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Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)

Director – Akira Kurosawa – 1954 – Japan – Cert. PG – 207m – Oscar nominated

Seven samurai must defend a poor village of farmers from bandits in one of the greatest action movies ever made – both released in cinemas in a brand-new restoration from Friday, October 29th and currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the Japan 2021 programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

Seven Samurai opens with a group of horsemen on a horizon. Notwithstanding the Japanese titles on the screen, you could be watching a Hollywood Western. Although what follows is a tale of samurai, bandits and farmers, it’s so close to ideas in a Western that Hollywood replaced sword with guns and retooled it as the hugely successful The Magnificent Seven (1960).

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The plot concerns a small farming village threatened by bandits, who attack at harvest time and take all the crops. The farmers find a group of samurai prepared to defend them against the bandits in return for food and lodging. From a script co-written with two others Kurosawa delivers a measured epic which explodes into action in its final hour and a bit… [Read more]

I review Seven Samurai for All The Anime.… Read the rest

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Dune

Director – Denis Villeneuve – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12a – 155m

*****

A powerful family is exiled to a desert planet populated with giant sandworms as part of an interplanetary conspiracy to end their dynasty – out in cinemas on Friday, October 22nd

Frank Herbert’s sprawling novel Dune (1965) was read in the late 1960s and 1970s by any teenage boy with the slightest interest in science fiction and fantasy. It had (a little) space travel but more significantly it had alien worlds, notably the desert planet Arrakis on which 95% of the action takes place, and so ticked the SF box.

Then it had a whole ecology involving the planet’s occupants the Fremen, a drug known as ‘the Spice’, and giant sandworms, so it also ticked the fantasy box.

On top of this, it pitted dynasties – ‘Houses’ – against each other in a tale of interplanetary political intrigue.

The plot was unbelievably convoluted, spawning a lengthy series of sequels. I gave up around the fifth or sixth book. And yet, the first book possessed an almost mythic quality that my diminishing interest in the later volumes was unable to dispel.

The sheer quantity of plot was always going to be a challenge for a standalone movie.… Read the rest

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Throne Of Blood (Kumonosu-jo)

Director – Akira Kurosawa – 1957 – Japan – Cert. 12 – 110m

*****

Plays in the BFI Japan 2021 season October / November at BFI Southbank. Also currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the Japan programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays. In 1957, Kurosawa reworked it against the backdrop of feudal, 16th Century Japan. Ascendant samurai Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) hear from an old crone at a spinning wheel in the forest that Washizu will become Lord of Cobweb Castle, later to be succeeded by Miki’s son. Washizu’s wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada, her face rigidly fixed in Noh mask poses) preys on his insecurities to convince Washizu to murder his way to the top. Slayings, ghost sightings, hand washing and his demise duly ensue.

Not only does Kurosawa jettison all Shakespeare’s dialogue, he also makes the material thoroughly his own even while remaining true to its essence. For instance, when Washizu, eating in public, sees Miki’s ghost, Mifune with the camera following him starts running around like a man possessed, slashing wildly at an unseen apparition.… Read the rest

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

Director – Akira Kurosawa – 1958 – Japan – Cert. PG – 138m

***

Currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the Japan programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

Captured by soldiers, two wandering bumpkin farmers (Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara) are put waist deep in a waterlogged pit with scores of other prisoners and ordered to dig for treasure. Before they can find it, however, they manage to escape. In the middle of nowhere, one of them slings away a useless, sodden branch from their attempted campfire. It goes chink. Inside the wood is concealed gold with a royal seal upon it.

So begins Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 foray into chambara (Japanese popular historical epic genre) which also features a beautiful princess in exile (Misa Uehara) and her heroic general (Toshiro Mifune) intent on restoring her with the clan’s gold. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s George Lucas’ main source for his Star Wars (1977) (and one or two elements in its sequels), which today lend Kurosawa’s film an added interest. The Hidden Fortress puts hero, heroine and their two unlikely companions through a series of set piece adventures including lance duels, a spectacularly choreographed folk fire festival, horseback pursuits and, indeed, the discovery fairly early on in the proceedings of the eponymous hidden fortress.… Read the rest

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The Eight Hundred (Ba Bai, 八佰)

Director – Guan Hu – 2019 – China – Cert. 15 – 149m – IMAX

****1/2

Hopelessly outnumbered Chinese soldiers take a last stand against the Japanese in a Shanghai warehouse – – available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Domestic Hits strand in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 which runs until Wednesday, May 12th

1937, the Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese have fallen back to , Shanghai as the Japanese advance. Rounding up Chinese deserters, Colonel Xie (Du Chun) and his men of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) hole up in the Sihang warehouse on the other side of the Souzou Creek from the International Concession from which the horrified civilians compulsively watch the conflict unfold.

A Western movie covering such a subject would likely introduce us to specific soldier characters at some length, possibly derailing the larger narrative to do this. The Chinese here do it rather differently. They take the overall sweep of the story and drop the characters in to it. There are deserters, there are brave and heroic fighters and there are men who move from the former to the latter group. The writers also sketch civilian characters living across the river.… Read the rest

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Dunkirk

Director – Christopher Nolan – 2017 – UK – Cert. 12a – 106m

*****

Review originally published in DMovies.org. On Amazon Prime from Thursday, April 1st.

British filmmaker Christopher Nolan – now one of the highest-grossing film directors in history, with the Dark Knight trilogy under his belt – has created a complex and multilayered film that cleverly interweaves three separate narrative strands: 1) on land over a week a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) after he arrives alone at Dunkirk beach and falls in with others (including the music superstar and heartthrob Harry Styles); 2) on sea over a day a small, requisitioned, civilian boat (crew: three) go to bring home trapped combatants; and 3) in the air over an hour three Spitfires fly a sortie.

Nolan is fascinated by time and runs these in parallel so that an incident partly revealed in one strand is later retold in another revealing more. There’s a constant sense of the clock ticking differently in the three time frames: mind-bending and exhilarating stuff.

Full review at DMovies.org.

On Amazon Prime from Thursday, April 1st.

Trailers:

Original UK theatrical release: Friday, July 21st 2017.

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Once Upon A Time In China (Wong Fei Hung, 黃飛鴻)

Director – Tsui Hark – 1991 – Hong Kong – Cert. 15 – 135m

****1/2

Groundbreaking, period martial arts epic features some of the most spectacular stunt sequences ever filmed, spawned five sequels and made Jet Li a star – online in the UK as part of Focus Hong Kong 2021 Easter from Wednesday, March 31st to Tuesday, April 6th

The real life Wong Fei Hung (1847-1925) was a Chinese practitioner of martial arts and medicine who lived in Foshan and has been the subject of over a hundred films. Tsui Hark’s 1991 production is one of the best known and spawned a series of six movies in total, four of them with Jet Li as Wong, arguably his most iconic role.

Militia-laden American and British and French ships anchored in the harbour put Foshan in an uneasy position and Wong is concerned, as well he might be since it turns out in the course of the narrative that the Americans under a man named Jackson (Jonathan Isgar) are not only tricking local men into debt via getting them to pay for their passage to San Francisco but also trafficking Chinese women into prostitution in the New World. The film isn’t particularly interested in these misdemeanours except as providing motivation for its villain.… Read the rest

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The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

Director – Peter Jackson – 2003 – New Zealand – Cert. 12a – 201m (263m)

*****

(NB Extended Edition, in cinemas from Monday, August 10th 2020, 263m in cinemas due to extended frame rate = 252m version released on DVD 2004.)

This review of the 201m theatrical version was originally published in Third Way.

A much shorter review appeared in What’s On In London.

A pre-screening article on The Lord Of The Rings appeared in Sussed in 2001.

Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings is a labour of love by a brilliant academic obsessed by myth and language better at creating an alternate world than at story construction. Nowhere in the trilogy is this more evident than in The Return Of The King. Frodo’s trip to Mount Doom to unmake Sauron’s One Ring builds up incredibly to a climactic pivotal event running little more than a paragraph. This is followed by another hundred pages or so tying up loose ends, including a sequence in which evil wizard Saruman turns the Shire into a post-industrial dictatorship that’s trivial compared with the geographic enormity of what has gone before.

Jackson and co-writers wisely omit that sequence; indeed, in its last weeks of post-production his The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King has chopped its scenes of Saruman (Christopher Lee) at Isengard – on the grounds that it slowed down the start.… Read the rest

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The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition)

Director – Peter Jackson – 2003 (2002) – New Zealand – Cert. 12a – 225m

*****

(NB Extended Edition, in cinemas from Monday, July 27th 2020, 235m in cinemas due to extended frame rate = 225m version released on DVD 2004. Original theatrical cut: 199m)

This always had the problem that it’s the second film in a trilogy. If you think you might want to watch all three, you’ll watch the first movie. If you want to see how the story ends up, you might possibly jump straight in at the last movie (although to be honest, you’d be better watching the first movie The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring and then if you like it the other two as well.)

That said, both this second movie The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers and the third film The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King deal with the problem of opening the film admirably, in both cases doing so in creative ways. This one leaps back to Gandalf being dragged down a chasm by a Balrog in FOTR and then, once we think we’re getting closer to finding out what happened, has Frodo waken from a dream.… Read the rest

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The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Extended Edition)

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Extended Edition)

Director – Peter Jackson – 2002 (2001) – New Zealand – Cert. PG – 229m

*****

(NB Extended Edition, in cinemas from Monday, July 24th 2020, 227m in cinemas due to extended frame rate = 218m version released on DVD 2004. Original theatrical cut: 178m)

It’s a very different thing writing about a new movie which you’re watching for the first time and an old movie with which you’re familiar. Even stranger when the movie concerned is an adaptation of a book with which you’re equally familiar. Odder still when the property exists in its original form (which was actually a side project of something else, Professor J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle-earth project) but also in a highly regarded 13 x 1 hour BBC radio adaptation skilfully adapted by Brian Sibley.

Although it’s Tolkien’s material, for me it’s as if The Lord Of The Rings existed somewhere out there and Tolkien wrote it down in book form (Where does artistic creativity come from? Discuss) after which Sibley successfully wrote it down in radio drama form and Jackson and his two screenwriting collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens turned it into a movie trilogy.… Read the rest