Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was perhaps one of the first ‘world’ films to really break out. Especially 5-10 years ago this was a film that budding cinephiles yearned to see and talk about. It also inspired the much loved American-west set remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) which would further cement the film’s ongoing legacy. However the intimidating run time (well over three hours) and the fact there are just so many damn films to get to, meant I only recently checked this one out for the first time.
Seven Samurai begins with a plot structure the film innovated, but which by now you would have seen a million times. A village, under repeated assault from bandits and realising the existential danger a post-harvest raid would pose, sends representatives into the city to attempt to locate some samurai and convince them to defend their homes. Though not without its charms, this opening section is a bit of a slog, laboured to the point it can feel a little boring. There are some nice comedic moments though and Kurosawa excels at establishing the sense of a land of great poverty which establishes the stakes for the entire film and the importance of the central task. However once the recruitment starts picking up steam so does the film, and things really start to zip along. This first act also establishes a social dynamic that is one of the film’s two sources of tension (the other, more obvious one being the crew of murderous bandits). The villagers are in a bind. They are utterly reliant on the samurai, needing to pay them for protection. But they are also terrified of them with fears of a murderous or sexual assault rampage sweeping through the village. The titular seven are a fun, unique crew. Makes the viewer want to see how they will interact and if their attitudes can co-exist enough to achieve the task at hand.
The script is responsible for establishing a lot of this, achieving the difficult task of bringing out the dynamics of the individual members and how they function as a troupe. These individual aspirations and group dynamics also evolve really well as the film progresses. Similarly, the writing of the long battle stretches, especially how the tactics evolve under pressure as the situation changes, makes for some of the best ‘war’ sequences ever. The second half of the film is a succession of military style training, tactics and brutal fights that makes plain why this film deserves its classic status. It’s also quite a vicious, murderous film. A great example of how a film foes not have to be bloody to be really violent, and at times barbaric. It’s also a film about process. Preparations, tactical planning, back and forth discussions of strategy. Again all written with a clarity that makes it super engaging and immersive. The writing is responsible actually for it being a much more immersive portrait of war than any other example of the genre.
The film also operates on numerous levels. As a siege film it is tense and genre heavy. It is saying societal level things about militarisation, as well as the role of a government to protect, to lift up and also to tax. But then it is also charming, featuring witty jokes and commenting on new love and the maintenance of it. Much of the film is stylistically way ahead of its time, still feeling fresh today. The use of slow motion when someone dies is an incredible flourish that has been mimicked ever since. Even just the use of close-ups during conversation, adds so much to the weight of individual scenes. As well as the style, the entire film is enhanced by the presence of Toshiro Mifune. Here he proves why he was one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived. He had a presence to him onscreen that transcended, though was heavily reliant on, mere acting ability. Able to balance the hero and fool elements of this character like few others would have been able to, Mifune’s Kikuchiyo becomes the clear charismatic anchor point of the film.
Verdict: Especially after the first 45 minutes, Seven Samurai is a feat of very crisp, clear storytelling. Time has not blunted the film at all over the past 60 years. It is still a vicious, cerebral and immersive examination of warfare and community that deserves its place in any canon of truly great cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Wes Craven and the slasher just go together and he is probably the most creative exponent of the subgenre we have ever seen. He combined the prototypical teen slasher with supernatural elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), went meta with the same series in New Nightmare (1994) and even his lesser efforts such as Shocker (1989) or My Soul to Take (2010) toy with the genre in some way. However of all his films, it is Scream (1996) that is his most radical reinterpretation of the formula.
From the very start, Scream is about the dual goals of expressing a love for slasher films as well as delivering a bloody good one. The film opens with Drew Barrymore’s character just about to watch a scary movie. A phone call leads to a deadly game of horror film trivia and one of cinema’s more memorable opening sequences. From there the film shifts into a teen slasher with Neve Campbell on one front, and an interested media helmed by Courtney Cox on the other. There are the general tropes of partying and cool kills (getting mashed by garage doors an obvious highlight of the latter). But the media interest and hype around the killings also adds another dimension to the film. However most notable is the constant allusions to, and invoking of other horror films, including Craven’s earlier work. The film sticks hard to the high concept premise that it sets up and explores ideas through this such as the notion that a life is like a movie. Plus unlike some other meta-horror films, this one is constantly respectful toward the genre. At times it plays as exceptional homage to the genre’s greatest hits, such as the close-ups of people in the throes of terror. The meta approach to the film also means it is laden with references, that I am sure would open up more to me on a second viewing. There is a sense though that the film slightly loses the narrative thread a little as it goes along. The finale is perhaps not as well set up or magnetic as it could have been. Having said that, the final twist is a gem, especially if you have somehow remained spoiler free for the past 20 years.
The greatest achievement of Scream is the script, which may be the best horror script of all time. It is damn hard to be both as meta and as effective in the genre as this. Not to mention the level of tension achieved while all this is going on is quite remarkable. The choices made in terms of doing what’s expected are a pretty masterful manipulation of the audience. At times it’s exactly what you are expecting, whilst at others the expectation is totally subverted. It is a great way to engage with horror clichés. The assured hand of Craven is all over the film, with numerous small choices enhancing the overall experience a lot. The casting is nailed, with a funky mix of Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, Henry Winkler and David Arquette combining for loads of fun, with the necessary acting chops to back it all up. The ensemble is important but Campbell is the clear star. It is a very good performance. She looks so tired and beaten down in a very real way by how her life has been progressing, and brings the audience along as she sinks even lower. The score (recently re-released on vinyl) is excellent, and fits into the overall approach of reverence to the genre’s past coupled with innovation. There is a real A Nightmare on Elm Street vibe to this element of the film, with a fair hint of Psycho (1960) too. The way that both score and sound design are used to punctuate everyday moments, with whooshes and emphasis creates great tension, without ever being cheap about it.
Verdict: If Scream is perhaps slightly below the standard of Craven’s very best work, that speaks more to the quality of his output than the film specifically. However it is one of his most interesting films, and as far as reflective and meta-horror goes, this is a classic. Pint of Kilkenny
August turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive month, with only one dud among the whole lot. In fact there are a few of my absolute favourites of the year in here, probably all of them from quite unlikely sources.
- Lights Out (2016), David F. Sandberg – Has its issues but I liked this. Terrifying, though the scares are gimmicky and repetitive. Well performed, especially by Teresa Palmer who carries the film. The attempted mythos is a little silly but there are more original things here than average. The film gives the audience enough credit to do something really bold and shocking with the ending too. It also retrospectively gives the rest of the film more meaning and emotion.
- Point Break (2015), Ericson Core – In time this film will rightfully claim its place in the canon of good-bad movies. The dialogue is otherworldly in its awfulness. You will laugh a lot. None of that was intended by the filmmakers, but it is absolutely hilarious. It’s gloriously dumb. Extreme sports action sequences linked together with grizzled Ray Winstone mugging. You can’t get better than that. There’s also a healthy dash of spirituality seemingly mined from the depths of high school instagram accounts. Perhaps the worst dialogue ever. Iconic.
- Train to Busan (2016), Sang-ho Yeon- Stunning. One of the films of the year and perhaps my favourite zombie film ever. Creepily performed and well brought to life. The plotting is pitch-perfect. The way the events of the film rise and fall, escalating really nicely. Some of the character stuff early does not sit quite right. But over time that becomes as great a part of the film as any. Fuckin emotional too. Meaningful character arcs carved out in the midst of the zombie induced chaos. And that chaos is full of really awesome action set pieces that never lack clarity.
- The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Ida Lupino – Opening title card is super modern. Sucks the audience in, warning that the facts are real and someone in the audience could be behind it. Dripping in style from the credits on, creative about what the frame encompasses, use of shadow and constrained location of a car. Film brings a pretty terrifying serial killer hitch-hiker to life through simple, clean and dark storytelling. The psychology of the villain, his exercising of what he considers to be masculine power and the thrill of control is reminiscent of trends in crime fiction that would follow many decades later. Taut filmmaking with great performances, especially from William Talman as the villain.
- Spotlight (2015), Tom McCarthy – I wasn’t sure how I would go with this, but it is as good a straight up drama that I have seen in a few years. Tells a story quite specific to Boston and the very deep, problematic ties between the church and numerous aspects of the community (police, lawyers, media). Is also an excellent portrait of investigative journalism. The swirling build of an investigation, the process that has to be stepped through and devotion of those inspired by it. The huge ensemble cast is really exceptional and like he always seems to, Mark Ruffalo stands out. But they are all brilliant. Feels like a very true to life film. There’s a sense of timing to the film, the way the editing, dialogue and score all work together. Pretty much as good as pure storytelling on film gets.
- Women He’s Undressed (2015), Gillian Armstrong – This tale of an underappreciated (at least these days) early Aussie costume designer is a mixed bag. The treating of the identity of his male lover as some great mystery, or the use of a stand-in for unnecessary commentary from the subject were both unwelcome. But the straighter talking heads stuff, focusing on his career and adventurous life, is great and informative. For film fans there’s also some really good delineation of the differences between the classic studios. Also the history of homophobia in Hollywood is examined. Ends up being a portrait of a life in Hollywood vaguely filtered through Orry Kelly’s life, but capturing the up and down of his career quite well.
- Penguins of Madagascar (2014), Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith – Totally disposable, but a lot less annoying than plenty of other animated efforts these days. Starts off with a cameo by Werner Herzog playing himself which is as awesome as it sounds. Also a film where I suspect a lot of this stuff would be going over kids’ heads. Not all that original, but has a nice anarchic spirit to it. Randomness to the humour lifts the stock standard plot. And there are plenty of chuckles to be had.
- Justice League: Doom (2012), Lauren Montgomery – Certainly not a hand-holding origin story as we are used to from superhero films. Though all the characters, especially Cyborg, get nice character moments toward the start. The scripting is quite funny, heavy on the cheesy wisecracks (which are mainly endearing). The story structure is simple but inspired, with one baddie pairing off with each goody. It’s well pieced together too, there are heaps of story strands but the storytelling is really clear. The visuals are great too, action sequences and shape-shifting creatures.
- How to be Single (2016), Christian Ditter – I like both Alison Brie and Rebel Wilson onscreen, especially the former. Watched this whilst sick and it was the perfect soothing film for that. Plus the female to male character ration is like 4:1. Which is always a good start in a comedy. There’s no real sense of story, but all of the cast are pretty charming. Forgettable, but totally fine.
- Suicide Squad (2016), David Ayer – This is not a well made film. It’s a mess. Almost an absurd one. I liked it though. Enough of the characters are fun. It’s really well performed by basically everyone. Though Leto’s Joker is essentially unwatchable. Does some interesting things with the villain. Interesting that both the big bad and the main hero who makes the decisive action are female. But the use of soundtrack is a major misstep, even if you can see what they are going for. And the central mission of the film is too long and often dreary. This is not good work by Ayer. But others make it worthwhile. Though it does have some legit problematic elements.
- National Gallery (2014), Frederick Wiseman – Opening (and closing) on silent shots of paintings, essentially recreating the experience of the gallery. A wonder of editing, moulding footage together. Not as stagnant as I expected, the camera dynamic in conversations. The combination of minutiae and story means it’s not at all boring. Storytelling comes both in how the film uses images to convey meaning and how the paintings do the same. A great window behind the scenes of an institution like this.
- Parks and Recreation Season 6 (2013), Greg Daniels & Michael Schur – Haven’t watched the show for a few years, but within literally 3 minutes I felt right at home. A hilarious show, with some of the best comedy characters ever. So many of them too, Ron Swanson, the incredible Leslie Knope and Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford who really shines this season. Also great guest stars such as Tatiana Maslany and Kristen Bell. Perfectly written – silly, cutting and damn funny.
Not Worth Watching
- Eddie the Eagle (2016), Dexter Fletcher – I was in the mood for something light, but this was very plain. The trailers that made it feel like a remake of Cool Runnings (1993) did not lie, because it hits a lot of the exact same story beats. Egerton is hammy, not helped by constant close-ups of his face mugging being the main storytelling technique. Nothing is really great, the script and score both average whilst the use of CGI on the jumps should have been avoided. Aiming for a trumped up version of 80s sports films but it’s just a bit annoying. Even Hugh Jackman is muted. Never involves you in the main character’s journey or taps into the inherent tension of the sport.
If you only have time to watch one Train to Busan
Avoid at all costs Eddie the Eagle
More and more, I am finding that I am a sensibility guy. There are some directors whose sensibility and worldview I immediately connect to, or am enamoured with – Terrence Malick and Wes Craven being perhaps the two that most immediately spring to mind. This works both ways though, and there are certain beloved directors whose craft I can respect, but that fail to move me on an enjoyment or thematic level as much as most people. I spoke of this when reviewing Scorsese’s Casino (1995) recently, and in addition to Marty it is perhaps the Coen Brothers who connect with me the least.
Whilst Blood Simple (1984) was their first film, it was Fargo (1996) that really vaulted the duo onto the indie map and they have never looked back. Speaking of sensibilities, the Coens have a very unique one. So much so that it is disconcerting to the viewer in its unconventionality. We are used to certain structures and beats that are rarely delivered in the order or pacing that is expected. Of course, subverting expectation is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. But it perhaps hurts the overall impact of this film, particularly on a purely narrative level. The first period of the film is focused on William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a down on his luck car salesman looking to get rich quick through organising a kidnapping of his wife that will force her loaded dad to come up with the ransom payment that Jerry will share with his hired goons. There is a deep well of thematic complexity with this character, a normalish guy in way over his head, which forces him to forsake his family. It is not until the half hour mark that we meet Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. A heavily pregnant police detective brought in to investigate the murders this scheme has wrought. The film is at its best when it ratchets up the action and violence. There’s a coldness to Peter Stormares’s hired goon that fits perfectly into the snowbound landscapes. Overall there is a weird mix to the tone. Drama and black comedy but laced with the occasional piece of heightened Tarantino style dialogue or a silly character.
Marge is a great character, immediately exceeding the somewhat dreary and languid setup of the film. Everything about the story thread with McDormand at the core elevates the film. The writing of the procedural elements offers an auteurist take on the genre tropes of crime fiction, as she runs down the various clues on the case. The character and performance are excellent examples of quirk without grating the audience. Pregnant, wide-eyed, diligent, brilliant and hilariously written and performed. The arrival of McDormand and Marge change the film totally, the character giving the film something to anchor on, settling it in a really good way. She makes the straight comedy scenes a lot funnier and the investigative angle gives the plot the purpose and conventionality it needs. Of course the focus on Jerry is not abandoned and that part of the film still feels flat. In large part that is because the character is such a weak one. The film is really ‘about’ this character if anyone. But he’s so unsympathetic, with vague motivations and that comes off as needlessly oblique rather than mysterious, and I do think the character makes the film weaker overall. The real Ned Flanders vibe coming from Macy’s performance at times didn’t exactly help bring me along either. After McDormand, Peter Stormare gives the best performance. He has this wonderful elemental presence of danger that looms over proceedings and is thankfully not overused.
Verdict: There are two ways to think about Fargo. About 30 minutes’ worth are a very good, very original lean police procedural. The rest is a dramatic black comedy let down by a weak main character in Jerry. However McDormand and the character of Maggie are so great that the film is worthwhile simply for her presence. Stubby of Reschs