Thursday, April 28, 2016

RASHOMON (1950, JAPAN), IKIRU (1952, JAPAN), THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954, JAPAN), DERSU UZALA (1974, RUSSIA)

The Seven Samurai
I had never seen an Akira Kurosawa movie until about fifteen years ago when I decided to finally pick up a copy of The Seven Samurai from the Criterion Collection. And after my viewing, I have to admit I was blown away. It's definitely on the short list of greatest films of all-time by any definition. 

It's the story of seven samurai warriors hired by villagers to save their village from the onslaught of oncoming bandits. It's great as an adventure film, a philosophical treatise of good vs. evil, right and wrong and there are so many stories within the film's many characters, that one can watch it many times and always get something new out of it. I liked it watching it for the third or fourth time this time out and hope not to wait so long before watching it again.

The Seven Samurai was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven, but that film pales when put up against the original in my opinion.

Rashomon
After that first time I watched The Seven Samurai, I felt compelled to watch other Kurosawa movies and thought Rashomon was a good place to continue. Rashomon is a film whose very title has become a part of our language when a situation arises that involves competing and contradictory points of view. The presentation of this drama with its four (maybe five) stories really is food for thought about how we perceive things. If anyone asks me where to start with Kurosawa movies, I'd probably recommend Rashomon first before jumping into The Seven Samurai.

Ikiru
Ikiru is a story that seems to look better the older you get. The plot involves a by-the-book office manager who finds out he has only a few months to live and decides to do something meaningful with his life. It doesn't sound all that exciting by the description, but it is in an emotionally charged and inspirational film if you are in the right mood for it. The unusual storytelling order with the last half of the movie being told in flashback is another effective touch.

I've watched many other Kurosawa films doing his great period between the late 40's and mid 60's, including: Druken Angel, The Idiot (based on the Dostoevsky story), Throne of Blood (A variation of Macbeth), The Hidden Fortress (One of the inspirations for Star Wars), The Bad Sleep Well (which contains elements of Hamlet), High and Low (a very effective crime story), The Lower Depths (based on Maxim Gorky's story),  Yojimbo (Samurai film remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars), Sanjuro (the sequel to Yojimbo) and Red Beard.

This is quite an impressive list of films and compares to the prominent works of Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman that they made during roughly the same time period.

It's also interesting to see Kurosawa's acting stock company in all of these films, all starring Toshiro Mifune (With the exception of Ikiru.)

Dersu Uzala
Completing the movies from the Kurosawa 1001 list, Dersu Uzala is a film Kurosawa made in 1975 in Russia and is about an early 20th century tribesman who becomes a frequent guide over time for a band on explorers. There is a lot of peril that the tribesman has to find to get the guys out of and they come to respect and revere him over time. The saddest moment in the film is towards the end when the tribesman tries to live in the city, but can't adjust to these strange people that live "in a box." This is a good film, but I can't say I liked it as much as some of the director's classics from the 50's and 60's.

I've already seen Kurosawa's Ran, and this 1985 Samurai version of King Lear seems to be the one film by consensus of his later films that rate as highly as his older classics.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960, FRANCE), JULES AND JIM (1962, FRANCE), FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)


Jules and Jim

Now that I've seen all the Truffaut movies on the 1001 list, I'm trying to decide what I think of his catalog. There's not a bad film in the bunch, but I can't say I'm totally in love with his films either. But as I think about it, there really may be more to them than meets the eye. Jules and Jim is about an unusual love triangle that is really hard to describe but probably has a lot to say about the complexities of human interaction, desire and love without giving us any easy answers or an ending that has any kind of happy resolution.

Shoot the Piano Player
Shoot the Piano Player is probably my favorite Truffaut film. I like the homage to Hollywood gangster movies and also like the plight of the concert piano player who runs away from success after a tragedy to work in a dive and has lots of internal and external struggles. The movie also has a subtle sense of humor that I appreciated.

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 isn't on the 1001 list and isn't really a typical Truffaut film either. It is a Hollywood film based on the famous Ray Bradbury book about a future where books are outlawed and firemen start fires instead of put them out. Despite this, I still liked the way Truffaut presented the story even if the original book doesn't lend itself to easy cinematic interpretation. 

I've finished with the Truffaut films on the 1001 list, but I don't think I'm finished going through old Truffaut films. I guess that's a good sign.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

COOL HAND LUKE (1967), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)

1967

 

The true movie "rebel without a cause" during that hectic year of 1967 didn't resemble a hippie peacenik or a protest singer, but instead resembled Hollywood's top leading man of the era, Paul Newman. Newman plays Luke, a man sent to a prison camp where his anti-establishment ways slowly make him a hero with his fellow inmates. 

Cool Hand Luke is set in the 50's, but the mentality is pure 60's "not taking it from the man" and uses the overused but appropriate symbol of Luke as a Christ figure. 

I think the film dates pretty well, with many memorable scenes and one of the all-time great movie quotes when prison warden Strother Martin clubs Newman into a hole and states, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

Argnetine composer Lalo Schifrin supplied Cool Hand Luke's famous score.



If you had asked me what the greatest movie of all-time in 1967, I would have said The Jungle Book. I was four at the time and I was just mesmerized by the jungle adventures of Mowgli and friends. I hadn't seen it in years all the way through before watching it again. I honestly can't be subjective when it comes to this one. I still love Baloo the Bear and all the fun in the jungle. And how can you beat the voice work of George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, Sebastian Cabot and Phil Harris? The movie soundtrack features songs by The Sherman Brothers with The Bear Necessities being the most famous of the bunch.

Note: I know there is a forthcoming live-action version of The Jungle Book. I have reservations, but admit to really liking the idea of Bill Murray as Baloo the bear.

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Here are some non-1001 Movies from 1967 that I have seen. As I looked at this list of movies, I noticed that I kept coming up with musical connections of some kind to most of them. So I decided to see if I could come up with musical connections to all of them. The magic of YouTube makes this task a whole lot easier.

1. Casino Royale

The best thing about this in name only James Bond adaptation is the opening song by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass. The opening credits are pretty cool too. And the cast is an interesting assortment from Woody Allen to Orson Welles to Ursula Andress. Other than that, it's a real misfire.

2. To Sir, With Love



A sanitized, but still effective story of black teacher taming and inspiring a bunch of unruly British students. But the theme song by Lulu (who also plays a student) may be the thing one remembers most about this one.

3. Guide for the Married Man


A personal favorite of mine. A Guide for the Married Man is the story of a married man (Walter Matthau) who is prodded into having an affair by his best friend (Robert Morse)...Despite the fact that Matthau is already married to the beautiful Inger Stevens. Morse gives Matthau pointers that are illustrated in skits by many stars of the day (and previous days), with an especially funny segment featuring Terry-Thomas. The catchy theme song is from The Turtles.

4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying


Speaking of Robert Morse: It's been an awfully long time since I've seen the movie adaptation of the long running Broadway musical, but I do remember liking it. I've never seen it on stage...though I just saw an interesting clip of a relatively recent revival with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role.

4. Clambake/Double Trouble



I think I've seen both of these Elvis Presley movies, though the memories of them appear to be running together over time. Clambake at least has Jerry Reed's Guitar Man on the soundtrack and Shelley Fabres as Elvis's love interest in the movie. The Double Trouble soundtrack has Elvis's uptempo version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm...Isn't that enough?

5. The Ambushers/In Like Flint

This may be up for debate, but I believe the American spy Flint films starring James Coburn were superior to the rather cheesy Dean Martin Matt Helm spy films. The Ambushers (The Matt Helm one) does have a fairly catchy theme song from 60's songwriting stalwarts Boyce and Hart and a score from soundtrack stalwart Hugo Montenegro.


The In Like Flint soundtrack has the music of regular movie music composer Jerry Goldsmith and boasts a really groovy album cover.


6. Hurry Sundown


Montenegro also lent his talents to the Otto Preminger's universally panned Hurry Sundown. And the theme I found on YouTube didn't even have 100 views, but you know, it sounded quite majestic and grand to me! Probably more score than the movie deserved.

7. Fathom

Obviously the main attraction of the movie Fathom is watching Raquel Welch model a series of 60's bikinis and other assorted sexy outfits. She's stunning, no doubt. I remember the movie itself as not being too bad either and a definite upgrade from Raquel's One Million Years B. C. The soundtrack features John Dankworth and the cover shockingly features Raquel in a bikini!

8. It's a Bikini World


Speaking of bikinis, there were a few 60's beach movies that even Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello wouldn't appear in. The second string romantic beach duo in It's a Bikini World was Tommy Kirk of Old Yeller and Deborah Walley. There are interesting musical performers in the film, including The Gentrys, The Toys and The Animals performing their classic, We Gotta Get out of This Place!

9. The Ballad of Josie


When there were rumors of Doris Day appearing in the new Clint Eastwood movie, I thought "Hey, It's Josey Wales meets the Ballad of Josie!" Except hardly anyone remembers this later period Doris Day Western where the opening theme song pronounces The Ballad of Josie...A story to Remember...A pretty Girl...A sturdy girl...Made of solid tiiimmburrr. I will say the theme song is really the only thing I remember about this one. Movie gets some free points because I watched it with my mother as a kid.

10. The Born Losers


When the re-release of Billy Jack made B. J. a household name in the early 70's, Billy Jack's earlier movie The Born Losers, was also re-released at the same time. I saw them both, of course as it was a Billy Jack kind of time, ya know! The Born Losers soundtrack is a pretty rare collectible apparently,  and has a pretty cool cover of a girl on a motorcycle and the music within features a nice opening number from Mike Curb.

11. The Dirty Dozen


Lee Marvin leads twelve dead-heads into enemy territory on a World War II suicide mission. Appropriately rousing score by Devol and the soundtrack also features the song The Bramble Bush by the dozen's resident balladeer Trini Lopez!

12. Magical Mystery Tour

The Beatles ill-fated 1967 road trip is definitely a case of get the music and forget the film...unless you are a Beatle completest.  I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, Strawberry Field Forever, All You Need is Love, among others.

13. How I Won the War


I remember it was hard to watch this off-beat war movie because I saw it so soon after John Lennon's death in 1980. I do think John is the best thing in the film. There is an odd single from the movie that is credited to Musketeer Gripweed (Lennon's character) but doesn't appear to feature any input from Lennon whatsoever.

14. Don't Make Waves


Other than the bikini-clad Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate, the most memorable thing about this beach comedy is the title song by The Byrds and accompanying music by Vic Mizzy.

15. Good Times


Early Sonny and Cher soundtrack features a less commercial version of I Got You Babe. Interesting that future Exorcist and French Connection director William Friedkin was the director here, but I guess if you begin your career directing Cher, everything afterwards seems that much easier. And where's Sonny's mustache?

16. King Kong Escapes




Other than The Jungle Book and Doctor Doolittle, this is the only movie on this list that I actually saw during the year of release! I'm sure I would have given it a thumbs up if I had rated it at the time. The soundtrack does feature the majestic score from Japanese composing legend Akira Ifukube.

17. Doctor Doolittle




I'd have probably rated this only second to The Jungle Book as the greatest movie of all-time if you had asked me in 1967. I realize the movie has lots of problems and my sentimental attachment to it is perhaps misguided. But the two headed-llama and that giant snail will always be cool to me. Talk to the Animals won best song at the Academy Awards that year. And the film itself got a much ridiculed Best Picture nomination.

18. In Cold Blood


Yes, the gripping film adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood should have gotten Doctor Dolittle's Best Picture nomination, but it was what it was. Quincy Jones jazzy musical score did get a well deserved nomination.

19. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner



Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, the story of a (gasp!) interracial engagement seems to have just as many detractors as it has fans. But sometimes you have to give a little, take a little and let your poor heart break a little. That's the story of..that's the glory of love!

20. Divorce, American Style


It's been a long time since I watched this comedy with Dick Van Dyke and Debby Reynolds. I do remember liking it at the time and really wish to watch it again after reading about the making of the movie in writer Norman Lear's memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. The music in the soundtrack is provided by Dave Grusin. Divorce, American Style was Grusin's first of many movie scores. Since then, he has been nominated for an Academy Award eight times, winning in 1989 for The Milagro Beanfield War.

21. Two for the Road


This was a movie on the long list of movies I've wanted to see and have just never gotten around to it until now. It features Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as Joanna and Mark, a married couple traveling around Europe seemingly in the death throes of their marriage. Two for the Road then jumps around to earlier stages of Joanna and Mark's marriage and their initial courtship. The back and forth storytelling style is a little jarring at first, but when you get used to the narrative structure, you have to admit the film definitely belongs in the higher tier of romantic movies.This is helped by the fact that Hepburn and Finney have to be one of the all-time engaging movie screen couples.

The main composer of Two For the Road is Henry Mancini, who had seven Oscar nominations (and three wins) during the 60's, but interestingly not one for Two for the Road.




Goodbye, 1967! 
And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson!

                                               

Thursday, April 7, 2016

CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

Cat People

For today's blog, I watched two movies from 1940's RKO Producer/auteur Val Lewton. The first is perhaps the most famous Lewton movie, Cat People. Cat People is about a Serbian woman named Dubrovna living in New York who falls in love with an engineer. They eventually get married, but all is not well, as the legend from her village involving people transforming into cats seems to be more than just myth. The film has the Newton touch of detail (especially for such a low-budget film) and haunting black and white photography that is easy to lump into the film noir as well as the horror category. The most famous scene in the film is probably of one of the film's heroines waiting for a bus being pursued by an unknown protagonist that is more or likely the cat person from the film's title. It is a great scene and an example that less is more, as we don't we don't see the pursuer, only the pursued.

Because of the censorship concerns of the day, Dubrovna can't turn into a cat when she about to have sex...so she has to turn into a cat only when she is about to be kissed! You mean she and her husband have been married for all these months and haven't even kissed? This is one censorship problem the 80's remake with Nastassia Kinski didn't have.

The second film is The Seventh Victim, which I had never seen before. This story about devil worshipers, amateur detectives, ritual suicide, subtle references to lesbianism, and a mysterious search for a lost sister packs an awful lot of plot into a seventy minute running time! And this plot is at times a bit hard to follow, but the style of the film is its main charm, anyway. I mentioned Cat People could be labeled as having film noir elements, and that goes double for The Seventh Victim. Creepy shadows, unsafe showers and a devil worshiping hitman that may be lurking at every corner!

The film also boasts a non-Ward Cleaver role for that lovable 50's TV dad, Hugh Beaumont!

Speaking of supporting players: Tom Conway. I kept thinking how Tom comes off as a bit of a poor man's George Sanders in these Lewton films. I guess so, since George was Tom's brother in real life! Tom plays the erudite doctor in both these films, as well as also appearing in Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie

Another Val Newton movie that would be a candidate for my 1001 book would be The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff. Newton's nice run of films from 1942 to 1946 includes The Leopard Man and two other Karloff films, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.

The Seventh Victim