl reading through Ellie’s adventure scrapbook, filled with pictures of their life together. In contrast to the first montage, this one shows how all of the little things, in aggregation, makes up a fulfilling and memorable life. Rather than resonating deeply with me like the first sequence, this one gave me something to think about. I’m still thinking.

The evening of the day we saw the film, I asked Debbi if she’s happy with me even though I don’t go on any adventures with her. She said that we do go on adventures: We went to Hawaii, to Las Vegas, and to Portland, and Disneyland. And I know I’ll remember that Hawaii trip for years to come.

It still seems like it falls short of fulfilling some lifelong dream, though.

Up

Pixar’s new film Up is terrific.

The journey of retiree and widower Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner) to South America in a house lifted by thousands of balloons is an utterly ridiculous premise, and it gets sillier as it goes on, with a nonogenarian explorer, dragging the floating house several miles atop a butte, talking dogs and fantastic animals. And yet the whole thing works on its own terms, as it’s really about Carl’s personal journey to find a way to keep going after the death of his wife.

There are two tear-jerker montages which certainly do their jobs: The much-heralded opening sequence in which we see how Carl became the grumpy old man he is, and a later sequence in which he reminisces on his life from a different perspective. In a way they show how two views of a person’s life can say very different things about that person: In Carl’s case, either that he should have seized the day before it was too late, or that he had a wonderful life that he shouldn’t regret. But the story is about Carl making his way from here to there in his head.

But it’s the exuberant characters that carry the day: Russell, the young wilderness explorer (Jordan Nagai) who stows away on Carl’s house, and Dug (Bob Peterson), the talking dog who tags along when he meets the pair, eventually turning on his master, the adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Dug is especially hilarious, and quotable (“Hi there!”).

If the film has a weak spot, it’s the obsessive villainy of Muntz, who makes an effective heavy, but not a terribly convincing one: While his motivation (chasing after a fantastic animal for decades and not letting anything get in his way) makes a certain gut-level sense, I wondered why he didn’t try to “catch more flies with honey”, as they say. But given how much suspension of disbelief the story asks for just by its nature, a little bit of character motivation is easy enough to overlook.

I think Up is the film that The Incredibles wanted to be: This film’s epiphany works better than that one does, and it feels more true to itself, not tied up in trying to be a superhero film (with a poor understanding of superheroes), a family drama, and a spy adventure all in one. Up is is much more focused on its main character and story, and the whole thing works much better.

Is it Pixar’s best film? It’s hard to pick just one, since they’ve made so many good ones. WALL-E may have been more inventive, but it stumbled in the premise of its second half. Up is more consistent and overall works better. I’ve watched WALL-E, Cars and Finding Nemo many times now; I hope Up holds up as well in repeat viewings.

Squirrel!

Star Trek: The Reboot

J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film is sort of the anti-Battlestar Galactica. BSG took a fairly goofy old TV series and turned it into a serious adventure drama. Star Trek takes what was a serious adventure drama (well, for its time) and turns it into a goofy movie.

Myself, I’m an unreconstructed original series fan, and I happily enjoy those old episodes and the early movies while ignoring almost everything that followed. So I was just hoping for a good movie. Well, it’s got lots of action and plenty of humor, but it also self-consciously compares itself to the original series at every turn, and the story makes basically no sense, while blazing no new ground. So it was a rollicking ride, but ultimately it’s just another action film.

Spoilers ahoy!

Continue reading “Star Trek: The Reboot”

Coraline

This afternoon we went to see Coraline. I was lukewarm towards the book by Neil Gaiman (especially since I don’t care for Dave McKean’s artwork), but I’m happy to say that the film is terrific.

Briefly, Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) and her parents move into an old, pink house with three apartments. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too busy working on their gardening catalog to spend time with her, and she’s not too impressed with the overeager neighbor boy Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), especially when he gives her a doll he found which looks just like her.

Coraline discovers a passage to another world – a world that looks exactly like hers, except that it’s bright and colorful, and has parallels of all the people she knows. Her Other Mother and Other Father shower her with affection and she becomes disaffected with her real world, even though everyone in the other world have buttons instead of eyes. But of course the other world has a sinister secret and Coraline has to be both smart and quick to keep herself and her loved ones from being trapped in it.

Where to start with this film? The stop-motion animation (in 3D!) is terrific, even if it was aided by computer smoothing (I don’t know that it was, but who cares?). Bruno Coulais’ music is atmospheric and memorable, and the film would be rather different without it. The designs are wonderful, full of color and detail and creativity.

I remember the book as being inventive but drab and dreary. The film is anything but: Coraline is a vibrant character frustrated with her parents and with Wybie (but for different reasons), but enthusiastic and inventive when the opportunity (or necessity) presents itself. While her parents are perhaps a little too over-the-top in their inattentiveness, Wybie – a new character not from the book – is funny and quirky enough to fit into the world perfectly, while also being a bit of an anchor to the world outside the house. Other Mother and Other Father are both presented quite effectively, as is The Cat (Keith David), a sort of guide who pops up from time to time.

While the film still has a bit of the feeling that it was a trial just for the sake of a story, the addition of Wybie and his grandmother and their history with the house does give the story a sense of closure that I recall seemed to be missing from the book.

Coraline is the second film of a Neil Gaiman book that I liked better than the book (Stardust was the first). It makes me wonder what someone might be able to do with a film of one of the Gaiman books I really liked – like American Gods.

In any event, I highly recommend Coraline the film. It’s stylish, funny, suspenseful, and great to look at. Go see it.

Watchmen

Yesterday we went up to the city to see Watchmen on the IMAX screen at the Metreon. This was actually the first film I’ve seen on an IMAX screen, although other than being really quite big, it didn’t feel very different from watching a movie on a regular screen.

I read the comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons when it came out back in 1986-87. It was a big deal then, as Moore was probably the hottest – and arguably the best – pure writer in comics at the time, and Gibbons was a highly-regarded artist. Moore has said that the series was intended to be experimental and rule-breaking in many ways, and as far as how to use the form of sequential art to tell a story, it was. Few comics before or since have taken such a, well, cinematic approach to storytelling, while also mixing in the things which make the form unique. Gibbons eschewed the traditional approach of using visual effects to convey movement or emotion and instead the series depicted the progress of time in a simple panel-by-panel approach. At the same time scenes blended into one another, linked by dialogue from different scenes. While individual elements of Watchmen was been mimicked or used elsewhere, I don’t think anyone else has managed to quite capture the unique feel and nature of the book.

(The story, by the way, concerns a world in which superheroes emerged, changed the world – especially the big one who had actual powers – and were then forced into retirement. A decade later, one of them is killed, setting into motion a chain of events to learn why he was killed, which brings many of the surviving heroes back to solve the mystery and come to terms with their pasts and present.)

That said, the book is certainly not without its flaws. Steven Grant wrote an interesting critical account of the book which I recommend reading. I agree that the story by-and-large isn’t terribly novel, it’s how it’s told that’s fascinating. The story is also rather let down by a very hard-to-swallow ending, which Moore tries his level best (which is extremely good) to sell, trying to cajole and trick the reader into buying it, but it doesn’t quite work. (He manages to paper over most of the unbelievability with a compelling final page, but it’s just a papering-over, as if he doesn’t quite buy it himself.) But in sum its complexity, nuance, and believable characters make it one of the better graphic novels out there.

Making a movie of it: Hoo-boy.

The comic is strictly episodic in nature – using the periodical nature of the original comics for its own purposes as a chapter structure – with each issue featuring its own encapsulated segment of the story, its own tone and characters, and often its own resolution of a sort. It’s also a very low-key story, with only the occasional moment of action. Much of this is at odds with how superhero movies – or heck, any blockbuster movie – is constructed today.

Director Zack Snyder and screenplay writers David Hayter and Alex Tse give it a good try. With a running time of 163 minutes, that gives them about 13 minutes per issue (plus 7 minutes for credits), but of course it doesn’t work out that way. Naturally they cut the stuff that absolutely had to be cut (the “Black Freighter” sequences, which are not without their interesting elements but are ultimately the least essential part of the book), and pare down the issues that can be pared down. That still left them with some difficult decisions, and I think they cut some important material, but I went in knowing that Watchmen is probably impossible to film faithfully in a mere movie-length film.

The expected problems with the adaptation aside, the film starts going wrong in its focus on the violence of the story. Where the comic doesn’t exactly flinch from showing the horrible things that happen, it also rarely does so directly unless necessary, leaving some of the worst moments to the reader’s imagination – usually a good choice. The film emphasizes every punch with an extra-loud sound of impact. The heroes – most of whom have no true powers – get the living daylights beaten out of them and come back for more, quite different from how they’re portrayed in the book. There are some extremely gory scenes, some in which the camera lingers lovingly on the blood. The violence is mostly gratuitous, and only truly provides value in one scene, when two of the heroes are fighting their way through a gauntlet in a prison.

The film’s other big problem is the climax, in which everything is revealed, though it’s somewhat different from the book, but not really any more effective or believable. The book is full of moral ambiguity and goes to great lengths to try to portray every character as having both admirable and ignoble motivations and actions. The film mostly casts the characters as either “more good guys” or “more bad guys”, which sucks a lot of power out of the ending.

To the extent that the film works, it relies on the portrayal of the psychopathic Rorschach and his portrayal by Jackie Earle Haley. The acting is unexceptional throughout the film (none of the major actors are familiar to me), but Haley carries the day with an intense and spot-on performance, growling his way through the film in a full face-mask (whose constantly-shifting pattern is the film’s greatest visual triumph). With a lesser performance in this pivotal role, the film would have been limp indeed, violence or not.

The picture also looks impressive, although perhaps a little too art-deco and artificial in its appearance no matter the era being shown (it takes place in 1985 and has scenes dating back to the 1940s). This works well in the opening sequence, a series of nearly-still images (a neat effect in itself) about the history leading up to the main story, but gets a little wearing towards the end. But the characters and many of the settings and scenes look like they were lifted directly from the book; smartly, many of the iconic images are closely replicated in the film, sometimes to an uncanny degree. Considering how often films deviate across the board from their source material, this in itself is quite impressive.

Overall, I’d say Watchmen is a “pretty good” film – certainly not in the same league as the book. I do think it could have been a better film, by toning down the violence and sticking closer to the book in some key areas, but I appreciate that it’s a very challenging book to adapt. Perhaps I’m being too demanding, but I think the film’s greatest flaws were entirely correctable, yet they seemed to be conscious deviations to make the film more “exciting”.

Watchmen the movie is worth seeing once (if you’re not too squeamish about gore in movies), especially if you’ve already read the book. And if you’ve seen the film, though, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read the original. But I don’t think it’s going to hold up under repeated viewings.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I quite liked the first Hellboy film, which came out back in 2004. Despite a plot which didn’t make a lot of sense, it was stylish and funny and basically a satisfying action-adventure film. So I was enthusiastic about the sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I’d hoped that director Guillermo del Toro had learned through doing Pan’s Labyrinth to tell a better story and that Hellboy II would be a more serious, dramatic and sensical film than its predecessor.

My hope was completely misplaced, and I was quite disappointed in the film.

The film opens with a scene in the 1950s in which Hellboy’s father, Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), tells the story of the Golden Army, an indestructible, unbeatable mechanical army created by goblins and controlled by elves to fight mankind, until the king of the elves was saddened by the bloodshed and came to a truce with humanity and agreed to put the Golden Army away forever. Unfortunately his son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), feels this has doomed the elves to eventual extinction, and embarks on a plan to gain the three pieces of the crown which can control the army, and awaken them and conquer the world.

In the present day, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is living with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), but their relationship is rocky at best. During a mission to clean up after an attack by Prince Nuada, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) learns that Liz is pregnant, and Hellboy reveals his existence to the world, to the frustration of his boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). This causes the government to send the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth Macfarlane) to take control of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The team goes to seek the mythical Troll Market, where they meet and rescue Prince Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who has the third piece of the crown, and whom Abe falls in love with. But Nuada tracks them down and critically wounds Hellboy, forcing the team to decide whether to deal with him or try to defeat him, even though they haven’t had much success so far. They end up going to confront him in Ireland at the resting place of the Golden Army.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with how badly this film goes wrong. Fundamentally, Hellboy is about two things: Modern unearthing and explorations of ancient mythical beings, and big monsters hitting each other. So while the myth of the Golden Army is a fine starting point, the sequence in which the team tries to fight off a horde of ravenous tooth fairies is just disgusting and no fun at all. Seeing people eaten alive is just gross, and I wish we could declare a moratorium on it in films like this. Yuck.

The romance between Hellboy and Liz, and also between Abe and Nuala, both are handled so heavy-handedly that they’re pretty painful to watch. There’s a scene in which Hellboy and Abe get drunk talking about women, and although it has a couple of funny lines, it really feels wrongheaded. Not to mention rather insulting to Liz, who’s mostly treated as a fifth wheel, even if she is one who can blow up a building with her mind.

Hellboy isn’t a very subtle character, but he acts so stupidly here from time to time that it’s hard to be sympathetic to him, and seeing Johann teach him a lesson seems well-deserved, but also quite a departure from the comic books, in which he has both brawn and brains. Del Toro tries awfully hard to show that Hellboy is more like the monsters he fights than the people he protects and that they’ll eventually turn on him, but again he beats us over the head with it – and then just sort of drops it in the latter part of the film – that it’s completely unconvincing. Johann experiences a sudden and unexplained change in attitude late in the film as well, which really makes no sense at all.

The best part of the film is the final sequence, which starts with them meeting a goblin who agrees to take them to the army and also find someone who can heal Hellboy – which turns out to be the Angel of Death. And then we have the confrontation with Nuada and the Army itself, and the Army is indeed very cool and badass, and the final fate of Nuada is also quite well done. Even before they got to the Angel I was thinking, “Gee, I want a lot more of this and a lot less of what we’ve been watching for the first 90 minutes.”

I think Del Toro really lost sight of what makes Hellboy interesting and fun, and tried way too hard to make some points about Hellboy’s unique situation and his relationship with Liz, and it all sunk quickly under the weight of its heavy-handedness. So rather than being an improvement on the first film, Hellboy II feels like a bit of an embarrassment. And a huge disappointment.

Film Trailers

When we saw The Dark Knight the other day, we also saw trailers for some upcoming films based on comic books.

First up was The Spirit, written and directed by Frank Miller, based on Will Eisner’s characters. The trailer looks downright awful, all noirish and with a cutesy sort of sex appeal combined with menace which seems utterly unlike the comics. I’m not a big fan of the source material, but it seems like Frank Miller is exactly the wrong person to adapt Eisner’s characters, which sprang from the tradition of newspaper adventure strips of the 30s and 40s. Miller over the last decade or so tends to take things to the extreme, which is entertaining when he’s working with his own characters (Sin City), but a disaster when working with others’ characters (The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

Anyway, based on this trailer, I can’t see myself going to see this film. (This trailer is slightly better, but extremely generic.)

By contrast, the trailer for Watchmen has been all the buzz on teh intarwebs this week, and it looks really good; many shots look like they were lifted directly from the graphic novel. My enthusiasm is somewhat tempered because adapting this story to a 2-3 hour film is extremely ambitious and I imaging they’ll either leave a lot out, or shorten many scenes, so I don’t expect it to have the same impact.

Still, based on this trailer, I can’t imagine myself not going to see this film.

(My copy of the graphic novel has been on loan to my friend Lee for a while. He reports that his cow-orkers have been coming into his office and thumbing through it since the trailer came out. So people are definitely interested in this film.)

By the way, it looks like grumpy old Alan Moore – the book’s author – has asked to not be associated with the Watchmen film, as the trailer site says the film is “based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons”. Whatever, dude.