Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Perfect Film? - Seven Samurai

I ran into a few critical reviews of the film "Seven Samurai" that referred to it as "the perfect film"?  Usually the reviewer would go on to explain why they felt that this movie was perfect. They would often point out the many great things about "Seven Samurai" and I was left with a little doubt that it was, in fact, perfect.

Now let me start by saying that I really love "Seven Samurai". It's one of my favorite films by director Akira Kurosawa.  I usually recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen a Kurosawa film before.  But I always give out the same caveats - it's Japanese (meaning it's subtitled), it's black and white, and it's over three hours long.  Right off the bat there are three strikes against the film.  Most modern movie watchers will see these three elements as the kiss of death.  In addition, while it does have action, it is a slow builder.  The battle at the end of the film is fast and furious, but for the most part the samurai battles are relegated to that final hour.

I find it hard to label a movie "perfect" if I have to put disclaimers before it.  Now, maybe for a Japanese audience back in 1954 it was perfect (but looking at the box office, "Seven Samurai” was popular but not the years biggest grossing film).  In fact the movie is more and more a perfect film for cinema junkies.  It's a movie that becomes more and more impressive as you dissect it.  Many critics like to point out that there are no wasted scenes in this movie, and while that can be argued, it is amazing how lean and mean the storytelling is in the film.

What makes it such a good film is that it does so much with it's time.  It creates the problem: bandits are going to raid a helpless village.  It provides the solution: the villagers hire seven samurai to help protect them from the attack.  It provides an action packed climax: the villagers and samurai defend themselves and defeat the bandits, but at a cost.  Simple and effective.  But Kurosawa does more, he creates interesting characters, ones that you want to find out more about, ones that end up caring for, ones that make you empathize with them or admire them.  Then when things get nasty, the viewer is sitting on the edge of their seat wondering which samurai will survive, which villagers will step up to the challenge and if the young lovers will stay together.

Watching the film by itself or with the excellent critical commentary provided on the Criterion version of the DVD allows you to understand how well the movie is made.  The behind the scenes stories are almost as engrossing as the film itself.  I heartily recommend it for anyone willing to watch a black and white, Japanese film; as long as they have over three hours to spare (there is an intermission, so you can work your bathroom and food break in there).

This brings me back to the "perfect movie" idea.  Is there a movie similar to "Seven Samurai" that I could tell a modern viewer to enjoy?  This is really tough.  Something with the same entertainment value, and yet one that delivers an emotional punch at the end.  Something in color and preferably not three hours long.  I flipped and flopped for a while on this and only came up with a couple contenders: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Matrix".  Yeah it's a stretch, but both films are crowd pleasers with main characters that draw the viewer in and deliver some kind of message.  "Raiders" is a little light really - much more of an action picture than anything else.  "The Matrix" does have an interesting message, that loses it's punch with the "magic kiss" at the end.  @_@  Still bugs the hell out of me.

If I'm allowed to reach for the 3 hour time frame I would offer "Kingdom of Heaven: The Directors Cut" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".  In it's extended form "Kingdom of Heaven" is a excellent movie.  It's characters are much more defined and the ending packs a greater punch than it previously did.  It still suffers a bit in places, but this movie deserves more credit than it gets.  "Fellowship" is still my favorite of the Lord of the Ring trilogy.  On the downside it doesn't have a real ending, but the climax at the end is bittersweet and fits the rest of the film.  For the most part the story moves along briskly, adding new characters, giving them depth and then whisking you along for the ride.  I prefer the longer extended cut, because it does allow the viewer to settle into the world and see more of the characters.  But the theatrical cut is serviceable as well.

In the end, none of these choices seems to be a good fit.  They are all fine movies but they seem to lack the what makes "Seven Samurai" work so well on almost all levels.  Maybe I'm blanking on an obvious choice but that's where you come in...

What do you think of Seven Samurai?  If you've never seen it, would you ever?  Can you think of a modern movie that might be comparable to it or has the skill needed to make those types of movies passed us by?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Clones Strike Back - Attack of the Clones

Immediately after I saw "The Phantom Menace" in theaters, I became a apologist for the film.  I did my best to convince myself and others that it wasn't really that bad of a movie.  Time has passed and I realized that is was really that bad.  When "Attack of the Clones" was released I enjoyed moments, but found the whole thing to be lacking.  When I revisited this movie on DVD most of what I liked in the movie decreased with the shrinkage of the screen.  For example, the chase on Coruscant was no longer thrilling. It was extremely long and lacking the exhilarating feel that the music and visuals are going out of their way to sell.

This film suffers from many of the same ailments that "The Phantom Menace" suffers from: badly handled exposition, weak acting, horrible sci-fi names, countless shots of ships landing and taking off, a rough script and Jar Jar Binks.  What I want to focus on is the dialogue, one of the key points that really damages this film.  Simply put, this movie has the worst lines in the trilogy.  Obi-wan chiding Anakin and the "humorous" dialogue between them during the chase on Coruscant is truly wince inducing.  The banter of "A New Hope" is clearly missing here, but what we have instead isn't a substitute.  It tries way too hard to be funny and doesn’t flow in any natural way.

Of course the worst offenders are the romantic scenes.  Lucas could have and should have avoided all the talky stuff and gone with a more obvious physical attraction and wordless dynamic between Padme and Anakin (this would require some chemistry in these roles and the cast didn't seem to have much of that).  Instead he overlays the feelings with heavy handed and poorly worded dialogue.  None of it sounds genuine - and that is a problem.  Sure, this is Star Wars and even Han and Leia's scenes in "Empire" were not the pinnacle of romantic dialogue.  But we had a definite physical attraction there.  The words were playful and perhaps not natural sounding but at least sounded right from these characters.  Padme and Anakin sound very forced and when Padme confesses her love to Anakin - well, I always end up laughing.

Not nearly as funny are C-3PO's string of horrid and groan inducing puns.  The fact that these are supposed to be accidental puns makes it even worse. If 3PO is saying them on purpose - why?  He's never punned before and never puns again.  Why do it here?  As I mentioned most of the "humor" in this film is very forced and weak.

Even Yoda doesn't escape the damage. For some reason, and it's probably just me, I can't stand when he says something to the effect of "Around the survivors a perimeter make." Yoda-speak got out of hand in this movie, causing some seriously goofy sounding lines.  

After watching the film I usually come back to the same feeling.  This movie feels as long as "Phantom Menace" and just as painful.  Some think it is an improvement over the previous film, but I think the dialogue ends up damaging the few good battle scenes we do get.  Is there anything good about this movie?  Sure, the visuals are still top notch and paint an amazing series of worlds and characters.  The final battle scene is great popcorn for those who love lightsaber battles and lots of mechanical ships and walkers stomping around.

But you are saying "If you hate it so much, why do you watch it?"  Well I've got a Rifftrax for it, and it makes it actually fun to watch.  And I'm a Star Wars fan deep in my little black and bitter heart.  I enjoy the original trilogy a great deal, I just wished these prequels measured up.  You know you've got a problem when the Lego video game version of the story is better than your movie.

Monday, August 11, 2008

You don’t know Bond - Thunderball (Novel)

I really got into James Bond in the early 90's. I think it had something to do with the hype surrounding "Goldeneye", but I'm not sure I really remember. I had seen some James Bond movies, but they never completely pulled me in. But around the 90's it became my mission to watch all the James Bond films up to "Goldeneye" and in order no less. I did it and it was a lot of fun. A few of my coworkers at the video store also got into the movies and we often discussed our favorite James Bond films and actors. See what happens when throw a bunch of movie geeks together!

I determined at that time that my favorite Sean Connery James Bond film was "Thunderball". Sure lots of people say "Goldfinger" is superior, and you can argue it till the cows come home (where did those bovines get to anyway?). For me, this is the perfect retro-fun Bond film for a summer day, and it gets yearly play at my house, much to my wife's chagrin (she's not a Connery Bond fan).

It took me a while to get my hands on the actual Bond novels by Ian Fleming. For the longest time they were out of print in the US. I actually picked up four of them when I was in England and have the snazzy British covers. I grabbed "Thunderball" because of my fondness for the film - and boy was I surprised. This isn't James Bond as I knew him. Of course it was foolish of me to think that the movies didn't change things here and there, but for the character to be so different - well it was a shock.

As a novel, "Thunderball" is solid entertainment. The movie follows the book pretty well, but actually makes some plot changes that smooth out some of the rough edges of the book For example, in the novel, Bond is sent to the Shrublands spa because M is on a crazy health kick. He encounters the dangerous Count Lippe there, but the only reason Lippe is at the spa is so he can mail the ransom note from SPECTRE. The movie actually makes the spa a staging ground for the whole theft of the bomber. This allows Bond to be closer to the action than he knew, and it makes sense to use the spa as the staging ground with the agent recovering from his plastic surgery there.

The book has a very dry British sense of humor, one that is counter to most of the goofy humor seen in the Bond series (mostly in the 70's with Roger Moore's take on the character). The opening is especially funny with Bond aghast at M's obsession with health. The Bond of the novels is a hard drinker, frequent smoker and a man who doesn't care about his personal health, only because it doesn't make sense to - he's probably going to get killed on his next mission. He might as well live it up. Bond's reactions to the spa treatment and the fact that he actually does feel better after it's completed are well written and amusing.

The novel also spends lots of time describing the SPECTRE agency and it's leader Blofeld. A whole chapter is dedicated to Blofeld and his history. This is interesting stuff, but in the scheme of things, it doesn't fit into the story so much. Blofeld isn't the direct menace in the novel - that goes to Largo. As a whole, all the characters are much better developed in the novel. I especially liked the personality of Domino, the lovely and ultimately trapped woman. Her dialogue with Bond and discussion of the picture on a pack of cigarettes gives us a clear insight to her, and makes the ending a bit of a rough one.

It was the portrait of James Bond that was most remarkable. He was much more realistic in the novel. He's a damaged man, one that really doesn't like his job, but at the same time is too good at it to do anything else. He is a predator that dislikes the kill. It's a strange contradiction and it makes him much more interesting than most of the film incarnations. He is lucky and will use his luck to his advantage whenever he can. He also makes mistakes and pays for them, or worse someone else pays for them. There is an undercurrent of anger to him, and it's something that really came through in Timothy Dalton's portrayal of the character.

Of course the movies are always a different beast. James Bond is synonymous with escapism and fun. A serious, angry and cold character is not going to appeal to the summer crowds. And so James Bond adapted for the times and for the films. Connery plays him with an edge, no doubt about that, and it's especially there in "From Russia with Love", but for my money only Dalton has really matched the portrayal of James Bond as he is in the books.

Outside of the fun of comparing the two stories in different media, the book is a good summer read. Fleming doesn't move the story along too quickly, but he does create some great moments of intrigue and action. Really the last third of the book has the most action, with the rest of the novel working as a casual lead in. The pace picks up at the halfway point, but only a bit, What's interesting is that the movie has the same problem. The novel is not the best of Fleming's Bond books - check out "From Russia with Love" or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" for those, but "Thunderball" is still a good time.

Have you had a chance to read Fleming's Bond novels? Do you think such a major change of character was needed from the novel to the film version of James Bond? Do you have a favorite Bond film? Why do you like it so much?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Funny Uh oh - Galaxy Quest

I've recently read the comments from a few movie fan bloggers that feel that the art of comedy in movies is on the wane. They end up pointing at parody films like "Meet the Spartans", "Epic Movie" and "Date Movie" as evidence of this. These movies don't stand up to the first viewing much less repeat viewings. Their scripts are nothing but sight gags that aren't anything other then taking a scene from a popular film and recreating it with a twist (having the spartans from "300" dancing around and behaving stereotypically homosexual).

In a way these films are attempting to ape the popular Zucker brothers ("Naked Gun" and "Airplane") and Mel Brooks ("Blazing Saddles" and "Spaceballs") films from the past. The big difference is, those films actually provided some laughs even if they were on the stupid side of things. The idea was to bombard the audience with so many sight gags, word play, non sequiturs and actual jokes that something will end up sticking. Some of these films are more successful than others (and I think it has lots to do with which of these films you ended up watching first).

What is more difficult to pull off is to create a parody that not only succeeds in spoofing the film or genre, but to make it an entertaining movie in it's own right. The trick is to write a solid script, and to work the humor in creating a balance between comedy free from the parody and comedy based on the parody. I haven't seen one of these succeed in quite a while (a example of a spectacular failure of this was "My Super Ex-Girlfriend").

"Galaxy Quest" does it right. It takes a familiar genre - science fiction and specifically "Star Trek" and uses it as a jumping off point for the comedy. For those of you who haven't seen the film, the basic plot is the following. A group of actors of the popular sci-fi show "Galaxy Quest" encounter real aliens. These aliens think the television series are actual historical documents and that the actors really are the characters they play. At first the actors think that the adventure will be a bit of fun, but things go wrong when a sinister alien despot and his crew also believe the actors are real heroes. Can these actors step up to the challenge, or are they way out of their league?

One of my favorite moments is when the starship leaves it's space dock. In nearly every "Star Trek" film, this moment is accompanied by majestic music and special effects meant to create a sense of exhilaration that the adventure is getting underway. In "Galaxy Quest" the moment is handled in the same way... but our pilot isn't too good at his job. He ends up scraping the hull against the side of the space dock and making a sound like a giant car scraping the side of the garage. Anyone who's done this before gets a good chuckle out of this scene.

A great second dynamic is added to this and is the fact that our heroes are just actors, not space explorers. They are used to handling special effects, and written dialogue, not fighting aliens and flying space ships. On top of that each actor has a specific personality that helps or hinders. Tim Allen is perfect as the egotistical actor who plays the captain. He starts to believe his own hype but quickly finds out that he's not cut out to be a real captain. Nearly stealing every scene is Allen Rickmen who plays a Spock like character on the television series and loathes his lot in life. Now that he's in space with aliens that are convinced he's not human... well he's not the happiest of campers.

The parody moments are hilarious. Everything from the music, to the search of a mysterious planet, to the fact that everyone always goes flying out of their chairs in dangerous space battle is modeled after "Star Trek". For the most part, these parody moments doesn't feel mean spirited. More often they cause the viewer to wonder, "Hey, why does that seem to happen in nearly every 'Star Trek' film or episode".

Even if you are not very familiar with "Star Trek" or have only seen a few sci-fi movies, there's plenty to enjoy. The dialogue is funny, and the performances are spot on. The overarching plot of good versus evil is solid. There is also plenty of humor once the fans of the show appear near the end of the movie.

"Galaxy Quest" isn't the funniest movie ever made. And people more familiar with "Star TreK' will enjoy it more than people who haven't seen any of the series or films. However the film is re-watchable and good for a laugh on a Friday night. Certainly it's more entertaining them much of the "comedy" that's been released lately, especially those ill conceived spoofs. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend it. And if you have, but haven't seen it in a while, check it out again. It still holds up well.

What did you think of "Galaxy Quest"? Do you think modern parody films are funny? Why or why not? Can you think of a film comparable to "Galaxy Quest"?