THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI (1978)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on March 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Written & Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, starring Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, Hiroki Matsukada, Teruhiko Saigo & Toshiro Mifune.

The Shogun of the Tokugawa clan is dead. Either of two princes stands to inherit his position. The younger Tadanaga (Saigo) has the support of their mother, as well as the local government. Iemitsu (Matsukada), the elder and rightful heir has a scarred face and speaks with a stutter, making some distrust him as a leader. Iemitsu is supported by Yagyu (Sonny Chiba), the master swordsman who trained both brothers. Masterless samurai wander in from far-n-wide to take up sides in a battle for control of the shogunate.

If you don’t follow classic Samurai movies, you may still recognize Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo, the sushi chef in KILL BILL, Vol. 1 who makes the sword that The Bride uses in her quest. If you do follow Samurai movies, then you will recognize that a movie with both Chiba and Toshiro Mifune (Akira Kurosawa’s alter-ego in 6 Samurai films) represents the Samurai equivalent of a Western starring Clint Eastwood and John Wayne or a Gangster movie starring Robert DeNiro and Humphrey Bogart. While those nerd-dream match-ups never happened in the Western or Gangster genres, Kinji Fukasaku (who recently directed the manic teen-slaughter action movie BATTLE ROYALE) was fortunate enough to make such a legendary pairing with THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 3.31.2011
THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI came to my attention through a box set of Sonny Chiba DVDs. This is one of a handful of movies for which a Lunch Movie announcement was written without my having seen what I was writing about. It looked cool in the box set, and I wanted to watch it on the coffin lid sized plasma TV in my job’s conference room, so I pitched it as if I knew what I was talking about. A few people showed up for the first day. Only my pal Sammy, a fellow devotee of Asian action films, showed up for the second and third days. During the second day, Sammy and I came to the conclusion that there’s not an awful lot of Sonny Chiba in this Sonny Chiba movie, and even less Toshiro Mifune. This realization was initially a disappointment. When I focused more on the story being told, and less on what the packaging I was sold, I recognized the strength of the film. It was as if I’d gone to see THE WILD BUNCH hoping for a good Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones movie. THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI could benefit from some tightening of it’s 130 minute running time, but the relationship between Tadanaga and Iemitsu is quietly and deeply drawn, and the expansive cast of combatants brings to mind large cast epics of a previous generation like THE DIRTY DOZEN as well as the more recent THE EMPEROR & THE ASSASSIN. It’s a tricky proposition to add this many peripheral characters to so central a conflict, running the risk of lesser characters drawing attention away from the core, but THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI manages this task pretty successfully.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on March 22nd, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, February 22, 2008

Written & Directed by Sergio Leone, starring Claudia Cadinale, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda & Charles Bronson, featuring a score by Ennio Morricone.

Four strangers cross paths in the desert town of Sweetwater. Frank (Fonda) leads a group of hired guns sent to intimidate homesteaders off their land. Jill McBain (Cardinale) journeys from New Orleans to meet her new husband on his farm. Cheyenne (Robards) is a captured outlaw being escorted to Yuma, AZ. No one knows what brings the man who plays the harmonica (Bronson), but when he stops playing, he starts shooting.

Following the international success of Sergio Leone’s Man-With-No-Name trilogy (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY), he approached American studios with a dream of making a gangster epic called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. The general reaction from the studios was “Yer pretty good with those westerns. We’ll give ya a $tack of ca$h to make us one of those!” He set to writing with his pals Dario Argento (who would later become a master director of Italian “Giallo” horror) and Bernardo Bertolucci (no introduction necessary). Together they came up with a story that’s American-epic-western in scale (and financial backing) and Italian spaghetti western in style (and crew). If you don’t love the first 14 minutes, the rest will be lost on you.

I’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim
TRAILER

AFTER THOUGHT from 03.22.2011
I’ll break from my habit of introducing a new topic to expand on the above closing statement. The opening scene is among Leone’s signature moments, emblematic of the overall divisiveness of his films, and embodies a style that has inspired a generation of filmmakers. Leone’s films are unusual if not unique in that admirers and detractors often point to the same aspect to support their position: the creeping pace of scenes like the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Fans see the revelation of character though action rather than dialog, and a ratcheting of tension, as we watch three armed men methodically take up positions around a train station. Others see a long drawn out waste of time followed by a payoff that doesn’t live up to their expectations. Leone repeated this in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, both early with a decade-spanning ringing phone, and later as Robert DeNiro stirs a cup of coffee while his partners in crime await an explanation for his delinquency.

Echoes of Leone’s prolonged sequences are most often found in westerns that critics term “elegiac,” among contemporaries such as Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE, and descendants like Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES, Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD and even Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL. [Side Note: why is it only westerns are elegiac? Where are all the elegiac mysteries or romances? Probably in the same place as the bittersweet kung-fu movies.] I won’t argue that every director using a lingering editing style is a Leone disciple; Anderson acknowledges a debt to Stanley Kurbrick, and Leone himself cited the influential pacing of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.¬† I will argue that, while Kubrick and Andry Tarkovskiy had employed this observant manner for historical epics, Leone was at the forefront of bringing it to genres better know for their urgency. In doing so, Leone allowed his cast the time and physical space to reveal layers of their characters, while earlier westerns were satisfied with simply letting the audience know who’s good and who’s bad. The most endearing moment in HEAVEN’S GATE, a wordless breakfast between villainous Christopher Walken and torn Isabelle Huppert, is heralded here by scenes between defiant Cardinale and doomed Robards. Did Leone bring bullets, sweat and dust to operatic storytelling, or resonant arias to rough-n-tumble shoot ’em ups? I’m not sure which it is but I am solidly encamped with those who are glad that he did.

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THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on March 7th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Friday March 4, 2011 at the AMC Boston Common 19 theater.

Adapted & Directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terrence Stamp.

A few years ago my screenwriter buddy Evan pointed out how rare it is for any Hollywood studio movie to not included a love story. He argued this applied to all Hollywood movies not merely to romances and romantic comedies. The devil’s advocate nature of Evan’s and my friendship demanded that I try to disprove his theory. Guess what? He was right, and he knows I hate to admit that he’s right, but there it is. Sure, exceptions exist, but few enough that they prove the rule. With the realization of how obviously right Evan was came the realization of how lazily constructed most of these near sub-plot love stories are, how little they have to say about love, and what a redundant part of the overall story they have become. So few romantic comedies manage to be romantic and comedic at all let alone simultaneously. So few half-conceived adventures, westerns, mysteries, fantasies or standard dramas are made any more memorable by the same tired opposites attract situation blossoming off in one corner of the story.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is no exception to Evan’s rule, but with an enigmatic romance deep in the core of the story, it is a luminous exception to the movies I dismiss within Evan’s rule. The film’s engine comes from Philip K. Dick’s short story ADJUSTMENT TEAM, published in 1954 in Orbit Science Fiction, one of the pulp magazine harbingers of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS. Dick’s story concerns a real estate investor named Ed Fletcher who accidentally discovers a clandestine group capable of pausing and altering reality, then restarting it, and sending the lives of certain people in different directions. Readers follow Fletcher for about twelve hours in one day. Nolfi’s film follows a New York Congressman named David Norris (Damon) for nearly four years before, during and after an encounter similar to Fletcher’s. As previously discussed we could expect the film to attach a boy meets girl situation to help fill out the extra time the audience will spend with Norris. What is unexpected is that THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU contains the most satisfying science fiction love story since at least THE ABYSS, possibly since Cronenberg remade THE FLY.

We first meet Norris as an incumbent running for reelection. On the eve of the election, Norris briefly meets Elise (Blunt), a party-crashing dancer who encourages and inspires him before rushing away. Norris spends the next few years pondering his next political move, and regretting not getting Elise’s last name, while the Adjustment Bureau conspires to keep them from ever meeting again. The challenge to Norris is that a network of unknown size and resources appears whenever he comes close to finding Elise. The challenge to the Bureau is that Norris and Elise have reached and shaken each other during their chance encounter far more deeply that the smitten horniness that suffices in most big studio thrillers.

The Bureau operates under a check and balance system that prevents them from controlling our lives completely, leaving not only the opportunity for coincidence, but the possibility of fate. A great strength of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU in my estimation, and a great flaw in the opinion of many, is that it raises more questions than it answers. How one feels about destiny versus free will, whether one prefers the search that comes from doubt or the comfort of blind faith, and if one has ever wrestled with squaring the existence of a higher power with the fact that horrible events befall innocent people; these are among the moral and philosophical dilemmas confronted by the Bureau should they fail to keep Norris and Elise apart.

First time director George Nolfi manages to expand Dick’s conundrum into a cosmic puzzle without turning preachy, never losing sight of the fact that the audience came to root for Norris and Elise, not to sit on a beach and play chess against one of the Bureau’s hat sporting agents. An accomplished screenwriter for most of the last decade, Nolfi resists the writer-director’s trap of explaining everything through dialogue. I’m sure I will spot more hidden photographic gems on future viewings but for now I am impressed by a scene where Norris first meets Bureau honcho Thompson (Stamp). The camera is medium close on Damon, with Stamp appearing to materialize out of the vapor, a moment created with no more elaborate a special effect than a slow refocus. This image tells us something mysterious about the Bureau in general and Thompson in particular that is far more haunting than if it were attempted with a monologue.

Nolfi does a fine job of creating a dimensional playing field with the New York of a public figure, either by random chance of Norris’s eluding the Bureau, or the calculated appearance schedule of a political candidate. We follow Norris through locations intimate enough to be recognized by a local constituent like his after work pub, the Hilltop Hanover farm, the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and a meatpacking district nightclub where strangers slap him on the back and gush “I voted for you!” We also follow him to Yankee Stadium, Liberty Island, and a rooftop in the East 40’s with an exquisite view of Central Park. These locations, some vaguely familiar others immediately recognizable to movie fans all over the world even if they’ve never been to New York, assume a greater meaning akin to the larger world of Berlin in WINGS OF DESIRE.

For the past generation or two Hollywood has been the prime suspect in both the dumbing down and the spiritual vacancy of America. I have disputed this at every opportunity, armed with a list of movie titles many people have never heard of, and most did not buy a ticket to see. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU was produced by one of the biggest film and television companies in the world, NBC/Universal, and features both veteran and emerging actors supporting one of the top grossing movie stars alive. It will be interesting to see if this film will be embraced by those searching for something new and unique from Hollywood as was THE FLY, or if it will suffer the fate of THE ABYSS and once again confirm that studios must pander to the least introspective or imaginative among us to keep the red ink off their balance sheets.

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THE DEAD ZONE (1983)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on March 5th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Thursday, February 28, 2008.

Directed by David Cronenberg, adapted by Jeffrey Boam from Stephen King’s novel, starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt & Martin Sheen.

Johnny Smith (Walken) is an engaged New England schoolteacher who falls into a coma following a traffic accident. 5 years later Johnny awakens to find his fianc√© married to someone else, his body broken and in need of a cane to walk … and he receives haunting visions of the past or the future when he physically touches someone. Johnny shakes the hand of campaigning Senate candidate Greg Stillson (Sheen) and becomes convinced that Stillson is a far more dangerous man than he presents himself to voters. What would you do with that insight?

THE DEAD ZONE was the first film David Cronenberg directed from a script written by someone other than himself. He manages to use Stephen King’s theme of nightmarish visions to further explore one of his own recurring themes: an “other” invading a human body. Cronenberg’s staging of each vision as an entity who’s existence is slowly killing Johnny lends a tragic element to the story that was less evident in King’s novel. Walken’s low-key and deeply internal performance and Michael Kamen’s ominous score contribute to the overall mood. THE DEAD ZONE is like a symphony where each musician is so pitch-perfect that they elevate the piece as a whole.

It’ll finish Monday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 3.xx.2011
This is one of those movies, and there are many, that I simply love more than most people. The general reaction, whether from conversations with other fans or comments on IMDB forums, is that it’s a pretty good film though most people prefer the book. I’ve read the book and I dug it immensely. I am not writing about the book other than to say that the film does a solid job of condensing Stephen King’s 400 page novel into a 100 minute film. The first time I saw THE DEAD ZONE I loved it before a line of dialog was spoken. It opens with a unique title sequence. We see static images of Castle Rock, Maine: town streets, back roads, farms, row houses, nearly devoid of people. We hear Michael Kamen’s melancholy score. And then we notice it. A part of the screen has gone black; something wrong in the projection booth? No wait, there’s another black void, and then another. Slowly, portions of the screen black out, forming the title THE DEAD ZONE in the positive space rather than the standard black titles.

The score and photography of this opening sequence establish the dry, silent chill of a New England winter, a mood that remains through the entire film. Cronenberg has incomparable skill with sensual film making wherein he makes a viewer physically feel a foreign object or force invading their body. He numbs the audience with the cold as he shocks Johnny Smith via his psychic visions. The story includes several expertly staged acts of violence. Cronenberg’s own style makes Johnny’s dwindling existence a separate and haunting experience as excrutiating as the other violence is jarring. If you only pay attention to the dialog, THE DEAD ZONE is a neat political thriller with a few intense moments. If you search the rest of the film as carefully as the opening titles invite you to search for emerging information, you will find the real horror and the real tragedy of once of the more under-rated studio films of the 1980’s.

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