Movie Review – “Dersu Uzala” (1975)

 

 

This is another case where the story of how the film got made is better than the film itself. Even though we now praise Akira Kurosawa as the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time, and one of the most inspirational filmmakers ever, that was not the case when he was making films in the 1960s and 70s. For the most part, Kurosawa’s films were hated in Japan because they were “too western,” which was really made worse when his previous film, “Dodes’ka-den,” was a flop with both critics and audiences. After it failed, no Japanese film studio wanted to work with Kurosawa, basically blacklisting an amazing filmmaker.

At this point, Kurosawa entered a very dark and terrible portion of his career, even attempting suicide at one point because he couldn’t make his movies. But eventually, Kurosawa was approached by Mosfilm, a Russian film studio, to do an adaptation of the famous 1923 memoirs of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, as he charted the Sikhote-Alin region in far east Russia and the native trapper he met and befriended along the way, named Dersu Uzala. Kurosawa happily took the job, saying that he had wanted to adapt the memoirs since his career started in the 1930s, but felt it could only work if he could film it in Russia.

The only way Kurosawa could continue to make movies at this point was to work out of a different country entirely and make a film in a language he didn’t speak. To me, that speaks volumes of how much Kurosawa loved making movies and his dedication and passion for his craft.

 

 

The result is “Dersu Uzala,” which adores the vast emptiness and wilderness of the Russian landscape as “Doctor Zhivago” did. Every shot in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the sun is setting over the cold frozen tundras, showing us how stunning this part of the world can be but also how deadly and unforgiving, which is why these explorers keep coming back.

Other than that, the story is fairly generic as an ongoing tale of survival and exploring the wilderness, though it is not helped by the rather slow pacing at points later on the film as Dersu starts to lose his touch. Supposedly, the role of Dersu was originally offered to Toshiro Mifune, which I think would have made Dersu’s strength and resolve far more fascinating. Instead, we get a quiet and subdued Maxim Munzuk, who isn’t bad but leaves no impression on me either.

Overall, “Dersu Uzala” is worth watching to see Kurosawa recreate his style and visual storytelling in a vastly different environment and language, but the story itself is rather unimpressive. It is visually rich and surprisingly vibrant, but that’s to be expected from Kurosawa. If you’re curious to see the type of film Kurosawa made in the darker point of his career and what a Russian-Japanese co-production looks like, “Dersu Uzala” is worth checking out.

Final Grade: C+

 

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Movie Review – “In Cold Blood” (1967)

 

 

Imagine if “Psycho” was shown entirely from Norman Bates’ perspective, going into excruciating detail about the mental trauma he was going through and how it messed with his sense of right and wrong, and you’d probably get something like “In Cold Blood.” This film adds to this perspective by giving it all a distinct documentary feel, by casting actors with little to no acting experience, and filming everything on location, including the actual house in which these terrible crimes took place in.

“In Cold Blood” is based off the book of the same name, written by Truman Capote, which itself was based on real events, chronicling the tales of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson), two ex-convicts that learn of a easy way to make lots of money by invading an ordinary suburban home. Things go horribly wrong, and a family of four is murdered, while Perry and Dick hit the road to hide from these crimes, all while feeling no remorse or regret for what they did.

Part of the reason I feel “In Cold Blood” worked as well as it did in 1967 was because it hit on the paranoia, fear and lose of innocence that America was feeling at the time when this news really hit. Not that there weren’t murders before this time, but rather senseless, violent killings that had no motives or logic to any of it, just death to innocent people for no good reason. The movie touches upon the fear that this could happen to anyone in our country at any moment, meaning no one is truly ever safe.

 

 

“In Cold Blood” is unsettling, to say the least. It portrays Perry and Dick as men who could snap at just about any moment, from little moments like the two of them picking up glass bottles on the side of the highway with a little boy and his grandfather, to quiet moments with just them talking about how they won’t go back to jail. It takes the time to delve into their psyche, trying desperately to explain what makes them do it, without ever giving a definitive answer, leaving these men shrouded in enough mystery that you don’t truly relate to them. That being said, the only reason this film works is because of the manic-depressive performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson that make each scene a wild, unexpected ride.

Overall, I respect “In Cold Blood” for taking so many chances for a film in 1967 and telling an authentic tale that is often very hard to sit through. Having the main characters of your film be murderers with no remorse is one thing, but to do so in such a brutal, documentary-like style makes this an unforgettable film. Any film about a serial killer, or tries to get into the mind of a criminal, owes everything to “In Cold Blood.”

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Black Narcissus” (1947)

 

 

There’s something a tad odd that happens near the beginning of “Black Narcissus,” as our main character, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is told by her sister superior that she will be leading a team of nuns from their home in the United Kingdom into the Himalayas where they will set up a hospital and school for the natives. From that description, you would think this film would be about a culture clash and both sides ultimately learning to respect one another’s values and backgrounds, but it is anything but that. Especially when one of the opening scenes include a very ominous, dimly-lit room, while the sister superior talks and moves like the Emperor from “Star Wars.”

What makes this so odd is that, from a certain twisted perspective, the actions of the nuns throughout the rest of the film supports this point of view. They go into this foreign land with the intent of “helping” it, by teaching them morals and lessons that oppose their world view, destroy many of their ancient relics and throw away their societal beliefs in favor something “better.” One nun even admits at one point that she has a hard time telling them all apart.

“Black Narcissus” portrays the Anglican organization of nuns as a self-absorbed, petty and sometimes ruthless group that wishes to make the rest of the world like them. Honestly, I had John Williams’ Imperial March going through my head throughout most of this movie, imagining Sister Clodagh as Darth Vader and having a blast with this movie.

I think the charm of this movie is that it knows the nuns aren’t doing this for the greater good and are, in some ways, making things worse with their actions with how little they understand this different culture. They stick so close to their orders from higher up that it does make them seem like the villains.

 

 

Or at least, it does that for the organization itself. Over the course of the film, we see how the ideals and standards of being a nun effect these sisters, both physically and psychologically, to the point where some of them feel like they don’t have any identity anymore. These women try to act without emotion or weakness, and it feels like this is slowly killing them. They’re no longer act as individuals and are little more than a cog in a much bigger machine, when they want to be much more than that.

I’ve never seen a film that handles Anglican nuns with such open contempt, while also making them feel so human and relatable, which makes “Black Narcissus” such an odd film.

Outside of that, this is a gorgeous movie, with beautiful, stunning back drops and paintings that make you feel like this is set in the Himalayas. It might be one of the best uses of Technicolor while still having a distinct dim-light feel to it, making it feel atmospheric and moody while still having wonderful visuals, especially when you realize this came out in 1947. For these reasons, I find “Black Narcissus” to be a film that has only gotten better with age.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965)

 

 

It is fascinating that I saw “The Flight of the Phoenix” shortly after watching “Lord of the Flies,” and seeing how both have very similar situations, but each takes a vastly different approach, with each leaving little to no moral gray area. Both films concern the survivors of a plane crash and the inhospitable environment they now find themselves in. While “Lord of the Flies” gave in hostility and a loss of ethics, “The Flight of the Phoenix” bravely asserts a strong sense of morality and the need to be civilized above all else. Even as these men slowly lose their minds from the exhaustion and lack of water, the refuse to give in to temptation and turn on their fellow men.

In “The Flight of the Phoenix”‘s case, our group of survivors find themselves trapped in the middle of the Sahara desert after their plane crashes, with no hope of anyone coming to rescue them. They come up with all sorts of plans to get out of this, with some saying they should just try to walk out of there, but the craziest yet sensible plan is devised by a German plane engineer – take the working parts of the crashed plane and construct a new plane to get them out of there.

 

 

Part of the reason “The Flight of the Phoenix” works as well as it does is because of its small cast of proud yet strong characters. They all come from different background and cultures and, for the most part, none of them get along at all as they always butt heads and act like they’re the only ones doing all the work. James Stewart plays the pilot of the cargo plane, and he adds his always amazing style to this performance that adds some humanity to the role. Richard Attenborough plays his drunk co-pilot who learns a lot about himself and his quiet strength over the course of the film. Hardy Kruger plays the German engineer, who is a proud yet stubborn man who thinks of himself as being better and more deserving than anyone else there, which makes for a great foil to Jimmy Stewart. Even minor roles from Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine leave memorable impressions in the same way all the minor roles in “The Dirty Dozen” did.

I would describe “The Flight of the Phoenix” as “Lord of the Flies” but with the ethical and moral sense of “The Poseidon Adventure” while also having the same style of sense of humor and danger as “The Dirty Dozen.” Survival is the focus, but done so without removing the human desire for power and control over any given situation, even if life and death is on the line. I had a lot of fun with “The Flight of the Phoenix,” whether it was because of the well-rounded performances, the slowly poisonous atmosphere, or the many twists and turns throughout the story to keep everything fresh.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Rififi” (1955)

 

 

Sometimes all you need is one terrific scene in a movie to make it truly memorable or worth-noting. “Rififi” is one such film, one of the few French film noirs (even though the term “film noir” is French in origin, it’s more of a Hollywood phrase) that is highlighted by one of the greatest heists in film history and is otherwise are rather unremarkable movie. That being said, it is still worth checking out “Rififi” due to this thrilling heist, even if the rest of the film is fairly standard.

The film follows a group of gangsters, including one who just got out of prison after several years when his girlfriend ratted him out, as the four plot and plan an impossible jewelry heist on one of the most protected and secure vaults in all of France. The entire building is built around its sophisticated security system, to the point where even the slightest bit of noise will set off the alarm. Thus, the men come up with a convoluted and well-choreographed plan to dupe the system, and break into a heavily guarded vault without ever making any noise.

The heist itself takes up nearly half an hour, and it is one of the most heart-pounding, nerve-wracking scenes that literally had me chewing my finger nails. This entire sequence has no dialogue, music and very few sound effects, but each time a noise is made, your heart rate is guaranteed to pick up as you wonder if this is the one that’ll set off the alarm. In this film, sound becomes the enemy of both our characters and the audience, growing attune to how sensitive and deadly it can be, with that fear of sound growing as the film progresses. This also makes the planning stage of their heist just as valuable the job itself, like the start of a roller coaster before the inevitable drop and the twists and turns that are sure to follow.

 

 

However, outside of these thrilling sequences, “Rififi” doesn’t have much else going for it. Before they start planning the heist, the film moves as slowly as molasses and has about as much urgency as a Sunday driver. And once the heist is over, it feels like its retreading the same ground has any other heist movie, like “The Asphalt Jungle” or “Heat” when the chase to be free following their crimes begins. It makes the rest of the film feel uninspired and average, as it goes about its usual business without any flavor to any of it.

Overall though, “Rififi” is still worth your time because of its one-of-a-kind heist and one of the most tense 30 minutes in all of cinema. This film pays close attention to detail to help make its great idea stand out even more, pushing it far passed any other crime thriller in this regard. It is both brutal and stunning in a way that American films at the time couldn’t be and takes a lot of chances Hollywood wouldn’t dare, so at least “Rififi” never plays it safe.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “All the King’s Men” (1949)

 

 

“All the King’s Men” tells the tale of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a honest and kind man from the fictional state of Konoma who wants to make his town a better place, especially since it seems to be run by gangsters and corrupt politicians. A reporter from a big time newspaper, Jack Burden (John Ireland), writes several articles about Willie that get him noticed across the country, to the point that the political machine wants him to run for Governor of the state to turn the tide of a split vote. This leads Willie down a path of no return when the people fall in love with his ruthless yet powerful words and becomes just as corrupt and crooked as the politicians he originally hated.

I won’t dwell on how this was done better in films like “A Face in the Crowd” and “Citizen Kane,” but I will say that “All the King’s Men” overstays its welcome about halfway through the film and ends up repeating many of the same beats and points many times. The first half of the film is enjoyable due to Crawford’s performance as Willie Stark and how it truly feels like a man who wants a better group of people in the government, while John Ireland plays a reporter who falls in love with those ideas.

 

 

But a little bit over halfway through the film, it gets off the pleasant highway and gets stuck on a horse-racing track where it keeps going in circles for far longer than it needed to.

After a certain point, these characters just feel like a bunch of brick walls that refuse to learn or change their stances, even as many events happen that should change them. Willie remains a brute, Jack stubbornly stays by his side even though he really shouldn’t, and ultimately neither of them really learn anything. It’s like watching a toddler who refuses to play with more than one toy, except now that toddler is a gangster politician, and now it becomes infuriating.

Overall, while there’s a strong message absolute power corrupting, “All the King’s Men” could have stand to lose some repetitive scenes, especially in the second half. It gets to the point where all of these characters, that started out likable and relatable enough, become irredeemable pricks that have lost all heart and meaning. As a result, it often felt like this film had no soul.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Lord of the Flies” (1963)

 

 

There’s a fine line when it comes to watching the savagery of man unfold before your eyes. Films that dance this line are some of the best tales of morality and what it means to be a human and not an animal. But films that cross this line are the ones that over stay their welcome and just become grotesque tales that are more depressing and tiresome as they go on. Peter Brook’s 1963 “Lord of the Flies” crosses that line.

That’s not to say “Lord of the Flies” is a bad film, but that it left a bad taste in my mouth and not for the reasons it was supposed to. The film chronicles the tale of three dozen or so little boys surviving a plane crash in the Pacific and being stranded on a deserted island with no adult supervision. While the boys start out civilized enough and try to come up with rules so they can survive, they quickly devolve into a tribe-mentality who act more like animals than humans. The film is extremely minimalistic and has an almost-documentary style to its filmmaking, like we’re watching a real tribe of all little boys.

 

 

The main reason I feel “Lord of the Flies” doesn’t work as well as it could is because of these actors and their uninvested performances. Nobody here feels truly genuine, especially the leader of the group Ralph (James Aubrey), who just looks bored throughout most of the film. Most of the kids look like they don’t know what they’re doing or have any direction to go.

Director Peter Brook was known as an improvisational filmmaker, simply putting the camera in front of the actors and seeing what they came up with. This style often has the benefit of making everything feel more authentic, but only works if the actors can roll with the punches, which these little kids cannot. It’s like watching an episode of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” being performed by people who have never done improv in their lives. While they are children and don’t have as much experience with acting, their performances still bring down this movie.

“Lord of the Flies” is a tale about how we all have this savage instinct inside of us. That if we remove the morals of society, we’re all eventually resort to cruel, beastial acts to survive. The film does a fine job of showing this, especially since this is done using little kids, but that same strength is also a weakness. Moments like Ralph standing up to the hunters has about as much menace as an episode of “Rugrats,” so any moments of savagery just feel out of place for these uncaring children.

In other words, while “Lord of the Flies” has a great message, the execution of said-message leaves a lot to be desired.

Final Grade: C+