Category Archives: Historical

#293 Throne of Blood

(1957, Akira Kurosawa)
蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō

“You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you”

My experience with Shakespeare is not the best. Due to a British education system that seems determined to suck the life out of every form of literature by drily overanalysing every line of a play, my experience of Shakespeare has been spending an entire year reading Macbeth very slowly and subsequently wanting to never read Macbeth again.

So perhaps reframing Shakespeare could help. Perhaps if an influential Japanese director could have made a movie transposing Macbeth to feudal Japan and making it a dark movie about samurai, I could feel a little better about it. Oh hey, look, it’s Throne Of Blood! That’ll do nicely.

While returning from a battle against their lord’s enemies, samurai generals Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a spirit in the forest who tells of a prophecy for the two men. Washizu is to become master of North Castle, and will soon become lord for the whole castle complex too. Upon returning to their lord, the first part of the prophecy comes true, leading Washizu’s wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), to convince him to kill the lord and bring about the second part. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.

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#291 The Right Stuff

(1983, Phillip Kaufman)

“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and America were in a race to explore beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and into outer space. It was a time of great experimentation and wonder, but the efforts to explore space required men with a willingness to put their lives on the line for the advancement of humanity. The Right Stuff is the story of these men, the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program.

So there isn’t much of a plot to The Right Stuff then. It’s basically a series of events leading up to the completion of the Mercury program and little more. We start in the days of high-speed flight experimentation, when daring pilots pushed to break the sound barrier and go faster than anyone has ever gone before. This then leads into the development of NASA and the recruitment of the seven astronauts who would go on to explore Earth’s orbit.

As someone who is interested in the exploration of space, I was looking forward to this movie. I was curious to see the full story, and waited with anticipation to see how it was handled.

Imagine my disappointment when the movie spends forever getting to the development of NASA, and instead hangs around a bunch of high-speed test pilots who seemingly have no connection to the space program aside from their efforts aiding in the development of rockets. The problem is, it turns these guys into characters, especially Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and spends a lot of time saying that he was the best pilot EVAH and tries to make us feel sorry for the fact he never got to be an astronaut.

But this ends up feeling like padding. In a three-hour movie. So you can imagine how well that went down with me.

When we do get to the astronauts, The Right Stuff is determined to focus on the personalities and relationships of the astronauts above the technical details of the Mercury program. This is fine, especially as good characters make for better stories than a bunch of technical figures. However, Phillip Kaufman didn’t do a great job of developing these men as real characters. They were all painted as All-American Heroes™, all square jaws and no personalities. Worst of all, he failed to adequately demonstrate that these men had “the right stuff” that made them volunteer for the program. You know, the whole point of the title of the movie.

There are also numerous scenes involving the astronauts’ wives, designed to flesh out these men even more, but these scenes more often than not just got in the way of everything. What’s more, Annie Glenn’s stutter was never explained, leaving us to wonder why she struggled to speak properly; I only understood this because I looked it up online. If you have to do background research on a movie, the movie has failed to communicate properly. Essentially, The Right Stuff spends a lot of time on things that drag the movie and less time on things that actually matter to communicating the events accurately.

It’s not a complete failure, however. Some of the interaction between the astronauts has some genuine comedy, and the portrayal of NASA during this time as a confused organisation that was basically throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick was wonderfully unexpected. No one involved seems to know exactly what they’re doing, and this was nice because I honestly expected them to paint NASA as heroic and intelligent and the beacon of human advancement, but instead we get a bumbling band of scientists who aren’t even sure if their tests on the astronauts are actually helpful.

Also, when the movie does manage to focus on the thing we came to see – the space program – it does a phenomenal job. The space race is portrayed as both tense and slightly silly, and these two conflicting sides end up sticking together quite nicely, with the pompous politics between the US and Russia sitting surprisingly well against the exciting space launches. I was on the edge of my seat before Alan Shepherd went up, despite knowing that he succeeded and came back safely.

Overall, The Right Stuff was interesting to an extent, but part of this may have stemmed from my own personal interest in the space program. When it stuck to its guns and focused on the important events, it did its job very well, but the amount of padding and dragged-out sections bring the entire experience down a little.

Starring Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum & Kim Stanley
Written by Tom Wolfe (book) and Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
Edited by Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart & Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: Alan Shepherd goes into space. Took a while to get there, but at least it paid off.
Scene That Bugged Me: Oh boo hoo poor Chuck Yaeger never got to be an astronaut. Let’s pad out the ending of this three-hour movie with more scenes featuring him.

Watch it if: You’re the Space Core from Portal 2
Avoid it if: You want a dry account of the history of the space program

#290 Barry Lyndon

(1975, Stanley Kubrick)

I will probably never understand the appeal of period drama. I see the powdered wigs and corsets and I just want to run screaming. But perhaps that negative perception could change for me with Kubrick’s take on the genre – Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon follows the life and times of an Irishman named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). He is seduced by his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who ultimately drops him and marries an English captain named John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), prompting Barry to kill him in a duel. Barry flees and ends up joining the English army. From there he deserts the army, becomes a spy in the Prussian army and generally does a bunch of other things and becomes a member of the aristocracy.

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#287 The Magnificent Ambersons

(1942, Orson Welles)

“The magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.”

Although history sometimes like to suggest otherwise, Orson Welles did more than just convince America that Earth was being invaded by Martians and direct the Greatest Movie Ever Made™ (also known as Citizen Kane). He also sometimes directed other movies, movies that he personally didn’t star in at that. And this is one of them – The Magnificent Ambersons.

It should come as no surprise that The Magnificent Ambersons is a movie about a wealthy family called the Ambersons, and that many people consider them to be rather magnificent. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a young man who has his eyes on building strange contraptions known as “automobiles”, certainly thinks so, as he attempts to woo the family’s daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello). She rejects him, and marries a wealthy but passionless man, and bears a child, George (Tim Holt).

Twenty years later, George returns from college, and the Amberson family throw him a huge reception. Eugene returns to the town for the first time in years, and is now surprisingly successful with his “automobiles” (who knew they’d take off?). George takes an instant dislike to Eugene but finds himself rather smitten with his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). Shenanigans ensue.

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#286 Peking Opera Blues

(1986, Tsui Hark)
刀馬旦

A while ago, I reviewed Once Upon A Time In China, a movie which was frequently presented to me as a serious film about Chinese history, and then it turned out to be a chop-socky kung fu flick. Well, Peking Opera Blues, from the same director, appears to have the same issue. Presented as a serious drama surrounding Peking opera, it’s actually a slightly silly action film. But is it any good?

Peking Opera Blues is set in 1913 Peking, centred on a rebellion against the government of the time. The story features three female leads who form an unlikely team: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), a general’s daughter secretly plotting against her father, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), the daughter of a Peking opera impresario, and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a young musician searching for a box of stolen jewels.

Peking Opera Blues starts by throwing everything at us. Here’s a general’s daughter who likes to dress like a man! Here’s a musician trying to steal some jewels! Here’s some Peking opera! Here’s a huge rebellion! HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS!

The problem is, this initially leads to the viewer being horrendously overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot points and general goings-on, and it isn’t really a good way to start. For probably the first half-hour of the movie, I was lost. Too much was happening and too little was being explained and I was all set to hate everything.

But then the movie started getting somewhat silly. Over-the-top action sequences exploded onto the screen and the movie started chucking jokes around constantly, and my opinion dramatically changed. These action sequences are consistently excellent, with excellent choreography blending with expert comic timing, and it made the movie a lot of fun to watch.

It’s all basically what you’d expect from a heavily choreographed Hong Kong movie. We get crazy martial arts mixing into traditional Peking opera performances, tons of wire-work and fist fights, and some dramatic escape sequences too. Of course, I still don’t know why the film is presented as a serious drama about opera, because it really isn’t.

Also around this time, the movie starts being clearer about who our protagonists are, especially when they form their alliances, and the plot starts falling into place. Even better, once the confusion clears up, it becomes apparent that all of the leads are charming and likeable.

What’s more, this enhances the action. As the movie progresses, we start caring more and more about our protagonists and we want them to succeed. As I watched them flail around and generally kick ass, I felt myself cheering them on, wanting everything to turn out well. Silly scenes mixed in with all this, such as a series of scenes where the trio get drunk and then try and hide from Bai Niu’s father in her bedroom, add to the fun immensely.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. There is a desire to tell a serious story in here, and sometimes things can be a bit jarring at times. As an example, after lots of silly over-the-top action sequences and buddy comedy jokes, there’s a genuinely gruesome torture scene that threw me completely. It felt so out of place in such a fun movie that I began to wonder if I was beginning to watch a completely different movie.

It also still never consistently explains its central plot. Sure, we care about our characters and we know that the generals are bad people and we should be rooting for the rebels, but…there’s no backstory. Stuff just happens and we’re expected to understand. It’s a little bit disappointing, really.

But overall, Peking Opera Blues isn’t a disappointment. It’s a blast to watch, and hilarious to boot. Definitely recommended for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh, Paul Chun, Wu Ma & Kenneth Tsang
Written by Raymond To
Produced by Claudia Chung Jan & Hark Tsui
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by Hang-Sang Poon
Edited by David Wu

Favourite Scene: The drunken hang-out scene and the following bedroom scene with about four people hiding under a blanket.
Scene That Bugged Me: That torture scene really doesn’t fit at all.

Watch it if: You enjoy Hong Kong cinema
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a serious movie about the history of Peking opera

#274 Apocalypto

(2006, Mel Gibson)

Fun fact: Sometime in January 2013, I realised how appropriate Apocalypto, with all its Mayan prophecies of apocalypse, would have been for December 21st 2012, the supposed end-of-the-world date based on the Mayan calendar. Of course, this would have been more useful figuring that out before that date, but I guess we can’t have everything. So, after dumping it back in the general pile again, I finally pull it out to offer my opinion.

The good news is, I have an interest in ancient civilisations. The bad news is, I think director Mel Gibson is a bit of a terrible human being. This presents a problem, which led me to wonder exactly how I would feel about Apocalypto.

Set in Guatemala prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Apocalypto follows a young man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) as his village is attacked by a bloodthirsty rival tribe. Kidnapped and lined up for human sacrifice, Jaguar Paw seeks to save his family, trapped in a deep pit, while the rival tribe hear a prophecy that their civilisation is doomed. If you know your Central American history, you’ll know how true that prophecy turns out to be.

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#267 Gone With The Wind

(1939, Victor Fleming)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”

Gone With The Wind is one of those classic movies that inevitably ends up on Movies You Must See lists, so it was inevitable that I’d end up reviewing it one day. It was the highest-grossing movie of its time, and depicted the American Civil War from the perspective of white Southerners. But how well does it hold up today?

Gone With The Wind centres on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a young Southern socialite living in Georgia on the cusp of Civil War. Romantically interested in a man named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), she tries to seduce him despite him being engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), while she simultaneously catches the attention of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As civil war rages, Scarlett manipulates and deceives her way towards winning Ashley’s attentions before eventually marrying Rhett in a tortured marriage. Basically, lots of things happen here.

It’s easy to see why people love Gone With The Wind. It’s an ambitious project which covers a lot of ground story-wise, with excellent costume design and cinematography, and some really great moments that cement its place in cinema history.

Clark Gable is a fantastic example of this. The man has charm coming out of his pores, and is easily the best thing about the whole movie. Rhett Butler is an inherently awful person for the most part, but Gable makes him likeable and I don’t know how he did it. It’s a shame that for much of the first half of the movie he tends to disappear offscreen for long periods, since he’s always missed when he’s not around.

There are also some hugely effective scenes running throughout. The scenes of war are always powerful, feeling difficult to watch and sometimes being downright terrifying. I’m not someone who normally buys into “war is hell” imagery (simply because it’s so overdone it’s become cliché) but these scenes were extremely effective. But the scenes of the war’s effects hit even harder than the war itself, especially a scene where Scarlett’s father has clearly lost his mind following the loss of his wife in the hostilities, which was incredibly moving.

But Gone With The Wind is far from a perfect movie. For a start, it’s over three hours long, and me and films of that length don’t get along too well. What’s more, there are times when it definitely feels that long, especially in the second half of the movie where things like to drag on longer than they need to. There are also plenty of instances where a scene that really should be urgent simply isn’t.

There is also the fact that the movie suffers from some particularly offensive period drama floofiness early on, with Southern Belles and gentlemen wandering around chortling about their life and how the South will never be beaten. It’s a little bit tiresome, at least until Rhett comes in and tells them all how dumb they all are. Fortunately, this doesn’t last, but this combined with the movie’s tendency to drag at times, it threatens to derail the movie before it’s even begun.

However, while the period drama floofiness eventually disappears, Scarlett O’Hara never stops being intensely unlikeable. She’s a manipulative, shallow, selfish, irredeemable bitch. Vivien Leigh does a great job playing her, but man is it difficult having this person as a protagonist. She’s impossible to identify with, and more often than not, you simply want her to fail at everything.

It’s also really hard to tell exactly what the attraction between her and Rhett is. Quite often, he will pursue her and attempt to seduce her, all while openly admitting she’s a terrible human being. I never found the romance particularly convincing. Perhaps this was the point, since they hardly have a perfect marriage in the second half of the movie, but it’s still really bizarre.

And then of course, the most common complaint about Gone With The Wind by modern reviewers is one that I agree with. Set in The South, the movie naturally features a number of black slave characters, all of whom are portrayed as amusingly stupid and absolutely happy to be in slavery. Their portrayal is meant to be laughed at, as if those silly brown people are an amusing sideshow, and these days it’s just uncomfortable.

And yet, despite all of these faults, Gone With The Wind somehow manages to hold together as a solid, watchable package and it’s easy to see why it’s such a classic, albeit a hugely flawed classic.

Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard & Olivia de Havilland
Written by Margaret Mitchell (novel) and Sidney Howard
Produced by David O. Selznick
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Edited by Hal C. Kern & James E. Newcorn

Favourite Scene: Rhett ultimately realising how tired he is of Scarlett’s crap and tells her that most famous of movie lines (see page quote).
Scene That Bugged Me: While escaping from Georgia in the midst of war and fires, they sure do take their sweet time.

Watch it if: You like sprawling period dramas with excellent acting
Avoid it if: Its absurd length is far too much for you

#266 Battleship Potemkin

(1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
Броненосец «Потёмкин»

With all eyes recently on Russia because of the Sochi Winter Olympics and the much-less positive anti-gay laws, and even less positive actions in Ukraine, it seems somewhat fitting that today we will be taking a look at one of the most successful Russian propaganda movies ever made, Battleship Potemkin.

Battleship Potemkin is a dramatic re-enactment of the 1905 mutiny on the real Potemkin, where sailors disobeyed their officers over their working conditions, and these actions ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The movie, which celebrates the rebellion and the rise of communism, starts with sailors living in squalor and forced to eat maggot-infested meat, ultimately culminating in a battle, and gaining the sympathy of the people of Odessa.

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#262 JFK

(1991, Oliver Stone)
“Telling the truth can be a scary thing sometimes”

Let’s talk conspiracy theories. Did you know we’re all secretly ruled by lizard men who staged 9/11 using holograms and faked the moon landing so that Buzz Aldrin could have a toy named after him 30 years later? Don’t you know that we’re all the pawns of an ongoing war between the Templars and the Assassins and that Obama has a gun that shoots tornadoes because…profit? God, sheeple, open your eyes!

No, not really, unless you believe some of the crackpots in certain corners of the Internet. But while many of those conspiracy theories are pretty nutty, one conspiracy continues to fascinate and baffle many, 50 years on – the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President Of The United States.

JFK is a movie that presents the conspiracy as being true. Following Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a district attorney who is suspicious of the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) killed JFK (John F. Kennedy, archive footage) and sets out to discover what really happened. In the process, he uncovers a conspiracy involving the CIA and the mob and various other organisations who wanted Kennedy dead, putting him in the line of fire and putting strain on Garrison’s marriage.

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#225 Dangerous Liaisons

(1988, Stephen Frears)

“You’ll find the shame is like the pain, you only feel it once”

Dangerous Liaisons is a floofy period drama, featuring elaborate outfits and sets, and dialogue that feels like everyone’s read too much Shakespeare for their own good. However, this is a period drama with lots of sex, so maybe it’s not as stuffy and boring as expected from the genre (at least, as far as I’m concerned). Let’s take a look, shall we?

Dangerous Liaisons is set in the 1700s and centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), two amoral French aristocrats who use sex as a weapon to get what they want and to corrupt those around them. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce her cousin’s daughter Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), fresh out of a convent and arranged to marry Merteuil’s former lover. However, Valmont is more interested in seducing the highly religious and married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). A deal is made that Merteuil will sleep with Valmont if he succeeds in seducing Tourvel. Shenanigans ensue.

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