Category Archives: Epic

Kagemusha (1980) 5/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 89.4
Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama
Duration: 162 mins
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara

Uniquely stunning psychological drama about a lowly thief and uncanny double for one of feudal Japan’s most powerful daimyos and his inwardly crushing effort to assume the place at the head of that great Lord’s armies after the latter is secretly assassinated. Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known masterpiece translating as “The Shadow Warrior”, is a soulful examination of character backdropped against starkly visceral concepts of death and afterlife set amidst some of the best choreographed action sequences on Kurosawa’s CV. Tatsuya Nakadai turns in yet another mind-blowing central performance as both the mighty General Takeda Shingen (known as “the Mountain) and his eventual impersonator, seamlessly deconstructing both his characters so that their boundaries ultimately phase in and out much like the film’s wider treatment of life and death, reality and unreality. As is usually the case with Kurosawa’s feudal epics, the story is overflowing with rich support players brought to life by a splendid cast with the boisterousness and social deference that has defined the quintessential jidaigeki performances. The historical context tantalises Kurosawa’s corporeal tome as the fascinating intrigue of the era imbues the plot with a steady drama. In place of a building tension in plot, the inner journey of Shingen’s “Kagemusha” takes centre stage crystallising in emotionally punctuating moments that exhibits the best of both Nakadai and Kurosawa’s crafts. Shinichirô Ikebe’s haunting score and/or the diegetic sounds of the various battles’ creakings become the glue to these moments leaving Kurosawa’s audacious vision to actualise around them in a manner not easily forgotten. One moment in particular, a mesmerising depiction of the Kagemusha finally “becoming” “the Mountain” in front of his troops and enemy alike, is a perfect coalescence of these smaller workings of genius and this master director’s unmatched broad visual aesthetic. Kagemusha nearly didn’t happen as Toho Studios ran into financial difficulties during production but thankfully George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and convinced 20th Century Fox to finance the remainder of the shoot. It’s no small thing to say that despite their own monumental achievements, that assistance still counts among their most important contributions to cinema.

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Once Upon a Time in China (1991) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.2
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Hark Tsui
Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan

Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.

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Seven Samurai (1954) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 96.7
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 207 mins
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima

This inspired meditation on class, morality, passion, and duty is Akira Kurosawa’s finest hour behind the camera and possibly Mifune’s finest hour in front of it. As funny as it is touching, there’s not a single aspect of this film that could’ve been improved upon and it offers more than perhaps any other. Watch how Kurosawa wonderfully counterbalances the necessarily languid scenes where the characters are waiting for the battles to commence with the shocking brutality of those battles one they begin. As incredible as Toshiro Mifune is he’s equalled by Takashi Shimura’s simmering portrayal of the head samurai which is one of most quietly powerful pieces of acting ever captured by a camera. With every rub of his shaven head Shimura expounds kindness, generosity of spirit, and a keen sense of leadership and in doing so, his performance as much as any other aspect of the film reflects the soul of this poingent masterpiece. Timeless.

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Das Boot (1981) 4.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.5
Genre: War
Duration: 149 mins
Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Stars: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer,

Wolfgang Peterson’s account of life aboard one of Germany’s infamous WWII U-boats provides the perfect metaphor for the confusion of war. Jürgen Prochnow plays the submarine’s captain charged with attacking the heavily protected Allied convoys in the Atlantic while contending with the often uninformed orders of his fleet command. Director Wolfgang Peterson wonderfully creates the sense of claustrophobia that came with being cooped up in such small quarters for extended periods of time. He is equally adept at using that claustrophobia to augment the boredom of the quieter scenes and the terror of the battle sequences as the boat dives ever deeper to avoid the depth charges of the Allied battle cruisers circling above. The release of that mental and physical pressure is also spectacularly captured on the occasions when the U-boat surfaces and Prochnow leads his boat through the waves from the top of his conning tower to Klaus Doldinger’s magnificent score. All this makes Das Boot a unique film going experience and one that stays with you long after seeing it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) 2.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.6
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 169 mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

After the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was always going to find The Hobbit a tougher project not simply because of the difficulty in living up to the reputation of the earlier movies but because many a critic was just waiting for him to slip up. Not surprisingly, therefore, his decision to stretch the adaptation of that one book into another trilogy of three hour movies left those critics salivating and some would say with good reason. After all, what are you going to fill the movies with?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey picks up decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings, and follows the adventures of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his efforts to help a motley group of wandering dwarfs reclaim their old kingdom from a nasty dragon Smaug who, years earlier, decimated their people and forced them to flee their homeland. This first installment is dedicated to the necessary exposition of the backstory and the early stages of the journey and, as a movie in its own right, it’s reasonably enjoyable if taken on its merits. Yes, there’s an extremely protracted buildup but if such a buildup is dedicated to the construction of character and relationships then it can be eminently watchable. Jackson and company make a modest attempt to do just that although it’s nowhere near as in-depth an introduction as we were treated to in The Fellowship of the Ring. Part of this is down to the source material which lacks the backbone and rich characterisation of the Rings trilogy. Simply put, it’s too lean a book and not as inspired to support the same class of story telling.

However, the real concern when it came to The Hobbit was whether or not Jackson could imbue this new film with the same magic and sense of distinct mythology that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was imbued with. In this respect, he was considerably more successful. An Unexpected Journey very much feels like the Middle-Earth we were introduced to 10 years earlier. There is of course a prevalence of more child centric manifestations of danger and wonder but this is an extension of Jackson’s integrity concerning the material because the book was aimed at younger audiences in the first place. But whereas many predicted this is where The Hobbit would fail, Jackson and his team of effects wizards (no pun intended!) use the more fairy-tale like material to give the movie a distinct personality and strengthen its connection to its audience. The concept design behind the various nasties and the visual effects are so rich and original in imagination yet governed so implicitly by archetypes that one can envisage them not only resonating with younger generations’ nascent notions of evil but coming to flesh out and further define those notions as they evolve through adulthood. Few films in the history of motion picture have done this and so, The Hobbit could even join the original Star Wars trilogy and the likes of Harryhausen’s ingenious incarnations in the echelons of keystone fantasy for this achievement alone.

But like Harryhausen’s films in particular, An Unexpected Journey also caters to the appetites of older audiences for there is much darkness implicit in the actions and words of the characters. Actions and words that skirt the edges of cannibalism and subtly disturbing indications of murder (the shot of Sting losing its glow as Gollum dispatches the Orc off-screen is particularly uncomfortable and must surely count as one of the more chilling devices to the depict something that Hollywood has – if truth be told – immunised us to). And actions and words that plumb more sophisticated ideas of inner torment and personal damnation.

The Hobbit scores big on the technical front too. As it was in the previous trilogy, Jackson’s action direction is superb, juggling fast and slow zoom and tracking shots into a whirlwind aesthetic which seem to ebb, flow, and grow intuitively to Howard Shore’s magnificent score. Needless to say, the tapestry of visual effects (and sound effects) are equally astounding and while not coming close the pinnacle of those served up in The Two Towers or The Return of the King, criticism should be reserved because this is the first story of a new trilogy and The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t defined by any major set piece extravaganzas either.

Thus, for all the negativity surrounding its release, An Unexpected Journey isn’t nearly as bad as most have suggested. There are a few contrivances towards the end, their sole purpose to manipulate us into big emotions and it’s true that such cheap tricks were not typical to the first two instalments of The Lord of the Rings. They were however a feature of The Return of the King and this raises a salient point for those critics who fulfilled their latent ambition to take Jackson down a peg or two with The Hobbit. The final installment of the LotR’s was the one that garnered all the awards and most acclaim yet it was by a distance the weakest of the set. An Unexpected Journey with all its problems isn’t deserving of mention in the same breath as Fellowship or Towers but it’s certainly good enough to be compared to The Return of the King. At least as far as telling a story goes.

 

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The Searchers (1956) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.5
Genre: Western
Duration: 119 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.

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Fitzcarraldo (1982) 4.72/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 89.7
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Duration: 158 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy

Werner Herzog’s masterwork is a stunning achievement both in terms of the logistics involved in making it (it was shot on location in some of the roughest terrain and on actual river rapids and yes, they actually did drag a boat over a mountain!) and the statement on mankind it becomes. The typically brilliant yet unpredictable Klaus Kinski headlines as Fitzcarraldo, an opera worshipping and eccentric businessman who attempts to exploit an inaccessible resource of rubber trees by dragging a steam ship over a small mountain to a parallel river. Driven not by monetary greed exactly, he is more concerned with doing something monumental and beautiful for the jungle which he loves in his own strange manner. The way in which he ultimately might go about building his monument takes many twists and turns and requires severe shifts in perspective but that is the ultimate point of this extraordinary film as his and the audiences’ perspective slowly become one. This is cinema at its most invigorating as Kinski and Herzog combine yet again in an artistic marathon. The former is electric as the white suited, blonde adventurer while Herzog frames it all in a way only he can as he brings both the jungle and story to life in equally impressive measures.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) 4.91/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.6
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo

Werner Herzog’s seminal film was as gruelling a shoot as Fitzcarraldo was thanks to on-location demands and the typically erratic behaviour of its brilliant but wildly eccentric lead Klaus Kinski. However, it is a memorable master work that comes across as a near perfect blend of Malick-like exploration and Kurosawa-like adventure.

Set in the late 16th century, the story follows a small scouting party who, part of Pizarro’s larger expedition, are sent ahead on the inhospitable Amazon to look for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Kinski plays the second in command of this party, Aguirre, who soon usurps authority, announces his intent to break ties with the expedition and indeed the Spanish Crown, forms a rag-tag new society built around the prospect of the golden city, and installs a puppet leader as its figurehead.

Despite the seemingly wide reach of its premise, Aguirre becomes a deeply introspective affair that is confined to the greedy irrational ambitions of the mind and soul. Kinski is immense as the self-styled leader upon who’s head even the crown of emperor he deems unworthy. He bestrides the raft on which he takes the remainder of his party ever deeper into the Amazon, like an imperious ruler and in whose eyes we see only endless ambition and verbose self-regard. This is the raw power of cinema harnessed through the ragings of nature and Herzog’s and Kinski’s respective depth of ability. And like all such works of art, it must be seen to be understood.

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Highlander (1986) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown

Great fantasy films are usually grounded in gripping concepts, the different elements to which usually drive the key scenes along the way. Highlander is a case in point. The story is based on the idea of immortals living secretly among humans for centuries, who instinctively battle each other through the ages until there is only one remaining. Christopher Lambert plays the 400 year old Highlander who becomes the subject of a police investigation after a man’s body is found decapitated. Gregory Widen’s script quite cleverly uses the progression of that investigation to present us with the uniqueness of the central premise and it is through the eyes of its forensic investigator, Brenda (Roxanne Hart), that we are tied into the story.

To say that Russell Mulcahy’s direction is superb is to completely understate the case. The level of innovation he demonstrates in sewing this story together and the sense of pacing he shows in balancing the savage momentum of the battle sequences with the more pensive emotional scenes are the hallmarks of a truly great director and one is left wondering how he didn’t rise to the lofty heights this effort promised. Coming from the music video business, it’s no surprise that he builds the film around its sound and when that sound is largely provided by Michael Kamen and Queen that’s no bad thing. In fact, when combined with its excellent sound production, Highlander is not just one of the most uniquely looking films of the 80′s but also one of the most uniquely sounding films.

Despite the muddling of who had what accent, the acting is first class with Lambert in top form and Sean Connery stealing the show as his ancient mentor. Furthermore, Clancy Brown is thoroughly menacing as one of the nastiest bad guys the medium has offered up. The action is phenomenal and thanks to Mulcahy’s seminal direction, it’s head and shoulders above anything delivered today. In fact, the training sequence alone would put most martial arts films to shame, such is its power and grace.

There are too many highlights to mention but one to look out for is the scene where Brenda learns the truth about Lambert’s character. No “Oh, so he’s immortal then” moments. Just a dull refusal to accept what she’s hearing and a seriously annoyed computer technician who (we are left to infer) either thinks he’s the subject of a joke or doesn’t like what she has made him face. Immortal? Definitely!

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The Hunt for Red October (1990) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.8
Genre: Action, Thriller
Duration: 134 mins
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn

John McTiernan was the undisputed daddy of action directors in the late 80′s to early 90′s and The Hunt for Red October shows exactly why. Set in 1984, the original adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” novels has Alec Baldwin playing the CIA field analyst who gets wind of a new type of Soviet submarine (the “Red October”) and heads off to Washington to report his suspicions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain a distinguished Soviet submarine commander Ramius (Sean Connery) ignores the orders of his superiors and takes the new submarine straight for US waters. Ryan is charged with determining if Ramius is intending to attack or defect before the US navy is forced to blow him out of the water. McTiernan doesn’t hang around and before you know it Ryan is being helicoptered onto an aircraft carrier in the middle of the stormy Atlantic and so begins a nail-biting adventure that traverses every corner of that ocean and involves some of the very best naval battles you could wish to see (kudos to legendary action cinematographer Jan DeBont). The tension is handled perfectly by McTiernan and the 134 minutes never lag nor get confusing even though the action is relentlessly switching between three different submarines, an aircraft carrier, a battle cruiser, sonar planes, helicopters, Moscow, and Washington. The impressive cast is uniformly superb and in addition to the excellent turns from the two leads, Scott Glenn, Sam Neil, and James Earl Jones do particularly well in supporting roles. However, the real star is McTiernan, who strikes the perfect balance between writing and action and in sequence after sequence uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to create a permeating tension. Just check out that cat-and-mouse scene wherein Bart Mancuso’s (Scott Glenn) US Dallas silently stalks the Red October as Ramius explains to his first officer (Neil) his perspective on the modern world. Timeless.

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Shogun’s Samurai (1978) 2.29/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 95.2
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Stars: Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shin’ichi Chiba, Toshirô Mifune

Forget any historical inaccuracies, this film is about epic story-telling culminating in the most impressive duel ever committed to celluloid and built around what surely must be one of the more impressive acting performances. This under-appreciated masterpiece portrays an epic conflict involving two brothers vying for the position of Shogun, feudal lords, hordes of ronin, and the imperial court all orchestrated by the master schemer and swordsman Yagyu (in an unforgettable performance by Kinnosuke Nakamura). With Shakespearean levels of intrigue, this tale twists and turns and skips from one corner of Japan to another as the various parties all play out their role. The dialogue is as impressive as the plot as burning ambition clouded with willfully corrupted notions of loyalty to one’s nation and/or empire is impeccably unveiled in each of the characters but to different degrees and always in different fashion. Despite it clocking in at over two hours, there’s an intense momentum to the drama thanks to Fukasaku’s commanding direction and the brilliantly choreographed battle sequences which erupt as swiftly as they are ended. The most startling of these is of course the ultimate showdown between the two most dangerous men in the film. There are few words that can explain Fukasaku’s direction at this point, so visceral and mind-manipulating is it, but suffice to say, there has never been another cinematic duel like it.

Shogun’s Samurai is known mostly for Sonny Chiba’s stunning turn as Yagyu’s son. It’s arguably his best role and as the most emotional character tied up in the machinations of others but also the most fiery, he becomes the heart of the film. Moreover, he balances these two sides to his personality wonderfully never once letting one reduce or take away from the other but instead using one to fuel the other. However, even Chiba is blotted out by Nakamura’s mind-blowing performance. What Nakamura does here is simply medium-halting for surely every other actor who has since seen this performance has stopped in sheer wonder at how this man could, for an entire film, plum such icy depths only to turn everything on its head in the final scene and freeze frame the viewers’ consciousness. It’s an extraordinary piece of work and one that is entirely in keeping with every other aspect to this film.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.3
Genre: Fantasy
Duration: 201mins
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen

Easily the weakest of Peter Jackson’s trilogy and by far the most over-rated, The Return of the King suffers from a tediously long ending, some rushed exposition regarding Aragorn’s decision to claim his birth-right, and Jackson’s decision to inlcude the undefeatable ghost army from the book which sucked the tension right out of the closing scenes of the central battle. Those three main problems aside this is a worthy climax to the great trilogy with all the characters remaining on form throughout. There are some stand-out sequences such as Gandolf shepherding the cavalry back to the White City, and that rousing speech from the great Bernard Hill’s “Theoden”. The subsequent battle for the White City is immense and the moment at which the Rohan smash through the Orc ranks will leave the hairs standing on the back of your neck. As with the first two films, The Return of the King is magnificently shot and the special effects are flawless which along with the pitch-perfect acting and tremendous story should ensure that this great trilogy will be enjoyed for years to come. Let’s just pray that Hollywood undergoes a serious culture change before some lazy executive decides to remake it.

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