Yojimbo at 60

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune were twelve films deep in their legendary collaboration when they made Yojimbo, a straightforward samurai movie that somehow became an unqualified masterpiece with a far-reaching influence on Western cinema that continues to this day. The director and actor had put themselves and Japan on the world map of movies in 1951 when they brought Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival. In 1954 — the same year their studio, Toho, released the first Godzilla — they had shown ronin fighting with honor in the seminal Seven Samurai. Hollywood remade that film in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven while Kurosawa and Mifune ushered in the new decade with a film-noir twist on Hamlet called The Bad Sleep Well.

It wasn’t their first Shakespeare adaptation and it isn’t their most famous but its title still lands like a pronouncement of theme in the middle of a filmography where the grotesqueries of human existence are a source of ongoing fascination. Who knew that on the other side of that half-destroyed Rashomon gate, there was a town straight out of a cowboy flick, where the architecture was still Japanese (torii and tile kawara roofs) but where corruption now prospered so wildly that a hero could only meet it with amoral good cheer? On April 25, 1961, Yojimbo strolled in: abandoning all pretense of honor in favor of money, rice, sake, and swordsmanship.

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Mank and Screenwriters

In Mank, there’s a scene where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, awakens disoriented in a California mansion. He soon wanders out back to a film set, where he encounters two studio bigwigs. One of them is Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM. The other is Irving G. Thalberg, a producer who has his own Academy Award named after him. Thalberg has to explain to Mayer who “Mank” is, even though he co-wrote one of their movies (just as he co-wrote, or depending on who you ask, wrote Citizen Kane, often considered the greatest movie ever made).

In snappy dialogue, a quick picture unfolds of Mank and his place in the Hollywood ecosystem. He’s a hired gun who’s used to receiving notes from execs in “the oversight tent.” This is a businessman’s backyard where “movies are a team sport” and where studios “use writers by the truckload,” sometimes all at once, sometimes in relays. The astute viewer knows what Mank knows: that it’s usually a sign of trouble when you see a movie with a revolving door of screenwriters.

At this year’s Oscars, due to air on Sunday, Mank leads the pack with 10 nominations. Citizen Kane had nine yet it only won Best Original Screenplay—an ironic footnote, given that the film helped set the prototype for the auteur, or director-as-author. Like so many other crew members who labor behind the scenes to bring film narratives to life, screenwriters may not inspire the same brand-name loyalty as directors. However, their scripts are where the storytelling begins; and as Mank shows, it’s a process where words matter as much as moving pictures.

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When Godzilla vs. Kong roars onto HBO Max and storms into U.S. theaters on March 31, it will mark the first full-fledged crossover in the seven-year cycle of shared-universe monster movies from Legendary Pictures. The current MonsterVerse is young, but for its giant denizens, it’s merely the latest chapter in the history of two long-running, closely intertwined film franchises. Both Godzilla and Kong lay claim to the title of “king,” which puts them immediately at odds, and it wouldn’t be a fight unless you had spectators choosing sides, rooting for one of them to come out on top.

Let’s not forget, however, that they share some DNA, having both shaken loose from the same family tree in the jungles of The Lost World. Kong was born first, in 1933. He was 21 and old enough to buy alcohol by the time his kaiju cousin arrived in 1954. You can tell Godzilla looked up to him (and down to other beasts 20,000 fathoms below). All you have to do is go back and watch the original King Kong and Godzilla movies back-to-back.

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Being alone indoors is a common facet of pandemic life, but in The Vigil and Saint Maud, it’s also a recipe for religious horror. These two films, which recently hit VOD and streaming, bend in opposite directions yet are cut from the same cloth. Both have first-time writer-directors at the helm and both are distributed by indie-horror labels (IFC Midnight and A24, respectively). Moreover, both center on an isolated individual who comes to believe that a supernatural force is reaching out to them. In The Vigil, it’s a demon from Jewish folklore, the mazzik. In Saint Maud, it’s a Welsh-speaking version of God himself.

Throw in a twitchy dead body under a white sheet, and a bed-ridden woman who’s ready to go Regan MacNeil on you, and you might think you were in store for a schlocky double feature. We’ve seen plenty of flicks like that (not naming any names, but there’s a whole subgenre of exorcism movies, many of which carry abysmally low Tomatometer scores.) What separates The Vigil and Saint Maud from those and unites them as thematic cousins is their serious-minded depiction of trauma and mental health.

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The single most memorable line of the Pacific Rim franchise came in the first movie when Idris Elba’s battle-armored mech marshal, Stacker Pentecost, proclaimed, “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!” In the first season of Pacific Rim: The Black, which hit Netflix on March 4, Stacker’s name is now relegated to Easter-egg status among a new generation of Jaeger pilots. They have big blue doll eyes, anime-style no-noses, and chins so sharp you could lance a Kaiju Skinmite with them.

Animated by Polygon Pictures — the Japanese studio known for its 3DCG Godzilla trilogy — The Black jumps forward to some indeterminate point in the monster-filled future. In doing so, it skips over what seems like a crucial bit of narrative: namely, said apocalypse. Apparently, it was rescheduled and happened mostly offscreen. What’s left in these seven easily-binged episodes is a post-apocalyptic Australia, straight out of Mad Max, with a dash of The Walking Dead thrown in. Hostile human survivor camps? Check. There’s even a guy named Shane and a truck convoy that kicks up dust as it rolls across the desert like a band of latecomers to the Fury Road war party.

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Last night, CBS viewers said hello to Clarice, a new network procedural that serves as a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Rebecca Breeds is the latest actress to embody Clarice Starling, the courageous FBI agent who faced off with two serial killers in one watershed 1991 thriller. One killer shall have to remain nameless. Clarice’s cousins, however, are numerous and known by plenty of other names. When Jodie Foster originated the role three decades ago, she inspired a whole generation of screen heroines. The Silence of the Lambs also ensured its own franchise’s longevity and informed a whole host of copycat thrillers. It was an unlikely prestige pic that still holds up as a work of master filmmaking.

Clarice’s premiere comes just in time for the movie’s thirtieth-anniversary date, which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day this weekend. Some cinephiles may be eating chocolate and watching romcoms this weekend, but others will be opening Chianti bottles to revisit the only horror film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. Let’s hope someone at this morbid party brought fava beans and an eye for camera angles.

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War is hell but it sometimes provides the backdrop for great movies. The recent Blu-ray release of 1917, followed by the 50th anniversary, this week, of the Oscar-winning Patton, starring George C. Scott, is as good an excuse as any for cinephiles to hunker down in the trenches of an impromptu war movie marathon (especially if you’re stuck at home right now due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic).

With that in mind, here’s a mission for you, soldier: work your way through this chronological list of the best war movies of the last fifty years. “Best” is ultra-subjective, of course, but when you’re Alamo-ed up in a fort of pillows in your living room and there’s nothing good on television, few of these movies should disappoint.

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Snowpiercer. A History of Violence. Oldboy. Road to Perdition. There are any number of top-notch comic book movies that don’t revolve around costumed superheroes. One of the best of these is Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, a film that pushed the genre forward fifteen years ago with trailblazing black-and-white visuals ripped straight from the comics.

On April 1, 2005, Sin City ushered theatergoers into a world unlike anything they had ever seen before on the big screen. Lurid yet literate, with voiceovers like thought bubbles, the film was something new and remarkable: neo-noir with a heap of violence and the look of a live-action motion comic. With cinemas now closed and most people’s travel plans on pause due to the global coronavirus pandemic, it’s as good a time as any for pulp-lovers who are stuck at home to take a trip back to Sin City.

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“Fighting for your life makes every other thing you ever did before seem extremely dull.”

This line is spoken by Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) in the penultimate episode of Ozark’s third season, which hit Netflix on Friday. It’s a line that cuts to the core of what makes Wendy, her husband Marty (Jason Bateman), and the show around them tick. In its first season, Ozark plunged viewers into the world of the Byrdes and their Missouri money-laundering operation. From the moment a Mexican drug lord knelt Marty down and put a gun to his head in the pilot episode, we’ve been watching him talk and scheme his way out of certain death.

Subsequent episodes and seasons have seen Wendy take on an increasingly prominent role within the criminal enterprise that is keeping her and Marty and their two kids alive (for now). Ozark lost some momentum in its second season as its pace slowed, but the show is back with a vengeance now, doing what it does best: namely, putting the Byrdes at the center of a volatile situation where things keep spiraling further out of control. This season, the dark drama pops with bigger emotional fireworks, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Wendy’s bipolar brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), who adds an unexpectedly moving human element to a show where characters regularly display an inhuman lack of empathy. Ben is the Fredo Corleone in this equation, ready to break his sibling’s heart and that of the viewer.

If you’re all caught up with your weekend Ozark binge, then let’s dive into the Lake of the Ozarks with spoilers.

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With the airing of last night’s action-packed finale, HBO has delivered a gripping climax to its ten-episode Stephen King adaptation, The Outsider. Focusing on a community rocked by a gruesome child murder, the show, like the book, was something of a genre-buster, tipping from police procedural in its first half into full-blown supernatural horror in its second half. Given its steady ratings climb and the finale’s post-credits scene, it’s possible that HBO will go The Leftovers route with The Outsider and continue the series with new stories beyond the scope of King’s novel. The mythology at play in the narrative might even allow the network to anthologize it, adopting a new cast and setting in its second season, as AMC did last year with its Dan Simmons adaptation, The Terror.

For now, however, the dust is left to settle around a stellar first season with a top-of-the-line ensemble cast led by Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo. Developed by Richard Price — the author/co-screenwriter of Clockers and co-creator of The Night Of miniseries, among other things — the show adhered to many aspects of the book while also deviating from the source material in some notable ways. Price penned the majority of episodes, with executive producer Jessie Nickson-Lopez and novelist Dennis Lehane also picking up writing credits. Here, we’ll look back on the season as a whole and examine some of the changes they made in order to bring King’s vision to television.

Major spoilers lie ahead, of course.

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