Wednesday, November 28, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 19 November 2018 - 25 November 2018

Someone dropping a whole bunch of TV that comes from one of my favorite filmmakers explains why not a whole lot of scotch tape was necessary this week:

This Week in Tickets

AMC rolled out an old-school miniseries this week - three movie-length presentations on consecutive nights, the sort of thing that used to be the bedrock of network-television event programming during sweeps periods - and the thing that grabbed my attention where this new adaptation of John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl was that the whole thing would be directed by Park Chan-wook, who has made one English-language feature but who has mostly worked in his native South Korea, creating strong, lush thrillers, and whose willingness to go dark certainly seemed like a great fit to le Carré's realistic, amoral spy stories. The only issue, really, is that this is a pretty sizable project, built as six 55-minute episodes for the BBC, so my reaction went something like this:

Night One: Whoever decided to hook Park up with all those garish late-1970s color schemes was a genius.

Night Two: Look, cable stations, it's one thing to have an episode of Justified run long by five minutes, but if this is going to run 161 minutes every night, start it at 8pm rather than 9pm - some of us have to work weekdays!

Night Three (watched Sunday morning because of travel and such): Okay, this last chunk is pretty great, but how much of the set-up do we really need?

This thing drags a lot, and I kind of wonder how often Park has had to work in a format where runtime is so strictly defined before. There are thrillingly tense moments and a sort of meta-thread showing how carefully rehearsed and planned everything that the actress played by Florence Pugh is, which everybody from the cast to the editors pulls off every time. Pugh certainly has next-big-thing potential, given how she enlivened Outlaw King and how much everybody liked her in Lady Macbeth, and Michael Shannon is never not watchable, but Alexander Skarsgård is kind of dull in a pivotal role. A lot of the folks around them, be they Mossad or PLO, feel like TV supporting characters who would really get fleshed out well given their own subplots and maybe a spotlight episode, but this isn't that kind of TV series.

I wonder what Park and his editors would get this thing down to if told to make it a show to be watched in one sitting or six episodes that didn't have to be any given length. I'll bet it would become much more digestible.

Digestion brings us to the rest of the week, which involved heading north to Maine for Thanksgiving dinner(s), an even crazier process than it used to be because everybody has multiple places to go on different schedules. It's a fair chunk of time on the bus and in loud houses, but my extended family is great and contains many people who are very good at making pie, so it's pretty good. It needed to do laundry when I got back (I'd already purchased one pair of pants to put it off a couple days this week) and local theaters are getting stingier with 3D screenings, so plan A was abandoned and I caught the new Robin Hood on Friday night, and that's a frustrating movie - not nearly as bad as I'd feared or as good as one might hope, and the annoying thing is that having competently-constructed action would likely not have gotten in the way of making a modern Robin Hood for the resistance one single iota. Saturday, there was plenty of time to get to Ralph Breaks the Internet - that one didn't disappoint; it's probably smarter than Wreck-It Ralph even if it doesn't hit me straight in the nostalgia gland the way its predecessor did.

That left me with a comfortable amount of time to get to the Brattle Theatre for Seven Samurai, and even though it started early, that one will polish off an evening. It's still a total classic, a lot to watch on a regular basis but the sort of thing that makes me glad some theater in the area will play it on 35mm once a year or so. Keeps me from feeling the need to upgrade it to a Blu-ray. Sunday was also a 35mm Kurosawa at the Brattle evening, with a double bill of The Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood.

Monday's The Grand Buddha+ has already gone up on my Letterboxd page, and it looks like there's a pretty busy weekend on tap.

Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Kurosawa in History, 35mm)

I don't know that I've got a whole lot to add to what I wrote the last time I saw this (or at least, the last time I wrote about it). It's such a relaxed film even though it never loses track of its ticking clock and the desperation of the peasants who feel the need to hire a team of samurai. I wonder if that's a matter of Kurosawa identifying with the samurai as much as (or more than) the villagers. He gives the common people the opening act, but once their are samurai, they start to drive the narrative, stern and patrician and wise. The practicalities of battle are presented as just how things are, and the stubborn common men who will see their homes destroyed sadly impractical. Even Toshiro Mifune's central rant about how both peasants and samurai are terribly selfish only gets rebuked through the warriors' actions, and his characters' trying to put on airs and climb above his station is the cause of many problems.

What makes this a rich movie is that I sort of came to the opposite conclusion last back in 2014 - that Kurosawa was sneakily undercutting the image of the noble samurai. It's kind of fascinating that my reaction to this film seems to seek an equilibrium - it will undercut whatever assumptions one comes in with, and does so in a way that seems honest rather than like the filmmakers trying to cover the angles, even if it's often theatrical rather than strictly realistic.

What I wrote back in March 2014

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Kurosawa in History, 35mm)

This movie has a bit of an inflated reputation because of the clear line one can trace from it to Star Wars, both from those who love George Lucas and those who aren't inclined to give him much credit. In truth,it's a very enjoyable adventure story but also kind of flabby in spots, and perhaps doesn't stop to think as often as it could or have that many impressive action bits. It's good, because even lesser Kurosawa with Toshiro Mifune and Misa Uehara as a fiercely memorable princess is a cut above most films out there, but you can see it doesn't have enough to fill its running time.

That's part and parcel of its gimmick of being both a movie about two hard-luck peasants trying to get home from war with something to show for it and one about a samurai trying to get a princess to safety. It's a fun idea, and the film does a good job of representing both their perspectives, although seeing it the day after Seven Samurai, which seemed a bit more even-handed about it, although both seem kind of hard on the peasants compared to the nobility.

Full review at EFilmCritic (from 2010)

Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Kurosawa in History, 35mm)

I kind of wonder how this plays to folks who don't know Macbeth. I suspect it's still a great, thrilling picture; I just wonder if not seeing where Kurosawa is following a familiar structure makes certain turns more exciting or more peculiar. I certainly found myself wishing he had abandoned the supernatural after the ghost's initial appearance, just relying on the wife as a persistent voice of doubt, even as I also wondered what this Kurosawa leaving a straight-up horror movie would be like, as the moments where he goes for that sort of atmosphere are fantastic.

There's still a lot to love here, though, from the usual pleasures of a brash, arrogant Toshiro Mifune to how Kurosawa skillfully blends the conventions of the stage with those of the cinema. This movie is Shakespearean not just in its premise but in how it uses servants as a chorus, for example, while also leaning into how Kurosawa's samurai stories often seem to take place in a post-apocalyptic hell. Scenes will often take place in fixed locations, having people report in rather than necessarily showing action, but the setting of the scene and the impressive cutting and cinematography makes sure it never feels static and boxed in

This movie could possibly do with sticking a little less close to its source (said the guy who loves Shakespeare), but given the master and the masterpiece involved, wishing for something even better seems terribly conceited.

The Little Drummer Girl
Robin Hood '18
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Seven Samurai
The Hidden Fortress / Throne of Blood

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