Category: Review



Directed by Peter R. Hunt

Written by Richard Maibaum, based on the novel by Ian Fleming

Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Bernard Lee

No film in the five-decade-spanning James Bond franchise can ever be tagged as a unilaterally great film. The purposeful, traditional cliches, stereotypes and quips shaken and stirred with equal parts misogynistic sex and oft-unbelievable action make sure of that. Bond himself, whether he’s Connery or Moore or Brosnan is not a great character, but a shallow silhouette of a human being with no clear agenda stated save for one: to enjoy his heterosexual right.

With Sean Connery’s initial 1962 embarkation into the role of Bond with Dr. No, he created a character for the ages; often copied – legitimate as well as comical – and an indelible image on our cultural psyche. Tall, dark and handsome in his impeccable black tuxedo, issuing quips to women of all ages, races and nationalities unable to resist his charms and always a fluttering eyelash away from sharing his bed (or boat, or train cab, or in the midst of a heated gunfight), and effortlessly outdriving, outgunning and outsmarting myriad faceless goons with flawless efficiency and unfaltering cool.

And while the ultimate fighter, lover and genius had been rolled into one suit to the delight of the Cold War filmgoer, there could only be so much entertainment within the contrived dialogue and repetition of Connery’s Bond, despite the occasional great spy story (1963’s From Russia With Love) and inconceivably, wonderfully over-the-top action (Thunderball from 1965’s final underwater battle).

Not wanting to be typecast as such a cookie-cutter character (anybody who has seen Connery in The Untouchables and The Name of the Rose knows the man has range), the Scotsman alerted the world during the filming of 1967’s You Only Live Twice that it would be his last stint as 007.

Already ready with the next money-making Fleming adaptation, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman approached near panic over the potentially dangerous recasting of a cinematic god.

Enter George Lazenby, 27-year-old Australian model who aside from never having acting a day in his life was spotted by director Peter Hunt in a commercial in which he hoisted large fry boxes. Having fought for the role among a plethora of better-suited men, legend has it that Lazenby cemented the part by breaking the nose of his trainer during a fist-fight scene rehearsal, after which Broccoli guffawed, “You’re the guy.”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not just because of Lazenby but due to the tireless efforts of screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director Hunt to remain doggedly true to the script, against all odds became a film that will always be the most bizarre and beautiful of the franchise – and yes, also the greatest – as well as the darkest and most emotional before the revamped Daniel Craig era.

From the beginning, with Lazenby’s slow introduction and his stylish, face-paced and decidedly un-Connery beachfront scuffle, one knows that this Bond film is going in a different direction.

Diana Rigg, before she was a Dame and during the tail end of her stint as Emma Peel, plays a troubled contessa whom Bond meets at the film’s beginning, when he saves her from an apparent drowning suicide. He meets up with her again at at a baccarat table in a Portuguese casino and it becomes clear that this particular woman is no mere Bond girl, even to Bond.

The film segues into its seminal, and most memorable hour, in which Bond infiltrates yet another stronghold of his SPECTRE nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (cue-balled Telly Savalas, taking Donald Pleasence’s leave from You Only Live Twice), this time a beautiful modern castle perched precariously on top of the Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. Here, where Bond finds out Blofeld’s next diabolical plot is to hypnotize a bevy of allergy-afflicted women in the hopes of unleashing them back to their countries where they will release sterilizing nerve agents that will render the world unable to reproduce (or something like that; it really doesn’t matter), Lazenby gets a chance to really shine, disguised as a frumpy, kilt-wearing Swiss lawyer.

He quickly discovers Blofeld’s plot whilst also infiltrating the beds of several of the afflicted women, the last of which leads him to be captured. Following some remarkable ski chases – definitely the most remarkable action cinematography of its kind – Bond escapes from Blofeld’s castle and meets up again with the irrepressible countess. After fleeing from Blofeld’s orange tracksuit-wearing henchmen, they hide out in a Swiss barn where Bond … proposes.

There are obviously many scenes in OHMSS that were unlike anything witnessed in a Bond picture. Earlier in the film Bond, upon hearing he was removed from his Blofeld assignment, gets angry with M and resigns his commission. And in the Swiss barn, Bond, unthinkably, falls in love and gets married, followed by a lavish wedding in which both M and Q dress in bright colors and Miss Moneypenny can’t stop crying.

Before this, in several fight sequences, including a flight through a Swiss village celebrating Christmas and the culminating bobsled chase between Bond and Blofeld Bond actually looks frightened in many close-up shots. Bond showing hurt pride at his boss? Bond unsure of himself? Bond falling victim to the emotion of love? Very out of place – and yet, refreshing. United Artists took a chance with these unheard of Bond themes, and, for most critics now in retrospect, crafted a Bond film that was as believable as it was entertaining.

But it’s the very last sequence of OHMSS that is the most unforgettable, and the most original. No film in the franchise to this day has ever been so shockingly violent, so boldly dark in any sequence.

Lazenby’s Bond and Hunt’s OHMSS are two decidedly abnormal and, maybe for that reason, overlooked talents that together created a great film, made greater in its originality. To add to this, the various and repeated themes of the James Bond films are hardly heard, overtaken by two very remarkable themes composed by John Barry. The title theme, a memorable, transcendent beat, is echoed in the composition of 2006’s Casino Royale, another film that went for reinvention (although Craig was, if anything, more a resuscitation.) Along with the theme, OHMSS features one of the most appropriately beautiful love themes, the orchestral medley of “We Have All The Time in the World”, used whenever Diana Rigg and Lazenby seem to lock eyes.

Back in 1969, several facets and several faces went into creating a new Bond for the cinema. Although it was short-lived (Lazenby, obviously, would never be Bond again, and the Connery took back his mantle with Diamonds are Forever two years later. Roger Moore would lovably farce up the franchise until another subtle reinvention, the dark brooding Timothy Dalton as Bond in 1987’s The Living Daylights. And after a six-year hiatus, when Bond was deemed dead in the Nineties, killed the same way as hair-metal music, Goldeneye in 1995 turned another page before 2002’s Die Another Daye effectively turned the franchise into coma patient in need of a defibrillator) OHMSS will always be the first and most starkly original of the Bond films.

Images courtesy of blogs.coventrytelegraph.net, klast.net, commanderbond.net and goulburnpost.com.

Cromwell (1970)


Starring Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Douglas Wilmer

Written and directed by Ken Hughes

It’s very difficult to make a historical interpretation for the silver screen that is both commercially successful and historically accurate.

It’s not that history itself isn’t interesting enough.  There are thousands of stories – whether wide sweeping gestures of great men’s great accomplishments, or the individual efforts that often get left behind by time’s pages – that often outdo fiction.  But the audience is a fickle sort (or perhaps I should say the all-too-assuming producers are?), and in order to sell the next great epic many changes to what we know as historical fact are made.  In effect, what isn’t chopped out completely is altered and colored to fit both political correctness as well as a myriad other factors that reflect the current age.

Cromwell is known by many – but not too many considering that the 1970 film goes pretty much unmentioned in most circles – as a film that not only takes historical shortcuts, but rewrites both chronology and fact itself.

Oliver Cromwell is a historical character even those with a small education in English history know a little about.  He was covered with warts, viciously anti-Catholic, occasionally cruel, and power-hungry.  He raised an army that took control of England, beheaded its King, and became England’s first non-Royal leader since Saxon days.

But Cromwell didn’t look like Richard Harris, didn’t speak with Harris’ Irish lilt that the actor almost successfully covers up, and while he most certainly walked around with assumptive authority, it was more of a waddle than a typical Harris strut.

But more potentially damning than the character is the characterization.

Cromwell’s very demeanor, look and opinions are polished and buffed to encompass a true patriot of democracy and staunch advocate of the common folk.

Cromwell is shown in the film as a devout lord, supportive of all things England – including its king, Charles I, before the unscrupulous, totalitarian tactics of said King drive him to Parliament.  There he moves from neutrality to extremism in mere moments, becomes not only a rebel leader but an overnight military genius while leading his own army, and eventually arrests the King himself for treason.

The reconstructed history lesson is also rife with ashamedly heavy-handed directorial tactics that put Cromwell on hero display.

Before battle, Cromwell looks into the camera and says something wonderfully anecdotal that is actually historically attributable to a knight from the Royalist side.  The battle of Naseby – the most important battle in the war – is rearranged so that Cromwell’s army is outnumbered by the King’s to a tune of 3:1.  In actuality, it was the Royalists who were the ones heavily outnumbered.

And before that battle, an aide, panic-stricken, remarks on the heavy enemy numbers. Cromwell, calm, retorts, “And was Gideon not outnumbered when he fought the Amalekites?”  Consulting the Bible for the first time since after-mass Catholic school, I found that Gideon warred against the heavy numbers of the Midianites, not Amalekites.

So why am I even writing about this movie?  It takes more artistic license than 2000’s bloody mess The Patriot, and casts an actor almost as unlike his title role as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror.

Guinness as the soft spoken, extravagant, and arrogantly stubborn Charles is a pitch-perfect representation of the King.  From his sad-looking, hooded eyes to his high forehead and culture-defining mustache, he looks the part better than any actor who ever attempted to play an English monarch.

And in the way he carries himself as Charles, the only plausible explanation for the success is that the production team must have traveled back to 1644 and nabbed the King as Guinness’s assistant.

The King is equal parts annoying and affecting, impossibly frustrating and yet, very relatable.  He refuses to listen to reason from his closest advisors, to the point that they are forced to turn against him.  He politely agrees to parley with dominant forces – whose tolerance for the monarchy hangs on a crumbling ledge – only to secretly plot another war against them.  He stands firm on a subject, but then immediately submits to the whispers of his French wife, as his monarchy and England crumbles around him.

And yet, there is pity and, yes, even a quiet reverence for him.  He was raised to believe he was chosen by God, that his rule is ordained and his word Gospel, and yet his kingdom’s people rally against him.  His inability to give power to Parliament is frustrating, almost to the point of stupidity, but seeing as how the monarchy had heretofore been the law of the land, one can’t help but understand.

When Charles is sentenced to death for treason – something the viewer expected as inevitability from the beginning –  Guinness’s shocked and deeply hurt face prompts us to reconsider what is actually happening, to realize how unprecedented, how devastating such an occurrence is.  The tragedy is in Charles’ own inability to reason and compromise, yes, but also in the fact that the unrivaled leader of an entire country was put onto trial and beheaded like a peasant thug.

So, yes, I credit Guinness’s role for how much I turned out liking Cromwell.  His role as stuttering, effeminate Charles fitted the antagonist slot well, opening up the requisite Cromwell characterization and dramatic plot turns, but  the side story concerning the King, his family and his chamber were the most effective parts of the movie.

Guinness’s acting did more wonders than the producers maybe imagined.  By being so effective in his own role, he overshadowed the shortcomings of other actors, whose roles, not talent, were questionable at times.  In contrast, his effectiveness in his own role allowed Cromwell to transcend the porous history it was stretching thin, adding credence and reassurance to a period drama so that the writing didn’t necessarily have to.  Nowadays I call this the “Hopkins Solution”; using a peerless legend to concrete a shaky period film.  Back then, it was all Guinness.

Cromwell wasn’t accurate, no, but as a period drama it was incredibly engrossing.  Its politics submerged the viewer into a rarely visited 17th century world of intrigue, while the bullheaded, testosterone-filled bouts of egomaniacy kept the suspense crackling.

And all it took was the tireless efforts of one of England – and the world’s – greatest thespians to turn a potentially lackluster drama, into a damn fine one.

Images courtesy of http://shillspages.com, www.guardian.co.uk and http://www.starwarped.net


Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Marc Lawrence, Frank Conroy

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Lamar Trotti, adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

There is no film genre as American as the Western, and no member of our country’s rich history as iconic as the cowboy. John Ford and John Wayne teamed up throughout the years to bring the two together, using the unforgettable vistas of Monument Valley as their backdrop.

During the same period, known as the Golden Age of the Western Film (1939-1950), big studio names like Michael Curtiz (Dodge City, which along with Ford’s Stagecoach made the Western a legitimate film genre in 1939 ) and Howard Hawks (1948’s Red River) made their marks on the genre. In later years it would go through Italian director Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” phase as well as several periods of revisionism, from the bloody nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) to the cultural sensitivity and anti-expansionism of Dances with Wolves (1990).

But well back in the proclaimed Golden Age, somewhere in the wastes of celluloid’s myriad sprawling sepia panoramas is a hidden gem of the genre that came out to virtually no box-office in Spring of 1943: The Ox-Bow Incident.

In plain words it concerns the wrongful lynching of three men by a posse of town vigilantes, accused of the crime of murder from mere hearsay But more than that, it’s a parable unlike any Western before or since; an all-too-realistic look into a world that wasn’t all stagecoach chasing and saloon brawls, but a vicious, lawless and racist world, and a moral indictment of the reprehensible lynchings of black Americans the film alludes to – which by the mid-Forties weren’t too hard to remember for most Americans.

Henry Fonda, iconic in his own right, plays the main cowboy, who along with a buddy came into the town of Bridger’s Wells looking for a drink, but instead gets caught up in a frenzied hunt for the murderer(s) of a local rancher.

With the sheriff out of town, the growing posse is told to wait until he comes back, but the deputy sheriff – eager for a break from the boredom – illegally deputizes every posse member and they set off under the leadership of “Major” Tetley, who loves the excuse to wear his old Confederate uniform, and additionally plans to make his son into a man by showing him a good hanging.

As the posse descends on the Ox-Bow Valley, three cowpokes who happen to be camping out in the wrong place at the wrong time are violently roused from sleep and made to start talking. A few slip-ups in their stories here, a piece of supposed evidence there, and the trio begin to dig their own figurative graves. By morning, the majority of the posse proceed with the heinous crime, despite the efforts of Fonda – who, besides maybe James Stewart, could be a more believable voice of good? – to stop it.

For its day, The Ox-Bow Incident is a brutal movie. One of the accused trio is a senile old man, perpetually confused and bewildered as the terrible scene happens around him. When the noose is moments from his neck, he moans “I don’t want to die.” Dana Andrews, who is the main speaker of the trio, has the best performance of the movie. At times both tearful and righteous in his innocence, his acceptance in realizing that his appeals are useless, that nothing he can say will prove himself innocent, is heartbreaking, as is his anger when he finds out that someone read the letter – his last on earth- that he wrote for his wife.

And by the film’s end, when the sheriff returns and confronts the posse with the truth, the palpable grief and despair reaches out of the screen. While Fonda’s reading of Dana Andrews’ letter in the final scene is a bit heavy-handed – would you waste room on a your last letter writing about the world’s ills? – the meaning of the film is clear well before that.

It’s a study of different, conflicting characters, each demonstrating how easy it is to be swept up in mob mentality. Some people want to be in charge of a large group, some because they’re just bored, and others, unthinkably in this case, simply because they want to have a good time. Those who are the voice of reason or justice – in this film interchangeable – are all-too-quickly drowned out among these contrasting voices, or are perhaps too afraid to speak out against the majority.

To have a meaningful, thought-provoking essay on the evils of murderous disorder that’s also a Western is too good to pass up. Add to that the film’s uncharacteristic and powerful moral message, whose chief spokesman is one of the most beloved actors of his age, and unhheralded The Ox-Bow Incident clearly deserves a place among its peers.

Images courtesy of moviemail-online.co.uk and dvdbeaver.com, respectively.

The Believer (2001)


Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix

Written and Directed by Henry Bean

Now and again a young actor has a role that either defines a film or steals everything from it. In 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape a very young Leonardo DiCaprio became a teen critical darling for his role as mentally retarded teen Arnie Grape, a performance impossible to leave out when discussing the movie. In 1996’s Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s role as the accused altar boy took everyone by surprise as his performance – especially in the shocking end sequence – stole the movie right out from under Richard Gere’s feet and launched Norton to instant stardom.

Just as powerful a performance as these two examples is then 21-year old Ryan Gosling’s acting in The Believer, a film that simply could not have been without his performance.

Taking on the task of portraying a young Jewish man who is inexplicably a Neo-Nazi, Gosling is a force from the very first scene, in which he slowly tracks down and beats a young yarmulke-wearing boy. At a secret Fascist meeting his character, Danny Balint, spews hatred at the very essence of the Jewish faith, and in extremist fashion states that killing Jews is the only solution to the problem they cause.

But as the intricately-paced film sheds more on Danny’s past – flashbacks to his initial questionings of God as a student in a Jewish prep school, his sister shaking her head at his swastika-emblazoned shirt and asking “How can you wear that?” – we begin to realize that he isn’t a close-minded bigoted extremist, but a brilliant, well-versed young man who is unfortunately wrapped in an inferno of self-hate.

As I watched the film, often transfixed at the long, impassioned speeches of well-studied hate that Gosling unleashes upon the screen, three scenes in particular stood out to me, scenes that exemplify not only Gosling’s acting talent but provide seminal thought-provoking sequences in the narrative.

The first is when Danny agrees to be interviewed by a journalist at a cafe, where the journalist listens to Danny’s rants, including one flurry of colorful sentences in which he states that the Jewish man prefers fellatio over penetration because his psyche is inherently feminine, before the journalist interjects with “But how can you believe all this when you’re a Jew yourself?” Upon hearing this the transformation of Danny, from officious and venomous to surprised and vulnerable is so volatile it’s incendiary. After his denials are refuted, in exasperation he takes out a gun and threatens that if the journalist tells anyone this he’ll kill himself.

The second scene I will mention is perhaps the most uncomfortable of any film I’ve ever seen, where Danny and his fellow Neo-Nazi goons – none of whom share his deep beliefs, but merely love to hate – are ordered by the court to attend sensitivity training by listening to Holocaust survivors.

An older woman recollects how when she was commanded by an officer at the camp to have sex with him and she refused, he shot her younger sister. One of the young skinheads is heard to mutter, “I wouldn’t have fucked her either”, and chuckles with his friends. An ancient male survivor tells an even more horrible story, how he watched a Nazi soldier impale his toddler son on a bayonet and was forced to watch as his son’s blood drenched his clothes as he lay prostrate in grief. This story in particular has a profound affect on Danny, who marveled that as this happened the man did nothing.

Throughout the rest of the film, Danny will be visited by images caused by this story, where he imagines himself as the vengeful father, and then in a horrific nightmare, as the Nazi soldier.

Finally, what sequence most affected me follows the vandalization of a synagogue by Danny and his friends, where the ancient menorah is destroyed and Danny assists in breaking and defacing other precious Jewish items. But when his fellow skinheads open the scroll of the torah, Danny watches with obvious struggle as they spit on the sacred pages. When they tear a piece of it off, he rushes forward and stops them. Later, in his home, it is revealed that he saved the scroll and brought it back with him. He stuffs a Jewish prayer shawl, a tallit, into his belt and begins to quote Hebrew scripture while giving the Nazi salute. A scene that could have easily been preposterous instead is a powerful, unforgettable look at a young man whose impossibly strong but conflicting beliefs are now torn to a point undefinable.

Gosling, whose only experience in acting at that point was a stint on The Mickey Mouse Club as a kid and some Canadian television shows (including a great episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?), is mesmerizing in his role as Danny. While it never seemed to be Gosling’s want to become a superstar, he had conversely been a critical sensation in several films following The Believer, including 2006’s Half Nelson, where he plays a crack-addicted schoolteacher.

He headlines a film that is among the most provocative one could ever hope to see. It’s a perplexing, many-layered triumph of a story, and along with Gosling’s performance The Believer is one of the best independent dramas to come out this past decade.

It asks questions and presents ideas that are controversial, but at times reasonable; incredible, but believable. Through the explosive inner struggles of Danny, I was compelled to examine faith in general and the reasoning behind the varying hate that can be a part of it. Hate for a God that can be as powerful and as passionate as love, showing that while views such as Danny’s can be easily abhorred, it’s much more difficult to understand what has caused it. Possibly too difficult for even the hater.

Image courtesy of complex.com

The Proposition (2005)


Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Nick Cave

Not since Dead Man ten years earlier can any film in the Western vein be said to be as gritty, visceral and amoral as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Its success at attaining period realism – in design, art and writing – is spot on, and its drama startling and entertaining, if not completely compelling.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns who, along with his young brother Mikey, is caught in a raid by police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley gives Burns an offer: kill his older brother Arthur, wanted for the horrific and wanton murder of a local family, and he and Mikey can go free. If he refuses, Stanley will see to it that Mikey hangs on Christmas Day.

This is the deal behind the film’s title, and from here on the viewer embarks on a bloody sweep through the Australian of the 1880s, filled with poetry-spewing bounty hunters, spear-throwing Aborginals, and homicidal Irishmen. We follow Charlie as he meets up with his brother’s gang, and we follow Stanley, crushed underneath the weight of his statement: “this land will be civilized”. From its beginning to its inevitably violent conclusion, The Proposition takes no prisoners and offers no quarter, remaining in every way as lawless and uncompromising as its setting.

No character looks good, with the only make-up in the film reserved for gore-effects and the face-powder of Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson), really the only female part in the movie. They are all denizens of one of the worst places on earth at the time – the Australian outback – and they look the part. Guy Pearce, whose claim to fame came from being a model, is haggard, emaciated and covered in grime the entire movie. His face is lined and tired-looking, and his ribs protrude out of skin like the bones of a carcass. Making a habit of ingesting opiate powder for the film’s duration, Ray Winstone’s brow is lined with sweat, his face constantly wet and ruddy, and he wheezes at every exertion.

But as far as its realism goes, the little, easily overlooked details tell you all you need to know about the director’s vision and the lengths gone to in order to remain true. A small bloody scratch appears and remains on Emily Watson’s forehead after a shotgun retort blasts open the door to the dining room; the crazed, homicidal character Samuel Stoat washes his blood-stained body, then puts a clean shirt on despite the long blood smear on his chest that he missed; the same character hastily wipes off his hands on his dirty shirt before handling the earrings that Captain Stanley got his wife for Christmas. These are the meaty bits to a good feast of a movie, the tiny details that indicate to a demanding viewer just how much the makers cared.

The Proposition was greeted by U.S. Critics with much aplomb, but keep in mind that the excitement coming from mainstream critics about revisionist Westerns is about as predictable nowadays as an explosion in a Michael Bay movie. When Unforgiven (1992) came out it was “the best Western by anybody in 20 years”, and when 3:10 to Yuma (2006) was remade it was “the best Western since ‘Unforgiven’”, and so on. Where The Proposition makes its mark isn’t in its plot, which is very simple, or its characters – there is no one to really “root” for -, or its meaning – try to find one that isn’t bleak – but inherently the greatness is in its LACK of those three cinematic mainstays.

For this and its violence it has oft and recklessly been compared to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), one of film’s greatest and most original Westerns, but it’s more comparable to Peckinpah’s less thought-provoking Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). While neither film particularly glorifies the amoral violence of the times, where both lawmen and criminals did awful deeds under the Western sun, there is no restraint on the carnage that their efforts at realism dictate. There is also no attempt, subtle or heavy-handed, at reconciling the moral and the immoral. No character is decent, no man any less deserving of the film’s bloody violence than the other. These characters are ruled by selfishness, loathing, bloodlust, racism and greed. Even Guy Pearce’s actions at film’s end are less about doing the right thing and more about finally putting an end to a fraternal hatred.

The Proposition is beautiful in its violence, and purposefully murky in its message. It doesn’t try to commentate on prejudice – whether it’s racism towards Aboriginals or a continuance of the age-old Anglo-Irish feud – but merely shows a director’s vision of the times, and should be taken as such.

Images courtesy of allmoviephoto.com and guardian.co.uk.com, respectively.

Harakiri (1962)


Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Tetsuro Tamba

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Yasujirō Ozu was the most traditional of the island of Nippon’s directors, and Akira Kurosawa has earned the mantle of not only Japan’s greatest director but one of the most influential ever , but as far as “chanbara” (Samurai films) is concerned, no one did it better than Masaki Kobayashi.

Harakiri, or known in Japan as Seppuko, is the perfection of Japanese cinema’s efforts to show the hypocrisy of what we know today as the vaunted, mythic samurai honor. In The Last Samurai (2005), Tom Cruise travels to Japan as an American captain set to train the inexperienced Japanese Imperial army in the coming crush of the samurai during the Meiji restoration. Cruise is captured by the samurai during a rout, and becomes completely enamored by their culture. In the face of the technologically advanced West, insensitive to the honorable ways of the samurai, Cruise defects and leads them to a last stand. What caused many Japanese filmgoers to shake their heads when viewing the movie – which isn’t to detract from the film, which is powerful and ecstatic movie-making from veteran director Edward Zwick – is that never in Japanese cinema have the samurai been shown in such an unabashed good, near-divine light.

In Japanese cinema, especially in Kobayashi’s chanbara films, questioning the true integrity of a society so fogged in the chivalric and honor-bound traditions of the time has been commonplace. These films rarely showed the samurai as heroes, rather as fascist regimes ruled over by totalitarian daimyos, sapping the livelihood from its retainers while waging war for their own personal interests.

In Harakiri, handsome Japanese icon Tatsuya Nakadai (sporting a shaggy ronin beard) plays a samurai who comes to the fortress of his lord Kageyu Saito, to ask permission to commit harakiri. He is informed that another samurai named Chijiiwa made the same request earlier in the year. Saito coldly tells a purposely discouraging story, that Chijiiwa came to the daimyo disguising his true desire – alms – by threatening harakiri, something which apparently has become increasingly common in the Edo area, what Saito sees as cowardice and sought to end the charade by using poor Chijiiwa as an example. Chijiiwa was told that his permission was granted, which surprised the young samurai, proving that that honorable suicide wasn’t his true intention. Begging for a day of leave, Chijiiwa is refused, the daimyo and his retainers force him to disembowel himself with the sword he carried, inexplicably made of wood, the most painful and dishonorable harakiri a samurai could have.

After the story of Chijiiwa – made effective with strong flashback elements to parallel the main narrative- Nakadai’s samurai reveals his true intentions and his own story, which proves to be one of great tragedy demanding revenge. It is an engrossing story, a narrative peppered with intrigue and thought-provoking themes that make the viewer wonder what facet of such a society represents true honor.

Kobayashi isn’t secretive in his own views. Five years later he would release Samurai Rebellion, starring another Japanese acting icon Toshiro Mifune, whose family is repeatedly disgraced by his daimyo, and after taking abuse after abuse he makes a violent stand in the name of his house’s lost honor. Family and a father’s sacred duty to to them and protecting their dignity represents true honor in these films – virtue and righteousness – not the flimsy and convenient pretexts of honor used by the daimyos.

Kobayashi’s films are tragic in that the evil depicted is revealed, but never vanquished. Harakiri is bleak in its ending, but its point is proven. True honor is goodness, compassion, not for use as an excuse for face-saving and power-mongering.

Images courtesy of netflixcommunity.ning.com and dvdbeaver.com, respectively.

Barry Lyndon (1975)


Ryan O’Neal, Hardy Kruger, Patrick Magee, Marisa Berensen, Leon Vitali

Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Perhaps the most perplexing of all of Stanley Kubrick’s works, Barry Lyndon is certainly the iconic director’s most wonderful to watch.

Not for it’s acting, which, with the exception of a few supporting roles is purposefully wooden, but for it’s breathtaking imagery and sheer photographic beauty.

Watching Barry Lyndon is an experience, like any other Kubrick film, really, but not to this scope. Every single scene has been carefully lighted, decorated and established before filming. Every outside scene has been expressly situated and made to reflect exactly the period that is at its center. Each scene could easily be a portrait by a late-eighteenth century painter, and the result is a tapestry unlike any other in film canon. No one put it better words than the New York Post‘s Frank Rich, who concluded his review by stating, “it’s aching beauty will wipe you out.”

One may think the film’s three-hour length – slow-paced and sparsely dialogued – would be most responsible for such cinematic exhaustion, but it is the cinematography of Kubrick regular John Alcott that is the culprit.

To this writer’s dismay, words can not possibly convey to one who hasn’t seen Barry Lyndon just how much of a visual feast it is. Indeed, no other film has or ever will be as true to its period. To capture the realism of the age, Kubrick and Alcott reduced the requirement of electric light for many scenes. Instead, new cameras were built and incorporated to more properly record the use of natural light and, unbelievably for some scenes, candlelight, to capture the mood and images more to the director’s taste. The result is a film that simply glows. Special light-sensitive cameras – many borrowed from NASA – capture the sun-drenched green of Ireland and the surreal violence of Napoleonic warfare just as powerfully as a dinner-table discussion or a duel in a medieval barn.

Watching Barry Lyndon is akin to walking through an art museum, where every subtle touch on canvas is replicated with the stately, mindful camerawork that would prove to be Kubrick’s greatest and most memorable aesthetic.

Adding to the photography, this film, the greatest period piece in the history of cinema, also boasts a phenomenal score made up of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert and particularly Handel, pieced-together and painstakingly edited by composer Leonard Rosenman. Its greatest success is creating a score that can be sweeping one instant and intimate the next.

Such perfected aspects of a film make the story and acting destined to play second fiddle, however, and the fateful, often bizarre tale of Redmond Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) journey from inauspicious, poor Irish lad to Lord Lyndon would be helpless without Alcott’s photography, the haunting score, and most definitely the dutiful narration by Michael Hordern, who manages to capture perfectly the vernacular of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”.

Ryan O'Neal as the title character in his pre-Lyndon days; merely the poor Irish lad Redmond Barry

For perceived lack of substance, or the apparent coldness of its characters, Barry Lyndon wasn’t well-received by the public. A financial blight for Warner Bros., the film was met with baffled admiration but not fondness. The film’s Oscar wins perfectly reflect this idea, winning for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Musical Score – but not for Picture, Director or Screenplay (all of these three by Kubrick himself).

Kubrick established himself as a solid master of plot with Spartacus (1960), his penchant for satiric humor with Dr. Strangelove (1964), showcased his impossible-to-imitate visual style with 2001; Spacey Odyssey (1968), and as a cinematic explorer,, dove deep in into violence, adapting Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1972).

But Barry Lyndon in my mind, cemented Kubrick’s present status as the most innovative director of international cinema. His innovation and his total genius having already been established with a highlight reel of film history’s most influential and arresting pieces, with Barry Lyndon a higher plane is reached and the result is nothing short of sublime.

Images courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com, amovieaweek.com, scenestealers.com and barrylou.com.


Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams, adapted from Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending”

Somewhere after the sheer dynamism of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and the Paul Newman/Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the Sidney Lumet-helmed The Fugitive Kind becomes lost in the flurry of Tennessee Williams’ adaptations that surrounded it.

Lumet chose New York sets to fill in for Williams’ Southern setting – to the fury of many unimaginative critics of the day – to adapt Williams’ 1957 play “Orpheus Descending”, and creates to my mind the most thematically affecting of his adaptations, if not the most bleak.

Marlon Brando – in one of his most forgotten of great roles – is Val Xavier, a reformed drifter who flees from the law in New Orleans and finds himself looking for work at a small-town store owned by an older Italian woman known as Lady (Anna Magnani), and her vicious, bigoted and infirm husband Jabe.

She agrees to give him a job as a cashier, which he thrives at. Women follow Xavier wherever he goes, despite or because of his indifference to them, but his fondness for Lady is evident from the beginning. And despite all that’s stacked against them in this small town, the two inexorably fall in love. She attains a new lease on life in the presence of Val, and even starts plans to build and operate a sweets shop next to the store – something she’s always wanted to do.

Cold-hearted, controlling Jabe concocts a plan to strike back at his wife’s new-found happiness and her young paramour. Enlisting the help of the town’s law – something all too easy considering how virtually every man in town hated Val from the start – he sets up a vicious path of destruction that consumes everything in the film’s tragic conclusion.

Central to the script, co-penned by Meade Roberts and Williams himself, is the relationship between Val and Lady. It is a powerful chemistry that transitions to the screen from the start, and the energy from each is combustible whenever the two share the same screen. When two great actors share so many scenes, it isn’t uncommon for their best, career-defining roles to be forced out.

The Italian actress Magnani is simply astounding in her role as Lady, and produces the best acting from any female role of any Williams’ adaptation. Her story is haunting and her character’s development and decline is deeply emotional. That she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is equally astounding, but simply adds credence to the fact that the movie is, and has been so far, unfairly overlooked.

Brando as Stanley in Streetcar was an animal of unchecked testosterone, and in The Fugitive Kind he still is, but his savagery has been muted, but his God-given looks have been shaped to the point of Romanesque beauty,. Men like Flynn, Gable, Cooper and Grant may have defined what is was to be a good-looking male lead, fawned over by generations of women, but Brando embodies in this film the true sense of “heartthrob” like no other of his day. Indeed the closest earlier comparison would have to be the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, apparently so striking that women in theaters would faint at just the first shot of his face. Brando’s soft-spoken, unassuming Val, doesn’t so much rage as he does gently smolder, only becoming brighter when he falls deeply for Magnani’s older woman, Lady.

Brando, on the film's set circa 1958

The film ending, and the downfall of its only good characters, is deeply upsetting. The film’s very deep, troubling themes craft a story that seems to go along with an unmistakable ominous tone. In Williams’ South, the viewer understands from the very beginning that wronged women like Lady will never get retribution or find happiness, and impossibly handsome, guitar-playing drifters like Val will never find what they’re looking for, especially love.

While not quite illuminating, and certainly not uplifting, The Fugitive Kind is a powerful, unforgettable tale of deeply troubling things. Magnani’s performance alone is enough of a reason for first or multiple viewings, and Brando’s performance and sheer presence should not be forgotten among his many other, more iconic roles.

Images courtesy of dvdbeaver.com, movieline.com and bwcitypaper.

The Apartment (1960)


Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

The Apartment, critical and commercial smash hit of 1960, is the progenitor to the romantic comedy and one the most perfect movies of its era, both in plot and in its characters.

After viewing the classic Brief Encounter in 1944, The Apartment director Billy Wilder had to wait more than a decade before film codes could relax enough for him to tell the story of the “third man”, the friend who lets reluctant but star-crossed lovers Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson use his flat for their brief encounters.

In his vision 14 years later enters the character of bachelor C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), a low-level worker in a giant New York insurance company, who is on the rise only because he generously lets out his swank apartment for use by his promiscuous bosses and their mistresses.

It’s such a lucrative business that he has to arrange these “meetings” in his day planner, to the point where most nights he sleeps in Central Park or doesn’t sleep at all. At work he flirts continuously with Miss Kubelik (MacLaine), the elevator operator with whom he is hopelessly smitten with, and he finally gets the chance for promotion when smarmy director Sheldrake (MacMurray) invites him to his office and asks if he can borrow the keys for the night.

It’s revealed to the audience that Sheldrake’s lover for the night is none other than Miss Kubelik, who is silly enough to believe Sheldrake’s promises of divorcing his wife and marrying her. Her realization that he is a liar causes her to nearly commit suicide by taking sleeping pills, a deed undone by the arrival of Baxter, who brings a bar girl to his apartment only to find Sheldrake gone and poor Miss Kubelik comatose on his bed. He revives her with the help of his Jewish doctor neighbor, and Baxter spends a few days in heaven taking care of her before they have to go back to their separate lives.

This sets the stage for the conclusion’s questions – whether or not Miss Kubelik will choose suave but untruthful Sheldrake or wholesome but goofy Baxter – and the ending is as resolutely satisfying as it is sweet.

Lemmon, easily in the top tier of all-time American actors, adds his considerable comedic talent to a dramatic role that required a sensitive, well-meaning jokester. How natural his acting is, and the way he chooses to deliver his dialogue’s lines are inimitable, while his ad-libs of some of Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s screenplay were so pitch-perfect that they replaced the original script’s lines.

MacLaine stole several filmgoers’ hearts as the cute and vulnerable, pixie-like Miss Kubelik, who not only holds her own against both of the wildly-different male actors, but creates a zestful chemistry with Lemmon throughout the picture.

The film’s theme, written by Charles Williams, is a beautiful sweeping melody, which at first seemed over-the-top considering the comedic element in the first hour. But tackling the previously unheard-of themes in a major picture – like flagrant, encouraged infidelity and attempted suicide – the score takes on more meaning and accompanies The Apartment’s lovely ending perfectly.

Of all of the romantic dramas of that decade, no male lead is more believable and real than Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, and very few films have been as perfect a comedy-drama at The Apartment.

Images courtesy of brittanica.com and vintagefilm.typepad.com, respectively.


Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Directed by Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most surreal and unique films of the 1950s, and features Robert Mitchum as a menacing, homicidal fake preacher who depicts his character’s sociopathic tendencies, greed and barely-there patience with alarming alacrity.

Bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves in one of his earliest roles) leaves the knowledge of the treasure trove’s location to his son and daughter moments before his arrest. Awaiting the electric chair, his bunkmate is the seedy Harry Powell (Mitchum) who finds out Harper’s giant mystery and takes it one step further by wooing the Harper’s naiive and foolish wife (Winters) following his execution. While Harper’s wife may be duped, his son – played wonderfully by Billy Chapin – is certainly not, and stands firm along with his sister even when assaulted, threatened and manipulated by Powell.

Eventually, Powell’s guise as a holier-than-thou, friendly preacher can’t be kept up by him anymore and he murders his new wife. With no one to stop him now, Harper’s children flee and embark on a fantastical journey through the swamps and rivers of the South, finally found and taken in by Rachel Cooper, a widow who cares for small children (Gish). Stalking the children, Powell finds the Cooper household and masquerades as the children’s father. Not like the weaker women Powell is used to, Cooper trains a gun on him, telling him to leave. Not to be forgotten, Powell vows to return, and when he does it sets up a wild and satisfying conclusion.

Hunter plays like an adult fairy tale, with themes more mature and advanced than most others of its time period. The script, co-penned by James Agee and Laughton, references the Bible on numerous occasions, and the irony imposed by the hypocritical Powell (who loathes sexual desire, a feeling he combats by murdering women he fancies) by quoting the scripture endlessly and often incorrectly is palpable. He brainwashes his new wife with his bogus Christianity, and endears an older couple (the old busybody played with annoying success by Evelyn Varden) with his false charm. Powell represents a familiar Evangelical – devout, set-in-his-ways, and with a Southern lilt – that also is one of the worst villains in screen history.

The relationship between Powell and the Harper children are realistic and unsettling, especially in several scenes of dialogue where Powell alienates the boy from his sister to get her to tell him the location of the treasure, something she promised never to divulge. This scenes showcase Mitchum’s incredible range and talent, where he puts on the menace and charm in charismatic heaps.

The cinematography by Stanley Cortez uses elements of German  Gotchic expressionism to create bizarre set design with sparse lighting and long, creepy shadow effects. It’s incredibly affecting, particularly in the scenes that show the tall, dark-hatted Mitchum materialize seemingly out of nowhere. The fantastical scenes of the children drifting along the river in their boat, being watched by toads and rabbits as they slowly meander along are a visual treat, and are scenes completely unique to Hunter.


At the film’s end, Cooper stands sentry in her house on her rocking chair, gripping a rifle. Powell is heard off in the distance, singing the haunting melody of “Leaning on Everlasting Arms” and he begins to stalk along the perimeter of the her gate. Cooper then begins to sing along with him, but instead of his ominous, deep-voiced tone of his voice, hers is uplifting and joyful – the way God, if he exists, would have wanted it to sound – and Powell promptly shuts up.

Images courtesy of guardian.co.uk and filmforno.com, respectively.