Sunday, January 24, 2016
(December 1951, U.S.)
...and we return you now to the world of Akira Kurosawa and what is easily the best film of his career, in my opinion. It's best known for a plot device that involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, and as a result of the film, inevitably derived the real life term known as the "rashomon effect". For the film's story, the conflicting accounts are of a rape and a murder by the hands of a notorious bandit. Even as the film opens, we're immediately made aware of a "strange story" as it will be told not by those who testified of its events at a local court tribune, but rather those few, including a local woodcutter and a priest, who were sitting in the background of the proceedings and who are now thrown together sitting beneath the Rajōmon city gate trying to stay dry during a torrential downpour. One must truly experience the film to fully appreciate the visual impact of the ongoing hard rain in this film, but here's a quick shot anyway to give you an idea of what I'm talking about...
And while RASHOMON is not necessarily a very complicated story, it does require the patience and close attention so as to effectively keep up with and understand each person's version of what happened on that fateful day in the forest.
And so, here it goes...
According to the bandit known as Tajōmaru , he claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him, where he then tied the man to a tree and then brought the man's wife there to witness what he'd done to him. She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually seduced by the great bandit. The wife, filled with shame, begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the shame of having both men know her dishonor. Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him, where they fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end the bandit was victorious and the wife ran away from him.
According to the wife known as Machiko, she claims that Tajōmaru left after raping her. She begged her samurai husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her with cold, loathing eyes. She freed and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace from her shame, but he continued to stare at her with total unforgiveness. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with her dagger in hand. She awoke later to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. Presuming she had committed this murder, she attempted to kill herself, but failed.
(you following all of this so far?)
According to the samurai known as Masayuki (WAIT! According to the samurai?? He's supposed to be DEAD!), well, really, according to the spirit of the samurai as translated through a rather freaky looking and sounding medium, he claims that the bandit Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to run away with him. She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the shame of belonging to both men. Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her. Interestingly, his immediate reply is, "For these words alone, I was ready to pardon his crime." The wife fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his wife's dagger, which was then later removed from his chest by a stranger.
And finally, according to the woodcutter known as Kikori, he claims that he was actually there in the forest to witness the rape and murder, that the first three accounts are false and that he also chose not to get involved at the trial. According to his story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai's wife to marry him, but the wife instead freed her husband. The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for such a spoiled woman, but the wife then laughed and criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman's love. Spurring the men to fight one another, she then hid in fear once they raised swords against each other. The two of them appeared fearful of one another as they began fighting. Tajōmaru ultimately won through a stroke of pure luck. After some hesitation he killed the samurai, who begged for his life on the ground, and the wife fled in horror. Tajōmaru was unable to catch her, but took the samurai's sword and left the scene.
So, by the time all four stories are told to us, we're likely no closer to knowing or understanding the genuine truth of what happened in the forest as we were at the beginning of the film. Perhaps this is Kurosawa's deliberate intent, in that, right or wrong, truth is ultimately dependent on one's own point of view. Honestly, we're not given the opportunity for such a resolution of the truth before Kurosawa has turned the tables of his message on us in the form of an abandoned baby beneath the same city gate the men have sitting under. Through this baby, we are suddenly confronted with the very existence of man's own moral dilemas and his very capacity for good and evil. Up until now, we are meant to believe, as maybe does Kurosawa, as well, that man is cold and lacks any faith in its own humanity. But even as it seems the film may close with this negative message bestowed upon us, the tables are turned (again) to the better side of life's beliefs when the woodcutter offers to take the baby and raise him as his own, not only restoring the priest's faith in mankind, but possibly our own, as well. As the film closes, the persistent hard rain has finally stopped and the clouds have opened, revealing the hopeful brightness of the sun in contrast to the beginning where the visual overcast of despair once reigned.
In closing with the description of the sun, it's important to note that one of RASHOMON'S key ingredients (if not, the one!) is the film's use of sun, light and darkness in its brilliant cinematography, which also manages to give the story and its characters a certain feeling of ambiguity. Sunlight may easily be interpreted as "good", while darkness may easily be interpreted as "bad", but it's also noteworthy to mention that there are specific camera shots of the sunlight just before the wife's acts of betrayal against her husband when deciding to run away with the bandit. Does this make her "bad", or merely fickle by her own impulses, as too many people are in real life? Who can say? We only have our real life experiences and dramas to compare with what art cinema chooses to give us.
RASHOMON is, without question, classic black and white art house cinema at its best! Were I to take the time to find any fault with this film, I would have to say it's minor flaws in performance where we are endlessly subjected to the irritating, maniacal laughing of Tajōmaru (played by Toshiro Mifune), as well as the childish crying by the wife Machiko (played by Machiko Kyō), which I honestly can't tell if they're genuine or fake tears. Either way, they're annoying as hell! Oh, well...small price to pay for cinematic genius, which we have so little of by today's Hollywood standards!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Commoner: "It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
(November 1996, U.S.)
The last time I watched Ron Howard's RANSOM (a loose remake of a 1956 film of the same name) would have likely been when I originally bought the DVD about ten years ago or more...and I was not a father yet. Now my own son is the same age as Mel Gibson's son in the film and the idea of watching a terrifying story of a kidnapped child and the frantic parents who try to get him back left me quite uneasy, to say the least. Truth be told, I put off watching the film longer than I should have because I couldn't sum up the emotional courage to put myself through such a story. Well, I can happily say I finally bucked up and, honestly, it wasn't as bad as all that, though there were some painful moments when I thought my eyes would well up. Hey, you fathers out there know what the hell I'm talking about!
So now let's take a trip back in time to when Mel Gibson was still a credible screen actor who hadn't yet begun shooting off his big mouth and gotten himself into a whole lotta hot water with the media. Action hero aside, Mel has proven (more than once) that he can play a solid father figure with all the emotional drama that goes with such a role. As multi-millionaire Tom Mullen, he has all the wealth, privilege and personal safety one could hope for...or so it would seem. Tom also has secrets that include corruption and bribery. His public reputation for payoffs are what ultimately inspire a group of kidnappers to take and hold his son for a two million dollar ransom. From here on, the film follows what one would consider to be the basic formula for any sort of kidnapping crime drama; the FBI, the monitored phone calls, the scrambled traces, ransom delivery instructions and even a botched attempt at making the transaction go smoothly and without incident. What RANSOM delivers that we were not expecting is first, the early revelation that the mastermind behind the kidnapping is also a New York City detective, Jimmy Shaker (played by Gary Sinise), whom, in a serious moment while tailing Tom by car through the streets of New York City, compares his actions and his feelings to the Eloi and the Morlocks in George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960), in which the evil underground dwellers (like Skaker) occasionally riser from the depths and snatch a member of the privileged (like Mullen). Not that that could ever justify kidnapping a child, but you almost believe Shaker's genuine reasoning for committing this crime (almost). Second, and this is hardly a surprise if you've already seen the trailer for this film, is the new plan of action of Tom's that completely turn the tables on the one who took his son by going on television and announcing that the two million dollars that would have been used for the ransom payment has now become a bounty for the kidnapper, dead or alive. Now the only way the kidnappers will save themselves is to return his son unharmed, in which case he'll withdraw the bounty and drop all charges. You can almost feel the tension of this scene, particularly when you're staring at all that cash on the table in front of Gibson...
From this point, the viewer will suddenly find themselves asking the question of what they would do. As a loving parent, one would die and kill for their child. And yet there's that ugly, vengeful side of us that would bring the reign of Hell down on those who would dare to hurt our children (just last summer I found myself shouting uncontrollably at my next door neighbors for indirectly harassing my son - I just snapped!). Right or wrong, I can't help but practically stand up and cheer when Gibson turns it all around and forces the kidnappers to fear him and what he can do to them. By the film's conclusion, Shaker realizes that he's going to lose and uses his position as a detective to kill his accomplices and make it appear as if he rescued Tom's son. And although the real climax of the film is still yet to come after that, I found myself rather satisfied with the uncanny sense of irony that the kidnapper, despite not getting his money, would actually get away with his actions by setting up an alternate scenario. Well, I suppose one's personal cinematic wants and desires can't compete with the formulaic rules of the traditional crime thriller.
Despite solid performances by a great supporting cast that include Rene Russo as Tom's wife (Gibson and Russo reunited after LETHAL WEAPON 3) and Delroy Lindo as the FBI agent working with them, this is a film truly carried by Gibson and Sinise as two men going head-to-head with each other as they each try to think their way out of a game being played with deadly stakes. RANSOM is a remake that outdoes the Glen Ford original in both performance and excitement...and how often can anyone claim that a remake is better than an original? Not too often.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tom Mullen (on live TV): "The whole world now knows...my son, Sean Mullen, was kidnapped, for ransom, three days ago. This is a recent photograph of him. Sean, if you're watching, we love you. And this...well, this is what waits for the man that took him. This is your ransom. Two million dollars in unmarked bills, just like you wanted. But this is as close as you'll ever get to it. You'll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I'm offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. So congratulations, you've just become a two million dollar lottery ticket...except the odds are much, much better. Do you know anyone that wouldn't turn you in for two million dollars? I don't think you do. I doubt it. So wherever you go and whatever you do, this money will be tracking you down for all time. And to ensure that it does, to keep interest alive, I'm running a full-page ad in every major newspaper every Sunday, for as long as it takes. But...and this is your last chance...you return my son, alive, uninjured, I'll withdraw the bounty. With any luck you can simply disappear. Understand...you will never see this money. Not one dollar. So you still have a chance to do the right thing. If you don't, well, then, God be with you, because nobody else on this Earth will be."
Yeah!!! You go, Mel!!!
Sunday, January 17, 2016
(December 1942, U.S.)
Hey, it looks like I'm finally out of the '80s! Seriously, for just over a month now, from RAGING BULL to RAN, every film I've posted has been from the 1980s. Well, now I can finally get back to a good 'ol black and white classic from the Golden Age of cinema (which exact decade that actually was has always been a debatable point, but for my own tastes, I tend to go with the 1940s). RANDOM HARVEST is one of those classic love stories that's been shown on Turner Classic Movies many times, though I never had the opportunity to give it a look. What finally peaked my interest was reading one of those many "best films" books written by countless film critics and historians (sorry - I just can't recall the book or the author at this time - I've read that many!). Anyway, for the period of the 1940s, this author painted such a wonderful, intriguing picture of RANDOM HARVEST, that I simply couldn't resist satisfying my curiosity. The result was I saw it, I loved it, I bought the DVD and here we are today!
The film is rather unique not only in its tale of undying, uncompromising love, but also its relationship to amnesia and its ultimate effects and consequences. When we meet World War I British officer "John Smith" (played by Ronald Colman), he's a man committed to an asylum from the shell shock effects of battle in the trenches. He's a lost man with no memory of his past and is also struggling with his speech. At the war's end, the jubilation in the nearby streets allows him to simply slip out of the asylum (dressed in full military uniform) without being stopped. In town, he is befriended by the sympathetic (and blissfully happy) cabaret singer Paula (played by Greer Garson). She guesses that he's from the asylum but as he seems to be harmless, she arranges for him to join her travelling theatrical group. Instead of that, though, the two of them end up running off together and inevitably find solitude in a secluded country village, where they fall in love, marry and have a baby. Sounds like the happy ending to it all, doesn't it? Not quite. This is where things are about to twist and get seriously complicated. On one fateful day in November, during a brief trip to Liverpool on a rainy day, John Smith or "Smithy", as Paula calls him, is struck by a car and manages to miraculously retain his past memory and past life before his stay at the asylum. No longer John Smith, Charles Rainier, a rich industrialist of high end social status, no longer has any memory or knowledge of his life of love and happiness with Paula. Perhaps this doesn't sound so spectacularly interesting to many of my readers, but one needs to take a moment and seriously consider the ironic implications of a simple man unknowingly experiencing two lives and all the people that are involved it them. From here on, the film appears to move forward by showing us not only Charles' recovery, but also his possible future as not only a man of purpose and importance in his business and community, but also a man who will have a future with another woman (a woman less than half his age, I might add!). As we watch his progression over the years, we're likely meant to almost completely forget Paula's existence in his life and in the film. Suddenly, though, out of the blue, we're introduced (years later) to Charles' highly efficient and devoted secretary Margaret, who is actually...(guessed it yet?)...Paula, who managed to track down her long lost mysterious husband and is posing as his secretary with the hope that her daily presence in his life will somehow and someday spark the necessary memory in his rather messed up brain to finally reunite them in the blissful happiness and love they once shared together. Well, what can I say...cliché and predictability demand that these two lost lovers find each other again by the end of the film. They do, and despite our best and hardest resistance, we can't help but fall into a mushy sort of heartfelt swoon when it finally does happen in front of the country cottage they once shared together and she cries, "Smithy!" and he cries "Paula!". When they rush into each other's arms and the camera focuses on Garson joyous face looking up at the sky, thanking her almighty stars that she has her man back again, I defy you not to feel a sort of sappy, sentimental "Awwwwww!" You see, this is what real, true love (not to be confused with silly romantic comedy love!) does not only to a film, but to the viewer that allows themselves to be swept away by it.
Love stories are relatively simple screen products, in my opinion. You either go for them or you don't. With RANDOM HARVEST, you have to ask yourself if you're willing to stay interested in a man's amnesia for two hours. It's a challenging notion, yet Ronald Colman's performance manages to pull it off in that you continue to ask yourself what may or may not happen next in his life, particularly when Paula shows up again. I won't actually call it suspense, but it can keep you guessing. The film can be emotionally excessive at times, but then again, isn't all true love in the movies excessive to a degree? The wonderfully charming performances of Colman and Garson make up for that and in the end, the viewer can't help but get the feeling they've been under a pleasant magic spell in front of the screen. Sometimes that spell is just what we need for two hours of our lives. That, my friends, is what movies can do to us...if we let them!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Smithy: "Isn't there something morbid in burying one's heart with the dead?"
Paula: "That's a strange thing for you to say. Your capacity for loving, your joy in living, is buried in a little space of time you've forgotten."
Smithy: "In some vague way, I still have..."
Smithy: "Yes, I suppose that's it."
Paula: "Have you, Charles? Do you feel that there...really is someone? That someday you may find her? You may have...come so near her, may even have brushed her on the street. You might even have met her, Charles. Met her and not known her. It might be someone you know, Charles. It might...it might even be me."
Sunday, January 10, 2016
(December 1985, U.S.)
Happy New Year, people!
Perhaps some of you have noticed that it's been a couple of weeks since I've posted anything. I'll be completely honest with you...I needed a little time to motivate myself to sit down and watch Akira Kurosawa's RAN. Don't get me wrong - it's a great film, but it requires time, patience and concentration to really take it all in and fully appreciate it's cinematic worth and value. Lately, I seem to have devoted my moviegoing time to lighter fare, which has included the new STAR WARS movie (twice!), a full day of the Honeymooners marathon on New Year's Day, watching Disney's INSIDE OUT twice (and loving it!) and finally, some classic DVD episodes of STAR TREK and ALL IN THE FAMILY. You see, sometimes my brain just a needs a little break from the highly intelligent aspects of film...but hey, at least I'm not sinking so low as to watch reality TV!
RAN, a partial re-telling of Shakespeare's tragedy KING LEAR, was Kurosawa's last epic film and one of very powerful images and use of color, as it tells the story of the powerful Japanese warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), who at a time of showing significant age, decides to consolidate and divide his great kingdom among his three sons. As it would likely be predicted, this sort of paternal generosity breeds ambition, corruption and greed among the three brothers to the point where each of them, in turn, have betrayed their own father. Meanwhile, the wife of the oldest son (Taro) is secretly plotting her own revenge against Hidetora for massacring her family following her marriage to Taro. By her own diabolical scheming, she's managed to corrupt her husband into further acts of deception and betrayal (definitely some classic Shakespeare elements taking place here!). Inevitably, war and bloody battle take place and this is where Kurosawa's genius behind the camera becomes most prominent. Truth be told, as brilliant a film maker as Kurosawa was, I never held very much stock is his stories and plot lines (RASHOMON the exception). To truly experience Kurosawa is to allow one's self to dive into the visual journey of his films. Case in point for RAN, there is a lengthy battle sequence in which there's no dialogue, screaming or otherwise sounds of action and violence. The sequence is accompanied only by some soft, rather ethereal music that gives the viewer the impression of being lost in a surrealistic dream state. The battle is still violent and bloody (actually, the blood in these sequences looks rather fake, like the obvious color of red paint. Perhaps it's intentional, I'm not sure), and yet there's something almost unmistakably beautiful about all of it. Equally beautiful are scenes and moments of serenity filmed in large fields of wilderness where many of the film's characters are given the chance to contemplate the meaning of their lives, their purposes in this world and even the fear of their own death. When we walk away from RAN, we're likely to take with us just the images of great beauty and violence and how they're projected before our senses. And yet, despite whatever weaknesses their may be in the story or that it's merely just an adaptation of a previous great work, we can't avoid the contemplation and meaning behind a very corrupt family in which a good and righteous man is faced with the reality of having three very bad sons.
If you've seen enough of Kurosawa's films, you'll perhaps recognize certain repetitive features; not only in the film making style itself, but also in the conventional acting techniques of the cast. Perhaps the central theme of RAN is simply pure chaos. As a film making technique, many sequences of chaos and terror are often preceded by shots of thick, cumulonimbus clouds making their way toward the village, which inevitably break into the raging storm of battle. Throughout the chaos, many of the characters find themselves searching for signs of peace through God or Buddha, which ultimately never reveal themselves, even by the film's end. As is typical Shakespeare, nearly everyone in the film is dead at the end and we're left with little hope or signs of an optimistic future.
Although most of my experience with Kurosawa has been with his black and white films, RAN remains, nonetheless, a glorious achievement in cinematography, storytelling (well, adapted storytelling) and use of color. It's one of the best foreign subtitled films of the 1980s, in my opinion, and one I wish I'd seen on the big screen. Actually, I had my opportunity to see this film on screen when it was first released and played at the local movie theater across the street from my dorm building in Buffalo, New York. Unfortunately, I was still young and cinematically immature and my idea of a great movie was still the latest bullshit sequel or mindless comedy. Thank goodness, I grew up (well...eventually...sort of.). I can thank my employer from twenty years ago (thanks, Steve!) for turning me onto RAN when it would play (almost) continuously on the Bravo channel, when they still referred to themselves as "the film and arts network", unlike the pathetic "real housewives" network that they are today!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Hidetora Ichimonji: "What madness have I spoken? Wherein lies my senility?"
Saburo Ichimonji: "I'll tell you! What kind of world do we live in? One barren of loyalty and feeling!"
Hidetora: "I'm aware of that."
Saburo: "So you should be! You spilled an ocean of blood! You showed no mercy, no pity. We too are children of this age...weaned on strife and chaos! We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity! In my eyes, that makes you a fool! A senile old fool!"