October 25, 2009

We Came, We Saw, We Discussed (Kurosawa)

Well, I have to commend Trudi. It didn't take much from me to convince her to watch Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood. In fact, it was the viewing of a miserable Hans Conreid fantasy called The Twonky on Turner Classic Movies (!) that led us both to put on TOB, which I had received recently from Netflix.

The good news: We watched the entire film together. The bad news: Trudi didn't like it very much.

So was I disappointed? A bit--but not too much. This is a different movie from The Emperor's The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, both of which Trudi enjoyed. TOB is deliberately stylized, a la the Noh theater from which it draws much of its inspiration, and the fact that the story was known to Trudi made the proceedings less suspenseful (though I pointed out that it was not a literal translation, and the Grand Guignol-type ending is more Kurosawa than Shakespeare). And yes, Univarn, you're absolutely right: It probably would've been better to launch into more accessible Kurosawas, such as High and Low, Stray Dog or The Bad Sleep Well.

I have a confession, however, to make: I'm a sucker for jidai-geki, and I've always liked Kurosawa's period pieces better than his modern ones. So TOB it was.

I do give credit to Trudi for sitting through it, though. It's certainly not an easy one to watch, though it's quite rewarding. On this viewing, I revisited my amazement at some of Kurosawa's brilliant touches: a bleached white spirit weirdly running through the forest; a mass of birds flying into a castle room after escaping from the trees; and, of course, the famous final scene in which Toshiro Mifune's weak, ambitious Washizu/Macbeth gets perforated with a multitude of arrows.

It still works. And it's still the best onscreen adaptation, in my opinion, of Macbeth. Somehow, Kurosawa understood the pessimistic, misanthropic nature of the play, and was able to translate it brilliantly to the screen in another context.

But don't worry, Trudi--that's enough Shakespeare for now. I'll make sure my queue in Netflix has something that's easier to digest up next, like Julie Taymor's adaptation of Titus Andronicus.

Just kidding, Trudi.

October 23, 2009

Uh, Oh: 'Throne of Blood' Is Up Next

There are two parts to watching Akira Kurosawa's 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood. Part one, the easy part, is merely playing the DVD. Part two, the hard part, is convincing Trudi to watch it with me.

Ah...there's the rub.

I know, I know--wrong play. TOB, of course, is based on Macbeth, and it's probably the definitive screen adaptation, despite the fact that it's not a literal translation. Still, it's a movie with quite a bit of violence (especially toward the end), and because Trudi is not enamored of films with battle scenes, this will be a hard sell. I'll probably have to tell her it's not your ordinary chambara film, and there's little in the way of war action (unlike Kurosawa's King Lear adaptation, Ran). In truth, TOB is wonderfully eerie, pessimistic and evocative film, complete with weird mist and freaky ghosts, along with some extraordinary set pieces...such as the famously gruesome ending. And Trudi has good taste in movies, which tells me that she would like this one.

I'll just tone down the nasty bits when I pitch it to her. Here's hoping!

October 18, 2009

I Admit It: I Watched 'Rambo' Last Night

But only (in general) during commercial interludes following Yankees gameplay.

Why did I do this? Well, I knew Rambo--the 2008 Sylvester Stallone-directed CGI squibfest, not the, uh, "classic" 1985 version--would be too ludicrous for me to care about missing certain segments during the Yankees-Angels game...making the film perfect for post-midnight viewing. I also knew I wouldn't expend any brain cells needed to concentrate on the strategies exhibited by Halos manager Mike Scioscia and Bronx Bombers skipper Joe Girardi.

Boy, was I right. And how.

I can't say I was disappointed by the movie--especially because I had such low expectations (which were fulfilled)--but I was aggrieved at one thing in particular: the sheer laziness of the flick. It was almost proudly derivative, "borrowing" elements from movies ranging from The Seven Samurai to The Dirty Dozen. Yet the most egregious affront was the Peckinpah-esque body count, a blood cell buildup that seemed to take its cue from the orgiastic finale of The Wild Bunch...though without the contextual ideology that made the latter film so powerful. As extra after extra in Rambo got his head blown off by the eponymous, stone-faced Stallone character, I had to wonder why Sly felt like viewers should see this. To become aghast at the horrors of war? To admire the technical expertise of the special-effects team behind all this splatter?

Or to relish, without conscience, death--presented in great detail--on the ruby screen?

Sadly, the indiscriminate carnage points to the latter. There was no comment here, no subtext, a la The Wild Bunch. It was just violence. Years ago, that might've been the exact criticism levied against Peckinpah, with the suggestion that his style glorified such mayhem. But Peckinpah's films had a strangely intellectual bent underneath all the machismo, and The Wild Bunch's (mostly) unsavory characters had a loyalty and ennui that still got us involved...and made us care.

In Rambo, it was just bloodshed. Without a purpose.

Good thing I stayed up to finish the Yankees game. Otherwise, I might've been dreaming about bad filmmaking rather than good playmaking.

October 11, 2009

Deja Vu: 'Time' Sputters Again at Casa Butler

Ever watch a lousy movie more than once just to see if you were right the first time you saw it?

I did just that the other day with Simon Wells' 2002 muddlepiece The Time Machine. Despite the fact that I hated it after seeing it when it came out and I continued to hate it on subsequent viewings, I decided to view it again with the thought that "hey, it couldn't be as bad as I remembered it, right?"

Right? Wrong.

Never mind that director Wells is the great-grandson of Time Machine author H.G. Wells. Actually, mind that. He really has no excuse.

But would his famous great-grandfather agree?

I'm not so sure about that, though methinks he'd have to quibble with the outrageously tedious back story that seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of stretching out the younger Wells' adaptation of what is a very short but concise book. (This seemingly endless prologue has something to do with the the New York-based protagonist, played lethargically by Guy Pearce, mourning the death of his girlfriend.) And he's probably have a bit of a beef with the depiction of the Eloi as a competent, eloquent race of humans that lives in wicker tree houses designed, seemingly, by migratory Ewoks.

Yeah, uh, that doesn't sound like the story envisioned by old H.G.

Sadly, despite some interesting special effects and production design (the memory of which probably lured me back to this adaptation the other day in the first place), this Time Machine doesn't get past first base. It's not even close in quality to George Pal's 1960 interpretation, which still didn't approach the book in terms of economy and imagination. And the script in Wells' film is just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Watching the Eloi interact with Pearce's Time Traveller is so tiresome that the viewer can't help but wait for the Morlocks to come...and it turns out they're not so interesting anyway. (They kind of look like a cross between Crazy Harry the Muppet and the dragon from The NeverEnding Story.) And then, when Jeremy Irons--playing a white-haired Morlock dictator who seems to have wandered in from the Rivendell set of The Fellowship of the Ring--appears, it's too little, too late (though he remains the best thing in the film, despite the fact that he, like so much else in the movie, is not an invention of the book).

So what did I learn from watching this wretched Time Machine for the umpth time? Well...I learned that sometimes the viewer can be right the first time. I also learned that I should change the channel rather than stick with something I know I'm gonna hate. Gee, I wish I could get those two hours returned to me.

If I could turn back time...

October 09, 2009

And Now the Kvetching Starts

It's high time we retired zombie movies and vampire TV shows.

I'm just not much of a fan. There's only so much you can do with mindless monsters and bottled blood.

And there's only so much you can do with using these entities to make comments on society.

Look, we've had a rash of that type of thing in recent years, and it has begun to get tired. When Don Siegel and George Romero were doing it in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, respectively, it was interesting. Novel.

At about the 2,468th time, however, it stops being funny.

Now don't get me wrong. I (somewhat) enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, though I didn't think it was a laugh riot. But I'm getting the feeling that these types of films are a bit too "easy" for their makers. They don't take many risks. They cover similar ground: attacks on consumerism, mindless mob mentalities, and blase, jaded or bemused reactions to supernatural activity in urban or suburban environments. Or they try to present otherworldly creatures as character-driven folks who just wanna blend in with everyone else (a la True Blood).

I don't hate to admit it, but I'm just not into this kinda thing.

The other big problem, in my opinion, with these types of monster-hugging media is that zombies and vampires are severely limited in terms of character--owing to their very natures. There's only so much you can do with a personality who can't go out in the light, drinks blood (or brains) and smiles sharper than a saber-toothed cat. Because they're in part defined by their "monster-ness," they exhibit a similarity that relegates them to a kind of flatness. They have few prospects for change, unlike the great characters in film or literature. (I'm thinking, for example, of J.J. Gittes in Chinatown or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.)

They have, in my opinion, become cookie-cutter.

And that's why I'm not itching to see the aggressively tongue-in-cheek Zombieland. Or why I don't quiver at the mention of Twilight, True Blood or The Vampire Diaries.

I like my horror with a touch of the eerie, a la Kwaidan or Night of the Demon. It's all about character-infused atmosphere, methinks. Not zombies or vampires.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

October 04, 2009

Consarn It, Another Burton 'Vision' Is Upon Us

There's a storm a-comin'. And it's not gonna be one of those storms where those caught in it sing about how they like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.

It's a storm of Tim Burton "visions." You know--like his tedious interpretation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Or his infantile remake of 1968's classic sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Or his atrocious adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Now, it's a new film version of Lewis Carroll's children's book Alice in Wonderland. With Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Be afraid, folks. Be very afraid.

What I'm wondering is how Burton gets money to do these wretched films. And who lets him "augment" the tales with tiresome back stories and leaden expository content that purport to provide the audience with rationales for the protagonists' behavior.

As well as how this once-talented director has succumbed to the scourge of mediocrity.

I thought Beetle Juice was imaginative. I found much of Ed Wood to be intriguing.

I do not find overdoses of Johnny Depp to be palatable.

Granted, the Alice cast--aside from Johnny Depp--is formidable, carrying stalwarts such as Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee (as the Jabberwock, no less). And we are allowed to wait until next year before we're thumped with this film.

But I'm worried. I know it's gonna be horrible. And I can't say Alice doesn't faze me anymore.

It does. I'm afraid. Very afraid.

October 01, 2009

Yea, Verily, Yea: 'Jester' Still Draws Laughs

I have fond memories of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama's 1956 Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester from my childhood. Indeed, my sister and I still quote lines from it every so often...perhaps as a way of showing that we remain kids at heart.

So I deliberately pitched the movie as a silly bit of froth to Trudi before showing it to her last night--an effort to create relatively low expectations that would balloon once she realized how funny the film is.

I think my scheme worked. Trudi, like Garbo, laughed.

Of course, it's not hard to laugh at Kaye's antics in TCG, perhaps his most consistently funny movie (yes, even over Knock on Wood, which has a bunch of sublime moments but overall is driven by a bit too much "serious" plot for my taste). TCG, a hilarious and well-mounted spoof of swashbucklers such as 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood (hey, it even has Basil Rathbone in it!), gives Kaye the opportunity to all of his most silly bits, such as linguistic torture, patter songs and impersonations of congested old men. But the film is most remembered for the "get it, got it, good" exchanges and the memorable "flagon with the dragon" debacle...lines that invariably end up in viewers' repertoires of quotable quotes.

Still, Kaye doesn't accomplish all this singlehandedly: Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker and gravel-voiced Glynis Johns all turn in amusing performances, and Rathbone, whose name keeps turning up ominously in the opening credits, does his usual fine work as the (usual) villain. Frank and Panama, who also wrote the film, keep up a lively pace, though some of the "serious" moments tend to drag. (No one, in my opinion, goes to a Kaye movie for plot, just as no one watches a Marx Brothers flick just for the singing.) Thankfully, the "serious" moments are few and far between...something I believe Trudi appreciated.

Yea, verily, yea.