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

Ring


Viewed – 22 March 2019. Blu-ray

Following the mysterious deaths of a group of students, a rookie female reporter investigates links to an urban legend revolving around a cursed video tape. The movie that started it all. An international sensation that spawned several sequels as well as an American remake. So how does this 1998 original hold up? Well, what Japanese horror does well and this does equally well is that ‘unsettling stillness’. Dark Water, by same director Hideo Nakata, avoids clichéd jump scares or gore, favouring gradual menace this movie cemented and made a genre all its own. Add influences from traditional Japanese folklore, and traditional detective stories as well as Japanese ghost stories spawned what we now know as J-horror.

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More an eerie drama than full-on scare-fest, this feels rather lightweight despite its reputation, even though that slow burning ticking clock plot device helps deliver a sense of dread that makes that famed, often satirised and copied ending all the more powerful. However, performances are largely only passable and often overly theatrical.  Thankfully, Nakata’s direction is restrained but suitably creepy, helped by a great sense of unease if avoiding full on chills mostly., and that incredibly effective, freaky soundtrack does crank up the horror.  Yet overall, this is rather dated today and the plot doesn’t make much sense, leaving many questions unanswered.  A girl trapped in a well, a curse, deaths but er… how does that connect to videotapes? It seems to me like a convenient plot device.  It’s also  to me this was a clear influence on recent cult hit ‘It Follows’ amongst other movies.

The new 4k restoration from Arrow Video boasts a decent picture with effective sound treatment in DTS HD master audio 5.1. The movie is rather stilted and bland to look at yet this only adds to it’s atmosphere. Extras consist of a fascinating commentary from film historian David Kalat. We also get a complete version of the cursed video (date you watch it?) and several worthwhile featurettes.  There are also trailers and a photo gallery. Decent treatment for a classic that whilst diluted by modern standards, still deserves its place in horror movie history.  And yes, I prefer it over its Hollywood remake.

Verdict:

(the movie). 3.5 /5

(the Blu-Ray)  4 /5

Mary and the Witch’s Flower


Viewed – 09 September 2018  Blu-ray

When news reached me that beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli were closing their doors, I was concerned that the type of movies seemingly unique to that studio, would never see the light of day again.  Thankfully that concerned was quashed on hearing about this release from new studio  ‘Studio Ponoc’ and directed by Ghibli stalwart Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  Based on the children’s book ‘The Little Broomstick’ by author Mary Stewart, we have Mary, a spirited young girl who stumbles upon an enchanted broomstick one day after wondering into a misty forest.  Soon she is transported to another world, a school for witchcraft not dissimilar to Hogwarts, where the colourful characters may be hiding a secret linked to a sacred flower.

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This is where the movie revealed an identity crisis, that lingered throughout.  Despite best intentions and a charming veneer of wonder and imagination with top-notch hand-drawn animation … echoes of the movie’s heritage and titles like Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service meant it all quickly began to feel overly familiar.  No bad thing but the characters whilst interesting to look at and with some typically bonkers design … lacked personality.  Apart from Mary herself, an endearing yet clichéd character for this type of movie … the villains and various side characters just came off as typical, with the villain’s scheme also not fully explored. 

Yet a twist towards the end was welcome and brought the story full circle in a particularly satisfying way and add some fun action and plenty of energy – I still found a lot to enjoy.  Ghibli-lite, but as (hopefully) the start of a new era for Japanese animation, this is a promising start.

Verdict:  3 /5

The Age of Shadows


Viewed – 05 May 2018  Blu-ray

I’m certainly a fan of Korean cinema.  Over the years I’ve discovered some real gems and found myself liking certain directors and actors the more I see their movies.  This critically acclaimed thriller follows Police captain Lee Jung‑Chool (Kang Ho-song) who infiltrates a group of resistance fighters who are reportedly planning a series of bombings on Japanese establishments during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s.  As a Korean born man, Lee Jung finds himself questioning his allegiance when a charismatic resistance fighter befriends him and lets him in on their plans.

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This tale of loyalty, double crosses and war time espionage is shot with no end of style and class.  The set design and photography here is simply breath-taking and further cements director Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) as one of the best the country has to offer.  Although at times overly-complicated, this was at times gripping with some brilliantly executed set-pieces including a tense sequence aboard a train and an exhilarating finally set to the music of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.  Add to this two strong turns from Kang-Ho Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Host) and Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) and even though occasional shoot-outs got a tad repetitive … it was the battle of wits at the centre of the story that came across strongest.

Not one of those Korean movies I’d leap to recommend over so many others, but if you’re a fan of well-made world cinema, this is still worth your time.

Verdict:  3.5 /5

Your Name


Viewed – 23 November 2017  Blu-ray

I love animation.  I love all types of animation.  I have a particular soft spot however for Japanese animation, often named ‘anime’.  This highly acclaimed and box-office record breaking (in Japan) drama however arrived with some anticipation.  It tells the story of two teenagers who find their lives inexplicably connected when they swap bodies seemingly at random, and try to figure out why it’s happening and is the arrival of a passing comet something to do with it all?

Your Name

This beautifully animated and eye-catching movie was a little hard to get into at first and I did wonder initially what all the fuss was about, beyond the visuals.  It’s a body-swap drama but told in such a way it’s not all that clear what’s going on.  However it’s a story that unravels gradually all leading to a ‘Oooh’ moment when the various pieces fall into place that turns everything on it’s head.  The two central characters; Japanese school kid ‘Taki’ and suburban school kid ‘Mitsuha’ are well rounded and interesting, funny and complex.  The surrounding characters are also are a lot of fun.  The attention to detail as often is the case with Japanese animation explores Japanese traditions, way of life and little quirks I found endlessly fascinating especially as an outsider to the culture. 

Director Makoto Shinkai‘s movie also throws in several goose-bump emotional moments that really pack a punch and once a certain story element reveals itself and it head into a powerful conclusion, I was left very impressed.  Granted, it takes some unnecessarily complex turns to get there, but where it goes is well worth the journey.  Recommended.

Verdict:  4 /5