Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie: When the Last Sword is Drawn review Part 2

When the Last Sword is Drawn(WTLSID) is worthy of being proclaimed as a "Best" movie.  To be a best movie, you have to have: great writing, great cinematography, great acting, and great music.  Its the category I put movies like Lawrence of Arabia in.  There are favorite and great movies that deserve distinction, but maybe not "Best" because the writing is terrible, or the camera work is one dimensioned.

WTLSID is not a very quotable movie.  It does have a couple of places, but its not a book that is going to spawn scripture.  Writing is not just quotable dialogue though, it is also how and why things are said... or as in WTLSID, what can be left out.  The classic samurai movie is like the classic samurai swordsmanship, you do not waste movement.  Things are left unsaid, and you are given time to think to yourself "oh, this is that, and this is how" in your own mind.  It is something many movies made in Hollywood has forgotten, that sometimes you don't need every little emotion spelled out in dialogue.  WTLSID's dialogue is understated and elegant.  If I had not seen Takita's other work, I would assume he was just trying to cop on the Kurosawa feel of samurai movies, but since his other work does not have samurai, I know that his style is coming through.  We are meant to think and to make connections, and this allows us to interject our own emotions into things.  Its like the perfect combination of reading a book and watching a movie.  So much of yourself goes into the imagination while reading a book, its nice to see movies that give us a little of that as well.

The cinematography is sweeping while being intimate.  There are no large scenes of armies marching through valleys, or wide vistas of desert.  Instead we have motion and focus on the close up.  The camera is not simply sat in front of people while they talk close up, we have interesting camera changes and angles, all the while keeping the focus on what is going on.  Anyone can plop a camera down and say "here talk into it", this is not what happens in WTLSID.  How Takita does this, I have not grasped it yet, as you can tell I have trouble translating it to text.  I'm not saying he flies around in the faces of actors, or that he sweeps motion throughout all crazy cam style.  I'm just saying, his intimate camera work is not claustrophobic.  By the time he does Departures, he's even better at it, but he does it well here.

The acting all around is a perfect example of period and genre.  The real clash of personality is in the two main samurai, Yoshimura(Nakai) and Saito(Sato).  Both won their Japanese Oscars as Lead and Support. At first you think Nakai's role is the stand out one.  He is the focus, and we see him as both a struggling loving, family man that has to take on this new personality in a new clan.  When no one is looking, we see into him, and the pain it takes to act as he does.  There is zero hint at this inner struggling while others are watching, and its a great choice by the actor.  Too many times in OTHER movies we see the inner struggle come out and wonder why no one around the character seems to care at obvious signs.  Nakai deserved his award.  Taking a second look at the movie, you may realize that it was Sato that really stretched his acting skills for this role.  He has to play both a young, but troubled character, and an old, wizened one.  All the while, convincing us he is the same man.  After the emotion of seeing who he is, and knowing what really is in his heart, the 2nd viewing of the movie, watch Sato, he is the star on second viewings.

When the Last Sword is Drawn is a period piece, and has an appropriate sound track.  You don't go around humming The Godfather's soundtrack, and you won't go around humming this soundtrack either, but it is there, its appropriate and its masterfully done.  When things get tough, and when the drama increases, you will feel your own feelings raise and the music will get your heart aching or pumping, whichever the movie needs.

Things that were off about the movie?  Even after all my praising of understatement, sometimes I feel like not enough was spoken.  There is a side journey your mind takes, trying to figure out Saito, and you will get there, and you will have independant revations about the character as you remember the circumstances of the beginning of the movie, but you are meant to do all that while digesting the other parts of the movie.  Sure, it leads to the "oh he's... awwwe, ok, I see now" moments, but I would have liked to have seen some more of the older Saito.  The entire movie, Saito says one thing about Yoshimura, and we are supposed to realize he means the other, but I would have liked a little better closure about his thoughts on Yoshimura, rather than leaving it fully to be inferred.

Just a little maybe.

Also there's a couple of side plots that seem to not get developed as much, a few characters that might have needed more screen time for their roles to give us as much emotional kick as other characters give us, but all in all, I am having a hard time finding a reason to complain.  If you're in this for super samurai badassness, then go pick up 13 Assassins, because you will not find lots of it here.

I give the movie 5 out of 5 stars, easily my favorite 21st century Samurai movie to date.  A worthy successor to the style of Kurosawa.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Movie: When the Last Sword is Drawn Part One

*Disclaimer: my thoughts on movies in this blog tend to follow a format.  I do not write about movies unless I have a lot to write.  They are generally broken into 2 parts.  One is a personal history with the subject matter, maybe a little learning thrown in there, and some other stuff.  Part 2 is where I focus on the movie.

Part 1

I grew up loving samurai movies and not realizing it.

I am of course referring to the mass of spaghetti westerns that my father watched all the time.  To make a long story short, basically a few Italian directors saw the masterpieces that the 1950's Japanese film industry were churning out, and decided they could adapt them for a Western(both literal and figurative) audience.  Seven Samurai was turned into Magnificent Seven.  Yojimbo was turned into Fist Full of Dollars.

Much of the intensity and focus of those spaghetti westerns comes directly from the influence of men like Kurosawa.  The directors of the Italian adaptations largely put their own spin on things, but that intensity of the moment, the drama of long camera pans lasting just a little bit longer than they felt they should, that comes from the samurai movies they emulated.  I think that is why I really don't care for many Westerns that come out today.  They've lost that intensity.  They are more concerned with getting their half-historical, half pandering plot out on the table than filming something with intensity and drama.

I think I now seek out Samurai movies to fill that void left by good Westerns.  I have watched many of the Kurosawa classics era, and a handful of more modern treatments.  I expected that the later I go, the closer it would come to the same cycle as Spaghetti Westerns.  I expected the old to be raw and intense, while the modern to be overly concerned with getting things "right" and less concerned with getting things "watchable".

I hate Kill Bill.

Kill Bill poisoned the well and caused many of the greatest samurai movies ever made(the 2000's are a revival of them in Japan) to be passed over because they were not "Kill Bill" enough.  Ironically, what Kill Bill did was pave the way for a lot of mediocre Hong Kong action movies to get brought over here, while the Japanese renaissance of Samurai movies were passed over.

Yojiro Takita.

I first saw one of his movies when I watched Departures.  Departures will be getting its own posts eventually, it is one of the best, most heartfelt movies I have ever watched.  Now that I have watched his Japanese Oscar winning "When the Last Sword is Drawn", I now realize why.  Every scene, every emotion, is INTENSE.  Just like a Samurai, Yojiro Takita has fashioned his film making into never wasting energy, never wasting emotion, never wasting a moment.

It makes me wish we had a Neo Sergio Leone making modern Westerns, but I guess that whole style is still found where it originated over half a century ago, and I have a lot of movies to go through that I had never thought to go looking for.

 Much of the thanks has to go to Netflix for bringing a lot of this stuff to view here in America.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Movie: The Last of the Mohicans Part 2: The Actual Movie

I have always liked the scenery in this movie.

This movie was filmed in my back yard, and the foliage combinations look familiar.  So do the views, which are very reminiscent of The Great Smokey Mountains.  These areas are beautiful outside of the movie, and that helps them a lot.  Despite the cinematographer's tendency to induce claustrophobia during intimate scenes(I swear he puts a camera in someone's armpit sometimes), when he backs the camera up he is able to capture their beauty.

Daniel Day-Lewis is here in all his hyphenated last name glory.  People looking to find a bombastic performance like that of There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York will not find that character here.  Hawk-eye and those he travels with are very solemn.  It is the script that limits almost all the actors in this story.  Day-Lewis' role, except for near the end and one bit of very close in, quiet exposition, is regulated to snarky, one liner, smart ass comments at "stupid white people".  All the best stuff is given to the British characters, and by and large they deliver the lines without stumble, and with convincing feeling.  The most emotional kick comes from Russell Means' Chingachgook, but sadly that comes late in the movie.

By 1992 standards, this movie has lots of action.  This movie is obviously before fight choreographers got top billing.  The colonial fight scenes can hold no candle to the likes of Mel Gibson's The Patriot, but for its era it was visceral.  Watching Hawk-eye use any weapon he can get his hands on to take out the enemy is great, and even though these are single shot muskets, there's always some lying around that he can grab and put to use.  The use of tomahawks and clubs result in blood splatters and sickening thuds, and in general this adds to the fear of seeing your favorite character in a fight at all.  Largely the mass combat of the British vs French war is regulated to "hearing" and not "seeing".

Romance from a Romantic Era writer is going to remind you a lot of Romeo and Juliette when looked at with a modern eye.  These people fall in love forever, at the drop of a hat.  The primary love story plays out between Cora and Hawk-eye, but the whole time you're thinking "but what about her fiance'?"  In the Romantic Era, this would have been the usual kind of "destiny" love story, but today is just looks like Cora can not keep her lips off this savage, masculine white guy raised as a noble native.  Even throwing away her Fiance' because she can not resist the animal urge of his rough nobility.

Amazing scenery when it gets the spotlight.
Competent acting with several spots of true greatness showing through.
High and deadly action when it is needed.
So so romance.

Most criticism is a stretch and generally does not detract from the overall experience.  A great movie worth watching.  I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Movie: Last of the Mohicans Part 1

The Last of the Mohicans seems a perfect movie to start all this off with.


Well this movie has quite the history with me, which will be the focus of Part 1 of my post about the movie.  This post is about my personal history and so might be boring for the rest of you, but a trip down memory lane for myself.

I have often told people that before the 2nd half of 2nd Grade, I was not much of a student.  Outside of standardized tests(which I've always excelled at), I was horrible at doing daily work.  I think I always loved learning new and interesting things, but I have always hated repetitive busy work.  At the end of 2nd Grade a few things came together that changed my life.  The reading of Greek Myths and the eventual discovery of King Arthur along with the Dragon Warrior video game ignited my interest in reading.  Once I started, I could not get enough.  There was a particular King Arthur book I checked out and re-read over and over.  It was not till 3rd Grade that I really began reading by the boatloads.


I love food.  Anyone that knows me knows that I'm not dead as of this typing, and that is largely because I eat.  Eating does things like provide nutrients, but also provides a sort of pleasure that if you have not eaten, then I can not describe accurately.  Try eating, I whole heartedly suggest doing it several times a year.

In 3rd grade there was a program that if you read a certain amount of books, you got a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.  That year I read so many books that just about everyone except my mother questioned it, to them it seemed like this student who a couple of years before was slightly under achieving, was gaming the system for pizza.  No way could I be the number 1 reader in my class.

At first my teacher questioned me about the books.  Then other teachers who saw I was leading the whole grade would come and quiz me about the books.  Eventually even the principal, a man that had worked with me in my early years, came by and questioned me.  I did not realize myself just how well I remembered things I read back then, but I could rattle off facts and quotes from books that were 10-20 books down on the list.  It satisfied them all, and I was never questioned again.

So what did I read during all of this?  Well my school had this gigantic collection of "famous childhoods" semi-biographies on the shelf.  The majority of them were based on presidents and frontiersmen.  I read the childhoods of Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, but also the lesser knowns such as Ethan Allen, Will Clark, and Kit Carson.  Interestingly, they also had the Native American series of famous childhoods, and through them I was able to get a view of the other side of the frontier expansion.

One of these books I particularly liked:  James Fenimore Cooper.  I do not know if it was his strangely fun to say name, or what, but I liked his book.  I had no clue much about why he was famous, I think in the back and the beginning they mentioned he was an author about the frontier.  It was around the beginning of 4th Grade that the movie, Last of the Mohicans was released.  I actually got to go and see it when it was new because my best friend at the time was going to see it with his family and I was invited along.

You have to understand that I am much more a "read it and remember it" kind of person, and at this age this movie was really all over the place for me.  First, I have never been in a huge theater like this before.  Earlier I had my first Chinese food EVER when the family ate at a restaurant.  The scenery of the movie was amazing, there were a lot of characters to keep up with, and and... well I loved the movie as a kid, but I would have to see it a few more times once it came out on video before I fully understood everything that was going on.

I would be in "frontiersmen" mode for a couple of years.  I ran out of books in the library about that subject, and I had recently began thinking maybe baseball was something I was interested in(the Braves were the most successful baseball team at the time, and Atlanta did not have much luck in the 80's, so the early to mid 90's was a new golden age, but I'll save that for some baseball movies later).  Watching Last of the Mohicans is kind of like revisiting a very formative time in my life, one that I felt instilled in me a lot of my values.

Despite that, I do not watch this movie with rose tented glasses in my adult life, there are flaws, but that's for Part 2.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Currents : June 27th 2013

Currents is the title of the blogs that summarizes what I'm doing as of late, things I"m reading, movies I intend to watch, etc etc.  This is the first, and is detailing some of the ongoing things I am doing before this blog started.

Book Series:

Mirror Shades Trilogy
-the granddaddy and many say originator of Cyberpunk, I have read Neuromancer and plan on reading the rest when the mood for Cyberpunk overwhelms me.

Dresden Files
-I've read all of the first books in this detective noir mixed with adult Harry Potter series.  I like them very much, and loved the 2nd book.  If you think he plans on keeping things or finishing things on "status quo" between each book, the 2nd book inform you that he's not afraid to change everything

Fantasy Co-Read with my girl.
-My girl has been reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  We have had so much fun talking about it(and Harry Potter before it) that I am on the lookout for a new Trilogyish collection that we can kind of experience together by reading the series at the same time


I'm on a Japanese/Korean kick as of late.  Generally the non-action movies we do not typically get here.  That does not mean that I shy away from that stuff though, I have plenty of Samurai movies in my que on Netflix.

Prologue, another blog

While this blog is called Skypp's Bookshelf, it is also movie based.  I'm also cautious to say it, but this blog is not really for everyone.  I have read many books and watched many movies in my life, and I want to have somewhere that I chronicle what I think of them.  This means that I am not doing reviews or shying away from spoilers, but just keeping my thoughts on a movie or book as I read or after I view them.

Read at your own peril.