Monday, October 25, 2010


Kaneto Shindô's 1968 horror movie Kuroneko (a.k.a. Black Cat) is a creepy mood piece that starts with shocks before settling into a far more effective mode, digging its claws in the viewer to inject a nearly imperceptible poison.

The film opens with a harsh event: a band of starving samurai finds a remote farmhouse where two women live alone. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are inside eating a quiet meal, having been stranded three years prior when the man of the family was conscripted into the army. With no one to protect them or their home, the brigands eat the food, rape the women, and burn the house down. The scene plays with no dialogue, and the most gruesome events occur off camera, the drooling faces of the onlookers being enough to turn our stomachs all on their own.

When the smoke clears, the house is destroyed, but the bodies of the dead remain relatively untouched. A black cat crawls into the wreckage and seemingly revives the women. It's implausible, sure, but Shindô's quick cut technique hips us to the fact that something beyond flesh-based logic is going on here. We are in a supernatural world.

Cut to a dark night outside the gate to the estate of the village nobility. A lone samurai passes on his horse. As a cat meows in the distance, he is approached by a young woman dressed in white. It is Shige, the daughter from before. She convinces the warrior to escort her back to her house, where she and her mother give him sake and the promise of something more. Only, when he collects, Shige's kisses turn to deadly bites. She gouges his neck and drinks his blood. Come morning, the house is gone, but the dead samurai is still there.

Kuroneko is a mystical revenge movie, a ghost story about two wronged women exacting vengeance on the warmongering men that are tearing their country apart. It covers some similar ground to Kaneto Shindô's earlier movie, the eerie and often harrowing Onibaba [review], in which a similarly abandoned pair of women earn their way by killing passing swordsmen and stealing their armor. In Onibaba, the return of the lost son and husband exposes the crimes and shifts the drama into even more macabre directions. In Kuroneko, the return of the soldier boy is almost the opposite. The ghost story takes a turn when Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) emerges from combat as a celebrated warrior. He is promoted in the ranks and dispatched by his master (Kei Satô) to take care of whatever is killing the men.

Naturally, Gintoki is taken aback when he discovers whom the ghosts are, but instead of dispelling them via a deadly battle or a traditional exorcism, Gintoki settles back into a semblance of home life. Kuroneko becomes almost a love story, albeit a morbid one, as the husband returns to the house night after night to make love to his dead wife. It's a glacial seduction, both in terms of temperature and pacing. Life in Kuroneko nearly slows to a crawl--only it's a state that can't last. There will have to be a reckoning.

Shindô is a particularly skilled filmmaker when it comes to making the supernatural come alive. There are several excellent special effects in Kuroneko. Some of them are traditional sleight-of-hand: at one angle, we see the true nature of the ghosts, but in the next cut, they have returned to normal. Shindô loves to use a choppy montage to unsettle the viewer and pull us into the netherworld. He also gets clever with optical effects, and he portrays the ghostly manor where the women lure their victims as a kind of landlocked sailing vessel. It moves through natural space, drifting through the surrounding forest, never locked to one place on the corporeal plane.

As good of a ghost story as it is, however, Kuroneko is far more than a simple tale of succubae going bump in the night. As with Onibaba, the filmmaker is using the fantastical as background for exploring human nature. In particular, Kuroneko is a damning critique of societal divisions and the pecking order of masculine leadership. The higher up the ladder, the more vain and ridiculous the men behave. The head of the clan sits behind a screen, as if he were some great and powerful Oz passing orders down to the lower ranks, while Gintoki's superior, Raiko, is a hairy, preening beast. When Gintoki spins an embellished tale of how he conquered an enemy referred to as "The Bear," his description of the man's furry body could just as easily be applied to the man he is telling it to. The male animal is large and indiscriminately violent, whereas the female power lies in wait. A cat is stealthy and precise. They keep the true color of their fur hidden.

All of these elements build to an effective climax, Shindô pulling out all of his tricks for a close-quarters showdown and a bittersweet finish that stays true to Kuroneko's cynical worldview. As the final images continued to haunt me, I had to ask myself whose side I was on and why. Who was I meant to sympathize with or feel sorry for? Gintoki obviously had nothing directly to do with the murder of his family, but he is part of the system that made it possible. Hell only comes to Earth when humanity clears a path for it.

Kuroneko is currently playing in limited engagements around the country. My fellow Portlanders can see it at Cinema 21 starting November 5. Check the Janus Films website for dates near you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PATHS OF GLORY (Blu-Ray) - #538

"There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die."

Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory is a movie that should fail to move no one. I daresay it's one of those films that forever changes a person. There is not having seen it, and then there is having seen it, and the two states are totally different. I suppose suggesting that there is no one among us who would not be touched by Paths of Glory is a bit much, but the movie demands we not adopt a cynical view of our fellow man. All said and done, we must accept that there is something deep down that is fundamentally right in our basic DNA.

Paths of Glory is one of those gamechangers I found when quite young, glimpsed on some station or other as a high schooler constantly on the lookout for good movies. I should have marked the day my father put cable in my bedroom, as that was an important day. Paths of Glory came at the right time, when I was starting to think about politics, starting to understand there was a greater message in history. Like any teen, I was ready to question authority, and the morality play depicted here shows one how to do that in an even-handed, dignified manner. It's not rebellion without a cause, though perhaps it's no more effective for having one.

This World War I drama was based on a novel by Howard Cobb, and the screenplay was written by three different scribes: Kubrick himself, the great Calder Willingham (The Strange One [review], Thieves Like Us [review]), and the astonishing Jim Thompson (better known as the novelist who wrote The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me [review]). It stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, an officer in the French army who fights alongside the troops in the trenches and who approaches his job with reason and logic. The crux of the story is an attack on a German stronghold referred to as "the Anthill." It's an impossible task, one that even Dax's glory-hungry superior, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), knows is hopeless, but the promise of another star on his collar blinds him to the risks. Dax even tries to refuse, but he goes along rather than be relieved of his command and leaving his men unprotected.

The script for Paths of Glory essentially follows a three-act structure. The first act is the preparation for the siege on the Anthill and then the disastrous run into No Man's Land. The troops can barely advance past their own line, and when Mireau's orders to shell his own trenches in order to push the grunts forward are ignored, he is left with egg on his face. Act Two is his attempt to wipe the egg away, calling on one man from each regiment to be brought up on court martial, charged with cowardice. Dax attempts to defend them as best he can, but fails, and Act Three is what happens on the way to the firing squad.

Paths of Glory is a pitch-perfect piece of drama. It's remarkable in its simplicity. There is no extraneous scene, no off-key moment. The dialogue crackles, and the mis-en-scene moves with precision and confidence. There are many remarkable sequences in the movie, most famous of which is the charge on the Anthill. Kubrick and his d.p. George Krause and camera operator Hannes Staudinger take the audience down into the trenches, and then they haul us over the top, racing through the bombs and the bodies and leading us right through the thick of combat. Yet, there are smaller moments too. Look at how the camera moves in the very brief fist fight between Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), the way the action swings with the fighters, and compare it to the way we dance with the officers a short time later when the Generals throw a party for themselves. Behavior inspires technique.

More striking, though, are Kubrick's still compositions and his use of the full image frame. Many of the important scenes are set up with characters in the foreground, middle ground, and back, each important to the moment, and the arrangement establishing that importance. Kubrick takes full advantage of the depth of field, balancing his wide shots with extreme close-ups, punching in for the fullest possible impact. As an actor, Douglas also gives as much as he can. Just watch his face when Kubrick gives him the whole screen to work with. He makes every nervous twitch count. (And trust me, you will see that clearer than ever on this Blu-Ray; see below.)

The best part of Paths of Glory, however, is how the writers make the underlying meaning and the human tragedy at the center of the story seem as effortless as everything else. The situations are presented as they are without needless emphasis on right or wrong. Just as action dictated shooting style, so too do characters dictate how the narrative progresses. The way we get to know the men informs us as to where our loyalties should go. For instance, the contentious relationship between Corporal Paris and the incompetent Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris) causes us to consider that the best of the best aren't always in charge, and it mirrors the relationship of Dax and Mireau. And Dax's practicality is put up against the way the ranking officer, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), values protocol over common sense. None of these characters need to spend time making speeches, what they are trying to achieve provides soapbox enough.

Paths of Glory maintains its hard exterior even as the hardships mount. If the attack on the Anthill seemed insurmountable, it has nothing on the kangaroo court Dax would find his men tangled up in. Yet, even as Kubrick decries war, he maintains a very modern point of view: he exonerates the good men who fight it. He doesn't see them as being without flaw, but rather as doing the best they can in the face of absurdity and all the more admirable for it. I think the final scene of the film--which I will not describe in any depth here, in case you have never seen it--befuddled me as a young man, but now it strikes me as absolutely perfect. It is like a flower blooming on a scarred battlefield, a reminder to all of us that as large as life may loom, men (and women) will always find their way back to some kind of common ground. Somehow, the goodness of the human spirit can never be tamped down completely. There will be war, but there will also be survivors, and they will pick up and carry on.

The new 1080p image on this Criterion Paths of Glory BD far exceeds expectations, improving light years on the previous DVD release from MGM. First and foremost, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio on that disc is discarded in favor of the correct 1.66:1 frame, which opens up the image so we can see those spectacular Kubrick compositions in full. The black-and-white image has a remarkable level of contrast, playing with light and dark and bringing out a startling amount of detail, from the crags of dirt in the trenches to the shine on the marble halls behind the lines. There is a pleasing grain that mimics and preserves the natural look of the film stock, and overall, the print is free of any noticeable blemishes.

Just as impressive is the uncompressed mono soundtrack. Newly remixed, it preserves the original audio, but the clean-up also works well in modern systems to give as much depth to what we hear as what we see. Don't just be wowed by the cacophony of the shelling, but give an extra ear to the courtroom scenes. Listen how the footsteps sound on the marble and the way the voices echo in the cavernous hall.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

HOUSE - #539

"Now the story descends into a ruinous abyss of riotous music..."

It's rare that a movie leaves me completely dumbfounded. Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows I can go on at length regarding just about anything, whether I know what I'm talking about or not. All the more amazing, then, that when it comes to the 1977 Japanese horror freak-out House (a.k.a. Hausu), it's impossible to know where to begin.

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (Sada, The Drifting Classroom), and allegedly based on a story dictated to him by his 11-year-old daughter, this movie is as nuts as...well, as a story told to you by an 11 year old. "And then they find a head in the well...and then it vomits blood...and then the skeleton dances...and then the cat's eyes sparkle green with magic...and then..." Like a triple-dog dare times infinity, House is on a quest to continually one-up itself. "You thought that shit was bananas, but no, this shit is literally bananas!" Obayashi directed the movie like he was only going to get one shot at this cinema thing, and he was going to make it count. No stylistic stone would be left unturned, no camera technique was too out there to try. It didn't matter if it made sense on paper; once it was in his movie, that was sense enough. From the animated opening title to the bucolic promo reel for the actresses that serve as the closing credits, anything goes in House, and that anything goes all over the place.

The "plot" is one pulled out of the classic horror story handbook. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is a high school student looking forward to summer vacation with her classmates, but her father, a film composer, has just returned from Italy ("Leone said my music was better than Morricone's") with a new bride to replace Gorgeous's long-dead mother. Distraught by the sudden life upheaval, Gorgeous decides to visit her aunt at her country home. When the plans for the other six girls also get derailed, Gorgeous invites them along.

The girls in the movie are like the seven dwarves, reduced to the types we normally expect in slasher pictures. In addition to Gorgeous there is Fantasy (her head is always in the clouds), Prof (she's really smart), Melody (likes music), Mac (likes to eat), Sweet (always nice), and Kung Fu (what do you think?). There is also a mysterious white cat named Blanche that appears just as Gorgeous informs the aunt of her impending arrival. Blanche is a signal of what is to come. The name has to be an intended allusion to A Streetcar Named Desire and its off-her-rocker main character. To tell you the truth, throughout this movie, whenever they'd say the cat's name, I'd think of that episode of The Simpsons where Marge was in a musical version of Streetcar, and the scene when Bart is swinging on the ropes shouting, "Look at me! I'm Blanche Dubois!" This movie is like how they make Blanche's dementia come to life on stage in that musical, but 90 minutes long.

Anyway, Auntie (Yôko Minamida) had a lover who was a pilot in the war. He went off to fight, never came back, and things have never been the same again. She has lived a life alone with her cat, numerous portraits of the fluffy creature covering the walls where family pictures would otherwise be. Her past is told as a silent movie, complete with title cards, and narrated by the girls themselves, as if they were watching it rather than just hearing Gorgeous tell the story. It's during a train ride, which itself looks like some idyllic marketing campaign come to life. The other passengers include a nun, a sailor, and a guy reading a book about horror movie monsters--the kind of diversity that would make any ad agency proud. (Indeed, Obayashi was a commercial director and responsible for the Charles Bronson cologne ad recently doing the internet rounds.) The train station also has many matte paintings that Obayashi uses as tricky trompe-l'œils, challenging our perception of reality. Is it any coincidence, then, that all the shots of the sky outside Auntie's house are matte paintings as well?

It's hard to say, actually. Maybe it is a coincidence. It's impossible to tell whether anything in House is there by design. It stands on a line between an authentically bad movie and a hilariously intentional one. There are scenes of slapstick mixed in with some gore; there is lurid B-movie leering alongside heartfelt romance. Some of it is so completely gonzo that you can't believe Obayashi isn't playing a prank, such as the way the stepmom's scarf is always blowing behind her. Yet, I think House is a sincere effort. It's the small details where a director truly reveals himself. What tipped it for me was the appearance of Andrew Wyeth's famous painting Christina's World in Gorgeous's bedroom. It's an image of a girl in a wheat filed, on the ground, half rising half sitting, her back to the audience, looking at a house on a hill. Painted in 1948, it has inspired much debate about who the girl is, where she is, why she is staring at the house. Does she see a hopeful life there? Or does she dread returning?

There are tons of stray details in House. Every frame is packed with something, and if you don't let your eyes rove over the images, you might miss some of the odd touches. Objects move and come to life, things appear and disappear--you have to keep looking. Obayashi employs editing tricks to create loopy effects, as well as old-fashioned Fangoria gore, dumping buckets of blood on the floor and tossing rubber limbs around. Sam Raimi was 18 when House came out. I don't know if he's ever seen the movie, but one can easily picture him wandering into a theatre somewhere as a teenager and having his mind blown. For all the laughs and the what-the-hell? moments, there are some isolated scenes in House that are also genuinely scary and generally brilliant. The many inspired uses of severed body parts alone are enough to keep you up at night.

House is such a bizarre curio, it's hard to imagine both why it has been buried for so long and why whoever was responsible didn't bury it deeper. I'm so baffled and in awe, I don't actually want it explained to me, there's no way a director's commentary could do it justice. It's a movie that just needs to be seen. It can only speak for itself, no matter how much I want to keep telling you more. You just have to see it.

The above was written eight months ago when I saw the movie as part of its theatrical tour. Now having had a chance to revisit it on DVD, my appreciation has only grown--particularly due to the presentation of the movie on this disc. I know cinema fans can get pretty dogmatic about 35mm prints, but I have to say, straight-up, the DVD is ten times better than the print I saw of House. The clarity here gave me a whole new appreciation of the special effects, particularly the masterful background paintings. Obayashi has created a colorful fantasy world, and the depth of field in his soundstage constructions are astounding. The in-camera special effects also are only improved by the digital resolution. House is creativity unleashed, and Criterion has given the movie the best possible arena to show what its got.

Obayashi was already developing his scattershot style back in 1966, as evidenced by his 40-minute experimental film, Emotion, included here as a bonus. In Emotion, the director is both toying with the idea of making a horror movie and with the whole notion of making movies in general. The film starts with a declarative introduction, and a credits sequence that is like a scrapbook for the production. Voiceover alternates between English and Japanese--presumably by design, though it ends up sounding like one of those television programs for bilingual nations. There is even some French narration.

The story of this short film is about two girls, Mari and Emi. Mari is the daughter of vampire parents, and Emi is from the sea. They become friends, and they run afoul of some dangerous men. Emi also has a run-in with Mari's vampire mother. Emotion is a pop art parody of scary films, spaghetti westerns, and French cinema; it's dedicated to Roger Vadim, and it even has a touch of his trademark naughtiness. Thematically, human desires are what lead to grotesque horrors, and nature itself has a pull on our actions. Full moons bring werewolves, naturally, but here Obayashi seems to be using the oceans and tides and the pull it has on women's bodies as a metaphor to explore the dangers one encounters on the path to adulthood.

Emotion is shot in color, regular black-and-white, and tinted black-and-white; Obayashi employs stop motion and manipulates cut-outs and paper. He also lets the camera crew wander into the scenes and talks about his dreams for making a real Dracula movie one day. This leads to a coda, where one of the girls' boyfriends has now crossed over to the other side. It's the closest to traditional horror as we'll see from Obayashi, with the bloodsucker roaming a misty graveyard at night. Of course, he drains the precious liquid from a girl's neck with a straw, so it's not all normal. Still, there is something practical about the idea....

The other major extra deals with the inception of House and what it took to get it made. A 45-minute compilation of new interviews with Nobuhiko Obayashi, his daughter and inspiration Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura illuminated the long process that began with Obayashi, a successful commercial director, being charged by Toho to come up with a Japanese movie like Jaws. He took ideas from his young daughter and got an immediate greenlight from the studio, but then had to mount a two-year campaign to get cameras rolling. It's a pretty fascinating story, showing the filmmaker's dedication and his belief that he could pull off something incredible. Which he did. The collaborative nature of the production and the family atmosphere Obayashi created is given tribute in the interior design of the House DVD: the inside cover in the clear case is a collage of photos of cast and crew, a record of a special time.

Other extras include a short video appreciation by House of the Devil-director Ti West that puts House in the context of other horror movies, including the current paradigm of commercial directors like Obayashi being tapped to make horror films, but instead of going all-out the way Obayashi did, they are churning out cookie-cutter yawns. There is also a theatrical trailer, this one right here:

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


This weekend is the New York Comic Con, and I will be setting up shop and hawking my wares in Artist Alley.

Joëlle Jones and I will be at table D9, in the same island as David Mack, Yanick Paquette, Ken Steacy, Pete Woods, Jamal Igle, Chris Eliopoulos, Peter Kuper, Philip Tan, and a bunch of other great people.

Nicolas Hitori de
will be there, as well, but he'll be sitting with the Oni Press guys. Apparently, Joëlle and I get on his nerves. Whatever. We're fun.

Oh, and Criterion designer Erik Skillman is also going to be on hand, probably avoiding making eye contact with me. Criterion nerds, we're the worst!

Joëlle and I should have plenty of our joint comics there, as well as other random stuff. Joëlle will be sketching. Her con prices are $20 for a pencil sketch or $30 inked for the first character, $10 for each additional character. I can set that up for you, as well.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

SEVEN SAMURAI (Blu-Ray) - #2

Note: The screengrabs below are from the 2006 DVD and not the new Blu-Ray release.

When I find out that someone hasn't seen Seven Samurai, I almost feel sorry for them. How could they have missed out on one of the biggest crowd pleasers of cinema? That fades rather fast, however, when I realize that means I will get the pleasure of introducing them to the film, that I will be making way for something that can't fail to be a positive stop on their movie-going journey.

Akira Kurosawa's 1954 adventure movie is a bona-fide classic. Seven Samurai regularly leads the pack when surveys of the best foreign films are compiled. The term "foreign," of course, being relative to where you are; I am writing from North America, where we are regularly told that we hate readin' our movies, it's too much like book learnin'. Again, these would be the opinions of people who have never seen Seven Samurai, because seeing it eradicates prejudices about non-American cinema. There is no stuffy philosophy, no symbolic chess games with death, Seven Samurai is popular entertainment through and through.

The story goes something like this: in the late 16th Century, a time of civil war in Japan, a remote farming village is under siege by a gang of bandits. Regular raids on their crops have left them with very little to feed themselves. Catching word that the brigands will be back when it's time to harvest the barley, a group of the local men head to the closest major town to try to recruit some samurai to come and protect them. At first, they fail, but then they come across Kambei (Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura), a stand-up warrior who has seen his fair share of losing battles. A thief who was interrupted in the middle of his breaking and entering has taken a small child hostage and has the townspeople at a standoff. Kambei shaves his head to look like a monk, talking his way into the shack where the thief has ensconced himself. Lickety-split, the bad guy is dead and the child saved.

Kambei resists joining the cause at first, but when he realizes how great a sacrifice the farmers are willing to make to recruit him, he changes his mind. With the help of an eager young samurai named Katsushiro (Ko Kimura), Kambei recruits four other fighters. A few of them are friends, and one of them is a seasoned master, the stoic Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi). This is one short of the number Kambei hoped for, though a clownish drunk that Kambei rejected will end up being the seventh, whether the other guys like it or not.

That drunk is Kikuchiyo, and he is played by the legendary actor Toshiro Mifune. Though this was not Mifune's first movie, nor even his first with Kurosawa, there is a kind of magic to his performance that is evidence of an artist reaching a new level of craft. Kikuchiyo is the role of a lifetime, giving Mifune a wide space in which to roam. He is funny and good with children, always ready for a ribald joke. He is also a sensitive man, a farmer's son with deep pain he tries to keep buried. Of all the samurai, he is the only one who truly understands how the peasants suffer. Mifune is tremendously physical in the role. The actor has been compared to a wolf before (including in DVD Talk's own Stuart Galbraith IV's book about Kurosawa and Mifune, The Emperor and the Wolf), and the hairy soldier he plays in Seven Samurai shows Mifune at his most lupine. The performance is all instinct, pure animal. Am I crazy in thinking he'd have made a perfect Wolverine in a Japanese version of X-Men?

Seven Samurai is a long film. At over three hours, it again might seem daunting, but trust me, it goes by in a flash. The movie is broken into two parts, and Kurosawa, who co-wrote the script with two other writers, picks the natural intermission point. Part I is the gathering of the warriors and their introduction to the village, including preparing the farmers to be a part of their own defense; Part II is the harvest and the battle. In terms of genre, Seven Samurai is basically a western. Kurosawa was making a John Ford movie, substituting ronin for cowboys and the Japanese farmlands for the American West. In doing so, Kurosawa invigorated the form, and Hollywood eventually took as much back from him as he ever did from them. If the plot of Seven Samurai sounds familiar, it's because it eventually became The Magnificent Seven. The evocative musical score of Fumio Hayasaka also pointed the way to Ennio Morricone's work with Sergio Leone.

Of course, like the best genre movies, there is more to this story than just the fighting. Kurosawa's narrative deftly explores the social structure of old Japan, examining the class system and its illusions. The farmers want the samurai to help them, but they fear them at the same time. One of the men cuts his daughter's hair and makes her dress as a boy, afraid one of the fighters will defile her. He is chastised for this, but the truth is, his anxiety is not totally unfounded. Samurai are killers, and many of them are no more honorable than the bandits, regardless of what code they claim allegiance to. The larger story of Seven Samurai is of these two worlds coming together and finding ways to understand each other. They are going to end up down in the blood and the mud together, so they best figure out what they are fighting for toot suite.

Oh, yes, there is blood and mud. Again, I can't stress this enough: Seven Samurai is popular entertainment. These guys aren't duelists sitting around discussing the finesse of structured battle, these are hard fighters going up against some really nasty dudes. The war is long, taking several days, and the strategy loses its form as it goes. The mettle of each man is tested, and Kikuchiyo in particular struggles to come into his own as a warrior. Katsushiro also matures as a character, defined by his other relationships: he both chases that previously mentioned farmer's daughter (Keiko Tsushima) and develops an admiration for Kyuzo.

The fighting is brutal and Kurosawa doesn't sugarcoat it, men really die. The battle culminates in a final skirmish in the rain, leading to a bittersweet ending that comments on the nature of conflict and the price paid by those who undertake it. There is no easy victory. The saber rattling is tone deaf.

The years have done nothing to dull the power of Seven Samurai, nor do multiple watchings make it any less riveting. Each time I see it, the characters come more alive, and their fates never stop surprising me. It's the kind of movie that so grips you, it makes you completely forget you know how it's going to turn out. To this day, filmmakers are still trying to copy how Kurosawa balanced action, drama, and humor. Seven Samurai wins every time.

Fabled as the first ever Criterion DVD (despite its #2 spine number), this is technically the fourth go-around with the company for Seven Samurai (five if you count laser discs). This new BD release pretty much follows the outline of the marvelous 2006 three-disc reissue, though the material has been compressed down to two discs, with the full three-and-a-half hour movie on a single Blu-Ray. The 2006 set was a high watermark in the presentational evolution of older movies in digital formats, and DVD Talk's original review gave it pretty close to top scores across the board.

The Blu-Ray manages to do the DVD even better, bringing more clarity to the movie and improving the overall texture of the transfer. Lights and darks look fantastic, and most of the aging process has been pushed back, the tech team has lessened the scratches so that there is comparably little quantifiable print damage. The added crispness opens up the image and makes it feel more immersive, capturing in particular the full landscapes of the farmers' fields. Seven Samurai is becoming that movie that demands you upgrade every single time, and it's totally worth it.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


"Well, you've got your diamonds
And you've got your pretty clothes
And the chauffeur drives your car
You let everybody know

But don't play with me,
'cause you're playing with fire

The Darjeeling Limited opens with a fake out. Bill Murray, playing an unnamed business man, is running to catch a train somewhere in India. The camera is with him as he runs, but suddenly, another figure enters the screen--Peter Whitman, one of the three Whitman brothers. He's running to catch the train, as well. He passes the man, doing a double-take, almost like he knows him, before leaving him behind; Mr. Business will have to catch the next one. For a moment, though, we thought the movie was about him, or would at least feature him prominently, but it does neither--at least not in any way we know. He is seen one more time in a later montage, part of a roll call of the film's other tangential characters, a reconnecting to the collective unconsciousness of the narrative, and in that instance, we will see him at rest. But why is he there?

It would be easy to get hung up on Bill Murray. In the scheme of The Darjeeling Limited, he is a small thing, and part of the film's greater meaning relies on the Western habit of getting hung up on small things. Granted, his existence nags at us through most of the picture. I've seen it three times now and I still keep waiting for it to be revealed he's actually the father of the Whitman boys, the man whose death has sent them out on their journey of healing and spiritual discovery. It's a ghost chasing the train, and the children pass him by the way children are supposed to, already farther ahead of their parents than even they know.

The other guys are waiting for Peter on the train. There is the eldest brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), and the younger sibling, Jack (Jason Schwartzman); that means Peter (Adrien Brody) is the middle child. It's been a year since their father's funeral, and that long since any of them have seen each other. Much has happened. From having watched the film's prequel Hotel Chevalier, available here as it was on the earlier Fox DVD, we know Jack has been in exile in Paris, where he recently was visited by a toxic lover he'd do better to forget. We will find out shortly that Peter is expecting a child in six weeks, a responsibility he is not ready for. Francis arrives bandaged and bruised, apparently having been in some auto accident. He is a successful business man, it would seem, and he has brought an assistant (Wally Wolodarsky) who will keep the boys informed of their itinerary and keep the trip moving. Francis has planned everything.

On the surface, these plans are exactly what Francis tells his brothers they are: they are on a spiritual journey, seeking to renew their familial bond and heal their wayward souls. Secretly, Francis is also hoping to find their mother (Anjelica Huston), who he has learned is living as a nun in the Himalayas. There are clearly unresolved issues here, and Francis may be the only one who wants this reunion.

The Darjeeling Limited is the fifth full-length feature from writer/director Wes Anderson, who here shares script credit with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, a filmmaker in his own right. (He has directed many music videos, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and his own film, CQ, as well as serving as second-unit director on many of his father Francis Ford Coppola's movies. Jason Schwartzman is his cousin.) It has been said that the Whitman brothers each represent one of the scribes, which makes sense the more you know about this group. Anderson's movies have always been personal, but The Darjeeling Limited is his most naked effort. It's also in contention as his most misunderstood. The movie received a chilly reception when it came out in 2007, and it is due a critical reevaluation--something this splendid Criterion 2-disc reissue should make rather convenient. (More on this new package down at the bottom.)

The title of the film comes from the train the Whitmans are riding. Though the ultimate destination will be the nunnery where their mother is holed up, there will be many stops along the way where the boys will attempt to have premeditated mystical experiences. It's a misguided effort, however, you can't plan for epiphanies. Francis is an overbearing control freak who seeks to even put a rope around chaos. He has mapped out key ashrams and brought along peacock feathers for a ritual intended to unburden them of the maladies that weigh upon their souls. Unsurprisingly, Jack and Peter can't follow instructions and it all goes wrong.

Much of the trip is spent with the brothers at each other's throats. Old resentments come up, new ones emerge. Peter, for instance, is taking charge of their late father's belongings, which rankles Francis' need to have everything locked down. Jack is pining for his girlfriend (Natalie Portman), and he creates a parallel situation by having a quickie with a stewardess on the train (Amara Karan), ignorant of the fact that she is dating the chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia). The boys are all getting blitzed on over-the-counter medicines, taking advantage of more lax prescription laws in India. They argue and even have a fist fight and make nuisances of themselves as they overanalyze every little detail of their lives. Francis wanted his brothers to get on the same page, but they haven't even agreed on the same book.

All of Wes Anderson's movies have shared themes and affectations, and after his previous film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review], there was a fear he might become stagnant. The Darjeeling Limited is his attempt to avoid that. In this movie, Anderson seems to be undergoing his own transformation, tackling this potential problem head on and also addressing one of his main narrative concerns, the theme of letting go of the preciousness that at first defines and then smothers individualism. When seriously considering The Darjeeling Limited, it starts to feel like the previous films were playtime, a bunch of kids putting on a show, and this one shows a director growing up for real. Thus, the father figure, a very important component of Anderson's oeuvre, is already out of the equation, and the usually dependable mother has given up on her responsibilities. There is nothing left for the children to hide behind. Rebellious quirks like drug taking and kleptomania are neither cute nor romantic, nor is playing with exotic and dangerous things like poisonous snakes; these things now have an actual effect, they take a toll.

In this case, the snake is the first infraction of several that cause the Whitmans to be kicked off the train in the middle of nowhere. This is arguably the best thing that could have happened to them, as it finally wrenches control from their hands. They are somewhere they did not plan to be with no exit strategy. As the idiom goes, it's about to get real. When morning comes, the guys witness another trio of brothers: three local children trying to cross a river. An accident occurs, and one of the children dies. Fittingly, it's the one Peter tries to rescue. "I couldn't save mine," he says plainly, even as blood rushes down his face and he cradles the dead boy in his arms. Metaphorically, Peter is being faced with his own future and the son he is considering abandoning before he is even born. It's a heartbreaking moment that Brody plays with an intense, yet understated, gravitas. His numbed reaction speaks volumes; in this case, doing so little means so much.

The event actually inspires a different kind of letting go. In a very literal sense, the Whitmans all toss aside their luggage to jump in the river--luggage that was once owned by their father and even bears his initials. In any road trip, the physical baggage characters bring with them is merely a stand-in for their emotional baggage. It's also important to note that just before the accident, the computer printer Francis uses to make his laminated itineraries falls and breaks--yet another sign that the comfortable world of modern convenience is no longer valid. They must discard the superfluous before they can realize what is important. The aftermath of the tragedy is the first time the trio is genuinely quiet. Words fail them.

Anderson chooses to drop a flashback in here, and he couldn't have timed it better. He cuts from the child's funeral to the Whitman boys in the back of a limo on the way to the funeral for their father. The scene is already in progress when we enter, and the first line of dialogue is "I can't believe you just said that." We are back to the siblings in a quarrel, engaging in more of their ill-conceived plans. Peter demands they stop and pick up their father's roadster from the repair shop. It's not fixed, but they try to take it anyway. It's these guys in a nutshell--always trying to push a car out on the road even though it has no battery. It's crucial, however, that the failure of this plan unites them. Compare the shot of them ready to fight the truck driver in the middle of the street to them together at the funeral, and then think of this again later when they finally regain their common ground just before leaving India.

Prior to this departure, the most connected moment the brothers have in the movie--I prefer the word "connected" to "spiritual," honestly--is when they are communing with their mother. It's another scene where silence is important, even if we aren't sure that dear ol' ma isn't conning them to get out of answering their accusations. She suggests they sit quietly and just feel what they are feeling, their faces and their energy will communicate what words cannot. Anderson sets the camera in the center of their circle, and it pans around, face to face, chronicling their changing expressions. This exercise causes not just contentment, but the ability to reach out to the world beyond. It reconnects them to everyone else. Anderson cuts to one of his famous "dollhouse shots," the aforementioned train montage. The camera now pans across a long string of cars. There is no exterior, and we see everyone inside. We see the people the Whitmans have encountered on their way here, we see Peter's pregnant wife, and we see Bill Murray and Jack's girlfriend again. It's also the scene that uses the Rolling Stones song "Play With Fire," the opening lines of which I quote at the start of this article. Those six lyrics succinctly sum up so much of what this movie is about. Consider Mick Jagger to still be in his role as the tempter from "Sympathy for the Devil," and the mystical implications of the tune become far more flammable. "Your material world is easy, but the world I offer, a place where you let your emotions run free, is the one where you actually risk something." Hence, the caboose of the train houses the specter of death--the man-eating tiger that lurks outside the nunnery walls.

It's important to consider the music in any Wes Anderson movie. He picks his songs carefully, and they tend to enhance the meaning of the action. Elsewhere in the film for instance, the Kinks song "Strangers" contains the powerful statement, "I've killed my world and I've killed my time." The Kinks are another British Invasion-era rock group that plays an important part in the Anderson's prior filmography, but Anderson's previous use of the Stones still has tremendous dramatic resonance. A couple of their tunes provide the soundtrack for the revealing moment between Margot and Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums [review]. Arguably, the band is as important to Anderson's work as to Martin Scorsese's--though the two filmmakers gravitate to very different facets of the Stones catalogue.

I've argued before (and I'm certainly not the only one to do so) that Wes Anderson's output should be considered as one continuous thread, each film informing the other, as he builds on his themes and his unique vocabulary. Perhaps it is the familiarity of Anderson's coded visual language that makes it easy for some to dismiss it. Particularly in The Darjeeling Limited, the way Anderson's style so languorously hangs off his players makes it seem like he is phoning it in. Yet, I find when I try to put together the pieces and assign each Darjeeling character his place in the lexicon, it is not so easy. The emotions are more complex. They don't fit inside the picture frames as easily as the Tenenbaum children fit on their wall of accomplishments.

Jason Schwartzman in particular could be seen as playing his Anderson avatar all over again, returning to his career defining Rushmore role [review] and bringing Max Fisher into adulthood. If Jack is Max, he still invents stories, still struggles with unattainable love, but he has less self-belief. Again, the details are important, which might be why its so disconcerting in Hotel Chevalier when the first thing Natalie Portman does upon invading Jack's space is to rearrange his things. Everything has been put in the spots where Jack intended them to reside; he is an Anderson character through and through, he is establishing his own environment. It's why whenever he makes an important move, Jack cues up Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" on his iPod. He is scoring the film of his life.

Likewise, the stories he writes are all about him, even though he denies it. On one hand, he is chasing something (the book on his bed in Hotel Chevalier is the marvelous twofer of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels, and there is more in those stories apropos to this situation than just the titles); on the other, he accepts impermanence. His own novel is called Invisible Ink: this book too shall pass. Schwartzman, like Brody, plays it smart. Less important is the confidence of his actions (at times, he is very reasonable), or how gutsy he is at being needy; the true stuff is in what he doesn't say. Watch Schwartzman when Jack isn't actively engaged. The actor's longing looks at the horizon could be Jack seeking an escape, or more likely, looking to see if his past will catch up with him. He is Max looking for that remote-controlled plane to re-enter his airspace. The downed pilot of The Little Prince watching the stars for some kind of rescue.

Despite this reliving the past, more should be said about how much Wes Anderson has pushed himself out of his comfort zone for The Darjeeling Limited. He has left the familiar terrain of his previous inventions and gone in search of reality. Rushmore existed in an imaginary place where rich and poor are divided like an S.E. Hinton novel--or a clichéd inner city movie, something Max might turn into a stage play. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson sort of pretended to go out into the big, wide world, but it was still a fantasy world. For The Darjeeling Limited, he has gone someplace foreign to him, one that resists his molding it. The Whitmans think they can wander through India being who they are, relying on their white American privilege, but the country doesn't embrace them in this way. Francis sits down to get a shoeshine, and the shoeshine boy steals his $3,000 shoe.

You could actually consider that an extended metaphor for storytelling itself. An author may want to control where the muse takes him or her, but the muse does as it pleases. This bears more weight when we stop and think about Francis as the stand-in for Anderson, as well as considering further the history of Owen Wilson's roles in previous Anderson productions. (Remember, he co-wrote Bottle Rocket [review], Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums.) In Bottle Rocket, he establishes himself as the leader and schemer who imposes his self-belief on the others. He gets beat up for it, though not to the degree of which he is mangled in The Darjeeling Limited. This would mean the toll for setting the narrative has increased. (Note, too, Francis' initial explanation of how he crashed his car has echoes of Eli Cash plowing into the Tenenbaum home.) Perhaps this is also why Wilson's performance is the most mannered--he is mimicking the director.

This leaves Adrien Brody to be the stand-in for Roman Coppola, and both are newbies in the Anderson universe. Peter at times could be seen as more of an observer than a participant, sometimes even an outsider--he is not part of the regular routine, and when he takes action, it can be disruptive. Given Coppola's famous father, whose footsteps the son has followed in, it makes the fact that his avatar clings so closely to the dead man's things all the more revealing. The stolen prescription sunglasses, then, is a symbol for borrowed perception, of taking the patriarch's way of seeing as his own. Francis' jealousy, then, may be Anderson's (a stretch, to be sure, but let it have its moment). He wishes to be part of the cinematic lineage. He even has his character adopt the elder Coppola's first name!

The lack of audience and critical response to The Darjeeling Limited is damning in its own way. (I'm not a big fan of mob rating, but Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at a so-so 68%.) I've long believed that audiences resist growing with their favorite artists. They are too enamored with the first time they encountered whatever entertainment that artist has offered, and so resist when the creator goes too far from that initial spark and seek to put him or her back in the original box, seizing on anything that is repetitious as somehow actionable even as they insist the artist deliver more of the same. (At this point, dismissing The Darjeeling Limited is such a knee-jerk reaction, it tends to cause me to discount the person who has it with the same unqualified reflexiveness unless they can offer a considered response.) If The Darjeeling Limited is the end of a cycle, it's one that ends as it began. Bottle Rocket was a road trip, too. We have come full circle.

So have the Whitmans. By the end of The Darjeeling Limited, they are one, instead of three. Anderson has unified his characters, and they now wish on a single peacock feather. This is followed by them once again having to chase a train, though this time it isn't Peter on his own, and catching it requires another discarding. Calling back to the tossing aside of the luggage at the river, the boys are going to have to shed that baggage for real. Once they do, they surrender themselves and accept each other for who they are. Their flaws may be annoying, but hey, that's the way they are made. Embrace the imperfection.

It makes for an ending that satisfies on all levels--intellectually, philosophically, emotionally, and dammit, even spiritually. In the past, Wes Anderson has been criticized for not going deep enough. In The Darjeeling Limited, he dives down as far as he can go, and by having worked for the treasure, the one he returns with is one he deserves and, thus, all the shinier.

This is the second edition of The Darjeeling Limited, though the first to be on the Criterion label and also the first to also be available on Blu-Ray. For fans of Criterion's previous top-shelf treatment of the Anderson filmography, this is long-awaited good news. The double-disc package doesn't disappoint. From the cover art and interior design by Eric Anderson through the homespun nature of some of the extras (visiting mothers shot photos in the galleries, Roman Coppola makes an affectionate short about his writing partners), this fits right in with the other four discs in the catalogue.

Amongst the bounty of extras, aficionados will likely be most intrigued by the audio commentary featuring Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola (something I'll explore later, now that I've worked through my own theories on the film), as well as a 20-minute conversation between Wes and James Ivory about Indian movies and the music in The Darjeeling Limited, much of which was lifted from Merchant Ivory productions and Satyajit Ray films. We also get the full American Express commercial starring Anderson (as well as Schwartzman and Coppola, too), and a trio of deleted scenes/alternate takes.

My favorite extra, though, is the video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, who made that marvelous series dissecting Wes Anderson's style back in 2009 (still online starting here). I wish there was a way that all five of those had been put on here, as well, but Seitz's Darjeeling Limited-specific segment created for this disc is still fascinating and insightful. And he probably only uses about half as many words as I did to say twice as much.

Watch the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.