Daily Film Beauty: A Fistful of Dollars

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A Fistful of Dollars, or Per un pugno di dollari — Massimo Dallamano (Jack Dalmas) & Federico G. Larraya (cinematographers) & Sergio Leone (director).

Did you know that this is an unofficial adaptation of Yojimbo?


Gian Maria Volonté as Ramón Rojo, in A Fistful of Dollars.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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You sit here, in these vast halls, with a crown upon your head and yet you are lesser now than you have ever been.

I liked it. I found myself touched more than I was annoyed, but certain choices bothered me. I saw this movie—for the first time—four months ago, but could not even start my review for about a month. Since then I have struggled and now have given up. Eventually I will provide an epic review, as I did with An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. Until that day, this shall be its placeholder. Oh, and the set designs and battles were pretty amazing. Thorin’s golden dream was not. Nor was the dialogue about love much above Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones level bad. But there was that battle between the White Council and the Nazghul… I am pulled in so many directions!

Daily Film Beauty: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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Thinking of changing the name to Semi-Weekly Film Beauty. Thoughts?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Michael Seresin (cinematographer) & Alfonso Cuarón (director).

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) first casting his patronus charm, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) first casting his patronus charm, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Murder By Decree

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I prefer bad manners in the theater to active violence in the streets.

I had high hopes for a story involving Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Particularly upon hearing that Christopher Plummer—General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country—plays Sherlock Holmes.¹ However, how good can this movie be if I had not heard of it until recently? Plummer’s Holmes may not be the best, but he has the right joie de vivre. Unfortunately 221B Baker Street seems like an expensive satire of his domicile. James Mason looks the part of an older Watson, but he is given the role of an imbecile. Watson should be human, not a fool. To Holmes, maybe most humans are fools, but we, the audience are not Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes, Watson and Warren, © 1979 Studio Canal (2003).

Holmes, Watson and Warren, © 1979 Studio Canal (2003).

Were it not for From Hell I would be less familiar, or perhaps wholly unfamiliar, with the cast of characters involved in the history of Jack the Ripper.² Robert Lees, for instance, is a medium who claims to know about the Ripper. Donald Sutherland—President Snow from the Hunger Games—plays the role enigmatically. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Charles Warren gets Anthony Quayle to play him, but I much preferred the aggressive apathy of Ian Richardson–Brazil–in From Hell.

The music was a bit dull, with only a few themes. In particular the glassy tinkling of the Ripper’s approach did not work well. Also, the ending felt like twenty minutes of dialogue and exposition in one room. But not in the exciting way that David Suchet’s Poirot can control a room. Even he might not be able to last that long. Plummer does his best, but righteous indignation works best in small doses.

¹ I suppose that Christopher Plummer may be better known as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  Personally, I have watched  Star Trek VI more times and General Chang does an excellent job quoting Shakespeare.
² I refer both to the graphic novel as well as the movie. While the Hughes Brothers’ movie is excellent, Alan Moore’s comic might be his greatest work, and if so, that would probably make it the greatest comic book ever. From Hell offers many of the same theories seen in this film. Perhaps it even influenced Alan Moore. He would disagree heartily, as his wonderful graphic novel came from numerous sources, cited in detail by its wonderful appendices. Still the graphic novel hewed closer to this film’s plot than to its own adaptation did. Although From Hell (movie) merged Robert Lees into Inspector Aberline. And if that last sentence means something to you, kudos.

Daily Film Beauty & Mini-Review: Hidden Fortress

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Hidden Fortress — Kazuo Yamasaki (cinematographer) & Akira Kurosawa (director).

hiddenfortress2People are either familiar with this movie and have made the connections to Star Wars, or are wholly unfamiliar with it and have not. Both Star Wars and Akira Kurosawa have major followings. Pretty much every director whose movies you like loves Akira Kurosawa.¹ On the other hand George Lucas is an extremely polarizing director and producer. He did not even direct his own best movie—The Empire Strikes Back. In pre-Star Wars prequels film history, Hidden Fortress was considered a lesser classic of Kurosawas, but it did star his most famous star, Toshiro Mifune. I love Mifune almost as much as I love Kurosawa. His second most famous star, Takashi Shimura, is also in this again, re-teaming them four years after Seven Samurai. Now I have not seen this movie since before Episode II – Attack of the Clones, so I apologize for any small errors in my memory…

But as I remember it, Hidden Fortress starts with two Japanese peasant soldiers, we will call them C-3PO and R2-D2, arguing in a desert after a battle on which way they should head, before angrily splitting up. Describing the movie thus wrongly implicates Kurosawa as the copier, but I am merely acknowledging that Tahei and Matashichi are 100% less familiar to my audience, including myself, than those two droids. The story in both cases, proceeds from their point of view, not from that of the great warriors or leaders. Then there are slave traders. There is a Princess (Leia) and an old general (Shimura/Kenobi), plus a Han Solo type (Mifune). There is a deal made in a cantina. The evil general has a duel with his old sensei, Kenobi, and Kenobi lets Darth Vader kill him just so that the Princess and company can escape. The final scene of the movie has the Princess publicly rewarding the droids and Han Solo! To be fair, I do not recall a Chewbacca parallel in Hidden Fortress.

Cut to 1999. George Lucas acknowledged the strong influence Hidden Fortress had on Star Wars, although its plot and character influence did not continue in Empire or Return of the Jedi. Lucas had claimed for years to have had the first three episodes written, which most people did not believe. But it is possible that he had part of it written, particularly Episode I – The Phantom Menace, because, holy crap, did he just go back to remaking Hidden Fortress. That helps clarify things, because as I have tried to disguise, I really disliked Hidden Fortress. Somehow the story drags, the acting is over the top, and the relationships do not feel real. This was like a crappy Shakespearean play.

This time around the Princess is Queen Amidala and Kenobi is the younger Han Solo type, with Qui-Gon Jinn as Kenobi. The plot hews much closer Hidden Fortress, instead of merely taking characters and scenes. To go into further detail would require my thinking more about both Phantom Menace and Hidden Fortress, which I refuse to do. Honestly, if I had seen Hidden Fortress at any other time besides 2001, I might not have hated it, since it would not have reminded me of Phantom Menace, over and over again. But that is not how my life went.

¹ I have not done a Best Directors article on Kurosawa yet, but rest assured that he is on my unofficial list.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Let’s read. Lacklustre… That’s just labels. Marginality… You kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label. That’s all labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis in Birdman.

Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis in Birdman.

By the time I saw this film it had won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Alejandro González Iñárritu, the writer/director accepted three of those four, with the fourth Emmanuel Lubezki winning for cinematography. I would not have chosen this over The Grand Budapest Hotel for best picture. Based on that assessment I believe that I also would not have selected González Iñárritu for best director. As an original screenplay it stands up a little better against Grand Budapest, since the story was very well written and sculpted. The cinematography was as flashy as Grand Budapest’s, but in a different (less Wes Anderson-y) way. Perhaps this was the most deserving award that Birdman won.

In the acting categories three people were justifiably nominated as best actors: Michael Keaton—1989’s Batman, for those who do not know, Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Others receiving votes were Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan. I had never seen Riseborough, but she was very good as the actress unfortunate enough to be dating the star/director of the play-within-a-movie, Michael Keaton as alternate reality Michael Keaton. Galifianakis showed some more emotional range than in his typical roles.

Lindsay Duncan and Michael Keaton in Birdman, © 2015 Fox Searchlight.

Lindsay Duncan and Michael Keaton in Birdman, © 2015 Fox Searchlight.

This film also had a critic play a crucial role. For without her, who would have been the antagonist? Lindsay Duncan—Servilia of the Junii in “Rome”— steps to the plate as Tabitha, the drama critic for the New York Times. For how meta can a play within a film be without a critic?! Earlier this year Chef did the same thing. And for a second time we the audience got to root for the actor/director/writer yelling at the critic in a movie where an actor plays the critic, who says lines written by a screenwriter, under the direction of a director. What surprises me is how readily audience eat that up. It reminds me of fans who would rather have the mega rich owners keep money over paying good players to finish the season on losing teams. The New York Knicks have never mailed me a check when they saved some money, and my financial situation is much closer to a pro-athlete than to the owner of a professional sports team. Still, Michael Keaton and Lindsay Duncan do a good job of it. The above quotation comes from Keaton’s bitter critique of the critic’s unsporting review that she had already started sight unseen. But they were not as good as Jon Favreau and Oliver Platt—at least Favreau had the good taste to portray himself in an unflattering light. Both critics are crucial to the stories, but for their trouble they have to sit there silently while the artists yells at them.

Despite everything great about this movie, its ending left me unsatisfied. I suppose that somehow the movie felt novel and original, for reasons that I cannot rationally explain. The ending, which I can reveal without spoiling anything, is the same as Inception’s.  Unlike in that movie, this seems put upon. The goals of the characters failed to have a satisfying payoff, which detracted from the power the movie had accrued. Most endings of movies fail to live up to their setups, even very good ones. This was no exception.


Daily Film Beauty: Inception

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Inception — Wally Pfister (cinematographer) & Christopher Nolan (director).

I bet you thought I would have gone with the hallway shot.

Leonardo DiCaprio in a Japanese man's dream, Inception © 2010 Syncopy.

Leonardo DiCaprio in a Japanese man’s dream, Inception © 2010 Syncopy.

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