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30
Aug 04

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS

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THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
dir. Akira Kurosawa

STAR WARS (original cut)
dir. George Lucas

It was all down to luck. On Thursday a friend gave me a copy of what appears to be the most elaborate (on disc) DVD bootleg I’ve yet seen, a copy of the original cut of Star Wars apparently taken from an earlier laserdisc version of the film, pre-special edition. On Saturday, rummaging through used DVDs at a local store, I found the Critierion release of The Hidden Fortress, a film I knew about but hadn’t yet seen, and which I also knew was one of Lucas’s inspirations for his film — and lo and behold, he was interviewed on the disc as one of the bonus features. So I didn’t hesitate, and as I had a bit more time to kill on the weekend than I expected, I watched both discs, The Hidden Fortress first.

Saying something about a director and a film that’s had plenty to say about it is always initially disconcerting, but what the hey — suffice to say that yes, The Hidden Fortress is indeed ridiculously great. The use of widescreen (Kurosawa’s first feature in that form), the breathless flow of the film, the wide variety of editing choices applied, from quick cuts to moments of long, seemingly static contemplation, the simple but not stupid core story, the on-the-money casting (Mifune of course, but Misa Uehara as Princess Yukihime, Minoru Chiaki as Tahei and Kamatari Fujiwara as Matakishi make the film an ensemble piece even when the characters themselves are only a team by necessity), the list goes on. Striking in black and white, it might have been even more so in color but there’s no point in quibbling over shots like the princess and her general looking with anguish on the distant burning of their hiding place or their over-the-hilltop first sight of their final goal. The swirling of the fire festival, the charge of the prisoners down the staircase, these are moments that stand as fine honing of the collective art of filmmaking.

But it’s the beautiful venality of Tahei and Matakishi that makes the film the winner. For all the moments of reflection on the meaning of honor and the need to sacrifice in order to hold on to hope — no disquisitions thankfully, except perhaps the climactic confrontation scene in the border jail and even there it’s no sermon — it’s the two fish out of water, farmers turned soldiers for a lark, eternally bickering but still close friends, which get the first and last word. Lucas himself obviously transformed the types into C3PO and R2D2 for Star Wars but while there’s plenty to connect the two duos, especially in terms of humor and frustration with their situation, Tahei and Matakishi aren’t ‘good’ characters as such. They care about their situations to the extent that it benefits themselves; once they discover gold it’s all a question of how they can get all or part of it, and when it comes down to it at the end, they quite happily agree to turn in the princess and general for a reward. Rebuffed on that front, they slouch across the border to bemoan their fate — whereas a Hollywood variant would probably have them do something ‘heroic’ to rescue their comrades, Tahei and Matakishi shrug it all off. Everything turns out all right, of course, but that’s nothing to do with them, and if it had, little of their roles would have made sense.

Star Wars would have been a different and potentially quite interesting film if Lucas had taken that approach with the droids, but would it have been better? Probably not, but then again some films, some works of art, are pretty damned hard to view with a critical lens if you’ve lived in them near constantly for most of your life. I’d actually not seen it for a few years, since a little while before The Phantom Menace came out; it had been even longer since I’d seen the original version, so on the one hand knowing every line by heart, every sound practically, got balanced against a chance to see things with perhaps fresher eyes.

It’s weird to realize how many jokes and moments and references and more in Star Wars surely had to have passed me by when I was six and first watching it. I caught the basics, I caught the spectacle, I knew and soon focused in intensely on the story as familiarity set in. Time and then time again makes more of the film work even better for me than before, and seeing it in a self-contained form like the original cut — allusions to many things never directly shown or discussed, miniature episodes held together with a minimum of exposition, the absolutely flat out brilliant editing Lucas’s then wife Marcia helped oversee (it may be that her falling out and leaving Lucas was perhaps the greatest setback for the whole cycle, even more so than the break with the shrewd, thoughtful producer Gary Kurtz) — is almost a revelation.

I remember being intensely thrilled with the ending when I last saw it on a big screen when the special edition came out, as if I’d never seen it before, and once again on TV it worked, visual and sound and music and cuts wound up to the tightest pitch and then resolved in a moment. Closest thing to that I’ve seen in recent years was the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring, the audience cheering every time whenever Aragorn beheaded Lurtz in the final duel, but even then that was a mere minute or so sequence where the Death Star battle is nearly a quarter of an hour of build and release. Some friends of mine think that Lucas should have just stopped there and done other work, or even none at all, and let Star Wars stand on its own — I’d disagree for a number of reasons (the delicious agony I suffered for three years before, then after The Empire Strikes Back came out was worth it in the end, Ewoks or not), but it’s easy to see why they would say that after watching the original cut.

In his commentary for The Hidden Fortress, Lucas speaks with his usual straightforward-while-reserved tone about what he did and didn’t borrow for Star Wars. Sometimes he seems not to appreciate what is otherwise surely obvious — there’s when he weirdly suggests that Leia’s character wasn’t like Yukihime in that Leia was more a ‘stand and fight’ person, when it’s perfectly clear that had the character been in a different situation Yukihime would be fighting with the best of them — her hilarious frustration of the two farmers by means of tripping them up and slamming branches in their faces as they walk through the woods in open pursuit of her may be as close as it gets but had she been in Lucas’s world, she probably wouldn’t have been happy until she had killed all the Stormtroopers on the Death Star one by one.

But in the end Lucas’s point that it isn’t just Kurosawa that’s a source is well taken — the Joseph Campbell reference at the end of the interview may seem overfamiliar now but inasmuch as Kurosawa took inspiration from John Ford but not just Ford, so Lucas took further inspiration from both and even more, and so forth. The two films are related but not clones, both are individual hotwiring of settings and characters then translated in company with those working for their creators. And both are pretty damned great fun to watch.

29
Aug 04

Michael Caine should not be a national treasure

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Or maybe: Sir Michael Caine should be a national treasure.

I’m not sure which of these statements I agree with most.

What’s indisputable is that the quality of his acting should not be celebrated. His performances are, almost without exception, rubbish. Stilted, wooden, uncharismatic, devoid of character, aspiring to achieve even two dimensions, let alone three.

I say this because I’ve just finished watching the train crash which is The Swarm. Some might say it was unfair to judge the former Maurice Micklewhite’s entire career on his turn in just one film, particularly a stinker like this (“I never imagined it would be the bees. They’ve always been our friends.”).

But the fact is I really can’t see any significant difference between Dr Brad Crane and any other Caine character: not Jack Carter, not Frank Bryant, not Harry Palmer, not Lawrence Jamieson, and certainly not the fabled Charlie Croker.

I might give you Scrooge with the Muppets, and possibly his pageant coach in Miss Congeniality – but even that is only because I was distracted by Sandra Bullock.

Occasionally a good director might force something a little more animated out of him: I’ve heard good things about The Cider House Rules, for example.

A friend of mine claims that we should recognise Caine for his work rate: in a screen career lasting almost 50 years he’s clocked up 117 movies, and shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

The same could be said in defence of McDonald’s, yet I don’t believe anyone will ever think it’s actually good food.

But maybe my friend (who’s American) has a point. Maybe the more critical members of society should ignore the quality of his performances, and instead celebrate the fact that a man of such limited talent and range can rise to the very top of his profession.

Maybe that should be enough to qualify him as a national treasure. He might be rubbish, but he’s our rubbish, and of that we should we should be proud.

Or maybe not.

28
Aug 04

The Legend

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The Legend

I just watched this tremendous Jet Li film again, and it has one absolutely magnificent role, that of Jet Li’s mother, played by Josephine Liao. [um, spoiler alert and all that, if it’s applicable to an old movie that’s been on TV more than once] The local ruler offers his daughter’s hand to anyone who can defeat his wife in combat. After a tough fight, our hero looks like he is about to win, but believing the daughter is hideous, he gives the fight away. His mother hears only that he has lost, and to reclaim the family honour ties her hair up and goes to fight. Not only does she win easily, but her opponent falls in love with her – at the time, this seems pretty much like the usual transvestite comedy, not so far from when Bernard Bresslaw dresses up a nurse and is fancied by some hapless bloke, but later, when the ruler’s wife is dying, held in her arms, Liao reveals herself, and the dying woman withour hesitation or shock declares that she will always love her, and the mother screams and wails as she dies, completely changing the sense of what has happened.

There are a couple of great moments in the big set-piece climax too. Jet Li is trying to save his father’s life from a guillotine, while the evil emperor’s army holds back the people. The weight is too heavy for him to hold the rope, and as it is dragging him along the ground, an old woman and a couple of children break through the cordon and grab the rope with him, inspiring the rest to revolt. It’s a moving moment, but the army are overwhelming the unarmed peasants and all is looking lost – when Li’s mother rides in with her sword and turns the tide, and the good guys win. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another maternal role anything like this – she rather overwhelms the lead (and executive producer), and Jet Li is a gorgeous man and brilliant martial artist, not at all an easy star to outshine.

This month’s Sight and Sound features a review of Takashi Miike’s new film

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This month’s Sight and Sound features a review of Takashi Miike’s new film Gozu, and tentatively calls 2001’s Visitor Q his masterpiece. The reviewer’s take on Miike’s prolific career (Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer are championed as the twin peaks of his 60-odd film oeuvre) jarred enough with my own to prompt the piece your reading now.

Now I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Visitor Q, but subsequent discussion (on ilx amongst other places) had interested me enough to wait until a second viewing; perhaps my initially hostile opinion was in need of a revision. Stopping to think about the things I’d said, I suddenly noticed a coincidence – my criticism of Visitor Q was astonishingly similar to the praise I’d lavished on his other work. Although I’d be the last person to say that he’s beyond criticism, Miike occupies a strange (and perhaps unique) position in that his champions and his detractors often use the same points. An inconsistency that can be both infuriating and exhilarating, a sense of humour that can be either sharp or broad to the point of slapstick, and a flagrant disregard for anything even approaching a notion of taste or, at his most extreme, restraint. This middleground only stretches so far; I can’t help wishing how a more controlling director would have handled the bizarre pantomime of The Happiness of the Katakuris, for example.

I’m not confident enough in my knowledge – or opinion – of Miike’s films to start throwing the word masterpiece around, but if I was held to it, my ‘twin peaks’ would be Ichi The Killer and Audition. Perhaps Audition isn’t as brave as Visitor Q. Or perhaps I just find it easier to engage with its slow-burning horror than the ultra-violent slapstick of Ichi and Visitor Q. Whatever the case, I can’t help thinking Ichi and Audition would make the most convincing argument for the man’s inconsistent, unpredictable, fascinating talents.

27
Aug 04

FT Top 100 Films 39: THE BREAKFAST CLUB

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FT Top 100 Films
39: THE BREAKFAST CLUB

HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY!

The thing about The Breakfast Club is that it’s the only one of the bratpack movies that’s really about school. In (most of) the others, school is there (apart from the couple that are about post-school), but only really as somewhere to run down the corridors punching the lockers to show your FRUSTRATION with life, rather than the main place that people spend their time. I think it’s possibly the only one with a proper geek in as well (Duckie is *not* a geek, although Cameron might be, but he’s hanging with Ferris, so I doubt it), and what do you know, he doesn’t get to get off with anyone, just write the smartass essay. Admittedly there are some dreadful bits in the film (the smoking dope bit and the making-over ally sheedy bit, as if you needed telling), but they kind of add to the charm of it for me, as do the characters’ reasons for being in detention (and the fact that the hard kid is called “bender” of course, teehee). Of course, due to the industrial action during the 80s in the UK, it was hard enough getting a teacher in the classroom Monday to Friday, so the idea that one would come in on a Saturday (or that the kids would, for that matter), was a strange and alien one to 15 year old me, watching it relatively late at night on the portable in my bedroom (did anyone actually see these films in the cinema?), with all the swearing cut out.

The best bit is at the end though, where they realise that no matter what they’ve learnt about each other, they don’t think it’ll make a damn bit of difference once they get back to the “real world” of school, whatever they say now, because they are so tied up in their different social groups, only those with no status already would be happy to talk to the rest…

OK, OK, OK, the best bit is molly ringwald putting her lipstick on without using her hands, who am I kidding…

Pete Baran is on holiday

26
Aug 04

An alien in my salad

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An alien in my salad
You can always tell when a new brood of creative caterpillars has successfully survived its infancy in advertising and grown into beautiful butterflies.

Suddenly, for a few months, those dull, formulaic, panel-tested commercial breaks get flashes of colour and inspiration, as someone with A New Idea gets unleashed on the target market.

We’re going through such a purple patch at the moment.

Firstly, there’s the Florette ad, with various groups of men doing operatic battle in the middle of a field, proclaiming allegiance to their lettuce of choice. “Lollo Rosso,” sings a group of tenors. “Radicchio,” comes the counter-attack from a platoon of baritones. “Lollo Rosso”, “Radicchio”, the salvos fly back and forth between the two advancing parties. The tension is heightened by a skirmishing band of Frissee-wielding counter-tenors entering the fray.

But as the three groups fight for dominance, suddenly dark figures appear on the brow of the hill. “Rocket! Rocket!” from the cloaked bass voices sends all the other combatants flying for cover.

Say what you like about the product itself, but you’ve got to admit they’ve got chutzpah. After all, when was the last time you saw an ad for lettuce on the telly?

Then we have the vaguely disturbing Cadbury’s Happiness campaign, in which ill-looking people are encouraged by their animal alter-egos to eat chocolate. Eerie, but effective, although probably shouldn’t be shown before the watershed. And if I was Philip Pullman, I’d be straight on the phone to my lawyer.

Finally, the one that hit me out of nowhere: Nik-Naks’ Alien tribute. In its recreation of the movie’s most infamous scene, it’s almost perfect.

The dialogue, the camaraderie, the chest-burster, Parker’s headband, the infant Nik-Nak’s gurgle – a great pastiche.

But then they spoil it all by playing Le Freak. It’s just so much at odds with the rest of the ad.

Fair play to them, though, as they probably had no idea how to end the ad. It’s hard to improve a legendary piece of cinema. But it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth – a little like the product itself. And that reminds me why I never buy Nik-Naks. So on the sales point, nul points guys and girls, but that shouldn’t stop you trying.

Pretty soon, though, the long hours and long lines will wear these bright young things out, and they’ll have Jim Davidson’s agent and double-glazing firms on speed dial.

Like the butterfly, the creative doesn’t tend to have a long life. But while they survive, they brighten up the world around us.

25
Aug 04

Great Teletext TV Listings Of Our Time

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Great Teletext TV Listings Of Our Time

1640 BRILLIANT CREATURES A girl reveals how she was trapped in a toilet by a spitting cobra

FT Top 100 Films 40: GINGER SNAPS

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FT Top 100 Films
40: GINGER SNAPS

Odd that I was talking about Catwoman earlier, as here is a film where a girl turns into a wolf. Not Wolfgurl, and this is certainly no superhero movie. This is probably the smartest werewolf movie since An American Werewolf In London, making a story leap so obvious that it is surprising it had never been made before. The werewolf comes with the moooon, periodic like. Regular as clockwork. And for a girl going through puberty, who knows if the changes wrought by lycanthropy have also been summoned by your hormones. Is the heightened sense of smell and urge to rip the throat out of passers-by just, as the Mum here says, all part of becoming a woman?

The audience know that this is not the case, but there are more than enough early scenes where Ginger’s snapping (oh, its literal this film) is pretty average teenage behaviour. She becomes wild and unmanageable: the message is not all that clever but since the director happily plays the film to its logical conclusion it pleases. It understands its twin genre conventions (teen outsider movie and werewolf movie) and milks them to the end. Even with the rubbish, rubbery monster suit.

Ginger Snaps is cheap movie. Which may suggest a problem inherent with doing a low budget creature feature. All well and good until you get to the creature (which is why zombies are so good for lo-budget). Since An American Werewolf In London, you cannot just put a bloke in a wolf suit. Or in this case a woman in a wolf suit. Unfortuantely that is all they can afford, no bone crunching transformation scenes, just a great big dog. It does not let the film down (and certainly isn’t as bad as the CGI werewolf in Van Helsing) but does remind the viewer that all the indie low budget atmosphere in the world cannot make up for a crap monster. But at least this does not do anything as crass as getting Ginger to eat dog food from the can.

Catwoman

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So there are these women right, who throughout history have worn cat masks. All of whom, one imagines, were brought back to life by stinky cat breath and then went leaping around like – well actually not like a cat because cats can’t climb sheer walls, or jump eighty feet and do capoeira. Or so the opening sequence of Egyptian cats and burnt witches would have us believe.

Yes. Catwoman is a very silly film. Unfortunately, in the right mood, it is also entertainingly silly. The big problem with its lack of success is because no-one believes you are going in to see an entertainingly silly film. Instead they believe that you either
a) Really like superheroes (and hence are sad)
b) Want to get off on Halle Berry’s arse clad in leather (and hence are sad)

The latter set are in for disappointment. Berry’s odd twitchy cat act is anything but sexy. Catwoman (even this knocked off idea of catwoman) is not a “method acting” part. It is probably more important to be sexy than to actually be like a cat. From the point you see Berry eating tuna from the can you kind of go off her as a newly liberated woman with special powers. The costume is embarrassing, the poor CGI is daft and none of it hangs together plotwise. Which of course does not stop it being the half-arsed producers idea of what a superhero film should be (a bit of Spiderman, a bit of X-Men, drop the Batman faux seriousness). Even down to its last minute – oh hold on, let’s leave it open for a sequel that will NEVER COME this is film-makers lying to themselves constantly that they have not only made an okay action film (they haven’t) but something which has something to say about feminism (they really really haven’t). But as the Onion article had it, not even the worst film I have seen this summer.

24
Aug 04

Why the weird dry gulch years of movie trailers?

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Why the weird dry gulch years of movie trailers? — a general observation here. Trailers in the 1930s through 1950s/60s seem to be a classic mishmash of screen projections (“A CAST OF THOUSANDS! LIONS EATING EXTRAS!”), random collages and sudden tremulous closeups where Rip Clint could tell Lana Lake something soppy. The ones these days are hyperedited music videos in all but name on the one hand and loadsa quirk on the other (“Chris Cooper and Mark Ruffalo in The Wandering Wondermint“). But somewhere around the seventies and eighties it was all…sorta dull, based on the evidence of the trailers now regularly included with Very Special MaxiEditions of DVDs covering the time. Not always — Alien, notably, had the advantage of both a striking chief image with the cracked egg as well as an honestly hackles-raising main trailer. But usually either the deep voiced narrators of the time weren’t up to the task or the graphic designs usually just plain *sucked* in comparison to the main ones being dreamed up. Maybe they figured that people were still getting used to the idea of commercial art.