Yojimbo

Yojimbo 5

I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Jules and Jim

Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is rightly considered a classic. Based on an autobiographical  novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the story focuses on two young men, with a deep friendship. Jules is Austrian and lives in Paris, while Jim is French. They share a way of looking at the world. Both are looking for love in 1912. When they meet Catherine, who resembles a sculpture which they view as the paragon of female beauty, they’re both struck by her spirit and openness. Jim agrees to let Jules court and marry her.

The three make a carefree group, but you just know that this arrangement won’t last forever. Catherine is capricious but didn’t fascinate me the way she did all the men who fall for her. She has no job and no interests. She’s pretty and open to life. Her spirit can be summed up when after viewing a play, they’re discussing the heroine, as Jules and Jim debate, Catherine illustrates her view of the role of women by jumping in the Seine. Fully clothed, Jim jumps in and fishes her out.

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Soon WWI breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposing sides, both fearing that they may shoot the other. Catherine is back at home in Germany caring for her daughter and receiving beautiful love letters from Jules. In addition to being enigmatic, Catherine struck me as a taker. There’s no mention of her writing great letters to Jules to support him while he’s fighting for his country.

After the war, the men return and soon Jim is on his way to see Jules and Catherine and their daughter Sabine. Jules confides to Jim that Catherine’s taken lovers including a man named Albert, who appears from time to time. In true European form, Jules excuses Catherine since this is her nature. He is right, but it’s exasperating watching this woman escape all responsibility and never be held to account, which would help her grow up. Perhaps if Jules, or Jim, were stronger and more of leader, though that’s not his nature, Catherine might not test him so much or get bored. It’s doubtful, but possible.

Whenever you’ve got a trio, you can bet a friend is going to start something with his pal’s wife and with Jules’ permission, Jim begins an intimate relationship with Catherine. She still has sex with Jules and Albert and probably other men we don’t see.

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It was interesting to see how Truffaut portrayed a sexy couple, or a few such relationships without a lot of nudity. I think his films are sexier with their fully dressed characters than those where the actors are buck naked.

Though I didn’t like Catherine, I did like the movie, which was masterfully paced and full of emotional surprises. Jeanne Moreau gives an outstanding performance. As I write historical drama, I found it interesting how Truffaut didn’t spend money on exquisite period costumes or settings. There are hints of the eras, but the costumes weren’t as accurate or elaborate as you see in period pieces made now.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD come with terrific bonus features including interviews with the sons of the men the story is based on and with the original “Catherine” who lived to be 96 and saw the movie before she died.

A Taste of Things to Come

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The musical A Taste of Things to Come is a clever, fun musical that entertains, however, it’s not for everyone. Set in the 1950s and 60s, A Taste of Things to Come is about four female friends who meet each Wednesday to cook and converse. They share their dreams and struggles while trying to win the Betty Crocker cooking contests. In the first act three of the women are married and one’s single. The single woman’s adventurous and modern, while the others are more conservative though they all are curious about social changes, which may upturn the order of this era. The play pokes fun at Dr. Spock’s advice and old fashioned feminine roles.

Act Two is set in the late 60s. Three of the women have embraced the fashion and freedoms the era offers, while Dolly, who’s a mother of six, clings to the old ways. Now three of the women have careers and are quite independent. At first the group is tentative as they haven’t gathered for ten years due to a falling out at the end of Act One.

A Taste of Things to Come is an entertaining trip down memory lane. The cast is dynamic and all sing well. The main drawback is that I don’t see the show appealing to people who didn’t live through the 60s or who doesn’t have a thorough knowledge of these decades. There are too many cultural references and the pacing is brisk so you don’t have time to find out what the characters are talking about.

The songs were upbeat, but not memorable. I enjoyed them while I watched, but I doubt anyone would have to get the CD. This is not a criticism, but I doubt any men would find the show that interesting. There’s no attempt to appeal to them. There are no male characters or no themes centered on how men were affected by these eras. All that’s fine. A Taste of Things to Come serves up an entertaining, light show, which is often what we crave.

The Soft Skin

Truffaut offers a realistic look at infidelity in The Soft Skin (1964) where Pierre Lachenay, a publisher and scholar known from his TV appearances, gets obsessed with Nicole, a flight attendant, and starts an affair with her. Pierre has a sort of budding butterball look. He could be the Pillsbury Doughboy’s French father. He is smart, yet bland. He’s married to an attractive woman and they have a young daughter whom he dotes on. He doesn’t hate his life, but when he sees Nicole on a flight, he becomes smitten.

He later sees her at a hotel and follows her to find out her room. It’s a bit stalker-ish, but not quite. Nicole who’s probably half Pierre’s age is interested. She hasn’t experience romantic love and is in awe of Pierre’s success.

Throughout the film Pierre and Nicole have difficulty meeting up. Their rendezvous always go awry. Perhaps an old friend meets Pierre and asks to go for a drink. He’ll respond that he must drive back to Paris and the friend will say that’s where he wants to go and figures they can drive together. All the while Nicole’s twiddling her fingers back at the hotel where they’re staying. Such obstacles crop up again and again. Ever nervous, Pierre bungles along with his poor plans and lies. Yes, Nicole is young, beautiful and energetic, but having the affair is offset by the stress of lies and running around only to be thwarted.

Eventually Franca Pierre’s wife realizes something’s off. After awhile Franca gives up on the marriage and asks for a divorce. Freed, Pierre agrees, but he soon finds that breaking with Franca does not lead to bliss in a new posh apartment with Nicole.

The film is beautiful and Truffaut’s direction is sophisticated and engaging. He films intimacy in such a classy, real way. He shows affairs as they really are, not all romance, not all due to a horrible spouse. Infidelity certainly doesn’t lead to a blissful new romance and a break with past problems.

L’Avventura

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Anna (L) and Claudia (R)

I admit I didn’t much like L’Avventura, the story of a rich Italian woman who goes missing while on a weekend away with her rich, jaded friends. I concede that the actors were gorgeous and skillful; the sets and cinematography excellent, but the story was lacking and the personalities were exasperating.

The story’s simple. Anna is unhappy in a general alienated 1960s way. She bickers with her boyfriend and pouts a lot because life’s missing something. When she’s off on a boat with her friends she dives in the water and is never seen of again. I do mean that. We don’t ever see her and though I can appreciate innovation in plots, this was too much. While her friends and father search for her, her boyfriend (he’s no boy – these characters seem to be in their late 20s or 30s) and her best friend Claudia go to look for her. Looking for Anna becomes insignificant compared to Claudia and Sando, Anna’s boyfriend, who embark on romance spiced up with occasional pangs of guilt on Claudia’s part.

The film is striking and beautiful. I did buy into Claudia’s dramatic emotions as she pushed and pulled at Sando. Much of the film is a critique of the shallow lives of the rich. I didn’t quite buy it, true as it might be. The characters were simply playboys and playgirls and I found it hard to actually believe they couldn’t find something to dedicate their lives to. I suppose there are people like this.

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In the Heat of the Night

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In rural Mississippi a local businessman, the most prosperous one in the city, is murdered. The first suspect is a black man waiting for a train. Who’s more vulnerable than an outsider with dark skin in the rural South in the early 1960’s? Thus there’s plenty of drama in In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is waiting for his train. He’s brought in to the station and treated like the prime suspect till the police chief (Rod Steiger) learns that Tibbs is a leading homicide detective in Philadelphia. As much as it bugs the chief, he realizes that his force can’t solve the murder. They just don’t have Tibbs’ expertise. So he gets the Philadelphia Police Department to make Tibbs work with Chief Gillespie and his force.

The film shows the hostility and violence towards an African American whom the locals feel has risen above his station. The mystery is authentic and keeps the audience guessing. Of course Poitier and Steiger give sterling performances.

Zazie dans le Metro

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Directed by Louis Malle, Zazie dans le Metro (1960) is an exuberant, colorful film that sends up all the devices and techniques of film based on a masterful comic novel by . The story is simple and doesn’t capture the quality or

Zazie is a lively, 10 year old girl, who visits her uncle in Paris while her mother has a rendezvous with a lover. Her one hope is to ride the metro, but there’s a strike so that seems unlikely. A flamboyant man with an odd set of friends, Zazie’s uncle lives an unconventional life since he’s an exotic dancer and has a wide assortment of eccentric friends.

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Zazie explores the city and outsmarts most of the adults around her. She’s a worldly girl who speaks honestly at all times, but swears a lot. Since my French isn’t street French, I doubt I understood the full force of her swearing.

The film’s comedy is fresh and the pace fast with several of the best chase scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is exuberant and one I keep thinking of and smiling each time I do. The actress who played Zazie, Catherine Demongeot, gives a realistic, captivating performance. It’s a film I whole-heartedly recommend and know I’ll watch again and again.

Related

Good essay on Criterion Collection “Girl Trouble.”