Classic Movies – Ran

 

At a castle set in the mountains, an aged Lord and his small retinue of soldiers and advisers are viciously attacked by armies led by two of his three sons. As the Lord’s retinue is gradually annihilated, the violence is observed in detached fashion, through a series of distant wide shots. Arrows and bullets fly in quick succession, horses trample on scores of bodies, blood seeps into the earth. The Lord, trapped in a burning tower, looks steadfastly down at the ground, visibly descending into madness. What is more, for most of this scene, there is no diegetic sound. We hear no shouts of aggression or pain, no gunshots, no songs of steel. The shocked viewer is left only with Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant score, elaborating this terrifying visual distillation of chaos, in which its actors appear to be almost ghostly.

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“this terrifying visual distillation of chaos”

It was not all so long ago that the same Lord sat on the side of a mountain, amicably addressing each of his three sons. Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem. Lord Hidetora is reminded through a dream of his looming mortality, and decides to give up most of his power to each of his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo – though Hidetora expects to maintain the title of ‘Great Lord’. While Taro and Jiro accept graciously, Saburo attacks these plans, asking why he thinks his sons will be loyal to  him, given that Hidetora has previously used violent means to maintain his own power. Enraged by this, Hidetora banishes Saburo, but in doing so loses his greatest advocate; it is not long before his other sons begin to violently contest his authority, while both are in turn held in thrall by the Machiavellian siren, Lady Kaede.

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“Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear will immediately notice some parallels within the narrative. Shakespeare’s Lear also decides to relinquish most of his power to his (female) progeny, with disastrous consequences. King Lear inspires Ran with much of its story, but also with much of its visual landscape. There was a precedent to this. Back in 1957 Kurosawa had made Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, which used almost no dialogue from the original text. Instead, the miasmic horror inherent in Shakespeare’s language was evoked through the cinematography. The ‘blasted heath’ was translated into copious amounts of rain and the thickest of fog, all filmed and controlled with precision by the director. In the case of Ran, the totalising language of chaos and disorder in King Lear is embedded within the initially wordless scene of violence already described, a masterpiece of visual scale and emotion.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t many quieter moments in Ran; the overall pace is at times quite slow. In particular, the opening scenes of Hidetora with his sons are marked by leisurely formality, something accentuated by Kurosawa’s decision to use mostly wide shots rather than incorporating close-ups of faces and objects. This achieves a distancing effect – we observe the characters, safe in our seats, later to be horrified at the carnage of stormy ambition. But this apparently ‘slow’ style is consistent with his method at this point in time. Kurosawa made Ran late in his life, in his mid-70s, by which time he had lost almost all of his sight. He had spent a staggering ten years preparing every single shot in the film as a painting, from which those who worked on the film operated. While I wasn’t aware of this fact while watching the film, the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots were readily apparent. In one stunning sequence, Lord Hidetora emerges from the flaming building described above, walking slowly down a long flight of stone steps. He knows his soldiers and followers are all dead. He is flanked by the yellow-clad supporters of Jiro on the left, and the red-clad of Taro on the right. The placement of the soldiers forms a remarkable piece of symmetry which intentionally clashes with the unruly fire in the background; the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the fire, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation. Framing is everything to Kurosawa, but also detail; 1,400 costumes and suits of armour were made for the film in a process spanning two years. It is difficult to imagine such effort being put into a film today.

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“the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots are readily apparent”

That said, it’s also commendable that Kurosawa achieves some exhilarating performances from his cast. Especially commendable are Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the scheming, murderous Lady Kaede. Nakadai, partly with the help of prosthetics, achieves the transition from venerable septuagenarian Lord to tortured, damaged vagrant with the greatest of passion. Passion also marks out Harada, although of a different kind; as she coaxes Taro and then Jiro into following her commands, you are never quite sure whether she will continue to speak quietly or snap into high-pitched, knife-wielding threats.

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Mieko Harada as the “scheming, murderous Lady Kaede”

There are some films that are recognisably great, but which fail to stick long in the memory. Ran is so utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil (Kurosawa thought it was a metaphor for nuclear warfare), that it has compelled me to try and verbalise my experiences watching it, and in doing so to revive a film blog that I haven’t written on for nearly two years. Ran is for showing for a short while in a number of cinemas across the UK. If you get the chance to see it, you simply cannot miss it. It is a masterpiece from a director at the very top of his form, an epic driven not by copious CGI or contrivance, but by the patience of those who made it and the strength of its nihilistic convictions.

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“utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil”

 

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Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”

 

When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
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“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.

9/10

Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:

HVT 1HVT 2

Re-release – Titanic (in 3D)

In mid-February I was lucky enough to attend a screening of  Titanic, which is re-released in 3D in UK cinemas on Friday.  James Cameron’s hugely ambitious film, which cost more to put together than the actual 1912 ship did, ended up earning $1.8 billion at the box office.  Being far too young to have watched it when it first came out, I lapped up the opportunity to see Titanic on the big screen, where surely it belongs, where multiple viewings of the film were very common amongst cinemagoers in 1997. I had only actually seen it once beforehand a couple of years ago. I ended up being quite affected by the film (despite knowing the ending) and didn’t view it again for a long time afterwards. It was therefore with tentative steps that I ascended the escalator to the cinema; with unbearable trepidation that I took my seat; and with shaking fingers that I put my 3D glasses on.

I wasn’t sure how I would react. The technical brilliance of Cameron’s film was something to behold on the initial viewing and I was astonished at the quality of the special effects (though Kate Winslet was just as dazzling). But I had grown up since then. Would this 3D conversion do Titanic justice? Would I be as moved as last time? In the course of just over three hours, I would find out.

I certainly approached the film from a more analytical point of view, and was more keen to point out its flaws. The dialogue, as with a lot of Cameron movies, is often throwaway, which is a little disappointing given the film’s stark difference to the Terminator films (and others). The love story between upper class Rose and lower class Jack, supposedly the backbone of the plot, feels clunky, clichéd and shallow in comparison to the film’s gigantic setpiece, the sinking of the Titanic itself, of which the most time and effort was spent on, and of which under masterful direction from Cameron is no doubt one of the most astonishing things ever committed to celluloid. It is a shame – you really want to care for the two protagonists, you want to empathise with them, but Rose and Jack’s affair is clumsily executed, with strange casting (Winslet is too old; DiCaprio too young) and seen-it-all-before plot elements. As a self-styled film critic who has certainly matured since the first viewing, I found it utterly exasperating – I simply could not distract myself from the artificiality of ‘Jack, I’m flying!’, or Winslet’s humorously ironic final statement whilst in the water.

So why, for days following the screening, did I feel extremely sad? Why, when I felt so annoyed with the love story, did I spend hours contemplating the film? It’s simply because of the way it is shot. The cinematography of Titanic is some of the most rich and visually stunning ever seen in cinema. The incredible sequence while the strings are playing “Nearer my God to Thee”, in which we see third-class passengers preparing for their deaths, as well as the ship’s Captain silently mourning his ship, is perhaps the best and most gripping scene in the film. It is seamlessly edited together with breathtaking technical proficiency. Those images of people floating, freezing, in the water really stay with you long after viewing. Despite my reservations with the plot, which felt like it was all over the place, I will admit that watching Titanic is a truly draining experience. Many who I spoke to about it admitted they have rarely watched it all the way through because of its apparent potency. I initially laughed at most of these people at their inability to sit still, but eventually I understood what they meant. The scope and scale of Cameron’s film, its stunning visuals, its emotion (which is NOT down to the love story) are all truly breathtaking, and it is definitely made better on the big screen. Cameron, while not the greatest storyteller, is certainly a visual master.

While flawed, there's no denying that Cameron's Titanic is visually stunning.

So what about the 3D? Well, it’s rubbish. Don’t let anyone tell you different – the only remotely impressive scenes are those set in the modern day, with the underwater scenes of the wreck of the Titanic. Cameron may be a pioneer of 3D but this film, made 15 years ago when the format meant little more than a 1950s fad, benefits little – maybe is even worsened – by the conversion. It’s fantastic to see Titanic in the cinema, don’t get me wrong, but this is just superfluous. Sitting for three hours with those silly glasses on rewards you with… what? A headache, and most frustratingly, a darkened picture, which is particularly eye-straining in the second half of the film. I implore you – see this film, but see it in 2D.

So, there we go. Less of a review than a personal critic’s journey into a film which certainly has problems but is still a compelling experience. I’ve found that with Titanic some of its proven historical details are far more engrossing than the fictional parts; an officer really did shoot himself on deck, they really kept non-first-class travellers locked down in the ship, and boats really went out half full. Revelations like these remain as profound today as when they were first widespread and this only increases the Titanic’s legacy, making it still a majorly filmable subject, as exemplified by all the films that preceded Cameron’s vision as well as the recent ITV series. Will this re-release push the film’s gross up to $2 billion? Only time will tell.

Review – The Muppets

Review – The Muppets

2011, 103 mins, U, Dir. James Bobin, starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper and The Muppets.

The Muppets

Everyone knows who their favourite Muppet is. In the February edition of Empire, dozens of celebrities gave their verdicts on the character that has most inspired them (mine is the Swedish chef). In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard a single thing about Jim Henson’s puppet creations. After the highly successful Muppet TV show in the 1970s, a number of films were produced, ranging from the surprisingly good (The Muppet Christmas Carol) to disappointing TV specials (The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz). Despite their continued popularity, the iconic creatures haven’t made their way onto the big screen since 1999.

But that’s all about to change. Hitting UK cinemas on Friday is their new film, simply titled “The Muppets“, a film that has received universal critical acclaim. And it’s not hard to see why. Their latest outing is stylistically quite different from all that has come before it. For one thing, it’s incredibly frenetic, almost as frenetic as Animal (although in the film he is living in a celebrity anger-management clinic) and the song and dance numbers have a wonderful feeling of spontaneity. No surprise there, as the film is directed by James Bobin, creator of Flight of the Conchords, who uses his absurd sense of humour to great effect. Bret Mackenzie, one of the conchords, also contributes by writing some songs for the film – “Man or Muppet” has now been nominated for an Oscar. The humour is intelligent and often self-referential, Fozzie Bear at one point exclaiming “Wow, that was such an expensive looking explosion! I can’t believe we had that in the budget.” 

The three (human) leads do a great job and Chris Cooper is hilarious as the (admittedly rather stereotypical) greedy oil magnate, especially when he randomly bursts into song halfway through and frequently demands “maniacal laughter” from his henchmen. The film is especially noteworthy for its vast range of celebrity cameos, harking back to the days of the Muppet Show, which saw the likes of Peter Sellers and Steve Martin as guest hosts. This time round, there are appearances from Jack Black (whom the Muppets kidnap in a kind of spoof Chinese martial-arts scene), Ken Jeong, Kristen Schaal (a lead character in the conchords show), Alan Arkin, Zack Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Emily Blunt and numerous others. Elmo sadly doesn’t appear for legal reasons (although a documentary on his puppeteer, Being Elmo, was widely acclaimed recently). 

It is a real joy to see the Muppets back on top form. They are still as funny as ever, spurred on by Kermit’s neverending optimism (and Miss Piggy’s neverending vanity). The story isn’t quite as dazzling as its numbers but it’s conceptually very impressive. The freshness of this new offering is something to behold, and it certainly proves Bobin as one of the most creative directors around. It’s good to have you back, Kermit.

4 stars out of 5