Movie Essentials: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.

Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.

Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.

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Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.

The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).

Toshiro Mifune The Seven Samurai

The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.

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One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.

At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.

The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.

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‘Dunkirk’ a non-stop adventure

From the first frame of “Dunkirk”, the action doesn’t stop until the film’s conclusion. Just under two hours long, the film is a breathtaking war story that never lets its foot off the gas pedal.

400,000 soldiers are stranded off the coast of France in Dunkirk, their home of England visible just over the channel, but they can’t get there. German planes are picking them off on flybys and the enemy army is steadily advancing in on them. The film follows three sets of characters; one set on land, led by young Tommy (Fion Whitehead) trying to survive on the beach, one in the air, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) trying to protect the troops on the ground from German aircraft, and one coming in from the sea, a commercial yacht piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), tasked with trying to rescue the troops. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) on the beach overlooks the entire operation with despair and yet a slim ray of hope; perhaps rescue will come from home.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a tale of tension rather than carnage. It is rated PG-13 so the blood and massacre of other war films is not as omnipresent or visual. This is rather a story of avoiding that horror.

Time plays a central element in the narrative, always seemingly ticking in the background. The time of the incoming tide, characters constantly checking their watches, Farrier’s declining fuel supply in his fighter jet; all tick by over the course of the story. This ratchets up the tension as we clock down to the possible annihilation of our heroes.

The film really puts you in the situation. Through the wide and precise cinematography and deafening sound (it may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen), the war and dread come to life. Everything in the film appears shockingly real. Though we know there are visual effects, they are hard to point out in comparison to so many other films who blatantly use CGI, but in a way that points to the effect being man made.

The story is relatively simple, and there are seemingly barely 50 lines of dialogue in the whole film. It is really more about story told through action, and the film keeps going at full-speed the entire time, barely letting the audience catch their breath. This is both well-done and a bit overdone.

The film is not so much about war, but about determination, representative of the defiant British spirit. It is a story of perseverance in the face of slim odds, told in grand yet intimate scale. The three different storylines intersect at the conclusion in a grand rescue that gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

‘The Girl on the Train’ a boring rehash of other’s ideas

You may initially be confused by the title of “The Girl on the Train” in thinking that it is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or perhaps “Gone Girl.” That is intentional as “The Girl on the Train” is really just an imitation of both of those projects.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) takes the train to work in New York everyday. It passes by her old house where her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), lives with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their new baby. Next to them live Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). She sees something shocking one day and the next morning she wakes up with bruises and no memory of her previous night. And no one can find Megan.

The story is told in confusing fashion, leading the viewer not to trust Rachel. Without a firm character to latch onto emotionally, the plot is rather aimless, the audience not really caring personally about the mystery. And as the mystery is revealed, it generates a meh response for being pretty obvious and unoriginal.

The thing that keeps the film somewhat strong is Emily Blunt’s performance. She’s great in the lead role, showcasing insanity, uncertainty and shame. It’s a shame it’s pretty much wasted in this film.

The film and book it is based off really just feel as if they are trying to capitalize on the woman-mystery craze typified with “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With…” series. Crafting new stories into the genre is not in itself a poor choice, but you have to have a strong narrative to tell and “The Girl on the Train” simply doesn’t. It’s a half-baked concept with semi-decent execution.

‘The Keepers’ a haunting series

Netflix’s “The Keepers” is a harrowing look into abuse, crime and corruption and how it still permeates to the present day.

Sister Cathy Cesnik was murdered in 1970. For years, people assumed it was simply a case of wrong place, wrong time, but her students at Archbishop Keough High School began coming forward with startling allegations: Father Joseph Maskell at the school was habitually molesting students.

Now, confronting an ever-escalating truth, the survivors Maskell’s abuse tackle the central question: Did Sister Cathy know about the abuse and is that the reason for her death?

The documentary series brilliantly captures the independent investigation of Sister Cathy’s former students as they look into the circumstances surrounding her murder. Told in interviews and partial recreations, the series is able to put the viewer right in the middle of the story, a discomforting space to be sure.

The series asks important questions about what the church knew in regards to the abuse and the potential coverup that transpired, not only with the church, but the government itself. The series has a very straightforward viewpoint so partiality may be somewhat of an issue, but it is hard to find justification for the issues the filmmakers present.

Covering a murder nearly fifty years old, a central tenet of the story is the idea of memory. Are the repressed memories of the survivors reliable? What of the memories of people who knew Sister Cathy? Are people knowingly lying or have their memories simply faded over time? It’s an interesting examination.

“The Keepers” is not an easy watch, but a fascinating one. Real-life murder investigations always appeal to the sleuth in all of us, but the added weight of history and the pain of abuse puts “The Keepers” a notch above most.

‘Deadpool’ proves not all superhero films have to be the same

With superhero films flooding the marketplace, it was only a matter of time before someone made the anti-superhero film, a movie that takes all the signature tropes of the genre, presents them to the audience and then, almost literally, takes a steaming dump on them. That movie is “Deadpool.”

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who falls in love with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he volunteers for an experimental procedure run by a madman, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The procedure mutates his appearance, cures his cancer and gives him instant healing ability, but Ajax intends to use Wade as a slave. He escapes, but is horribly disfigured. This pushes him to don a mask and become the “superhero” Deadpool.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, it is hard to picture anyone else other than Ryan Reynolds as the titular character. He inhabits the role of the snarky, wise-cracking hero with ease, simply becoming the character that fans have envisioned for years.

The violence is extreme, the language and innuendo filthy, and there are so many inside jokes about the genre that some might go right over the casual moviegoers head, but it all works because of the lighthearted tone and the charismatic lead. It is a near-perfect blend of Hollywood glamour meets counter-culture, a big-screen extravaganza that appeals to the disillusioned outsider in all of us. While it is not ground-breaking or terribly original in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun and serves as a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the more droll and serious fare of superhero films (*cough* Batman v Superman *cough*).

‘The Martian’ a refreshing science tale

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” tells the tale of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut presumed dead and left behind by his crew on the planet Mars after a sudden storm. Only Mark is still very much alive. Tasked with surviving the harsh Martian climate while trying to contact Earth for a rescue mission, Mark uses every scientific tool at his disposal, from creating fertile soil to digging up an old rover to connect with NASA.

“The Martian” feels like the third of a series of resurgent films on space, with “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014) coming before it. In comparison to those earlier films, “The Martian” is the lightest, filled more with the hope of success and scientific wonder than with pontificating on etherealism. So in that way, “The Martian” is more of a good-old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, enjoyable but somewhat more forgettable than “Gravity” or “Interstellar”.

Damon is very good in the title role, narrating what he is doing to a computer screen for record keeping and the rest of cast, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Michael Peña, are also solid.

What the film does have going for it is a contagious adoration of science. As Mark uses every single item at his disposal to make himself food, transportation and communication, the viewer is tickled to see so many science experiments come to life. In a way, it is the most exciting science fair put to screen, a film Bill Nye himself would stamp with approval.

What’s missing is a personal tug of emotion with Damon’s character. There’s no lover awaiting him on Earth or daughter without a father. His background is not examined and that is a missed opportunity to establish an audience connection, something that really makes you pull for him to get off Mars.

While some will consider the film just a version of “Cast Away” (1999) in space, there is a lot of technique and charm in Scott’s direction of the film. It is a thrilling, if light, ride.

‘Despicable Me 3’ is harmlessly forgettable

The premise of the “Despicable Me” franchise is fairly straightforward: A supervillain adopts three girls and learns how to be a father. That is the first film, and the story is told very well. The problem for the franchise is how do you build upon that concept in successive films. And the filmmakers don’t really have an answer to that conundrum.

“Despicable Me 3” features a returning Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). When the newest villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) appears on the scene, the two brothers work together to bring him down for different reasons. Also returning are Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) as well as Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig).

The problem with the film is that it never endeavors to advance the characters in any meaningful way. Since Gru has become a father, he has never been tested internally. Dru is a pointless distraction to the supposed real heart of the franchise: Gru learning to be a father and part of a family.

With Lucy in the fold now, there are plenty of opportunities for storylines involving the family: Perhaps Margo is a teenager now and is tempted by the life of villainy her father aspired to and her mother despises. Maybe Edith gets into trouble at school and Gru has to help her confront her issues. Perhaps Agnes is kidnapped by an evil unicorn. The girls and their relationship with Gru are never really explored and that leaves Gru distant from the emotional stakes in the film. They should be at the heart of the story.

The minions, thankfully, are kept to a minimum in screentime and story purpose. After their awful standalone film, the filmmakers have realized that their appeal (what’s left of it) is best situated to short bursts (at least until their film has a sequel).

There are a few chuckles in the film, but nothing all that memorable, which can be said for everything as a whole. Balthazar adds some good bits and the film is lighthearted and endearing at moments, but the story and gags lack originality. This is the fourth go around for the franchise and things are stale. There are only so many minion jokes.

“Despicable Me 3” is by no means a terrible film. It’s just an unmemorable one. The filmmakers have worn out their original concept and don’t know where else to go with the franchise. In this case, perhaps that means moving on to a new story.

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