Friday, February 29, 2008

Yojimbo and Sanjuro, both directed by Akira Kurosawa (starring Toshiro Mifune)

Yojimbo (1961). Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima from a story by Akira Kurosawa (based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett).

Sanjuro (1962). Screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni from the novel Peaceful Days by Shugoro Yamamoto.

Yet another triumph from director Akira Kurosawa and his favorite star, Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo has long been recognized as one of the greatest samurai films. It is also one of his most influential.

The basic "man in the middle pitting two sides against each other" is lifted directly from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, and has since been used twice with few real changes (but with much less effectiveness) as A Fistful of Dollars and the Walter Hill/Bruce Willis actioner Last Man Standing.

Mifune stars as Sanjuro, a run-down samurai with no current direction. He happens upon a village with two feuding factions and instantly sees the opportunity. He hires himself out as a bodyguard, first to one then the other and has them wipe each other out with little physical effort of his own.

Don't think that Kurosawa misses any opportunities to show off Sanjuro's skill with the sword, but they are few and therefore to be treasured. Mifune is perfect as the has-been samurai, and Kurosawa's dark sense of humor has never been so perfectly showcased.

Although not as widely praised as his masterpiece Seven Samurai, I prefer Yojimbo, because is more purely entertaining and more accessible to the average viewer (it doesn't require the same time commitment, for example), and is therefore a perfect introduction to the director's work.

Its sequel, Sanjuro, while surely the lesser film, is no less enjoyable. Originally a different story that was later rewritten for Mifune's samurai character, this time Sanjuro chooses sides with a group of young samurai against a corrupt official. With his help, they manage to defeat the official and rescue two women hostages.

The story is much simpler this time around, but Mifune is the whole show here. His character, so wonderful in Yojimbo, is equally fun in Sanjuro. Watching him rub his stubble in thought while he surprises people with the wisdom hidden under his rough exterior is a great joy, and I can't imagine any other actor being able to pull it off. His easy confidence is an inspiration to "not judge a book by its cover."

The final duelling scene is notable for a tremendously bloody battle between the defeated official and Sanjuro. The carnage is almost laughable in its volume, but somehow Kurosawa makes it work in the context of his story.

Those who have not seen Yojimbo would still enjoy Sanjuro as it is simpler and thus more acceptable to a mass audience, but viewing them together gives one a fuller portrait of this enigmatic freelance samurai. A man who seems to always show up when he is needed, and then move on before he has worn out his welcome.

Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa (adapted from King Lear by William Shakespeare)

Ran (1985). Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide from the play King Lear by William Shakespeare.

In most cases, an actor will wait until he is of a certain age before attempting the role of Shakespeare's King Lear. It is odd, though, for a director to do the same. But in this case, I would have to say that it was the right decision. Ran is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's version of Lear with samurai. He uses the basic story of the play to illustrate a period of Japanese history replete with land wars and feuding families.

Hidetora is the Lear character. As he is getting old, he wants to split his three castles among his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Saburo, the only one who will not blindly follow his father's orders, is banished during a long, painful scene. The remaining land is split among the two sons. Taro marries Kaede, whose family was killed and their land stolen by Hidetora in her childhood, and who therefore is now living back in her family's original home.

Kaede is the most interesting character in Ran because she has the most pure motive: revenge. She wreaks her vengeance among all the members of the family who cross her, keeping her one goal firmly in her mind: that she will never again be forced to leave this castle. Meanwhile, Taro and Jiro are quick to remind Hidetora that he placed them in charge when he tries to pull rank on them as "Great Lord."

There is a lot in Ran that could have been shortened to make a tighter story, but Kurosawa relishes in the details and gives a far more nuanced picture that takes into account character motivations and individual personalities. Many of the aspects of King Lear are evident, and nearly every character has a counterpart, but this is really Kurosawa's film, not Shakespeare's.

Hidetora goes crazy while the Fool accompanies him on his wanderings, avoiding the only son who would tell him the truth, Saburo. Although the story projects a happy ending, this is, at its core, a Shakespearean tragedy in which, of course, nothing good can come of characters' prideful motives. It's still shocking to see, and Kurosawa makes it both surprising and inevitable. Ran is undoubtedly one of Kurosawa's masterpieces, and the last one of that rank that he made.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Cranes Are Flying directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (starring Tatyana Samojlova)

The Cranes Are Flying (1957). Screenplay by Viktor Rozov from his play.

I saw The Cranes Are Flying on Turner Classic Movies several months ago, and I can't get it out of my head. I think that's the mark of a truly great movie.

The Cranes Are Flying is a sad and beautifully shot film about young love around World War II. The relationship and its aftermath are far more dark and complex than I expected — I understand the earlier restrictions in the Soviet Union on subjects suitable for filmmaking had just been lifted prior to filming.

The cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky is breathtaking (especially in the train-station scene), and the lack of sentimentality (though not of emotional impact) is refreshing. The film has obviously aged very well. It is not perfect, with a few slow spots, but even those are softened by the constant appearance of its stunning star, Tatyana Samojlova.

Words fail me regarding this gorgeous movie, so I'll just end by saying that The Cranes Are Flying won the 1958 Palme D'Or in Cannes, and you can read an essay by Chris Fujiwara at The Criterion Collection. (Those seeking more indepth scholarship can pick up a copy of The Cranes Are Flying: the Film Companion by Josephine Woll.)

The Sagan Diary by John Scalzi (unabridged audio book read by The Jane Sagan Players)

What a fascinating little book this is, a novella set in the same world as author John Scalzi's other works (Old Man's War and its sequels). Having not read those, I did not know what to expect when I downloaded the free audio version (from Scalzi's website) of The Sagan Diary.

Presented as the journal of Jane Sagan (ostensibly a character in the aforementioned series), The Sagan Diary is written in a very stream-of-consciousness form, which makes it difficult to follow at first, but ends up making the character very engaging, as we get to see Jane Sagan with all of her vulnerabilities and with her guard down. I imagine Scalzi's regular readers will see a side of her they never expected.

Chapters are divided into concepts such as Words, Killing, Speaking, Friendship, Age, Sex, Fear, and (appropriately) Endings. It was a stroke of brilliance to have the audio read by different women — namely Mary Robinette Kowal (Preface, Words, Fear, Endings), Elizabeth Bear (Killing), Karen Meisner (Speaking), Ellen Kushner (Friendship), Helen Smith (Age), and Cherie Priest (Sex) — so that each part of Jane Sagan's mind has its own distinct voice. I don't think I would have enjoyed the book nearly as much if these ladies hadn't added their own individual touches, but then I'm rather partial to audiobooks these days anyway.

Scalzi has written that The Sagan Diary was written as a personal challenge: basically to see if he could successfully write something diametrically opposed to his usual work. I would have to say he has succeeded, at least in the sense that it is still very enjoyable. And in having a free copy available for sample, Scalzi has succeeded in a much more important way: he's made me curious to pick up more of his work.

Spanish Adventure Novel Quote of the Day (from Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte)

"The story I am going to tell you must have taken place around sixteen hundred and ­twenty-­something ... in which the captain not only came close to losing the ­patched-­up hide he had managed to save in Flanders, and in battling Turkish and Barbary corsairs, but also made himself a pair of enemies who would harass him for the rest of his life.... It was also the year in which I fell in love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar, who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde eleven- or ­twelve-­year-­old girl can be."

— from Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte
(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Luck by Max Brand (a.k.a. Riders of the Silences by John Frederick)

Pierre le Rouge was raised by a Jesuit missionary from a young age. But in addition to producing someone who can speak the purest Latin in the region, Father Jean Paul Victor also trained Pierre to be a superior physical specimen who can handle himself in rough terrain of the Northwest.

When Pierre, who thought he was an orphan, finds out he has a father — and that this father, Martin Ryder, is dying from a gunshot from Bob McGurk — he sets out for revenge. Father Victor lends him a cross to help him on his way, not knowing that

The newest edition of Luck (originally published in Argosy in 1919 under the byline John Frederick), is the first book version since that original publication to contain the entire manuscript as the author intended.

If you've read another Brand book called Riders of the Silences, you've read basically the same story — but not quite. A great deal of material was excised from Luck for the other book's 1920 publication with the Frederick byline, and even more was removed (by Brand biographer William F. Nolan) for the 1988 revision with the Brand byline, which is the one currently available most readily.

As a proofreader, I have a certain amount of faith in the editorial process, but when an editor with an agenda begins removing the heart of a story, he or she has gone too far. I'm glad the author's original text — hardly seen for almost 90 years — is finally available unexpurgated.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West directed by Sergio Leone (starring Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati from a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Leone. English dialogue by Mickey Knox.

"Keep your lovin' brother happy."

By the time we reach the end of Once Upon a Time in the West, hear Henry Fonda utter these intensely powerful words, and discover the meaning behind a long-awaited revenge, we have been taken on a long, leisurely carriage ride through Western folklore.

Who would have guessed that an Italian would make the best cinema of the American West? But Sergio Leone was that man. With his "Man with No Name" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), he made a star of Clint Eastwood and presented a vision that none had seen before and that has yet to be matched.

And then he topped himself. Once Upon a Time in the West is undoubtedly the finest Western ever made, in a genre filled with classics. All the Leone trademarks are here: the beautiful expansive landscapes, the extreme closeups, the nameless hero (strikingly underplayed by Charles Bronson), and the operatic score by Ennio Morricone (with separate motifs for each character). But somehow they all come together as if for the first time, as if all that came before was simply rehearsal.

From an original story by the Italian triple-threat of Leone, Dario Argento (Suspiria), and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor), Leone and Sergio Donati fashioned a screenplay that typifies and then transcends the genre.

But the plot is less important than the style. Leone's love for the West is apparent throughout Once Upon a Time in the West in how he lets the scenes flow at their own speed, never hurrying, never forcing them to a conclusion. The languid pacing makes for a much longer film (it clocks in at three hours), but also one much more emotionally real. It gives us time to really experience what we're seeing: a film about the West made by one of its biggest fans.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stark by Edward Bunker

Stark is the long-lost first novel of Edward Bunker, who died in 2005. Bunker was an author, with four other novels, a memoir, and three screenplays (two based on his own works) to his credit. He was also an actor with over 20 screen credits (including the role of "Mr. Blue" in Reservoir Dogs).

But Bunker was also a criminal. He was the youngest inmate at San Quentin at 17, and continued with the life into his 40s. Most all of his work is based on his time and experiences on the wrong side of the law.

Stark is the story of Eddie stark, a con man, a heroin addict, and a snitch (though not a very good one, at first) for Detective Lieutenant Patrick Crowley. A good portion of the story consists of Crowley's continued threats of incarceration and Stark's continued inability to find where his dealer, Momo Mendoza, gets his supplies.

But the fun is in how Stark is continually sidetracked — by whores, horse, and heat just to name three. Bunker tackles it all with the experience and directness of one who has lived it. His six-page rundown of three junkies geezing is only shocking after the fact; Bunker writes it just like any other scene in any other book.

But Stark is ever hopeful, and Stark is a hopeful kind of story, despite chronicling the lives of the hopeless. It is also a really solid novel, belying its trunk origins. It doesn't have any of the signs of most first novels, with an ease and confidence missing in works by many more experienced writers.

Having not read his other books, I don't know how Stark compares with Bunker's other work, but fans of 1960s-era crime (and of Hard Case Crime, in particular) should really dig it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Frumious Bandersnatch by Ed McBain (audio book read by Ron McLarty)

What Ed McBain didn't know about modern pop music is written all over The Frumious Bandersnatch, the 53rd in his ever-popular 87th Precinct series. McBain was obviously not a fan of modern music, but his writing (at least at the beginning) suggests that his research consisted entirely of reading gossip magazines (his description of the music video delves into every modern cliche).

The Frumious BandersnatchI almost didn't finish the novel for that reason. Then I realized I don't seek out McBain's work for social commentary, but because his work is the best at presenting a realistic look at the daily grind of America's big-city police officers. Luckily, that makes up the majority of The Frumious Bandersnatch.

Carella and company are back when new singing sensation, Tamar Valparaiso, is kidnapped during the launch of her debut CD, Bandersnatch. (The title song, and first single, is simply Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" set to music.) Meanwhile, Ollie Weeks (from the 88th precinct) is given his own subplot once again, this time pursuing his romance with fellow police officer Patricia Gomez (who, to me, seems rather dim, but that could only be the way her dialogue is written).

The Frumious Bandersnatch is a weaker entry in the series (the early, more tightly written books are definitely my favorites), but McBain's easygoing skill with words (and Ron McLarty's reading of the audiobook) makes it enjoyable nevertheless, especially during the actual investigation scenes.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Classic Private Eye Novel Quote of the Day (from My Gun Is Quick by Mickey Spillane)

"When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there? Probably not. You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened. You're doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of someone else's experiences. Fun, isn't it? You read about life on the outside thinking about how maybe you'd like it to happen to you, or at least how you'd like to watch it. Even the old Romans did it, spiced their life with action when they sat in the Coliseum and watched wild animals rip a bunch of humans apart, reveling in the sight of blood and terror. They screamed for joy and slapped each other on the back when murderous claws tore into the live flesh of slaves and cheered when the kill was made. Oh, it's great to watch, all right. Life through a keyhole. But day after day goes by and nothing like that ever happens to you so you think that it's all in books and not in reality at all and that's that. Still good reading, though. Tomorrow night you'll find another book, forgetting what was in the last and live some more in your imagination. But remember this: there are things happening out there.... All you have to do is look for them. But I wouldn't if I were you because you won't like what you'll find.... They aren't nice things to see because they show people up for what they are. There isn't a Coliseum any more, but the city is a bigger bowl, and ... if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can live and return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you'll be dead."

— from My Gun Is Quick by Mickey Spillane

Diesel 10 Means Trouble by Britt Allcroft (Thomas and the Magic Railroad)

There is a lot of awful stuff being published in the name of children's entertainment. As the father of a two-year-old, I've read a lot of it (over and over again, usually). But Diesel 10 Means Trouble has to be one of the worst.

Despite having seen several episodes of Thomas and Friends into the dozens of times (I could perform an impromptu one-man show of a couple from the Milkshake Muddle DVD), I've got a soft spot for the little blue engine and his Protestant work ethic (misguided though it may be).

Which leads me to the main reason that Diesel 10 Means Trouble rubbed me the wrong way: it's simply not written like the other books. First off, it's one of the few actually credited to an author: the show's one-time producer, Britt Allcroft.

Whether she's a good producer I can't say, but she's a horrible writer. Where the other books are painstakingly crafted to a certain reading level, Allcroft mixes large and small words with seemingly no thought of the book's audience, or to any sort of narrative flow.

The story of Diesel 10 Means Trouble is utterly ridiculous. Fans of the show will wonder where such characters as Mr. Conductor and Lady the Golden Engine came from, and what the devil "magic gold dust" has to do with it all.

(Some parents have expressed disappointment at Diesel 10's negative qualities, but I think that's silly. First of all, he's the best part of the book — I love a good villain, and I really enjoy reading his part aloud. And second, how are kids supposed to learn to tell "right" from "wrong" if they're not exposed to "wrong" once in a while.)

But possibly all the explanation that is needed is that this book was adapted from the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad, the attempt at a feature film that was produced, written, and directed by Allcroft. Purists can't stand it, and its failure at the box office directly led to Allcroft's resignation from HIT Entertainment.

I mean, come on, anything that stinks that bad shouldn't be allowed indoors, right? My recommendation is to avoid it, even if it is given to you as a gift. Then again, your mileage may vary, and, of course, if your kid loves it (like mine does), you're simply out of luck. Whatever the case, Diesel 10 definitely means trouble.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mafia Hit Man Novel Quote of the Day (from The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow)

"Why can't you be with your wife the way you are with your girlfriends?"

"Different breed, my friend," Sherm said, "different species entirely."

"Maybe we should marry the girlfriends."

"I tried it ... twice.... They turn into wives. It starts to happen when they're planning the wedding, this metamorphosis from sex kitten to house cat."

— from The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Eastern Promises directed by David Cronenberg (starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel)

Eastern Promises (2007). Screenplay by Stephen Knight.

The plot of Eastern Promises isn't as important as its characters. Sure, a London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds the Russian-language diary of a teenage mother who died in childbirth — hoping she can get it translated so she can the surviving family of the baby (who lived). And, yes, this search leads her to the door of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), restaurant owner and head of the Russian mob, and his loose cannon son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

But the real chemistry comes from star Viggo Mortensen, who plays their driver, Nikolai, as he tries to warn her off the search, since she is getting into dangerous territory. And Mortensen is the true star of Eastern Promises since it is really his story, and Nikolai's relationship with Kirill the center of the film. Mortensen delivers a riveting (and Oscar®-nominated) performance that kept me involved throughout the film, but after it was over, I had a conflicted response.

The acting, especially from Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl (who I'll watch in anything), was terrific (though Watts, as the film's moral center, is given nothing to play), but the storyline just left me cold. It seems as if Eastern Promises was designed purely as a vehicle for Mortensen (ostensibly as a follow-up to his previous pairing with director Cronenberg: the highly successful A History of Violence), but with little thought given to an actual, interesting narrative. The "plot twist," such as it was, felt arbitrary and merely muddies up an already confused film.

(Nice work on the first death, though. That got my attention.)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hard Case Crime Quote of the Day (from Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block)

"They say every man has a weakness. They say that for every man there's a woman somewhere in the world who can make him jump through fiery hoops just by snapping her fingers. They say a man's lucky if he never meets that woman."

— from Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block
(reprinted by Hard Case Crime)
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