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.

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.

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.

Skip’s Quips: Top Little-Known Scores That Make Their Movies Sing

Sometimes I read my colleague Setter’s movie reviews and think: “This dude’s truly Mr. Overanalysis.”

But his last post on film scores made me wonder if I take movie music for granted. It’s so ingrained in our cinema lexicon that we almost start when watching a flick without it.

I look at a score as a flavor enhancer–like salt or pepper. A bit too much, and a movie’s unpalatable. Too little, and it feels like you’re missing something.

Just the right amount, however, and you’ve got a tasty meal. And it could be one you never thought you’d like.

The following is a short list of unsung films that are bolstered greatly by their sumptuous scores…and wouldn’t have been first choice for my cinema viewing otherwise. (Order not included.)

Far from the Madding Crowd

Cartouche

Odd Man Out

Watership Down

Kwaidan

The Devil and Daniel Webster

Time Bandits

I Know Where I’m Going!

A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven