Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Also known as: Shichinin no Samurai (Japan), The Magnificent Seven (US premiere title)
Release Date: April 26th, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

Toho Co. Ltd., 207 Minutes, 160 Minutes (international), 202 Minutes (2002 re-release), 150 Minutes (original cut), 190 Minutes (1991 re-release), 207 Minutes (restored), 202 Minutes (DVD)

Review:

“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all!” – Kikuchiyo

Akira Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest film directors to ever live. Hell, he could be the best but there are other elite talents in that discussion and taste is subjective.

But for a man that is such a master of his craft, it is hard to imagine that there is one film that stands above all the others. This is that film.

Seven Samurai is at or near the top of most legit film critics all-time best lists. It is cinematic perfection, a film of the highest artistic caliber. I can’t call it my favorite of all-time but it is definitely the king of Asian cinema and boasts a story so rich and beloved that it has gone on to inspire countless other movies, television shows, novels, comics and stage plays.

I know that I am really talking the film up but what I’m saying is not an oversell. From top to bottom, everything about Seven Samurai is top notch. So good, in fact, that it is hard to break it all down and review it.

The direction is superb, the acting is captivating and convincing, the narrative and the plot’s pacing are intriguing and perfect, this boasts incredible cinematography, lighting, shot framing and employs an understanding of mise en scène that allows this film to exist on a level that most other filmmakers will never be able to achieve.

Seven Samurai is truly a perfect storm. It is one of those films that I assume that everyone claiming to be a “film aficionado” has seen.

Sure, it is very long, which is something I tend to be annoyed by with many films but there isn’t a dull moment and every scene has genuine purpose.

But I also get that a three and a half hour, subtitled, black and white movie about samurai and farmers in 1500s Japan won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also not as action packed as action fans would hope for but the combat situations are still quite compelling.

This is a drama more than it is an action or adventure story, however. But that is also why this stands shoulders above other films in the jidaigeki genre. Seven Samurai is about life, perseverance and heroism. It is a tale that most people are familiar with and should love.

If you’ve made it this far in life and have never seen the film but fancy yourself a real film fan, you need to correct that injustice. You owe it to yourself.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other films by Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Rashomon, etc.

Film Review: Godzilla (1954)

Also known as: Gojira (original Japanes title), Godzilla: King of Monsters! (US version)
Release Date: November 3rd, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Ishirō Honda
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kenji Sahara, Raymond Burr (US version)

Toho, 96 Minutes (original), 80 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” – Kyohei Yamane-hakase

There are two different versions of this film: the original Japanese version, which was released to theaters in 1954, as well as the English language American version from 1956 that featured new scenes starring Raymond Burr.

This is primarily a review of the original Japanese version of the film, as it is the superior version, in my opinion. Also, the American version loses some of the context and political themes within the picture.

Out of all the Godzilla movies ever made, there are now over thirty, this one is still the best of the lot. It’s just got such a dark and brooding nature that the tone is vastly different than the more kid friendly entries that would follow it. And I’m not saying that I don’t love kid friendly Godzilla, because that’s the Godzilla I fell in love with, but this is a film that had a deeper and more meaningful purpose than just counting kaiju sized piles of cash.

Godzilla makes a very bold statement, a statement that can still be felt today and it is still very relevant.

For those who might not know, Godzilla was created as a commentary on the horrors of nuclear bombs and their side effects. Coming out less than a decade after Japan was bombed by the United States to end World War II, the Japanese were certainly justified in making an artistic condemnation of nuclear technology. Plus, mass destruction was something that everyone in Japan had already lived through and it was still very fresh in their memories.

While the film gives us mass destruction in a different way, Godzilla, the monster, is unleashed on Japan due to the use of nuclear bombs and his rampage throughout the film is just as catastrophic. But at least with the monster in the movie, the Japanese people were able to find a way to defend themselves and bring the horror to an end on their own terms. That’s not to say that another Godzilla doesn’t show up later but within this movie, Japan perseveres, even if it comes at a great cost.

The special effects in this are dynamite, especially considering that this came out in 1954 and was made by a country that didn’t have the resources of a big budget American studio. Eiji Tsuburaya was the man behind the effects and his work here created a whole new genre, which would make his career, as he would go on to do many kaiju films for Toho, as well as creating his own studio, Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya would later create the Ultraman franchise and other famous franchises beloved by the Japanese and fans of kaiju and tokusatsu films and television.

This was director Ishirō Honda’s big break and doing this film would pave the way for the rest of his career, as well. He ended up directing a ton of Godzilla movies, as well as other kaiju and tokusatsu pictures for Toho. In fact, he was pretty much the godfather of the two, overlapping genres.

Godzilla is a chilling film. The monster is truly a monster, which fans of the later films might be shocked by. It is this film that had the greatest impact on moviegoers upon its release, however, and it is why every single Godzilla reboot goes back to this well and presents the title character as a true harbinger of doom.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other Shōwa era Godzilla movies.

Film Review: Suddenly (1954)

Release Date: October 7th, 1954
Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Richard Sale
Based on: Active Duty by Richard Sale
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates

Libra Productions, United Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“I’m not an actor, bustin’ my leg on a stage so I can yell ‘down with the tyrants’. If Booth wasn’t such a ham he might’ve made it.” – John Baron

This film was pretty heavy stuff for 1954. While there had been films about presidential assassinations before this one, never had their been one that took place in modern times. And on top of that, Frank Sinatra plays the man gunning for the President.

The film sees a widowed mother, her young son, her father-in-law and a cop that has the hots for her, held hostage in her home, as a gangster and his men are planning to use the home’s vantage point to stage a presidential assassination.

Sinatra plays a scumbag and there are no bones about it. I feel like it was probably hard to accept him in this role, given the time and for the fact that he was such a lovable icon. Still, his performance is solid and he carries himself well. He brought some gravitas and machismo to the screen and was unrelenting as this sinister killer.

Sterling Hayden plays the cop trapped with the mad man in the house. He is a good foil to Sinatra and their dialogue exchanges are engaging and serve to paint Sinatra’s John Baron as something darker than what you first assume. He’s a man with a screwed up history and a vendetta.

Nancy Gates plays the mother and she really is the heart and soul of the picture, even if she feels overshadowed and outnumbered by the men in the film. She has this likable sweetness and it is easy to understand her concerns, as the mother of a small child who has been threatened to be killed if any of the adults try to play hero.

Suddenly is well shot, well acted and has held up quite nicely.

The film ended up being at the center of some major controversy, however. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, it was said that Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by this film. While that wasn’t necessarily true, Frank Sinatra was deeply upset about it, as he was close friends to the real-life president. It’s said that Sinatra pleaded with the studio to pull the film from circulation and that he tried to buy up all the prints in an effort to destroy them. This also wasn’t true but Sinatra did have some regrets about playing a part in this movie. And regardless of the true story or not, this film has very strong similarities to that dark day in American history and sort of foreshadowed it.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The Manchurian Candidate, another Sinatra film with similar themes.

Film Review: Pushover (1954)

Release Date: July 30th, 1954
Directed by: Richard Quine
Written by: Roy Huggins
Based on: stories by Thomas Walsh and William S. Ballinger
Music by: Arthur Morton
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Phil Carey, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, E. G. Marshall

Columbia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I can’t spot it, but something’s wrong somewhere!” – Rock McAllister

This is the only film-noir, other than Double Indemnity, that I have seen Fred MacMurray in. I like the guy, especially in these roles. He was pretty damn good in this and really helped give birth to Kim Novak’s career, as this was her debut and he gave her a very capable opposite to play off of and learn from.

This came out as the noir style was sort of dwindling away, even though a few great noir pictures followed this.

It is an enjoyable film due to the work of MacMurray and Novak but there isn’t much else here to make it stand out from the pack. It’s a good and entertaining movie but it’s nowhere near the level of MacMurrat’s Double Indemnity or the films Novak would do later on in her career.

Still, I was engaged for 88 minutes and that’s a positive.

The cinematography is decent but really just average. The direction of Richard Quine was good but like his stars, he’d move on to bigger and better things outside of film-noir.

Pushover isn’t bad but to be frank, there are dozens of better noir pictures out there to check out before this one.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

Release Date: June 21st, 1954 (London premiere)
Directed by: Joseph Losey
Written by: Derek Frye
Based on: The Sleeping Tiger by Maurice Moiseiwitsch
Music by: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: Alexis Smith, Alexander Knox, Dirk Bogarde

Anglo-Amalgamated Film, 89 Minutes

Review:

“What do you think of him, Glenda? Is he worth saving?” – Dr. Clive Esmond

I haven’t seen a lot of British film-noir, so I figured that I’d give The Sleeping Tiger a shot. Plus, it had a pretty decent rating on IMDb and looked to mostly have positive reviews.

The film’s plot seemed interesting. It’s about a thug that tries to rob a psychiatrist. He fails miserably but the doctor gives him a choice: get arrested or live with the doctor, as he tries to reform the criminal. The thug picks the latter. The doctor’s wife initially hates the arrangement but before you know it, she’s cheating on her husband with the bad boy. Obviously, we then get some hardcore film-noir drama and the thriller aspect of the film comes alive.

Unfortunately, this picture just didn’t resonate with me. It was pretty drab and drawn out and just didn’t excite. I thought the premise was good; the film just didn’t deliver.

The acting was okay but nothing special, the cinematography was average, everything was just sort of bland.

The final moments of the film were fairly good and would have been a good ending to a good noir but I just didn’t care about the weight of it all, as everything leading up to it fell flat.

Joseph Losey, the director, was actually American but he moved to London after Hollywood blacklisted him for being a communist. He had made other film-noir pictures but the only one I’ve seen is The Prowler with Van Heflin. I heard that his remake of Fritz Lang’s M is pretty good though.

Sadly, this film just didn’t do a thing for me but that doesn’t mean I’m not interesting in checking out more of Losey’s work.

Rating: 5/10

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part VI – The Creature From the Black Lagoon Series (1954-1956)

I have reached my sixth and final series of Universal Monsters franchises to review.

Now let me state that this is my favorite series. I’m not sure why but the Gillman (a.k.a. the Creature From the Black Lagoon or just the Creature) is my favorite movie monster of all-time. Something about the prehistoric aquatic swamp beast just tickles my fancy.

While I don’t consider these films to be as good as the James Whale films for Universal, I do watch them more and find them to be more entertaining overall. But let me get into each film and elaborate.

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954):

Release Date: February 12th, 1954 (premiere)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross
Music by: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva

Universal Pictures, 79 Minutes

creature_from_the_black_lagoonReview: 

This may just be my favorite classic horror film of all-time and it is rated “G”.

Creature From the Black Lagoon is a masterpiece. Is that a bold statement? No.

This film, for its time, was incredibly unique. Being a part of the Universal Monsters franchise, even though it came out more than a decade after that franchise peaked, this movie stands on its own and didn’t need other monsters sprinkled in to capture the public’s attention. In fact, this film was so successful that it spawned two sequels within two years.

Getting away from the standard Universal gothic horror style that was a staple in the Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man series, this film brought us to the Amazon and gave us a creature from the depths of the swamp. And with that, we got a new formula. No mad scientists, no undead creatures, no supernatural horror. Instead, we get a prehistoric monster that is smitten with a girl and just wants to swim with her. Granted, he eventually wants to go one step further and kidnap her and take her to his cave so she can lay on rocks and look sexy all day.

I just love the tone of this film and I can’t necessarily say that it brings a level of terror and dread as some of its predecessors at Universal, but it is a fun film and the most adventurous one in the Universal Monsters catalog. Plus, Julie Adams is really nice to look at.

Revenge of the Creature (1955):

Release Date: March 23rd, 1955 (Denver premiere)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: William Alland, Martin Berkeley
Music by: Herman Stein
Cast: John Agar, Lori Nelson, Nestor Paiva, Clint Eastwood (uncredited – first role)

Universal Pictures, 82 Minutes

revenge_creatureReview: 

The first sequel in this series is the weakest installment overall but it is still a great film and really enjoyable.

In this one, the Gillman is captured and brought to an oceanic park in Florida to be treated crappier than the orca in Blackfish. The Gillman doesn’t like it, the Gillman gets pissed, the Gillman escapes and tears up the oceanic park, flips a few cars and goes off into the ocean to leave humans behind.

Except there is that new girl he is smitten with who isn’t as cute as Julie Adams but is still cute. The Gillman stalks the leading lady like an aquatic swamp pervert should. He eventually gets her and then carries her around for the rest of the film until the heroes show up to save her.

The plot moves a bit slow, as a big portion of the film deals with the scientists interacting with the Gillman while he is in captivity. It is worth mentioning though that this is Clint Eastwood’s film debut and his role is somewhat bizarre.

I should also mention that this film in the series is featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956):

Release Date: April 26th, 1956
Directed by: John Sherwood
Written by: Arthur A. Ross
Music by: Henry Mancini
Cast: Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Leigh Snowden, Don Megowan

Universal Pictures, 78 Minutes

the_creature_walks_among_usReview: 

So what do the logical and ethical human scientists decide to do to the Gillman in this film? Well, they think it is a good idea to give him surgery in an effort to make him better fit in with humans. By surgery, I mean they cut off parts of his face and body and pretty much butcher him alive. Yeah, the plot is bizarre and insane and makes little sense but we don’t watch these films for logic and sometimes crazy equals awesome.

This film and the others in this series all have a consistent vibe and even though there is some experimentation with the plots in each sequel, they all feel like they belong to the larger series’ narrative. And the experimentation is kind of refreshing in this series, as each movie has its own identity. We’re not subjected to a string of rehashes of the same film like the Mummy and Frankenstein series.

This film also explores the humanity of the monster – does it exist, who is the Gillman, what motivates him, can he be human? It also explores what it means to be human and are we really just monsters ourselves. There is a lot of psychology at play in this film which makes it a pretty special experience for a horror film of its era.

And at least in this movie, the last shot of the film isn’t a beaten and bloodied Gillman sinking to the bottom of the river assumedly dead. This time the disfigured and biological tampered with monster just wants to get away from humans and go home and after all the horrible things that have been done to him, he at least gets back to his familiar environment.

Compared to the other two films in this series, this one really connects the audience to the creature on an emotional level and that is what makes this movie special.

Film Review: Rear Window (1954)

Release Date: September 1st, 1954
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Based on: It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Kathryn Grant (uncredited)

Patron Inc., Paramount Pictures, 112 Minutes

rear_windowReview:

Even though I have been a pretty big film buff for my entire life, I honestly didn’t see this Alfred Hitchcock classic until recently. In my high school film studies class, back in the 90s, we watched a bunch of Hitchcock stuff. This one was not on the docket however and I almost wish I could go back and ask my teacher “why?”

Rear Window is legitimately a masterpiece. That isn’t a word I can easily throw around. While I love The Birds and Psycho is pretty flawless, Rear Window is a motion picture on a level that very few have ever reached. I consider Hitchcock to be the “best of the best” alongside Kubrick, Leone and Kurosawa. And this is possibly his magnum opus. Granted, there are a few Hitchcock films I need to rewatch.

James Stewart may be the greatest actor that ever lived and very few women have ever been as classically beautiful as Grace Kelly, which is probably why she married into royalty. Not to mention, that she was a damn good actress, in her own right. But the thing that stands shoulders above these two legends’ talent, is their chemistry together. It is hard not to fall in love with both characters but especially, the two of them together. I really hope that they lived happily ever after but based off of how Jeff’s (Stewart) feelings and respect grows for Lisa (Kelly), I’m sure they did.

But this isn’t a love story, it is a mystery and a thriller.

Rear Window uses a single gigantic set. The movie is predominantly set in the apartment of Stewart’s Jeff, as he sits near his rear window looking out into a courtyard that ties several apartment buildings together. The fact that this almost two hour movie can be so intense and engaging, moment to moment, from the view of a man in his wheelchair staring out a window is quite remarkable. There have been many other films that have used a single set but none have ever been this effective.

To give a brief rundown of the story, we start with Jeff in a wheelchair, sitting in his apartment during a heatwave. He is a renowned photographer but he broke his leg in an accident while photographing an auto race. On his seventh week of being stuck in his apartment, he’s grown irritable and tiresome of his situation and finds himself watching his neighbors out of his rear window. Across the courtyard there are all sorts of interesting characters. Soon, Jeff is drawn to a married couple where the wife constantly nags the husband. The woman is also an invalid and needs constant care. As the days roll on, Jeff notices the wife missing, the man cleaning a large knife and saw, as well as other suspicious behavior. He alerts his friend, a New York detective. He enlists the help of his girlfriend and his caretaker. It all unfolds into some of the most intense moments in motion picture history.

I have to applaud Raymond Burr’s ability to play the object of Jeff’s voyeurism in a way that really left you questioning whether or not he was normal or evil, up until the very end. His presence, once it needed to be, was damn intimidating. And he did all of this without barely speaking a word throughout the film, until the big finale. The shots of him, sitting in pure darkness with the ember of his cigar pulsating with each puff was brilliance.

Alfred Hitchcock shot one of the greatest films ever made. Okay, he shot several of the greatest films ever made. Rear Window, however, to me, is the one film I can point to and ask any naysayers, “Show me something better than that?” While they may know something that is fairly equal, it is a movie that is damn near impossible to top.