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The Beauty of Film: Seven Samurai

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Seven Samurai — Asaichi Nakai (photography) & Akira Kurosawa (director):

7SamuraiRain

Takashi Shimura takes aim as Kambei in 1954’s Seven Samurai.

 

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Sunset Blvd.

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****½

I was way ahead of the finance company. I knew they’d be becoming around and I wasn’t taking any chances. So I kept it across the street in a parking lot behind Rudy’s shoeshine parlor. Rudy never asked any questions about your finances… he’d just look at your heels and know the score.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the pool, © 1950 Paramount Pics.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the pool, © 1950 Paramount Pics.

 

Hard to imagine that a classic like this would have voice-over, considering what I have said about voice-over in the past. Yet, Shawshank Redemption has it and is rated number one over all on imdb.com. Still, that one has Morgan Freeman, who has an amazing voice. This lowly film is only ranked #48 on imdb’s top 250, and voice is only that of Academy Award Best Actor winner William Holden. And Holden’s failing screenwriter, Joe Gillis, gets some great lines, but not as good as some of Norma Desmond’s.

Joe Gillis: The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Norma Desmond: You are, are you? writing words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!

Norma Desmond: There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! Talk!

Norma Desmond: The stars are ageless, aren’t they?

Joe Gillis: There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.

Joe Gillis: They got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out… ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you’re dead.

This is a meta movie, but it comes from a vastly different era than the current one. For instance, Birdman had voice-over too, but only in Michael Keaton’s head. So this is the tale of a silent film star twenty years after the advent of talkies, instead of twenty years after a costumed crimefighter’s last hit. In the role of that fallen star, Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson snugly fits the bill as a former silent film star herself. I have never seen her films, but Queen Kelly, and Indiscreet sound familiar. She has a mad look. A look that is so superficial that it seems true to someone like Ms. Desmond. Her story and Gillis’s story are tragic ones. They tackle youth versus age, star crossed love, and evoke something of Citizen Kane’s hubris.

Now before I leave you with the most famous ending line in film history, here is a personal note—I love organ music. I have a Pandora station for the Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. Pipe organs make a great sound and create an amazing mood. This has a great scene with Norma Desmond’s manservant, Max–Erich von Stroheim–playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. On the whole, what a wonderfully executed film with respect to moods. Every scene grasps you, or caresses you as it see fit.

Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

 

 

 

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.

Harvey

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****

I believe in Harvey. I believe that on his watch, Gotham can feel a little safer, a little more optimistic. Look at this face. This is the face of Gotham’s bright future. To Harvey. Let’s hear it for him. Harvey.

When rich socialite Elwood P. Dowd–Jimmy Stewart–said those words at his sister’s party he freaked some people out. Eventually a local psychiatrist, Dr. Chumley–Cecil Kellaway, came to believe in that power too. I want to make an allusion to Dr. Stephen Crane, aka The Scarecrow, but I do not see how. If you can figure out a way to do so, please leave me a comment.

Victoria Horne enjoying her first encounter with Jesse White, 1950 © Universal.

Victoria Horne enjoying her first encounter with Jesse White, 1950 © Universal.

On a more serious note, this is a really touching movie about a man and his pooka. About how that pooka’s invisibility to most has led to an awkward social life for Elwood’s family: his sister Veta–Josephine Hull and his niece Myrtle Mae–Victoria Horne. As a result of this social oddity, Myrtle Mae becomes enamored with the first man she meets. That man is Wilson from Chumley’s sanitarium. He is rude, crude and a dude. Their cute mini-courtship leapt across social boundaries and gets both of them criticized by their superiors. It is a nice side story that teaches that society cannot be trusted to shun the correct situations. Yet Myrtle Mae and Wilson are strangers. Wilson is kind of a jerk and Myrtle Mae is quite inexperienced for her age. Their match is one of a chance meeting, Myrtle Mae’s desperation, Wilson’s appreciation for egg and onion sandwiches, and the possibility of sex. Their relationship might warrant disapproval, but not for the reasons their social superiors provide—i.e. continuing the search for Elwood or because Wilson is from a lower class. I love how the movie respects its audience enough to let it decide what is right and what is wrong, just as it lets the audience decide whether or not there is a 6′ 3½” rabbit walking around.

Roman Holiday

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****

She’s fair game, Joe. It’s always open season on princesses.

Maybe I went into this with too high of expectations, but some of the 1950’s logic in this classic got on my nerves—pick up her damn shoe, you pathetic “gentlemen”! However, a benefit to starting so lamely is that the characters could grow on me. The Princess Ann, reporter Joe Bradley and photographer Irving each grew into three dimensional characters by the predictable end of the film.  So it was the characters that made this work. My one regret here was turning away from the TV to complain about Irving–Eddie Albert–not punching Joe Bradley–Gregory Peck–in the face, right AS he did so. I did not miss any of the barge fight scene though, which showcased some of the least capable Secret Service agents outside of Air Force One. Do not be misled by my use of the term Secret Service, the country of their origin is not the United States. This is because this is the story of a princess from a mystery country! And that princess is named Audrey Hepburn.

Princess Ann looking cuuuute
I had no idea that a. Audrey Hepburn was of no relationship to the famous American Hepburns and b. that this was her first major role. At first I could not see how this made her a star, but with a haircut and an improved personality it makes sense. She was a huge star for a reason. It is funny how sometimes life imitates art, as she became as famous as any princess. If only life were often as pretty as art. Or as pretty as Audrey Hepburn.

Some Like It Hot

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***½

Well, nobody’s perfect.

Some really like it hot. I guess I like it warm. Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane was hot and so was Nehemiah Persoff as Little Bonaparte. If you have not seen it, you probably wonder why any movie would have a character named “Little Bonaparte.” Well this Billy Wilder classic begins with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Thus the Chicago mob is involved. When a speakeasy gets raided two things happen. One, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis lose their jobs playing in its band. And two, its owner, Spats Colombo–George Raft, seeks revenge against a stool pigeon. When he does so Curtis and Lemmon witness the murder and become marked men. Naturally they cross-dress so that they can join an all-female band that is traveling to Florida.

That convoluted setup leads to a few laughs, but not enough slapstick for a slapstick comedy. Towards the end the slapstick becomes truly great and teases with this glimpse of how wonderful the whole movie could have been. There was only one shining beam of unwavering light in this film, Marilyn Monroe.

Sugar Kane Kowalzcyk

I honestly never expected her to give such a charming, funny, bittersweet performance. Nor did I expect her to look so beautiful in black and white. As the only redeeming main character in the film, there was a huge weight placed on liking her, but she carried the load. Without her there is no way a film could end on a pro-homosexuality note the way this one does, even if it does so with a joke.

Machete, but not that Machete

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**

A man is not warmed by ashes, but fire.

This is not Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. I told my buddy Paul about how attractive Lindsay Lohan was in it and that it was on Netflix streaming. It turns out that I was half wrong, Netflix did not have that Machete, but it did have one from 1958.

There are basically seven characters in the movie. Only one had consistently good lines and a sensible attitude—Juano Hernandez’s Bernardo. Bernardo plays the assistant to Don Luis Montoya a sugar cane plantation owner. Don Luis has just married a pretty, young American woman named Jean–Mari Blanchard–who seems to decide to cheat on her new husband with the first attractve man she meets. That man is his adopted son Carlos, who is affianced to Rita, who is the house maid. That is it, except for Don Luis’ evil cousin and minor partner Miguel—played by the wonderful Lee Van Cleef. Miguel drinks too much. Jean is horny. There’s a machete fight where Don Luis gets stabbed by his cousin for trying to break it up. In the end, there is too much cane rum and too little machete-ing. And way too little Lindsay Lohan.

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