Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954, Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune,  Rentarō Mikuni, Kuroemon Ono, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada

(10-Masterpiece)

Epic. Gorgeous. Awesome.

The first film in this epic trilogy charting the evolution of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (Mifune). This installment follows Miyamoto in his early years as a rebellious soldier out for personal glory along with his friend Matahachi. After fighting for the losing side in a war, the two men forge wildly different paths for themselves, with Matahachi becoming idle after marrying an older seductress, and Miyamoto becoming a priest after a saintly man rescues him from his life as a fugitive. Added to the plot is Miyamoto’s romance with the woman who was supposed to marry Matahachi, and the story is set up for later installments. It’s a beautiful film on its own, but even more substantial as part of this sweeping series.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Seven Samurai (1954, Directed by Akira Kurosawa) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Yoshio Inaba, Daisuke Katō, Keiko Tsushima

(10-Masterpiece)

Epic. Impressive. Unforgettable.

A quaint village suffering the tyrannical rule of a local gang of bandits must resort to outside help. With little or no money, how can they expect any great warriors to come fight for them? Eventually, they get a saintly warrior to take up the cause, and he, in turn, enlists five others. Add to this mix, the star, Toshiro Mifune, who tags along pretty much uninvited, becoming integral to their fight later on. This story has been told so many times in its wake, but The Seven Samurai remains the best of its model. The pinnacle of epic filmmaking. Grand, classic entertainment. Inspired The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, Three Amigos! directly.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Being There: A Masterclass in Buffoonery (1979, Directed by Hal Ashby) English 10

Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Denise DuBarry, Richard A. Dysart

(10-Masterpiece)

Profound. Brilliant. Moving.

Peter Sellers, one of the great film comics of all time, built his persona on being the versatile fool. The bumbling French detective. The sage foreigner crashing a Hollywood party. Whatever the premise, whatever the accent, the joke was on him, and he was loved for it. But he saved his best performance right up until the end as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, released in 1979, just one year before his death. While the role is somewhat of a departure for Sellers, it still works largely because of our knowledge of his star image going in. The big difference is that this time instead of us laughing at Sellers’ foolishness, we are laughing at everyone else for not recognizing it.

Being There, adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, concerns Chance, a man we gather who has worked as a gardener for a wealthy man his whole life. Who his parents are, we’re not told. We also learn pretty early that Chance is unintelligent. After his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out of the house and onto the street. He apparently has never left the house, and we hear from a maid who also worked in the house that he cannot read or write. How can he survive in the world with no skillset outside of gardening, no intelligence, and advanced age? Fate puts Chance in the home of another wealthy man. A woman’s chauffeur hits the simple gardener. As an act of decency or perhaps just to avoid a lawsuit she, Eve (MacLaine) takes him to her mansion and has her doctor look at him. Eventually, he meets the influential Ben Rand (Douglas), the head of the house, the woman’s much older husband, an adviser to the president. Suddenly, Chance, the Gardener, becomes Chancey Gardiner and an instant star in the political world. His common advice about gardening is perceived as profound statements about the United States political landscape. This premise is the basis for Peter Sellers’ best performance and the most personal project he ever worked on. He fought for years to get this film made.

It sounds like a premise for anyone of Seller’s previous broad comedies. An idiot becomes political adviser to the president; a perfect setup for buffoonery. But Being There is not that film, and Peter Sellers does not give that kind of performance. Instead, we are given a profound and gentle satire. There are layers to it.  One level on which the film works is similar to say The Party, another film in which Sellers starred in. A sincere if simple-minded fool earns the respect of his peers through no effort on his part. The deeper level and the great thing that happens in the movie to me (and not everyone may feel this way as the film is very much open to interpretation) is that it sets Chance up as a comic figure- we laugh at how the sophisticated, brilliant upper-class society is taken in by a simpleton, believing him to be a wise man-but eventually I came to view him as a wise man myself. He does not pretend to know things he doesn’t. He only talks when he has something to say. When, in the end, Chance walks on water, I am surprised and then not surprised. Again there have been many interpretations of this scene, but my feeling is that because he doesn’t know that human beings can’t walk on water, he just does it. He almost literally knows no limitations.

So what drew Peter Sellers to this character? Why did he feel he had to play this character? He once said, “Most actors want to play “Othello”, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardiner. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.” I think there is a general feeling of comedians being part of the meek. It is not the popular, great looking men or women who make us laugh in film typically. I can see why Sellers would be drawn to that aspect of the story. He said of himself, “I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I’m such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, “Why doesn’t he get off? Why doesn’t he get off?” I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise, I shan’t be able to go on working.” Also, and this idea was probably not conscious on his part, but there is somewhat of a parallel between Chance, apparently an unfeeling fool who proves to be incredibly sensitive and wise, and Peter Sellers, seen as just a clown and rumored to be a hard, cold personality. Sellers gives Chance a very bland appearance and plays him like a blank slate that slowly becomes a beautiful mystery. Again Sellers said this about himself, and I see it manifested in Chance, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed. To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.” As the last film of his career, while he was alive, Sellers gets to play the Scaramouche for a final time, and then leave us thinking he wasn’t what he seemed, as he walks across the water, more than just a buffoon.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(618)

The Incredibles (2004, Directed by Brad Bird) English 10

Voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Wallace Shawn, Jason Lee, Brad Bird

(10-Masterpiece)

Clever. Exciting. Funny.

In an alternate reality where superheroes exist but are forced to remain dormant by law, Bob Parr (A.K.A Mr. Incredible), along with his wife and three kids, struggle with obscurity, unfulfilled potential, and the malaise of everyday life. Then comes along a mysterious woman with a cash offer and the promise of excitement. A fantastic take on the superhero genre, blending it in with the problems of a suburban sitcom family, executed splendidly with several priceless moments and an unforgettable scene stealer in Edna Mode (voiced by the director, Brad Bird).

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(617)

The Thin Man (1934, Directed by W.S Van Dyke) English 10

Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Edward Brophy, Cesar Romero, Porter Hall

Image result for the thin man

(10-Masterpiece)

Charming. Engrossing. Classic.

Nick (Powell) and Nora Charles (Loy) are a happily married couple spending Christmas in New York. Nick used to be a pretty nifty private eye but has settled down with the help of his wealthy heiress wife. Now, with the disappearance of an old client, Nick is thrust back in the detective seat, only this time his wife wants to help. Powell and Loy are adorable together, and the comedy works so well because it’s placed perfectly within an intriguing mystery. Nick and Nora will always be a hallmark for screen chemistry.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(615)

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola) English 10

Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Frederick Forrest

(10-Masterpiece)

Awe-inspiring. Sublime. Masterful.

   Apocalypse Now in its own abstract way shows the horror of the Vietnam War as a symptom of human darkness. Scene after scene demonstrates the idea of nobody being left untouched by the war, and yet the film never lingers on any individual or setting long enough for us to feel any real heaviness towards what we are watching. The violence seems gratuitous, which is odd in a war movie. When a character is killed, we sense that it wasn’t supposed to happen, or that it didn’t have to happen. And there aren’t any abiding sentiments from the protagonists signaling us to care about the carnage and death occurring on screen. Everything that happens just happens, and our guide through this hellish odyssey, Captain Willard (played perfectly by Martin Sheen), has long since given up trying to do anything about it. When a young sailor under his command gets a little too gung-ho and guns down a local family, killing two, and wounding a third, Willard finishes the job and essentially tells the crew to get back to work. He has a job to do. He must find a wayward Colonel (Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando as almost a boogie man) who has set himself up as a god in Cambodia. Willard has no interest for the majority of the film in distractions. He calmly sits and waits while the crew busies themselves with Playboy bunnies that are flown in for military enjoyment. All of these elements, I believe, are to serve the narrative’s ideas of disenchantment, apathy, and, principally, chaos. Clearly, critical things are happening constantly, and yet, nothing really matters. The consequences are quiet, emotions are muted.

There are a number of supporting characters, memorable characters at that, but most of them are one dimensional. Again this serves the narrative in leaving us with the stoic, contemplative Willard as our key. The beginning scene illustrates his loss of stability and perhaps sanity. He has fever dreams, and shadow-boxes the demons in his empty hotel room, wearing only his skivvies. He is no longer fit for anything but battle. During his journey, he meets several characters that are used more to represent an idea than to act as believable human beings. We are introduced to Robert Duval’s character (Kilgore) as he looks to, but never actually does, give water to an enemy soldier with his guts hanging out. Kilgore just wants to surf. Willard’s narration lets us know that Kilgore is the kind of guy that you know will survive the war. Laurence Fishburne is a black teenager that dances to the Rolling Stones on the way to battle. He dies listening to a tape-recording of his mother’s voice as she wishes him safety. The naval leader of the boat voyage (another stoic type and everyone’s image of a chief) is killed by, of all things, a spear. These parts serve to underline the madness of it all. I spoke earlier of disenchantment because no movie makes clearer the disenchantment of the United States towards our first real military failure. In the film’s most famous scene, evoking a sense of ambiguity, Willard hops along for an invasion of a Viet Cong base as Kilgore leads his men in helicopters across picturesque skies blaring Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries. It is a glorious image. The music is triumphant. The violence is exciting and beautiful. Is Coppola glorifying war? It’s been said that the scene was used by the military for troop morale. I believe though, that in the context of the film, the scene serves as another piece of absurdity to an abstract picture. When you consider that the whole reason for the air strike is basically so that Kilgore has a nice place to surf, no amount of excitement or beauty could justify the violent means to his ridiculous end. Politically, the film is very ambiguous. Does war turn men into Kurtz?  When Willard finally makes it to Kurtz, the latter makes a sort of crazy man’s sense to Willard. And when Willard completes his mission and kills Kurtz, the natives bow before him; he has taken Kurtz place. Willard and Kurtz appear to be two sides of the same coin as the expression goes. Both resigned. Willard resigned to do his job. Kurtz resigned to the Godlike status bestowed upon him, and finally to his assassination.

There is a scene of Willard walking through a massive forest completely dwarfed by nature, and I wondered about man’s significance. Kurtz does not put much importance in the life of an individual, but in the forest scene, I wondered if the film was making the same point: we are all just dust in the wind. What does Willard go back to? With redux opposed to the original, I like to imagine him going back to the French woman, but again we are left with more questions than answers.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Yojimbo (1961, Directed by Akira Kurosawa) Japanese 10

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai,  Yoko Tsukasa

(10-Masterpiece)

Iconic. Grand. Flawless.

A nonchalant drifter (Mifune) arrives in a town beset by rival gangs. Without a name or any explicit motive, the drifter feigns support for both sides while secretly playing them against each other. Inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Glass Key (great in its own right), Yojimbo is wildly entertaining, funny, cool, and, with its anachronistic soundtrack, the source of inspiration for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Mifune is unforgettable as the mysterious and deceptive nameless rogue.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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