Saturday, 21 April 2007

Grindhouse

Given that Grindhouse probably won't be in theatres much longer (it leaves Columbia next week), I am probably a little late in reviewing it. But then today was the first day I could actually see it. For those of you too young to remember and who are wondering at the origins of the title, a grindhouse was a theatre that exclusively showed exploitation films. They typically showed these films in double or even triple features. The height of grindhouse cinema was probably in the Seventies, when relaxed standards due to the newly implemented ratings system allowed exploitation films to feature even more violence and even more explicit sexual content. The death knell of exploitation films and the grindhouses came with the advent of home video. As the Eighties wore on, grindhouses started disappearing from the United States.

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse is a paen to the sort of films the grindhouses once showed. It is essentially set up as a "double feature" of two movies (Planet Terror and Death Proof), complete with faux trailers; cheesy, Seventies style "coming attractions" and "feature presentation" animations; and Seventies style "restricted" tags. To give the illusion that this is a double feature that has been around the block a bit too many times, Grindhouse also features fuzzy sound in parts, scratchy film, and even missing reels. Death Proof even had an "original title," Thunder Bolt, which flashes on the screen only seconds before being replaced by the new title, Deathproof. Indeed, to further capture the illusion of Seventies exploitation films, even the Dimension Films logo is done up in period fashion.

Of the double feature that is Grindhouse, the best is Planet Terror. Here Robert Rodriguez tackles the time honoured exploitation genre of the zombie film. The movie is set in a small Texas town where an experimental gas is released which infects nearly everyone who inhales it and turns them into zombies. To say it captures the feel of grindhouse cinema is putting it mildly. Once Grindhouse takes off, it hardly ever lets up on the throttle. Not only does Planet Terror feature plenty of action, but it also features violence and gore of the sort for which Seventies exploitation films were known. The hero of the piece, El Ray (played by Freddy Rodriguez--it's good to see a short hero for once...) even gets to engage in a some kung fu action. There is even nudity and a (albeit brief) sex scene.

To complete the illusion of a Seventies style exploitation movie, Rodriguez has provided his film with an homage to the scores of John Carpenter films (which Carpenter composed himself). Indeed, the score reminds me largely of the one from Halloween, down to many of its cues. This is a perfect compliment to the action and graphic violence of Grindhouse. It feels like a Seventies movie. I rather expect that those who object to graphic violence and gore will probably dislike Planet Terror (if you thought 300 was too much, then you probably won't like Planet Terror, but those who enjoy a simple, fun popcorn movie will like the film a good deal.

As to the second half of the double bill, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, it is definitely the lesser of the two movies. Death Proof centres on Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a former stuntman who travels around in his black 1971 Dodge Charger, which he has customised to be utterly "death proof." Stuntman Mike could probably be defined quite rightly as a serial killer, only in his case his weapon of choice is his car. Once Death Proof kicks into action, the thrills are pretty much nonstop. As might be expected, it features some of the best car chases I've seen in years (although admittedly they are largely cribbed from earlier "car" movies--Vanishing Point to name one). And Kurt Russell makes a good villain as Stuntman Mike, suitably smarmy but at the same time a bit left of centre and chilling.

The problem is that it takes Death Proof some time to get started, and then once it slows down again it takes it some time to get started again. One of Tarantino's flaws is that his movies can at times be a bit talky, and this is certainly the case with Death Proof. And while I usually enjoy Tarantino's dialogue, peppered with pop culture references, I found it out of place here. With a few exceptions (some of the films of John Carpenter and George Romero, to name two), most grindhouse movies did not feature pop culture references. It also has a great soundtrack ("Jeepster" is one of my favourite T. Rex songs, while I love "Hold Tight" by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich). Sadly, this also detracts from the grindhouse feel of the film. Very few Seventies exploitation films had great soundtracks (I can only think of one--1981's Fear No Evil with a soundtrack featuring The Sex Pistols and The Ramones). All of this having been said, Death Proof is still worth the price of admission due to its fantastic (and often unbelievable) car chases and Kurt Russell playing Stuntman Mike. It's not a perfect film, but it can be fun.

Of course, no theatre experience is complete without movie trailers, and the faux trailers in Grindhouse are hilarious. All of them are done in the overwrought style of Seventies exploitation trailers, and they succeed (maybe too well) in capturing the feel of those trailers. My favourites are Eli Roth's Thanksgiving (a delicious send up of those old, holiday themed slasher films of the late Seventies and early Eighties) and Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S. (a homage to the whole "Nazi women" subgenre of exploitation movies).

Ultimately, I suppose that there will be those who simply will not get Grindhouse. Those too young to have seen these sorts of films in grindhouses or drive in theatres, or to have even caught them on late night TV, probably won't get the joke. But for those who do remember those old grindhouse movies, and especially for those who actually enjoyed a few of them, Grindhouse is one ride worth taking.

Friday, 20 April 2007

The End of Law and Order?

It would seem that the future of both Law and Order and its spinoff Law and Order: Criminal Intent are both seriously in doubt. Monday producer and creator of both series, Dick Wolf, met with NBC. That day NBC determined that they would not yet decide if the two series would be renewed for next season. Talks between the two sides are expected to last into mid-May.

The difficulty for both Law and Order and Law and Order: Criminal Intent is twofold. Both series have had lower ratings this season than they have in previous seasons. And both series are very expensive to produce. Ultimately, whether the two series survive comes down to whether NBC thinks their costs justify the ratings they have been getting.

Law and Order debuted in 1990. Having been on for 17 years it is the longest running drama currently on television and the second longest running drama of all time (only Gunsmoke was on longer). Its ratings rose gradually through the years until it became one of the most successful shows on television. It has inspired four spinoffs: Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, the short lived Law and Order: Trial by Jury, and the reality series Crime and Punishment (a summer replacement series, it focused on real trials). Law and Order: Criminal Intent debuted in 2001 and has run six seasons. While it has never done as well in the ratings as Law and Order or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, it has done well enough to be renewed each season. As to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, that series was renewed in January. All three series are successful in syndication and are reran on various cable channels.

It might seem curious that the ratings of two, well established series would fall, but, quite honestly, I think it was primarily due to the time slots NBC placed them in. Law and Order was moved from its traditional Wednesday night time slot to Friday night, a night which is generally among the lowest rated nights of the week. Many series have found it hard to survive on Friday night, to the point that a time slot on that night is considered the kiss of death. As to Law and Order: Criminal Intent, NBC moved it from Sunday night to Tuesday night, before Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. This might seem like an ideal time slot, except that it places Law and Order: Criminal Intent in direct competition with the younger and higher rated House and sometimes even American Idol. It should not be surprising that both series should see their ratings fall this season.

Regardless, I think both series still have life left in them and they could possibly be saved, provided NBC moves them to different time slots. Law and Order definitely needs to be moved from Friday night and Law and Order: Criminal Intent needs to be moved away from House. Regardless, both series will be on the air for a long time to come, even if it is only in syndicated reruns.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Kitty Carlisle Hart R.I.P.

Kitty Carlisle Hart, perhaps better known simply as Kitty Carlisle, died Tuesday, April 16, 2007, after a long bout of pneumonia, at the age of 96. I rather suspect many of my younger readers may not recongise her name, but Carlisle was a established actress of stage and screen and a long time panellist on the show To Tell the Truth.

Kitty Carlisle was born Catherine Conn on September 3, 1910. She was educated in Europe and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She made her debut on Broadway in the operetta Champagne Sec in 1933. She made her screen debut in 1934 in Murder at the Vanities.

Carlisle was primarily an actress of the stage, making several appearance on Broadway in such musicals as White Horse Inn, Walk with Music, and On Your Toes. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, making her debut there in Die Fledermaus.

Carlisle also appeared on screen, her most famous role perhaps being as Rosa Castaldi in the Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera. Later in her career she appeared in Woody Allen's movie Radio Days. Perhaps Kitty Carlisle is most familiar to many older TV viewers as a panellist on the TV show To Tell the Truth. The original version on CBS ran from 1956 to 1967, and she was with the show from 1957 to 1967. She would later be a panellist on nearly every version of To Tell the Truth in syndication. For those not familiar with the series, To Tell the Truth was a show on which a panel of celebrities would interview three individuals, all claiming to be the same person, and would try to guess who really was that person.

Carlisle was also known as a supporter of the arts. She served on New York's state arts council from 1971 to 1996, for twenty of which she was its chariman. She toured nearly up until the day she died.

In 1946 she married composer Moss Hart. They would have two children. Hart died in 1957.

Growing up, I can remember the show To Tell the Truth from when I was very young. In fact, like many, for a long time it was the only one of Carlisle's works with which I was familiar. As I got older I was able to see Carlisle in her films, most notably A Night at the Opera. I must say that not only did she have a good voice, but she also had a real talent for comedy. Indeed, I suspect it was her wit and gift for humour that lent her success in her career as a panellist on To Tell the Truth. One thing is certain, she won't soon be forgotten.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai)

If there is one thing I regret about this blog, it is that I have never written much about jidaigeki (which means "period drama" in Japanese) or chambara movies (chambara means "sword fight")." Here in America we usually call them "samurai movies." Despite my relative silence on the subject, it is among my favourite genres of all time. Indeed, my favourite movie of all time is Shichinin no samurai or Seven Samurai. I'm not alone in this, as many recognise it as one of the greatest films ever made. Some even consider it the greatest.

Seven Samurai concerns a poor, defenceless, farming village who hire a group of samurai to protect them from the bandits who have been preying upon them for years. The movie is set in the Sengoku period (also known as "the warring states period" in English) in the late 16th century. During this period of unrest in Japan, many samurai became ronin or "lordless samurai." These ronin were often hired as mercenaries or bodyguards.

Shichinin no samurai originated with legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa had originally wanted to make a movie about the day in the life of a samurai. The movie would have begun with the samurai getting up in the morning and would end with the samurai making some error and being forced to commit oibara seppuku to save face. Ultimately, Kurosawa felt he did not have enough information to make such a film. Fortunately, however, in his research he had come upon an account of a village which hired samurai to defend them. This idea became Seven Samurai.

Seven Samurai would prove to be a very arduous undertaking for Kurosawa. It took Kurosawa and his collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni six weeks to finish the script. And during that whole time interruptions to their work was kept to an absolute minimum. Both visitors and phone calls were forbidden to them. Preproduction on the film also took a long time. It stretched out for three months. Worse yet, Toho Studios and Kurosawa didn't always see eye to eye. Toho had wanted Kurosawa to shoot Shichinin no samurai on sets in Tokyo, but the great director insisted on shooting on location to capture the look and feel of a 16th century Japanese farming village. The film was originally budgeted to be shot in a little over month, but shooting on the movie lasted for over a year. To make matters worse, the studio was also shooting Gojira (known as Godzilla elsewhere) at the same time. The cost of both movies would nearly bankrupt Toho. It should not be surprising, then, that Toho discontinued production on the film several times, forcing Kurosawa to convince the studio's board of directors to continue making the movie. Other problems would also plague the movie's production. The weather would not cooperative for much of the time. And for some of the action scenes the production was running short on horses. In the end Seven Samurai would be the most expensive feature ever made in Japan at the time of its release. It would also be the longest hit movie made anywhere since Gone With the Wind, clocking in at over 3 hours.

Ultimately, the trials and tribulations that went into the making of Seven Samurai would prove well worth it. Toho's concerns about the film proved to be unwarranted, as it would be a box office success in Japan. Following the critical and box office success of Rashoman (released in 1951), it would cement Kurosawa's reputation as a director both in Japan and around the world. In 1954 Shichinin no samurai won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Lion award. It was released in the United States on November 19, 1956. Unfortunately, Toho, thinking Americans could not sit through a three hour movie, cut the film to 141 minutes. They also retitled it The Magnificent Seven (a name later used by its most famous remake--Toho apparently did not think Americans knew what samurai were). Both the extensive cutting and the new title did not seem to harm the movie in the United States. It would be nominated for Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White. Amazingly, it was not nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Fellini's La Strada would win that year).

Regardless of its poor showing at the Oscars, Shichinin no samurai would prove to be the most influential action movie of all time. Indeed, the first official remake of the film would be made almost immediately. At the urging of Yul Brynner, producer Walter Mirisch bought the rights for an American remake of the film. That film, which transplanted the action to the Mexico in the days of the Old West, would become The Magnificent Seven--itself now regarded by many as a classic. Other "official" remakes would follow, including Liu he qian shou, Battle Beyond the Stars, and I Sette magnifici gladiatori among others. There would be many more "unofficial" remakes, including Star Trek: Insurrection and A Bug's Life (which is actually more a parody). Even when films are not outright remakes of Shichinin no samurai or inspired by it, the movie's influence can be seen in them. The spate of movies featuring a group of heroes in the Sixties (The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and so on) may have been an outgrowth of the success of The Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificent Seven. Arguably, the plot of The Seven Samurai was so archetypal that it became a stock plot often used by Hollywood in action films.

The influence of Seven Samurai can be felt in more than the recycling of its plot. Critic Michael Jeck (on the DVD commentary to the film) believes that it was the first film in which a group was gathered together to carry out a mission. Roger Ebert believes that it could be the first time a hero is shown on another mission at the beginning of a movie (in the case of Shichinin no samurai, Kambei rescuing a boy from a kidnapper). The unease with which the villagers view the samurai and the romance of one of the heroes with a local girl were other plot devices which would prove influential. While these plot devices occur in earlier films, they were first brought together in Seven Samurai. Among its other innovations was the use of slow motion in action scenes, the use of the telephoto lens, and multi-camera filming. Not only have various plot elements in the movie been imitated many times, so too has its style and look.

For myself it is no wonder Seven Samurai has the reputation it does. While it can be simply described as a film in which poor villagers hire samurai to defend them, it is much more complex than that. Although some have criticised Kurosawa for using "types" in the movie rather than characters, I have to disagree. The characters are part of the appeal of the movie--Kambei, the older samurai with his share of regrets; Kiuchiyo (played marvelously by the legendary Toshiro Mifune), the farmer who wants to be a samurai; and Kyuzu, the taciturn master swordsmen. And unlike many of its remakes and imitators, the villagers in Shichinin no samurai have personalities all their own, from the village elder, Gisaku, who hires the samurai, to Manzo, the villager worried for his daughter with so many samurai around. And Seven Samurai is remarkable in its large number of subplots; nearly every character has his or her time in the spotlight.

The complexity of Seven Samurai does not end with its characters or its plot. The film was revolutionary in Kurosawa's treatment of samurai. Here, perhaps for the first time in Japanese cinema, samurai were not portrayed as honour bound warriors who must die in battle or commit oibara seppuku when faced with defeat. Indeed, in some portions of the film various samurai joke about hiding during battle and even running away. And rather than romanticising the samurai, Kurosawa in many respects portrays them as a sad lot. Indeed, in some respects they seem envious of the farmers, with their families and settled lives. In the end, Kambei remarks, "So. Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us." Ultimately, however, the samurai are heroic figures (after all, who else would defend unarmed farmers for but a bit of rice a day but a hero?), but they are heroes who are also unmistakably human.

Shichinin no samurai is remarkable in its recreation of 16th century Japanese life, from the clothes the characters wear to the food they eat. And yet the film does not accept 16th century Japan at face value. Japan at that time was a society with a strict class system, in which peasants and samurai must not mix. Indeed, this perhaps lies behind the distrust the peasants hold for the samurai. Ultimately, however, in allowing the samurai and villagers to interact and bond, as Roger Ebert in his review of the film points out, Kurosawa presents gentle humanism as preferable to the strict codes of 16th century Japan. This was a stark departure from many previous jidaigeki.

Of course, it is more than the film's complexity in its plot and themes that make it a great film. Even on the cheaper film stock used in Japan at the time, Seven Samurai looks very good. Kurosawa was an accomplished painter, and he applied his knowledge of the art to his work in film. Like most of his films, Shichinin no samurai is remarkable for the details in many of its shots. It is not unusual in the film to see a shot in which one thing may be going on in the foreground, and something else entirely is going on in the background. In fact, Kurosawa uses nearly every technique at the disposal of filmmakers at the time, from close ups to wide angle shots to panning. I have to say, I honestly think that any given frame of the movie would look good as a still picture.

Amazingly for its length, Shichinin no samurai moves at a fairly rapid pace. Indeed, my best friend claims that the movie could actually been longer and it wouldn't hurt it. I must admit, it does not seem like a movie that is over three hours in length.

As I said earlier, Seven Samurai is my favourite film of all time. And it is widely recognised as one of the greatest films of all time. It is not a classic meant only to be seen by students of film or movie historians. It is not even a movie merely for those who love movies. Quite frankly, I think everyone needs to see this film at least once in their lifetime, and preferably more than that.