The Hidden Fortress


Viewed – 17 July 2020. Blu-ray

(Akira Kurosawa season: part one)

I’d heard many good things about legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa over the years, how he had influenced so many directors, his style having defined much of cinema as we know it, from the John Ford Westerns to Sci-Fi sagas like Star Wars. So I thought it high time I sat down to one of his movies, having recently picked up a box set of some of his most famed titles.

This movie from 1958 starts out with a duo of squabbling farmers who stumble upon the plight of a missing Princess and an invading army hellbent on killing her and claiming the kingdom for themselves. Initially hoping to turn their fortunes around by finding the Princess and claiming the bounty, the farmers soon find themselves befriending her and her bodyguard – a former General.

This was easy to get into, as I had had some trepidation concerning if I’d like this sort of movie. However the bumbling, squabbling farmers are good fun and the General, played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune is a likeable yet imposing presence that I was quickly routing for. The actress playing the Princess was also appealing even if her dialogue is limited for the most part. Kurosawa’s direction is decent with a few stand-out sequences including a tense one on one fight, a large scale escape from a fortress involving a ton of extras, and an eye-catching ‘fire festival’ sequence. George Lucas has named this as an influence on Star Wars, yet apart from his similarity between the farmers and R2D2 and C3PO, that’s where I felt comparisons ended.

It’s a tad long at 138 minutes, and isn’t as eventful as it could have been, with much of the running time taken up by the (admittedly enjoyable) banter between the four main characters. It’s also unclear who the invading army are (the mongols?) and what the setting is. Yet for my first foray into the movies of Akira Kurosawa, I still got a lot out of this, enough to make me thirsty for more.

The Blu-Ray from the BFI box set I picked up has a very pleasing, clear B&W image that’s quite eye-catching at times. Subtitles are also well done and easy to follow. Sound is effective, with clear dialogue and a pounding score despite being in standard stereo. Extras are a let down though, with only an interview with George Lucas and a trailer. There’s also strangely no scene selection.

Verdict::

(the movie) Good

(the Blu-ray) Good

The 2010s – a decade in movies


The 2010’s has been an interesting decade. I think the popularity of superhero movies has dominated and we also got the return of Star Wars so yes, Disney were raking it in these past ten years. The decade has also further cemented the popularity of streaming services and how Hollywood has looked to these services with a greater amount of seriousness than previously and that is why big name directors like Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers to name but two, have launched big budget movies on these platforms. Add to this major Hollywood talent taking TV and streaming exclusive rolls, and the future looks bright for these services. That’s not to take anything away from the big screen cinema experience which I still feels has a great deal to offer, and although gimmicks like 3D have begun to fall off, nothing can beat what is still such an immersive form of entertainment.

Looking back over the decade and the numerous top tens I’ve done at the end of each year (look out for my 2019 top ten tomorrow), it’s also clear there’s been many top quality movies released, some that have gone on to become firm all time favourites. Black Swan and The Revenant especially are two of my favourites of the decade. Alongside these movies I’d also place the much underrated Stoker, as well as Shutter Island and Nightcrawler, all movies with stand out central performances and directors with a unique vision.

When it comes to the massive onslaught of comic book adaptations I’d call the first Avengers movie as well as Avengers Infinity War, the brooding (and brutal) Logan and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie all solid gold entertainment. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Wonder Woman can also join that list. It’s a shame then that DC on a whole couldn’t live up to Marvel’s consistency with Batman V Superman and Justice League both disappointing.

Horror, so stuck in a rut for longer than I can remember began to finally discover a new lease of life with directors like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster and Fede Alverez delivering breath-of-fresh air experiences like Us, Hereditary and Don’t Breathe, and even remakes like Evil Dead and IT didn’t feel as stale as they could have done. Add to this Far Eastern gems like I Saw the Devil and Train to Busan delivered a high level of quality to the genre.

If I was to pick my personal favourite movies of the decade, I’d have to choose Christopher Nolan‘s mind-bending Inception, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s utterly unique Birdman, the aforementioned Black Swan from Darren Arronofsky and Wes Anderson‘s captivating Grand Budapest Hotel, although the fan-boy in me might also place J J AbramsStar Wars: The Force Awakens on that list just because…

So yes the 2010’s has been a great decade. It further pioneered special effects, unique approaches to story telling and proved the blockbuster still could have depth beyond the avalanches of CGI. It also gave us career defining performances. We also have it better than ever for home entertainment. What the next decade has waiting for us I can only dream but know that the much delayed but highly anticipated Avatar sequels will be a good start.

Roll on 2020 and beyond…

Star Wars: Episode IX


Viewed – 23 December 2019 Cinema

The Rise Of Skywalker

(edited after second viewing)

If this wasn’t my most anticipated movie of the year, I don’t know what was. I struggled with the last entry, The Last Jedi a movie that with subsequent viewings has gone up in my appreciation but remains highly uneven. This final movie though, the conclusion of the Skywalker saga brings forth the return of a long suspected dead enemy … The Emperor! With a new threat to the galaxy, Rey and her friends intend to seek out and destroy him once and for all, whilst conflicted Kylo Ren intends to turn to him for guidance as the new supreme leader of the First Order.

I’ll admit this storyline comes out of nowhere and is a blatant attempt to steady the ship following some of Rian Johnson’s ill-conceived plot twists in Last Jedi … but the return of Ian McDiarmid‘s Emperor Palpetine was welcome and the ageing actor nails the necessary maniacal menace. The immediacy of the threat propelled the action from the off as we’re treated to some great battle sequences, mixed with solid character moments that showcase the chemistry this new cast still has. The psychic bond between Daisy Ridley‘s Rey and Adam Driver‘s Kylo-Ren turns out to be the big focus and is further explored and the movie used it in several creative ways. It proves the best aspect and is surrounded by many highly entertaining scenes including a plot thread involving C3P0 losing his memory and some (thankfully) well-timed humour as well as a perfect tone that took me right back to how it felt seeing Star Wars as a kid.

If I had to nitpick it would be the clearly forced Emperor plot, and there’s too much emphasis on nostalgia. And like all Star Wars movies it has some silly bits, and there’s a couple of jarring character moments (General Hux!?!). Yet in the grand scheme of things it’s so damn enjoyable, such gripes can be forgiven. As a story that has spanned over 40 years, this felt like a good conclusion and ticked many of my boxes. There was a lot riding on this final movie and the conclusion of such a long running saga. There’s not a great deal here that entirely makes this trilogy a story that had to be told other than to reintroduce Star Wars to a new generation and make up for the failings of the prequel trilogy. Yet with highly memorable characters, some great moments (and some questionable ones) I feel this has still been a worthwhile endeavour for the filmmakers and as a fan I am mostly satisfied with what they achieved.

Verdict: 4 /5

Star Wars: Episode VIII


Viewed – 20 December 2017  Cinema

The Last Jedi

After what I’d call the triumphant success of Episode VII: The Force Awakens for re-establishing a much loved franchise and resurrecting it from the ashes of George Lucas’ mostly misguided prequels – I awaited this follow up in the proposed trilogy with no small degree of anticipation.  What would Luke Skywalker say to Rey on top of that mountain?  What would Kylo Ren do in wake of what he did to his own father Han Solo?  I was about to find out…

Following the destruction of star-killer base, Kylo Ren and General Hux lead the First Order in an assault against the resistance to restore rule over the galaxy. Rian Johnson (Looper) takes over directing duties and has delivered what largely looks like a Star Wars movie, has the action and confrontations you’ll expect from a Star Wars movie, but offers up a decidedly different feel than expected following Force Awakens and Rogue One.  This is a much more lighter in tone movie with what appears to be a stronger focus on a somewhat child-friendly audience with as a result, a surprising lack of menace.  Almost every serious situation is sprinkled with humour, sometimes well judged, sometimes out of place.  When two of the main bad guys end up coming off like a squabbling comedy double act, something seemed a little off.

Kylo RenThankfully we do get what we came for, especially Rey (a more mature Daisy Ridley, settling into her role) finding herself getting reluctantly trained by a world-weary and cynical Luke (Mark Hamill), and discovering a telepathic link with Kylo Ren (a still slightly bratty yet complex Adam Driver).  This as expected turns out to be the movie’s beating heart, with the myriad of space battles and daring missions onto enemy starships proving less enthralling (especially that casino sequence).  Finn (John Boyega) again sits awkwardly between hero and bumbling buffoon, with Po (Oscar Isaac) taking a (much appreciated) larger role at the forefront of the dogfights and fancy X-Wing piloting.  However the late Carrie Fisher seems to get put on a pedestal (be it intentionally or following reshoots after the iconic star’s passing) and is bizarrely given a rather God-like stature with one scene in particular just coming out of nowhere, leaving me baffled. She’s great, but her character doesn’t seem to fit in with what we’ve previously known.

That’s ultimately where Episode VIII falls a part.  Characters that we’ve grown to know and love, are poorly handled (Luke included), add to this a Saturday morning cartoon vibe to action, performances and situations, and although I still gasped at certain moments and got the feels where it counted … I also didn’t get all that invested – and I really should have.  For it’s pluses and minuses, this is still a fun, visually spectacular and at times exciting sequel.  Yet as a long time Star Wars fan, it leans closer to those prequels than either the earlier movies or the recent ones … and that’s slightly worrying.

Verdict:  3 /5

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


Viewed – 29 December 2016  Cinema

George Lucas’ shock sale of his beloved Star Wars to Disney seemed like a concern at one stage.  Yet considering the work he’d done delivering three prequels that seemed to focus more on CGI than gripping narratives with fully fleshed out characters … perhaps it was time for another company to try their hand?  The result?  Well we got The Force Awakens and the rest as they say, is history.  Or is it?  The proposed continuation of the saga was also going to have a series of spin-off movies focusing on plots away from but connected to the main saga.  So despite that last movie’s un-argued success in bringing back a once treasured franchise … it could still all go tits up.

Rogue One

Jyn is the daughter of a scientist who at the beginning of this movie gets taken away to work on the Empire’s latest weapon.  Yes Daddy is helping build the death star.  Cue fifteen years after and Jyn is all grown up and seeking out the rebellion and the man who rescued her after her father was taken.  However along the way she befriends a reluctant assassin (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid and also a defected imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed).  Turns out there’s a mission to steel the plans to the death star in hope of finding a weak point, and so sets forth a sort of inter-galactic dirty dozen and boy, was I along for the ride.

droidA different beast to The Force Awakens but every bit as polished and entertaining, this boasts several stunning battle sequences that possibly eclipse that movie and strong performances, especially from newcomer Felicity Jones and her band of brothers, including a blind monk played by martial arts supremo Donnie Yen.  The movie plays itself rather serious for the most part but still finds time for gentle in-jokes and plenty of ‘was that…?’ and ‘hey that’s…!’ visual nods to Star Wars of yester-year.  Effects work is some of the best I’ve seen this year, even down to a shockingly real (sorry…spoilers) recreation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin from the very first movie (apart from those eyes…).  Add to this perfect set design, costumes and some gorgeous cinematography and well, this had my jaw hitting my lap on a regular basis.  That much loved mysticism of Star Wars, especially the force, Jedi’s etc. seemed pushed aside however in favor of a more gritty ‘mission’ structure.  It also has to be said, some of the support characters were under-developed.

This could have been just a simple cash-in.  Yet director Gareth Edwards has made an inspired ‘alternative take’ on a familiar franchise and delivers a loving celebration at the same time.  So if you hadn’t figured it out already – I loved this.

Verdict:  5 /5