Skip’s Quips: Having Another Go at ‘Conan the Barbarian’

Blog Sketch 082813Why, I asked myself last night, am I watching the original 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian again?

Isn’t once enough for this film? It doesn’t have great cinematography. Much of the acting – except for stalwarts such as James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow – is atrocious. And the special effects are pretty poor by today’s or even yesteryear’s standards.

Oh, yeah: And the blood squibs are gloppy. Really gloppy.

Well, parts of it are watchable, for some reason. I’ve read one of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories, “The People of the Black Circle,” and the film stays true to the tale’s sensibilities. You know: blood, gore, lust and all that. Plus, there’s the much-lauded score by Basil Poledouris, which is somewhat bombastic but definitely works.

Then there’s the script, courtesy of director John Milius and Oliver Stone. Pretty simple stuff, but at least it’s not verbose and pretentious. I was grateful for that.

There were also a number of seemingly derivative moments that may have been “inspired” by classic films such as Kwaidan (the scene in which the wizard writes runes on Conan’s body to protect him from demons) and The Seven Samurai (the stake-adorned defense against Thulsa Doom’s cohorts). Surprisingly erudite stuff for a film such as this. I did see part of an interview a long time ago in which Milius lauded Kwaidan as being “dreamlike,” so perhaps he was mining that movie for Conan. Nevertheless, it made for strong viewing.

So all in all: kind of a sloppy film, with dull moments and some very good ones. I may end up watching it again in the future and asking myself, once more, why I’m doing so. Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer myself the same way.

Skip’s Quips: And for Dessert, I Get ‘Seven Samurai’

Blog Sketch 082813This is why it pays to be nice to your spouse.

A few days ago, Trudi got the Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai on Netflix, and we watched it together … despite the fact that both of us had seen it multiple times (I about 100 or so). Plus, it’s not Trudi’s favorite movie, though she does like it more than other samurai films. So it was something of a treat for me.

God bless you, Trudi. Thank you for being so good to me.

Oh, it was as good as ever, filled with swashbuckling adventure, heroic deeds and complex characters. I love this movie very much, and I’m grateful to my wife for letting me see it. I get Seven Samurai withdrawal symptoms, you see, and after I go, say, about six months without watching it, I get an incredible desire to view it again.

Trudi and I have different tastes when it comes to films. We don’t always agree on what’s good and what isn’t. But sometimes we do things that one half likes more than the other half – without complaint. That’s part of what makes a good marriage, I think. And it’s just one of many reasons to love Trudi.

Now, the question is: When am I going to reciprocate with a rom-com? Hoo, boy.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Now I Can Die in Peace After Seeing ‘Godzilla’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613It took me a while, but I finally watched Godzilla, King of the Monsters! all the way through last night.

I’d never seen it straight through before, so this was important. It’s surprisingly effective, despite the fact that special effects have come a long way since the days of destroying model sets. A little slowly paced, but for the most part it was well done. It also provided an interesting comment on Japanese and American post-war relations.

Of course, there was the creature Godzilla, too.

I think it’s easy to see why this flick was so influential. You do see the monster, but it’s almost always in shadow, so you never get a true close-up of all the scaly details. Leaving a little bit in the dark when it comes to monster movies is always a good idea, methinks. The mayhem was also well photographed, though I was a bit dismayed that Takashi Shimura was so underused. C’est la vie.

Good movie. I’m not gonna run to see it again, but I’m glad I have it under my belt.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Thinking About ‘Ugetsu’ and Other Flicks

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I like Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. I think he’s a top-class director.

Is he greater than Akira Kurosawa, though? I’m not sure. I will admit, I’ve been thinking about Ugetsu more than The Seven Samurai recently, and I don’t know why.

There’s a haunting moment in the former flick that has stuck in my mind. After the potter Genjuro escapes from the clutches of the ghost of Lady Wakasa, he finds himself in a field bestrewn with the ruins of her mansion. A song she once sang for him is played as he wanders, stunned, among the skeleton of the house.

What a sad, wonderful, evocative moment. So eerie. It’s part of what makes Ugetsu the best ghost story put on film … next to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. But where the latter movie was daring in its use of color and sound, Ugetsu is relatively conservative, using stately, composed shots and wistful music to move the action, as well as provide tangible atmosphere.

I’ll be debating for a long time whether Mizoguchi is better than Kurosawa. With pictures such as Ugetsu, however, I wonder if there really is any debate.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The Shot Not Seen ‘Round the World

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613The best shot in all of cinema may be one that’s hardly remembered.

It’s one that I think about periodically when I ponder great filmmaking. Of course, it’s from The Seven Samurai, one of my favorite movies. But it’s not from a famous scene.

Instead, it’s an image from a sequence toward the beginning where a number of farmers are in town to recruit samurai. They’re staying at an inn and discover that most of the rice that they’re subsisting on has been stolen. If I remember correctly, one of the farmers–Rikichi (played magnificently by Yoshio Tsuchiya)–gets angry at his comrade, Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), who was supposed to watch over it, and throws the last handful at him.

Then comes this great shot, where we see Yohei start to pick up the grains, one by one, from the floor.

Why is this so brilliant? It’s one small, short shot, but the impact is monumental. It tells you everything you need to know about the farmers–that they’re so desperate, poor and hungry that they’ll even try to save a few grains of rice to eat them … the last they have left. They can’t afford to waste any. And director Akira Kurosawa shows this horror by focusing his camera on the floor, as Yohei tries to retrieve the rice.

Absolutely compelling.

There may be more famous shots in the movies, but this is one of the few complete ones, an image that gives us all the information we need, plus a haunting picture, without telling us straight out why. No surprise, then, that I think about it often when I muse on all things cinema.

If only more directors would learn from shots such as this, the movies would be a better place.

Skip’s Quips: Bad Lines in Good Movies

Blog Sketch 082813No film is perfect, and even great movies have scenes or lines that could be better.

I was thinking about this recently while watching Ghostbusters on TV. It’s hardly a masterpiece, yet it remains a terrific comedy and has held up well nearly 30 years after its debut. Still, despite a sharp, hilarious script, it contains a line toward the end that disappoints me to this day: “I love this town,” shouted by Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore after the ‘busters save New York City from a supernatural catastrophe.

Blah. Surely there was a funnier way to express triumph than a maudlin acknowledgement of Gotham’s greatness.

Of course, it’s not a movie-breaker, but it brings to mind other frustrating lines from the cinema’s greatest flicks. For instance: the immortal “leave me alone” in Lawrence of Arabia, spoken with great self-pity by Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence in a dialogue with Jack Hawkins’ General Allenby—who, as if in recognition of this pathetic order, notes that it’s a “feeble thing to say.” I guess it’s hard to count this in the annals of bad lines completely, as it’s followed up in an organic way, though it still rings overdone. So does a much-revered scene in the otherwise extraordinary film The Seven Samurai where Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo, charged by a dying woman with saving her baby, collapses into the stream surrounding the village and cries along with the infant, lamenting how the same thing happened to him. It’s just a bit too much in a movie noted for its tight script, though it does give some insight into the reckless character’s origins.

These are just a few examples. They don’t ruin the films overall. Yet it’s interesting to see how high our estimation is of them … if we can carp about lesser lines within. Further proof of the merits of these justly praised pictures.

Skip’s Quips: In the Wake of Sacred Samurai

Blog Sketch 082813The last thing we need is another movie based on the story of the 47 ronin.

But now we have one … starring Keanu Reeves, no less. And seemingly reimagined, with all sorts of supernatural goings-on.

I think we should reimagine the Declaration of Independence, while we’re at it. And maybe the signing of the Magna Carta.

Yes, it’s a famous story, and famous stories deserve to be retold. But we’ve already had perfectly good movies made of this tale, helmed by directors ranging from Kenji Mizoguchi to Hiroshi Inagaki. Do we really need another version—especially one that appears to meld the stylized grotesquerie of 300 with the tiresome posturing of The Matrix?

Someone please give me a nice Zeami Noh play to immerse my brain in.

Hollywood has always tweaked history to make it more cinematically palatable. Movies have to be entertainment, and that sometimes means the events transpiring onscreen don’t quite match those in real life. Yet there’s a distressing trend nowadays to completely overhaul venerated stories from our past while adding extraneous details—such as over-the-top violence—to get the desired audience.

The point is being missed. And as that’s happening, the films lose their value.

A strong director can help make this bitter medicine go down. Quentin Tarantino certainly worked wonders with Inglourious Basterds, as flawed as that movie was. But these films are cinematic fantasies, merely “inspired by” rather than “informed by,” and any attention to historical detail, I feel, is irrelevant. They’re to authenticity as reality TV shows are to life.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a based-on-true-events film come out without the trappings of revisionism. Perhaps we need a story so hallowed that any adjustments would be taboo.

I can’t think of any, however. I already know nothing’s sacred.

Skip’s Quips: ‘Tis the Season for ‘Kwaidan’

Blog Sketch 082813Those seeking atmosphere in their films this Halloween over the standard weapon-wielding-maniac-goes-amok choices would do well to consider watching Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s colorful, eerie anthology of Japanese ghost stories. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of supernatural tales, this 1964 masterpiece is one of a kind, with gorgeous painted backdrops, stylized performances and pointed commentary on human foibles.

No, it’s not your everyday Halloween fare. But Halloween doesn’t come every day, anyway, so why not try it?

Personally, I find the film one of the most beautiful ever made, with stunning cinematography, bizarre landscapes (check out the eyes looking out at humanity from the sky in the second story), a creepy, minimalist score by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, and one of the best battle scenes ever put on film, a brilliantly photographed sea contest fought by doomed samurai in the movie’s centerpiece, the tale of Hoichi the Earless.

I’m not gonna reveal the derivation of the latter story’s title, but you can rest assured it’s completely warranted.

Bear in mind this flick isn’t as traditionally scary as, say, John Carpenter’s original Halloween or Jacques Tourneur’s terrific evil-on-the-loose film Curse of the Demon. Kwaidan makes up for those issues, however, with a disturbing, ominous tone and an otherworldly feel only achieved by the greatest ghost stories. It’s also from first-rate source material; you may want to grab the book for more after viewing the film, in which case you’ll encounter tales of people without faces, priests who battle bodyless ghouls, and other subjects.

Check Kwaidan out. It’s not very well known, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t memorable. Halloween probably won’t be the same to you afterward.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: They’re Mumbling at You, Barbra!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613You know, you don’t have to wait for Halloween to watch a scary movie.

I did it last night, turning out the lights to savor George Romero’s 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead on TCM.

All right, I didn’t exactly savor it. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece. In fact, much of it is pretty silly—especially the eponymous undeadsters, whose knock-kneed, reach-out-and-grasp-someone attacks and circle-eyed makeup are barely more frightening than the jocular denizens of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

So why, then, do I still find this movie effective?

Well, the script’s tight, the camerawork’s claustrophobic, and the direction’s economical. But last night, I noticed a huge asset that hadn’t been clear to me before.

Its sound. Its muffled, low-tech sound.

Those hungry zombies chomping so zestfully on the purported pieces of people make a lot of subdued noise. And when they try to grab folks through the doors and the windows, you hardly hear any crashing. You do, however, hear a lot of natural-esque sound, of bumping, scratching, brushing and rustling.

And that’s what’s so effective. It’s rarely loud, with minimal (though requisite for the genre) screaming—making its impact all the more powerful. It feels real, despite the ludicrous premise and sometimes-amateurish acting. The sound makes the difference.

Few other horror movies take sound so seriously. Kwaidan is one, with its minimalist, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu. If horror these days is to remain fresh, it should take a frame out of these fearful reels. Loud smashes and bangs don’t always spark cinematic fright. But a softer, more judiciously used soundscape can—and, in turn, create an eerie atmosphere worthy of pre-Halloween watching.

In that light, I’m happy I turned up the volume on Night of the Living Dead.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: A Modest Small-Screen Proposal

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Any reason why we can’t have the all-Kurosawa channel?

We have action on demand. Drama on call.

Well, I want to snap my fingers and have The Seven Samurai appear on my TV instantly.

I get hankerings all the time for this glorious, seminal movie. And it seems to be rarely on. When it is, it’s often at a time when I’m not available–like at three in the morning or 18 billion, trillion o’clock in the afternoon.

Why don’t I just get the DVD and stop complaining? OK, I’ll tell you. There’s something really organic about turning on the telly and finding a movie you like. It’s satisfying.

Satisfying in the way that getting up to put a DVD in the player isn’t.

Fine, I’m lazy. But it doesn’t change the fact that I adore this Kurosawa classic. Which means I also scoff at the 1960 American remake, a poor imitation that removes the vital class distinctions pervading the original (samurai versus farmers) while adding more guns–weapons that make such a difference in its Japanese progenitor–and subtracting most of the character development.

If I could have The Seven Samurai broadcast to my brain personally on a 24-hour basis, I’d do it.

An all-Kurosawa channel, admittedly, might not make financial sense. But maybe … an all-jidai geki station? Bring me the popcorn.

I know I wouldn’t be the only audience member.