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The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

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Mifune: The Last Samurai – New Documentary on Japan’s Greatest Actor

2 Dec

“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a documentary on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune that recently played at the IFC Center in New York. To fans of Japanese film, Mifune needs no introduction. He is easily the best Japanese film actor of all time and, to many of us, arguably the greatest film actor in history. He is best known, of course, for his starring roles in films by Akira Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), arguably the greatest Japanese director of all time, but he also made numerous films for other noted Japanese directors, including Hiroshi Inagaki (The SAMURAI trilogy), Masaki Kobayashi (SAMURAI REBELLION), Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN), and Kinji Fukasaku (THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI), among others. He also made films in Hollywood and Europe, including GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, RED SUN and MIDWAY. I’ve written about one of his films here, JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY. He’s got 182 acting credits on IMDB—both film and television–and they extend from 1947 to 1995, two years before he died.

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Criterion Blogathon: Akira Kurosawa’s Judo Epic: SANSHIRO SUGATA, Parts One and Two

19 Nov

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This entry is part of the Criterion Blogathon sponsored by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943) and SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART TWO (1945) are the first and fourth films directed by Akira Kurosawa, a man I consider to be one of the five greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. In watching these two films for this blogathon, with PART TWO a first-time viewing, I found myself watching them not as Kurosawa films, but as early examples of the Asian martial arts genre, probably the earliest films I’ve seen with significant attention to an Asian martial art—in the case of the first film, judo and jujitsu, and in the second film, judo and karate. (There are occasional bursts of judo in Hollywood films of the war years, most notably the James Cagney movie, BLOOD ON THE SUN, 1945.) As such, I didn’t connect them to later Kurosawa films (although there’s an echo of them in RED BEARD’s judo sequence, 1965), but to later martial arts films, particularly a whole host of Hong Kong kung fu films in which young Chinese heroes spend years training and competing and developing their skills and often preparing for fights with Japanese practitioners of karate and other arts. (Think THE CHINESE BOXER, FIST OF FURY, HEROES OF THE EAST, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, FIST OF LEGEND, etc.) While the fights in the two SUGATA films are probably a lot more realistic than most such fights in films of this genre, I have to confess that I simply don’t find judo quite as cinematic a fighting art as karate and kung fu, not to mention swordfighting, or kendo. The combatants in judo and jujitsu spend an inordinate amount of time grabbing each other and grappling around the mat until they can find an opportunity to flip or throw their opponent. The grappling is often like a dance. Once the action starts, however, fights tend to end rather quickly, unlike Hong Kong kung fu films, where the fights can last ten-to-twenty minutes. Still, the two SUGATA films are rare examples of the art of judo depicted in detail on film and with great artistry.

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Halloween Special: Ghost Movies

30 Oct

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I participated this month in the DVD Talk Forum’s annual October Horror Challenge and I’ve managed to see a number of movies with ghostly themes and am struck by the wide range of treatments ghosts get in the movies. In the actual literature on reported ghost encounters in real life, ghosts usually manifest themselves by making noises and moving objects at haunted sites, but also making brief appearances to those individuals with the sensitivity to see such apparitions. Reported encounters in isolated places have included brief conversations between humans and ghosts, and even occasional sensations of physical contact by ghosts. In the movies, however, human characters routinely have long, intricate conversations with ghosts, take long, leisurely walks with them in both daytime and nighttime settings, have swordfights with them, and even make love to them. Ghosts in movies sometimes conform to the old spooky stereotype and bring their hands up in threatening gestures (“ooga booga”) and terrorize living humans, sometimes to the point of death. While ghost movies are generally as far-fetched as vampire, werewolf and zombie movies, they do offer a greater latitude of genre choices. Ghosts pop up in romances, comedies, musicals, horror, adventure, revenge thrillers, monster movies, and the occasional historical epic. Films as diverse as THE INNOCENTS, BLITHE SPIRIT, TOPPER, BEETLEJUICE, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE EYE, THE SHINING, SPIRITED AWAY, POLTERGEIST, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, UGETSU, GHOST, FIELD OF DREAMS and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies have all featured ghosts.

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1947 Blogathon: Postwar Hope and Despair: ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY and VIOLENCE

14 Jul

This entry is part of the 1947 Blogathon sponsored by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. I chose two films from 1947 to write about and my original plan was to do separate entries on them, but after watching them back-to-back, I realized that the contrasts between them were so interesting that I thought it best to do a comparison piece. The first is ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, Akira Kurosawa’s incisive portrait of postwar lovers in Tokyo caught up in a cycle of poverty, and I chose it because it was a Kurosawa film that I’d never seen before and this would be a good opportunity to finally see it.

The second is VIOLENCE, a low-budget melodrama from Monogram Pictures about an organization exploiting war veterans for power and profit, and I chose it because it was the closest thing I could find to a conspiracy thriller from 1947, a year filled with events in the U.S. that fueled so many conspiracy theories for years to come.

One film was made in a country recovering slowly from defeat and the ravages of war, while the other was made in a country flush with the glory of victory and newly emergent on the global stage as the dominant world power, yet the stories they tell offer a reversal of sorts.

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Yoshiko Kawashima – Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: Four Films

23 Jun

Earlier this year, I attended five films in a series at Japan Society in New York entitled “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara,” curated by Aiko Masubuchi, and wound up seeing five films there, three of them starring Yamaguchi, more widely known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and two of them starring Hara, all made in the years 1937-1943, during the period of Japan’s occupation of China. As preparation for seeing these films, I began reading a novel about Yamaguchi called The China Lover, by historian Ian Buruma, who has written several books about Japanese history and culture, two of which I’ve read. In the novel, there’s a character named Yoshiko Kawashima, who is also known as Eastern Jewel, a historical figure who was a princess of the Manchu royal family and a cousin of Pu Yi, the famed “Last Emperor” of China. She got her Japanese name when she was sent to Japan at the age of six to be raised by Naniwa Kawashima, a Japanese translator of Chinese and friend of Yoshiko’s father, Prince Su. She self-identified as Japanese for much of her life. I realized as I was reading about her that I own a DVD of a Hong Kong film called KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), a full-scale biopic starring Anita Mui in the title role. I’d never seen it, so I resolved to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A 50th Anniversary Look Back

2 Dec

On Saturday night, November 30, I realized it was the last night of the 50th anniversary month of the release of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, which opened in New York on November 17, 1963. So, while I had enough time to watch it in its entirety, I put in my Blu-ray copy of the film and watched it. The Blu-ray, an MGM release, offers the standard theatrical cut of 159 minutes, which includes overture, intermission and exit music. When I saw the film in February 1965 at a neighborhood theater in the Bronx, none of that stuff was offered, so the print I saw back then, according to an issue of Cue Magazine from January 1965 that a friend of mine helpfully consulted, was 152 minutes. This is in contrast to the 2-tape VHS copy I bought many years ago that offers a print of three hours and one minute thanks to numerous “trims” (lines of dialogue or bits of action cut here and there from the heads or tails of different scenes) inserted back into the film. I wasn’t crazy about that version since I tend to think that there was a good reason those bits were taken out in the first place. The film moves quicker and is much more streamlined without them.

Blu-ray cover

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