Blu-Ray Review: Youth of the Beast

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichirô Ikeda, Tadaaki Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Haruhiko Ôyabu
Starring: Jô Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Producer: Keinosuke Kubo
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘ve been aware of Seijun Suzuki in the Japanese cult cinema landscape for some time. I’ve seen his two most famous classics, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but I haven’t ventured beyond those yet, which is a bit mad seeing as I enjoyed both quite a lot and he’s directed over 50 films so far. His career has been an unusual one though which resulted in (supposedly) quite a hit and miss collection and his story is possibly more well known than his films have actually been seen.

In the mid-50’s, the Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu started producing films again after a hiatus which began during WWII and, in a bid to keep productions fresh and exciting, they hired a number of young assistant directors from other studios, promising to promote them quickly to full director status, which was unheard of in the traditional Japanese studio system back in those days. Among those directors were Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Whereas Imamura started making his unique glimpses of the underbelly of society pretty much straight away, Suzuki found himself churning out cookie-cutter releases for the studio by the dozen, largely yakuza/gangster pictures. By all accounts, most of the 20-odd films he directed in his first 7 years or so at the studio weren’t particularly memorable. However, growing tired of this workmanlike practise and getting jealous of the freedom allowed to his peer Imamura, he finally tore off his shackles and made what is considered his breakthrough film with Youth of the Beast in 1963. It didn’t make much of a mark at the time, but in retrospect, it paved the way for his most highly regarded period which culminated in Branded to Kill which may have got him fired from Nikkatsu, whose head thought it was “incomprehensible”, but cemented his name in the pantheon of cult classic cinema.

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Blu-Ray Review: Blacula – The Complete Collection

I‘ve got too many review screeners piled up for October and November as well as several work and home life barriers to put together any special seasonal Halloween features, but I got sent one Blu-Ray release to review which fits into the spooky milieu at least, Blacula – The Complete Collection.

The blaxploitation genre came about at the turn of the 1970’s when Hollywood producers discovered there was a lot of money to be made out of films featuring, created by and/or aimed at African Americans. At the the tail end of the 60’s, the Civil Rights Movement had given African Americans equality in America (legally speaking – unfortunately racism continues to rear its ugly head so it’s difficult to claim full equality, even now) and they were riding high on this fact. People liked to see African American heroes kicking ass and giving it to “the man” and the Hollywood bigwigs saw this and jumped on it.

The first and in fact most blaxploitation films tended towards the action and thriller genres, set on “the streets” with bad ass heroes taking down drug dealers, pimps and corrupt cops. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft and Superfly were the early groundbreakers of this style, but soon the producers branched out to fuse the hip blaxploitation template with other popular film genres. Thus came Blacula. The title makes it clear what intention the filmmakers had: with Hammer making Dracula making popular again back in 1966, why not use this to create a blaxploitation/horror hybrid?

The film was a reasonable success on its release in 1972, so much so that it spawned a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream and Eureka are releasing both films on one Blu-Ray in the UK, just before Halloween. I ventured into a dark room to see how well they hold up today.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le jour se lève

Director: Marcel Carné
Screenplay: Jacques Viot & Jacques Prévert
Starring: Jean Gabin, Jacqueline Laurent, Arletty, Jules Berry
Producer: Jean-Pierre Frogerais
Country: France
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1939
BBFC Certificate: PG

The best thing about being sent screeners of old classics to review is that it can open your eyes to films which you’ve not heard of as well as those that have passed you by. My most recent discovery, Le jour se lève (a.k.a. Daybreak), falls into the latter and appears to be fairly unknown or at least unseen by critics and film buffs in general, despite its director Marcel Carné enjoying decades of success with Les Enfants du paradis. Supposedly Le jour se lève was very well received on release and has been considered the equal to, if not better than, Renoir’s La Règle du jeu which was released in the same year. You only have to look at Sight and Sound’s highly regarded Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time Poll, run every decade, to see how their paths have since veered. In the first poll in 1952, Le jour se lève was placed at joint 7th, higher than La Règle du jeu at joint 10th. As the decades went on though, Renoir’s classic jumped to number 3 and has never left the top 4 since. Carné’s film, on the other hand, dropped out straight away in the 60’s and has never returned. It wasn’t even in the top 50 of the 2012 poll. Part of the reason may be because the film was almost lost in the late 1940’s, when RKO acquired the rights to the film so that they could remake it and sought to buy up and destroy every copy available. It re-appeared in the 50’s though. The critics of Cahiers du cinéma, who would come to make up the French New Wave movement, are known to have dismissed Carné, claiming his writing collaborator Jacques Prévert was the real genius behind his work, so perhaps they were to blame. Whatever the reason, Le jour se lève has become a distant memory in cinema’s history books.
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Blu-Ray Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari

Director: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover
Producers: Erich Pommer, Rudolf Meinert (both uncredited)
Country: Germany
Running Time: 77 min
Year: 1920
BBFC Certificate: U

As with a number of the classic titles I’ve reviewed here over the last couple of years, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if you couldn’t translate it yourself) is one of the major ‘canon’ titles which has been on my ‘to watch’ list for far too long. Once again, Eureka’s wonderful Masters of Cinema Series has come to the rescue though and released an immaculately restored Blu-Ray (and DVD) of the film, complete with an abundance of special features so that I can finally sink my teeth into this dark and twisted classic of silent cinema.

The film opens with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), telling an older gentleman of the horrific events he endured with his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) over the past few months. Francis and his good friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) both fell for Jane on meeting her, but both stated that the other shall be satisfied with the choice she would ultimately make. However, that night they went to the local carnival and entered the tent of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist (a sort of sleep walker) Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The mysterious zombified figure awakened to tell Alan that he would die that night and lo and behold he did. Francis vowed to find the killer, especially seeing as the local police force wasn’t effectively dealing with the situation. Of course the chief suspect was Cesare, but Francis struggled to prove his guilt and various events along the way turned the story in surprising directions, bringing the power and identity of the mysterious Dr. Caligari to the fore. Even when we return to the ‘present day’ there are more twists in store for the audience though and there are still debates as to exactly who played what part in this mystery.

This narrative isn’t always handled brilliantly, rarely making perfect sense and feeling quite muddy at times, but after the whole thing plays out you realise that could well be the idea. Featuring perhaps the first ‘unreliable narrator’, the majority of the film plays out in the mind of the possibly deluded Francis who may or not be being manipulated by the evil (or possibly not evil) Dr. Caligari so a lack of clarity works very effectively in a subtextual sense. The film’s fairly unusual and messy development (inexperienced writers with an experimental idea, the first choice of director – Fritz Lang – being unavailable, and some changes imposed by the producers etc.) may suggest a happy accident though. Whatever the case, the film is certainly more interesting than most from the era due to its structure and twists and these have led to almost a century of discussion among critics and theorists. The film plays havoc with the auteur theory though due to the never fully resolved debate of authorship over the film. The writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, designer Hermann Warm, producer Erich Pommer and director Robert Wiene have all claimed or been given credit for the film’s success.

I don’t want to get bogged down by that too much though as, in my mind, a review should be more focussed on how well a film works rather than who was responsible for it doing so.

And Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari still works extremely well. I think the decades of hype and expectation I had coming into the film perhaps prevented me from giving the film top marks, but the reasons for why it has remained so well respected for so long are blatantly clear. Front and foremost is the film’s extreme expressionistic style. Caligari is cited as being hugely influential on film noir, horror movies and more, but, as a few critics and theorists have pointed out, very few, if any, films have actually copied its daring visual-art-infused approach. Rather than simply playing with lighting and camera angles to make dark and unsettling visuals, the sets are crafted in bizarre angles and shapes, and shadows and light patches are literally painted on to the walls. Even the make-up and costumes are exaggerated by strong blacks and whites. This all creates a creepily disorientating and surreal atmosphere, acting as a construct of Francis’ mental state. The closest modern filmmaker I can think of who adopts a vaguely similar style is Tim Burton, but even he doesn’t push the boat out as far as Weine (or whoever was in charge) did. I imagine he’s seen the film a few times though.

What’s interesting about the style is that if you take individual elements of the sets and production design they look rather crude and simplistic, but when presented as a whole within the construct of the film they help create a hugely effective and stunning vision. In fact, I found several shots so bizarrely beautiful I wanted to freeze the frames and hang them on my wall.

Perfectly complementing the bold style are two big but perfectly measured performances from Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, playing the chief ‘villains’. Krauss is the archetypal evil scientist character for the most part as Caligari, coming across as genuinely unpleasant and fiendish, before presenting a wholly different side after a revelation in the film’s later scenes. Veidt grabs your attention from the moment Caligari opens his cabinet (or rather coffin) and Cesare’s eyes slowly flicker open. He’s a great presence in the film, especially during his still quite shocking abduction of Jane. Like Veidt, he also gets a chance to subvert his character in the final minutes.

Although it might not feel as perfectly formed and fully gratifying as some of the other silent greats like Sunrise or The Passion of Joan of Arc, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari remains a daring and hugely influential (even if was never fully copied) visionary masterpiece. It was possibly the first (successful) true art house feature, pushing the boundaries of what cinema could mean and how it could be presented. Don’t let that put off those who favour more mainstream fare though, as this is also unsettling and pacey enough to keep modern horror fans thoroughly entertained despite the lack of gore or action. So do yourself a favour and tick this off your ‘to watch’ list like I did. You’ll probably want to see it again too, which is more than can be said for a number of the textbook ‘required viewing’ titles.

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is out on 29th September in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and I must say, it looked spectacular. There’s a caption at the beginning stating that the first reel was originally lost so was reconstructed from various sources, but even this portion of the film still looks pretty damn good for its age. The rest of the film is astonishing though. The picture is so clear and detailed it practically feels as though you’re there on set. Colour tinting is kept as it is believed to have been intended and works effectively to my eye. The score comes through very nicely too, I watched the 5.1 mix, but you can also listen in stereo.

On top of a magnificent transfer, you get a whole host of special features too. One featurette is on the restoration process itself, which lets you fully appreciate the work that went into it. The end of this places the new restoration side by side with a previous one and an original print to show the difference, which is remarkable.

Also included is a new and exclusive audio commentary by historian David Kalat, which makes for a fascinating and detailed listen, Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War, a new 52-minute documentary on the cultural and historical context of the film, You Must Become Caligari, a roughly made but informative and mildly quirky video essay by David Cairns, and a reissue trailer.

Plus, being a Masters of Cinema release, you get a hefty booklet which includes a collection of stills, an essay from Lotte H. Eisner, the original Variety review of the film and restoration notes and credits.

Blu-Ray Review: The Gang’s All Here

Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Walter Bullock
Starring: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker, James Ellison, Sheila Ryan, Charlotte Greenwood, Edward Everett Horton, Tony De Marco
Producer: William LeBaron
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1943
BBFC Certificate: U

A lot of the gaps in my classic movie watching can be found in the musical genre. I’m a huge fan of music and a huge fan of films, but putting the two together doesn’t always gel for me. I love the more subversive, quirky examples of the genre (Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors is a particular favourite), but I often struggle to get into the traditional entries. I guess a lot of it is down to the fact that the music isn’t always to my tastes, although I find myself drawn to show tunes from time to time as there were always plenty of them playing at home in my youth. The general campy ridiculousness of suddenly bursting into song mid scene was something that used to rub me up the wrong way though, especially as a teenager.

In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the excesses of Hollywood in the golden ages though and I’d like to think my tastes have widened considerably. I finally popped two musical cherries early this year in fact, with my first Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat, which I loved, and my first Busby Berkeley film, 42nd Street, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would too. These successful steps forward helped sway my decision to take a screener of one of Berkeley’s later films The Gang’s All Here, released as part of Eureka’s superlative Masters of Cinema series, and below are my thoughts on it.

I’m not sure I need a paragraph to sum up the plot of The Gang’s All Here. Somewhere in amongst 103 minutes of singing and dancing, army Sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison), who is assumed to be marrying the attractive daughter (Sheila Ryan) of family friends the Potters, falls for showgirl Edie Allen (Alice Faye). Soon after, he is posted in the Pacific though. He wins a medal for his efforts before being sent back home and in the meantime, timed with his return, his father Andrew Mason Sr. (Eugene Pallette) talks Edie’s boss into rehearsing and performing their latest show at the Potters’. Of course this brings both of Andy’s sweethearts together under one roof – whatever shall he do?

He doesn’t have to do much to be honest, as Berkeley’s film is not concerned with plot so threads are barely tied up with a simple sentence or two. Flimsy doesn’t even begin to describe the narrative. It’s proof that it’s not just today’s blockbusters that are throwaway efforts primarily concerned with spectacle. In fact the scripts of today’s studio pictures seem like Shakespeare compared to this (in terms of plot at least – the dialogue is occasionally quite sharp).

But does this matter?

Well, no to be honest. So long as you realise from the offset that the film is basically just a string of dance numbers, you’re in for a good time. First and foremost are the dance sequences themselves and presumably that’s the only reason you’d pick up a Busby Berkeley movie anyway. There are a huge amount of them here, although they aren’t all quite as extravagant as you’d expect. Many of them are actually fairly subdued by the director’s standards, often busy and lively, but not always too elaborate, with a number of solo and duo performances thrown in too. The opening number, ‘Brazil’ (a song which I recognised from Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name), the famous ‘Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ and the film’s finale are all prime examples of typical Berkeley excess though. ‘Tutti Frutti Hat’ in particular is full of crazy props (giant bananas), dozens of dancers creating shapes viewed overhead with the camera swooping all over the place on a crane. It’s utterly bonkers, but that’s the beauty of it.

Speaking of beauty, this was Berkeley’s first full colour film and by God does he make the most of it. It may be garish and quite tacky by today’s standards, but there’s so much bold and brazen use of colour that it’s a tremendous sight to behold and pops off the screen in this HD restoration.

The film has quite an infectious energy too. In between the dance numbers it’s largely farcical comedy with quick fire lines coming from the game cast. These lines can be hit and miss and a couple of the performers aren’t all that charismatic, but the lanky Charlotte Greenwood is always fun to watch. Also, Carmen Miranda is mildly offensive but lively enough as the Brazilian Dorita, the chief comic relief.

It is pure fluff of the highest order, taking flimsy to another level, but has plenty of music and dance to keep you entertained. There are only two ludicrously extravagant classic Berkeley numbers, but the less gaudy moments are still pretty showy by everyone else’s standards. It’s also one of the most colourful films I’ve ever seen so is a visual feast even if there’s very little beneath it’s glitzy veneer.

The Gang’s All Here is out on 22nd September in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. This is proof why old classics are as well served by the Blu-Ray format as glossy modern releases, because this looks mightily good in High Definition. You need the rich palette available on Blu to capture the ludicrously colourful visuals on display here. The transfer is great too with only the slightest sign of age in one or two moments. I noticed a couple of slight grain issues in some of the most colourful sequences, but they were very minor glitches in an otherwise beautiful transfer. The soundtrack comes through nicely too which is especially important for a musical of course.

There are a nice handful of extras too. There’s a feature commentary with critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme alongside film historian Ed Hulse. There’s a 20 minute documentary, ‘Busby Berkeley: A Journey with a Star’, a deleted scene and the customary trailer. Plus of course you get the usual Masters of Cinema booklet, which are always worthwhile additions to the package.


Blu-Ray Review: The Four Feathers

Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff
Based on a Novel by: A.E.W. Mason
Starring: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez
Producer: Alexander Korda
Country: UK
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 1939
BBFC Certificate: U

War movies are a genre of film that I often think I don’t like, but when I actually pause for thought about it I realise I like quite a lot of them. Apocalypse Now is one of my all time favourite films, I always had a soft spot for Platoon too and Saving Private Ryan for instance, whilst slightly flawed at times, contains a couple of the most incredible set-pieces of all time. I think it’s more that the idea of war movies kind of bothers me. I’m quite a peaceful sort that avoids conflict whenever possible and the idea of glamorising war always bothers me. So the war movies that I generally don’t like are big bombastic ones that are just celebrating the heroes and ignoring the bigger picture. For that reason I often pass on watching a lot of the old war movies, particularly those made during times of conflict, because all that propaganda and bravado rubs me up the wrong way.

So when I saw The Four Feathers pop up on a press release I wasn’t quite sure whether to go for it. My dislike for the dated, simplistic values of dying for one’s country etc. was saying no, but the film’s classic pedigree and a recently blossoming fondness for old fashioned melodramatic filmmaking said yes. The latter won over of course, so I decided to take the film on.

For those that haven’t seen any of the iterations of A.E.W. Mason’s novel The Four Feathers (there are six listed on IMDB although three are from pre-1930’s and are probably little seen these days if available at all), it tells the story of Harry Faversham (John Clements). Born to a family of famous military men stretching back for centuries, Harry’s father forces him into the services from a youngster. However, when he gets engaged to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) he finally says enough is enough and hands in his resignation, just before he is due to ship out to Sudan to take on the Dervishes (as they are called in the film – according to Wikipedia these are people treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path).

His comrades in arms aren’t happy about this and send him three white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, and the shame he can see in his fiancée’s eyes cause him to ask her to give him the important fourth feather. The marriage is called off and Harry shunned by all but the kindly Dr Sutton (Frederick Culley). However, Harry eventually confronts his fear and cowardice and decides to take extreme action. He poses as a mute Sengali tribesman, even getting literally branded as one. These are slaves to the Dervishes so he manages to get behind enemy lines with the intention of helping his friends in the Sudan. So begins the adventure which sees Harry go to extreme lengths to keep his friends alive and prove his worth as a soldier and a man.

The core values being put forward of there being great shame and pure cowardice in not wanting to fight and die for your country did bother me a little and the first half an hour in particular when this is being rammed down your throat hasn’t aged well. However, once Harry begins his mission of redemption, the film becomes an exciting, well paced action adventure.

This being an Alexander Korda production, directed by his brother Zoltan Korda, it’s a feast for the eyes. The costumes and set design are lavish and colourful when in Britain and seem impressively authentic when overseas. No expense is spared on using extras either and, when matched with some great location work, make for some wonderful sweeping wide shots, especially during the battle scenes. Speaking of which, these are generally pretty impressive. They’re not as realistic or gory as in modern war movies, but they’re rather violent for the time and very well mounted.

The more stagey scenes in the UK aren’t quite as mind-blowing, but they’re effective enough. I actually got a bit emotional when Harry’s friend John (Ralph Richardson) finally finds out who saved his life at the end. The performances can be quite ‘of their time’ with John’s violent bout of sun stroke proving almost comically hammy. He pulls off a reasonable blind act later on though as the exposure claims John’s eyesight. John Clements is a little bland in the lead role, but you do care for his character and want him to succeed.

So although dated, particularly in the first half hour, The Four Feathers becomes a grand old tale of adventure and heroism as it moves on, which makes for a rousingly entertaining watch.

The Four Feathers is out in on Blu-Ray on 1st September, released by Network. The film looks great in HD, with a stellar job done on restoration. There is very little damage to the print, the natural grain has been retained and the colours come through nicely, if slightly muted, but that’s probably how it should look as it was from the early days of colour film. The audio restoration is strong too, with Miklós Rózsa’s score coming through nicely.

For special features, as well as the usual trailer and image gallery, Network has provided a ‘Day at Denham’ newsreel film and an archive interview with Ralph Richardson.

Blu-Ray Review: Akira Kurosawa Samurai Collection

Akira Kurosawa is one of the few directors that has never disappointed me. I must admit there are still far too many titles from his filmography that I’ve not seen, but those that I have always manage to hit my sweet spot. So when I heard that the BFI were releasing a collection of five of Kurosawa’s most popular films on Blu-Ray I practically jumped for joy. I’d already seen four of the five titles and I actually own the DVD version of the set already, but the chance to see these wonderfully cinematic masterpieces in high definition just couldn’t be missed.

Included in the Akira Kurosawa Samurai Collection is Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Here are my thoughts on the films themselves (with links to those I’ve reviewed previously):

Seven Samurai

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima
Country: Japan
Running Time: 207 min
Year: 1954

My review of Seven Samurai can be found here.

Throne of Blood

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada
Country: Japan
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 1957

I first discovered the joys of Akira Kurosawa back when I was a precocious young teen. At around 13 or 14 I was getting interested in ‘serious’ cinema through top 100 lists and five star reviews in Empire magazine. I’d buy or record from TV all the Hollywood classics like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca whenever I came across them. One of the four TV channels at the time had a mini ‘season’ of Kurosawa’s films, so, hearing great things about the director, I recorded a few of them and these VHS tapes opened my eyes to world cinema, Japanese in particular. I’m not sure I fully appreciated the films as I was only just dipping my toes into watching films with subtitles, but the three I saw, Rashomon, Yojimbo and this, Throne of Blood, all impressed me nonetheless with their tight storytelling and visceral action. Yojimbo is the only film from the three I’ve revisited (more on that later), so it was with great pleasure that I finally got around to re-watching Throne of Blood, especially in glorious high definition as opposed to the hazy VHS copy I’d taped off the telly.

Where three of the films in this set are famous for heavily and clearly influencing specific classic American films (or Italian in one case), Throne of Blood is interesting in that it is an adaptation of a piece of Western literature, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I had read the infamous play in school recently before that first viewing of Kurosawa’s film, so I found it particularly interesting to watch and it has stayed more vivid in my memory for probably that reason. Kurosawa relocates the action to feudal Japan and of course, due to language differences, loses the Bard’s prose. However, it is actually a rather faithful adaptation in terms of story.

General Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) is the Macbeth character, who comes across a witch that tells his fortune. She says, amongst other things, that he will become Lord of Cobweb Castle and that the son of his friend and fellow General Miki (Minoru Chiaki) will take over after him. Once elements of her prophecy become reality, Washizu, encouraged by his ambitious wife Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), plots to make sure that his end will be fulfilled but Miki’s son’s won’t.

This is a hugely atmospheric film, shunning realism for eerie horror and symbolism. Indeed, although the story is based on a Shakespeare play, Kurosawa used Noh theatre to inspire the presentation. This gives the film a feel of a Japanese folk tale as much as a faithful adaptation of a piece of classic British theatre.

The atmosphere is drawn through Kurosawa’s usual mastery of framing as well as a healthy dose of his love of using the natural elements. Fog, mist and rain are used to great effect to shroud the film in mystery, dread and fear. Because the story is familiar and it opens with a prophecy of doom (the witch says that Washizu’s lordship won’t last long), the audience knows things aren’t likely to end well, so there’s a relentless shadow over the film which Kurosawa embraces at every turn amongst the treachery and greed of the lead characters.

Washizu begins to recognise the inevitability of his demise towards the end, which leads to one of the most powerful finales in cinema history. (*Spoiler for the rest of the paragraph – although it’s very famous) The character gets his comeuppance with a hail of arrows turning him and the walls around him into a pin cushion. Supposedly most of these (obviously not the one through his neck) were actually real arrows fired at and around Mifune (he had special armour on his body and skilled archers were used). This realism, the powerhouse performance and the way Kurosawa shoots the scene, visually trapping the character in the frame, create a brutal and exhilarating climax which is surely one of the most memorable movie deaths in history.

The only very minor issue I had with the film was that a couple of scenes where characters get lost in the woods or fog are drawn out to an almost comedic length. This is a tiny flaw in an otherwise masterful and tightly woven film though, which is one of, if not, the best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve ever seen.

The Hidden Fortress

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki
Country: Japan
Running Time: 139 min
Year: 1958

This is the only film in the set I hadn’t seen before, so I was particularly excited about watching it. The big draw of this to me and to many others I imagine, is that it’s cited as being a big influence on the first Star Wars film (A New Hope if you want to get pedantic). The BFI even went as far as to get George Lucas himself to provide an interview on their release of the film. However, as he points out, Star Wars isn’t a remake of The Hidden Fortress like A Fistful of Dollars or The Magnificent Seven are to Yojimbo or Seven Samurai. It’s more a case of Lucas borrowing a few ideas from the film.

Both Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress are about a hero trying to get a princess out of enemy territory and back home to restore balance, in a loose sense, but that’s about where the similarities in actual story end. The biggest similarity is actually in the viewpoint used to tell it. Like all of the Star Wars films (well, just the original trilogy really), the audience in The Hidden Fortress is guided through the narrative from the perspective of the lowliest characters. In Star Wars it’s the two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, whereas in Kurosawa’s film, it’s the two greedy peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki).

These two bickering fools escape from slavery and forage in a mountain stream for a lost treasure. It’s here where they run into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a General (unbeknownst to them) who knows where the fortune lies and swindles them into helping him get Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) out of the region and back to her homeland. The peasants try their best to make off with the gold along the way, but always get roped back by the much more cunning and powerful General. A Prince and the Pauper style message is built throughout too as the Princess’ story progresses and this provides the base for the final scenes.

Casting aside the Star Wars similarities, which, as mentioned, aren’t as prevalent as I was originally led to believe, this is more stellar work from Kurosawa. It’s a fun adventure with plenty of comedy, largely from the two peasants, as well as some more brutal moments. The opening 15 minutes or so and the final quarter in particular have a fair amount of violence and some rather nasty treatment of the lower classes. The action scenes are directed in a range of styles, with some fast-paced, kinetic sequences and also a stunningly tense, drawn out spear duel between Makabe and General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita). Reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s stand-offs in his spaghetti westerns, this was the most impressive scene in the film for me.

It’s visually stunning of course, like all of the films in this set and most of Kurosawa’s films in general. The old school Japanese filmmakers certainly knew their craft and Kurosawa was very good at taking the measured framing of his country’s masters and mixing elements of Hollywood’s sense of movement and excitement.

As my score out of five will attest, I didn’t find The Hidden Fortress quite as strong as the other films in the set though. It didn’t feel as tightly constructed. The film’s opening and closing quarters are very strong, but I found the mid-section meandered a little. The action takes a back seat to the comedy in this section, which hasn’t aged brilliantly. There are some effective dramatic sequences around the middle of the film though, such as the Princess witnessing the cruel treatment of some of the women from her province and the fire festival scene is superb.

That mid-section sag isn’t enough to fully detract from what is another masterfully made piece of grand entertainment though. The exciting finale alone is enough to make you forget any slower moments and on a whole it’s so finely produced you don’t mind the pace slowing a little.


Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Ryûzô Kikushima
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai
Country: Japan
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1961

Yojimbo is the only film in the collection that I’ve seen quite a few times, although it’s been a few years, and it’s probably my favourite. I think another watch of Seven Samurai would likely knock it off the top spot though as that really blew me away. Ranking aside, this will always remain a favourite of mine as I enjoy every minute of it.

Plot-wise, if you’ve seen A Fistful of Dollars you’ll know the story of Yojimbo too. Where Star Wars borrowed a few ideas and stylistic flourishes from The Hidden Fortress, Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western is a full on remake of Yojimbo, although it wasn’t credited as such at the time, leading to a successful lawsuit from Toho studios.

If you haven’t seen either film, Yojimbo is about an unnamed wandering ronin (a masterless samurai, played by, you guessed it, Toshirô Mifune) who arrives at a town which is caught in the stranglehold of two rival criminal gangs. The leaders, Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) and Ushi-Tora (Kyû Sazanka) are constantly fighting in the streets and the townsfolk have all either left or hide in their houses for fear of their lives. Seeing the feud as a way to make some money as well as figuring a way of solving the town’s problems, the ronin, dubbed Sanjuro Kuwabatake (translated as Mulberry-field Thirty – a name he makes up on the spot) sets to work. As he puts it brilliantly, “Listen, I get paid for killing. It would be better if all these men were dead. Think it over.”

What stood out for me watching all of these films in close succession was how different in tone they actually are. It may be the ‘Samurai Collection’, but these aren’t all generic solemn period action movies copying each other to emulate previous successes. Seven Samurai is a rousingly epic action film, Throne of Blood is a period horror with shades of Noh theatre, The Hidden Fortress is more of a lighthearted adventure, Yojimbo is a lean, fairly brutal, yet darkly comic pseudo-western and Sanjuro is pretty much a comedy with some splashes of violence here and there. Kurosawa was a master of fusing genres and rejuvenating Japanese styles and techniques by taking unlikely inspiration from Western literature and American cinema (which often landed him criticism in his own country). Yojimbo is a very interesting example of his skill as it is clearly influenced by American westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, yet managed to hugely influence the wave of westerns to come from Italy and the US again in the 60’s and 70’s.

The film is as über-cool as the best of Clint Eastwood too. As he approaches a crowd of villains without showing any fear, he calls to the local carpenter, “cooper. Order two more coffins. Maybe three.” Again this line was taken for Dollars and Leone kind of re-appropriated it in an altered form for his masterpiece (and my all time favourite film) “Once Upon a Time in the West” when Charles Bronson claims the three riders sent to kill him have brought two too many horses rather than forgotten one for him.

Yojimbo is nicely violent too. As with a lot of samurai films, the action is short and sharp, but when it comes we get severed limbs (one shot of which is exactly mirrored in Star Wars) and lashings of blood as well as quite a brutal beating. It’s a dark film in general with a vicious massacre of people escaping a burning building near the end proving particularly grim. Mifune’s devious rogue provides plenty of humour though alongside a couple of not-so-bright thugs and lowlifes. In fact, with this third or fourth viewing, the film proved funnier than I remembered. The final third becomes more serious though as Sanjuro’s sole selfless and honourable act, aiding the escape of a young family, results in his capture and suffering at the hands of the criminals.

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, Kurosawa’s use of the frame, here particularly wide, is stunning and once again he makes great use of the elements. Pretty much all of them make an appearance here – wind, rain, fire, smoke and dust. He uses these to forge a desolate and hostile environment which descends to hell by its climax.

I could go on about the technical proficiency and drum-tight editing and construction of the narrative, but ultimately all I need to say is that I love this film and if you haven’t seen it, go and buy this set now, because it’s brilliant, as are the four films which accompany it.


Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1962

My review of Sanjuro can be found here.

The Akira Kurosawa Samurai Collection box set is out on September 1st on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. A DVD version has already been available for a while. The new HD remastered transfers look very good for the most part, with a wide dynamic range of contrasts, which is important for black and white pictures like these. Throne of Blood looks a little more damaged than the rest, probably due to all the fog and mist, but it still looks decent. Yojimbo is the stand out though and looks pretty spotless. The audio on them all is reasonable enough considering the age of the films, there are certainly no noticeable issues anyway.

The special features are largely the same as they were on the DVD’s I believe, other than the interview with Tony Rayns on Seven Samurai which appeared on the recently released steelbook Blu-Ray of the film and a well researched commentary with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck on Throne of Blood. The features brought over from before include a commentary with critic Philip Kemp on Yojimbo, a short but nicely clear and honest interview with George Lucas on The Hidden Fortress, an introduction and interview with Alex Cox on Sanjuro and the customary booklet with essays, reviews and full credits for the films.

Although most of the features won’t be new to those that already own the DVD’s, I couldn’t recommend the box set enough. For sheer consistent quality of filmmaking you’d be hard pressed to find a better collection and Kurosawa’s films demand to be seen on a big screen at the utmost quality, so the Blu-Ray upgrade is a no-brainer.

DVD Review: Jules et Jim

Director: François Truffaut (other_films_by_director)
Writers: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault
Producers: Marcel Berbert, François Truffaut
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, Vanna Urbino, Serge Rezvani, Anny Nelsen
Country: France
Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 105 min.


Maybe it’s the triumphant opening score of the film, or the rhythmic way the film falls into its story, but there’s something very reassuring about watching Jules and Jim. It’s not the most joyous film in the world. Its second half is notably difficult at times due to the fun had in its opening segments. Yet there’s something so strangely freeing about the film’s cocksure attitude that I found it difficult to feel “down” about the film at any point. Even in its darkest moments.

Based on the semi-auto biographical 1953 novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the film tells the tale of two bohemian friends, whose companionship becomes tentative when a free spirited and impulsive young woman enters their lives and hearts. Their simple meeting, set against the onset and aftermath of world war, becomes an emotional and complex relationship which slowly molds the rest of their lives.

The filmmakers of the French New Wave were teetering on a brave new world and dived right in with films such as this one. Truffaut’s ode to love toys with the language of cinema in a way that we rarely see any more. Now we know so much about the techniques, I find that we take such vibrant approaches to form for granted. The film’s beautiful use of freeze frames at one point enhance Jeanne Moreau’s beautiful Catherine from free spirit to one of a kind. Joyful moments captured in time, that don’t come off as cheesy or overdone. Editor Claudine Bouché’s turbulent, free flowing cuts from early on in the film subtly slow in pace and becomes more pensive and methodical, capturing the tone of the characters by holding on to the shots a few seconds longer.

Truffaut’s grip on the material at such a young age is at times spellbinding. Capturing the fleeting nature of youth, while he’s only got out of those shoes himself. He then has the trio succumb to ravages of The Great War in a way that we just wouldn’t observe in the same way now. The playfulness that the threesome try to retain, loses its sparkle in simple ways. A bike ride has a prolonged moment where Osker Warner’s Jules slides out of view, as Catherine’s attentions sway towards Henri Serre’s Jim. Despite the seemingly makeshift appearance the film sometimes takes, there’s a certain preciseness to proceedings which makes the film tick.

It is fascinating to observe Jules and Jim and consider the films and filmmakers that were clearly influenced by it. Films as diverse as Vanilla Sky(2001) and Francis Ha (2013), to substantial sections of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Similarities in the likes of 500 Days of Summer (2009) are highly apparent while techniques and homages are found in the likes of Goodfellas (1990) and Pulp Fiction (1994) as acknowledged nods to the inspiring text. Yet there is still something scrumptious about the film’s reckless abandon. A feeling of a filmmaker pushing not only the cinematic language, but his themes to the highest levels. It’s not just about the swooping overhead shots, freeze frames and mixture of stock footage, but the very idea that the love these characters express moves beyond the limitations we often express them as. How such ideals become trampled by the harsh savagery of war. We’re primed for this from the start. Jules’ large hour glass becomes more than a fancy ornament, but a telling symbol of the relationship. The bohemian lifestyle enjoyed at the start fades into the background, as do, the more joyous expressions of love. “They’re burning books now” a character states in a deadpan tone, highlighting not only the upcoming second great war of their lifetime, but an impending sense dread over their own livelihoods. The articulation of such feelings is remarkably vivid.

There are one or two moments of datedness. While the role of Catherine may possibly feel problematic within an era in which gender issues are particularly pointed. Jules and Jim still manages to provide lucid moments of inspiration. Just a few moments Jeanne Moreau could have you racing across bridges. As with many of the Artificial Eye reissues, the standard of the transfer allows a new audience to view the film with a freshness a film like this deserves. An inspiring watch.

Blu-Ray Review: Shoot the Pianist

Director: François Truffaut
Writers: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Based on a Novel by: David Goodis
Starring: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger
Producer: Pierre Braunberger
Country: France
Running Time: 81 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 12

I‘ve just enjoyed a month and a half review hiatus, but now I’m back and to kick things off I ventured back into the world of the French New Wave, which I’ve had a shaky relationship with over the years. I’ve talked about it before in my review of Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins so I won’t repeat myself, but basically I haven’t often enjoyed the (relatively few) New Wave titles I’ve seen. Although I appreciate and enjoy many of the principles of the style, I find their tendency to vocally philosophise quite tiresome and often struggle to engage with the films emotionally. The last New Wave film I watched prior to this was François Truffaut’s highly regarded Jules et Jim and I didn’t enjoy it at all, so was a little worried about approaching Shoot the Pianist. However, I’d seen it before a long time ago and although I couldn’t remember much about it, I couldn’t remember disliking it, so there was hope.

Shoot the Pianist (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player or Tirez sur le pianiste) was only Truffaut’s second feature, coming after the critically praised trailblazer of the New Wave movement, The 400 Blows. Supposedly he was worried about the expectations people would have after that, so decided to do something completely different. Taking a novel by American crime writer David Goodis (Dark Passage), Truffaut set out to create his own spin on the noir genre.

Indeed, the opening sequence, set at night, follows a man rushing through the city streets, chased by an unknown assailant. So far, so noir, but the wild, rough, barely exposed handheld camerawork suggests something different to the slick Hollywood conventions. Then, after the man hits his head on a lamppost and falls, a passing gentleman (actually French film director Alex Joffé) helps him up and the two walk calmly away together, discussing the merits of love, marriage and settling down. Hardly Bogart and worryingly close to the wordy philosophising I don’t appreciate from a lot of French films. I needn’t have worried though as the film quickly picks up pace again and never gets too ponderous or slow.

It’s not the most labyrinthine of noir plots though. Basically, it concerns Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) a former virtuoso pianist who is now eking a living playing in a bar. This mild mannered and glum man likes to keep his head down, but his brothers are regularly in trouble and he helps them out when he must. When two thugs start to lean on Charlie to get to his brother Chico (Albert Rémy), things take a turn for the worse and his life becomes ever more in danger. The situation has its advantages though as it brings him closer to Léna (Marie Dubois), the beautiful barmaid he’s had his eye on for a while. As she comes into his life, we also learn the truth behind his shying from the limelight he once enjoyed.

Well, I can safely say Shoot the Pianist was one of the most positive experiences I’ve had with the French New Wave. It has a wonderfully snappy pace which keeps it entertaining throughout. The film is full of life, with loaded frames, plenty of music and frequent movement from the camera and characters. With Jules et Jim I found the scene to scene pace fast in the same way, but the overall experience very tedious because I didn’t care about any of the characters. Here, the lead character of Charlie is a fascinating one. He can seem a closed book at times with a frequently stony expression, but his melancholic demeanour is endearing considering the crazy situations he gets into. A voiceover which runs throughout helps keep you on his side too as it’s loveably neurotic and often quite funny. The film in general is funnier than I expected. Maybe not laugh out loud hilarious, but consistently amusing in a subtle fashion. There’s drama too, in particular in the climax of the flashbacks and the snowy showdown in the country.

My only gripe would be that it did start to get a bit overly talky at times, which would sometimes put a brake on the rapid pace. Featuring a lot of pre-Tarantino irrelevant and irreverent conversations, these are sharp and witty but can feel overdone and drawn out at times (as in much of Tarantino’s work).

All in all though, this is the sort of New Wave film I can get into. It uses the exciting, loose and playful techniques which got the movement noticed in the first place to inject life into a genre many people were tired of at the time. Short and snappy, featuring an interesting lead character and enough of a narrative hook to keep you engaged, this is a fine example of youthful vibrancy being used effectively to bring cinema alive.

Shoot the Pianist is out on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK on 28th July, released by Artificial Eye. I reviewed the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality is great. The picture is free of damage and the detail is strong without looking sharpened or over-cleaned. The only thing I would say is that it shows the rough approach of the cinematography more than ever, with many shots clearly out of focus for instance. It’s all part of the aesthetic though and looks more like it would on initial release in cinemas. The sound quality was decent too, although it is limited by the source material.

The main extra feature is a commentary with cinematographer Raoul Coutard. I didn’t have time to listen to the whole thing (I usually do so in the background whilst I do other things, but this is subtitled), but what I heard sounded fantastic. Coutard is full of information about the film’s production and an ‘interviewer’ is on hand to keep him talking.

On top of the commentary there is a very short (3.5 mins) featurette by Serge Toubiana. Cramming in a lot of overviews of ways you can look into the film and Truffaut’s intentions in taking on the project, this may be brief but it gives plenty of food for thought.

There is also a short screen test from Marie Dubois, which I almost didn’t bother watching, but is actually quite interesting. Dubois struggles to follow Truffaut’s instruction to insult him as best she can, so you can’t tell whether the test is going badly or if the director was trying to see her shy and uncomfortable side.

Finally there’s the customary trailer.