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?

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