Tag Archives: Criterion

My Thoughts on: The Great Escape (1963)

I’ve been a fan of movies about World War II for a number of years, and The Great Escape has almost always been at the top of my list of favorites. When it was announced earlier this year that The Great Escape would be added to the Criterion Collection, picking up a copy seemed like a no-brainer. Today was the first day I sat down to watch this newly restored version of the film and I definitely have some thoughts about it.

First, some context. If you’re not familiar with this film, The Great Escape is based on the incredible true story of how Allied prisoners of war tunneled their way out of a German Luft Stalag in the latter part of World War II. The all-star cast includes Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, James Garner, and Charles Bronson, just to name a few. It’s an amazing story to sit through and watch, and it becomes even more incredible when you remember that all of this more or less happened.

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The Criterion edition of The Great Escape is certainly an improvement over the previous DVD copy that I owned (and subsequently gave away because of its issues). A glaring problem with THAT copy was that when the film was restored for widescreen, the process was botched, pulling the picture back so far that at times the edges of the sets were clearly visible and, most embarrassingly, in one seen you can clearly see crew members pushing extras along (during the July 4th sequence). I was very curious to see if Criterion had corrected these issues and I’m pleased to report they have. Everything has been restored to its proper aspect ratio, which is good because those errors in the old DVD version drove me crazy.

One thing I was slightly disappointed by was the quality of the picture itself. Considering I bought the blu-ray version of the film, part of me was expecting the image to be…crisper? This could be something to do with the quality of the master print itself (after all, a film can only be restored so far), but I am sad that the image quality wasn’t better than I remembered (I’m not too upset though, this may have been something out of Criterion’s control).

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As for the story itself, watching this film brought back all the memories of sitting down to watch this film while I was growing up. One of the things that makes The Great Escape so awesome is its perfect blend of tones. One minute you have a comedy when the three American POWs (McQueen, Garner, and Jud Taylor) “declare Independence” on the 4th of July, the very next it’s a tragedy when (on the same day), a fellow prisoner commits suicide by guard out of despair when one of the escape tunnels is discovered. It’s emotional whiplash for sure, but it’s done so effectively. Rest assured, you never forget that this is a story set in Nazi Germany, a place where terrible, TERRIBLE things happened.

I also must point out Elmer Bernstein’s fantastic score for The Great Escape. The score has actually become so iconic that many people recognize the music (or at least the film’s main theme) without actually having seen the film itself. Bernstein uses music effectively throughout the film. There’s an ominous strings motif for the prison camp itself (first heard when Ives walks up to the barbed wire barrier at the start of the film), that motif returns throughout the first part of the film, and most tellingly returns when the one escape tunnel is discovered. But I think the musical moment that sticks with me the most out of this entire film comes at the very end when the 50 prisoners are unwittingly being taken away to be shot. Bernstein accompanies the procession of trucks with a downright funereal theme that leaves no question as to what’s about to happen. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but no doubt Bernstein wanted to avoid any false hope regarding the fates of Roger, Mac, and everyone else who was recaptured.

I highly recommend checking out The Great Escape for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, and you should definitely consider checking out the new Criterion edition.

Let me know what you think about The Great Escape in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Samurai Rebellion (1967)

The last film I watched from the new Criterion arrivals was Samurai Rebellion, a 1967 film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because he also directed Harakiri, another film that I’ve reviewed.

While I enjoyed all three of these Criterion films, I think I liked Samurai Rebellion the most. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Toshiro Mifune leads the cast in this tragic tale of what happens when a samurai attempts to defy the commands of his lord. The story is set in the 18th century and follows Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune), a dedicated vassal of his lord. Out of the blue, Sasahara is commanded to wed his eldest son and heir to the clan lord’s mistress, Ichi, who has fallen into disfavor with the lord despite bearing him a son. All seems well for two years until….the clan lord demands Ichi leave her new family and come back to the castle.

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Near as I can tell, the overriding message of Samurai Rebellion seems to be: is it worth it to do the right thing when doing so could get you and your entire family killed? Not only that, but is it even the “right thing” when obeying the order breaks up a happy family? For, you see, if Sasahara were to obey this order, his son would lose his wife and the mother of his own child. The fact that the Sasahara family is supposed to just obey the clan lord’s whims regardless of their own feelings is what pushes the formerly loyal-to-a-fault samurai over the edge into first resistance and then outright rebellion.

Toshiro Mifune is great in this film, as he is in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in. And once his characters makes the fatal decision to resist the clan, his entire performance is raised by several degrees. My second favorite performance in Samurai Rebellion is Yoko Tsukasa as Ichi. This is a woman who is trying so hard to adapt to her situation, only to find herself in a tug-of-war between the husband she loves and the clan lord she openly despises. The emotional trauma this is inflicting on Ichi is plain to see, and your heart will bleed watching her suffer in an attempt to get everyone through this struggle alive.

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Like Harakiri (which came five years before), the last half of Samurai Rebellion is tinged by a sense of fatalistic hopelessness. Even though Sasahara is doing the morally right thing, he knows (and accepts) that this will not only get him and his son killed, but it will disgrace the entire Sasahara family. But what really makes the story heart-wrenching is that Sasahara comes within inches of actually succeeding in his plan. In the film’s last act, the samurai decides to take his granddaughter to Edo and lay out the entire story to the authorities. And he comes so close to succeeding that it’s physically painful to watch him fail.

Again, like Harakiri (which I belatedly realized came from the same director), I was left watching the film end with the same feeling that came from the end of Harakiri: what was the point of all of this? Because in the end, nothing appears to change. Or does it? The film’s last shot shows baby Tomi being taken away by her nurse, presumably to be raised by her. There’s a subtle implication that maybe the story of what her father and grandfather did will live on with Tomi, assuming the nurse tells her when she’s older.

If you’re looking for must-see samurai films to watch, then you must include Samurai Rebellion on the list. It’s a moving film, a heart-wrenching film, and one I very much enjoyed watching.

Let me know what you think about Samurai Rebellion in the comments below and have a great day!

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My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

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My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

While browsing through Criterion films at the bookstore, I came across a copy of Harakiri (1962) (directed by Masaki Kobayashi) and realized this was a film I’d neither seen nor heard of before (and it sounded really good). Fortunately, my library had a copy I could borrow and last night I dove in headfirst and discovered a tragedy in every sense of the word.

Harakiri is set in 1630 during the Edo period (the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate). It starts simply enough with a ronin named Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) approaching the Iyi Clan to formally ask permission to perform harakiri (ritual suicide) in their forecourt as he is tired of living in abject poverty. As it turns out, he is not the first ronin to have approached with this request. Some months prior, another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome had come with the same request. The problem is, at this time, many ronin were approaching various lords to make this request in order to receive alms to make them go away. Fed up with this practice, the Iyi Clan forces Motome to perform harakiri, even though it’s revealed his swords are only made of bamboo.

The scene where Motome slowly kills himself is incredibly painful to watch. The way it’s put together, you literally feel every thrust of that dull bamboo blade as he thrusts it into himself. To compound the nightmare, the clan has determined that his suffering will not end by beheading until he has thoroughly ripped himself open (it’s made clear that they could have beheaded him straight off, so they’re choosing to make him suffer).

All of this is related to Hanshirō   in an attempt to make him reconsider his request, but the ronin will not be denied. Once he’s settled for the ritual, then the full tragedy comes out.

It turns out that Motome was Hanshirō’s son-in-law, married to his only daughter Miho. They had a son named Kingo and lived happily for a while, even though they were very poor (Hanshirō lost his master and thus his living to harakiri some years prior). Then, in quick succession, Miho becomes ill and not long after so is Kingo (both die not long after Motome’s body is brought back). Motome is unable to find work as his status as a samurai makes him ineligible for common labor but none of the clans are hiring ronin since there have been no wars for many years. Desperate (and having already pawned his blades for money to help his wife and son), Motome departs one day saying he knows of a way to get more money to pay for a doctor, but he never comes back alive.

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Your heart will break watching Motome struggle to find ways to support his family. If I understand correctly, samurai are considered to be “above” manual labor, which is why Motome is stopped every time he approaches a work site. He also can’t openly beg for money because that’s considered shameful as well. In effect, this family is completely screwed over by the system, small wonder that Motome resorted to asking to commit harakiri in the courtyard as a means to get alms (a practice that he had previously, in better times, said was shameful and only done by the worst kind of person).

Hanshirō’s point in relating all of this is to point out that no one should criticize another for doing something out of desperation. After all, what would you do if you were in their place? Unfortunately, Hanshirō’s lesson falls on deaf ears as the clan firmly believes they did nothing wrong. In fact, they’re so insulted by the ronin’s words that it’s decided they’ll kill him and not let him commit harakiri after all. This leads to an amazing sequence where Hanshiro fends off dozens of samurai as he moves through the building. There’s one or two strikes and then everyone freezes, but you can see them analyzing each and every move. It’s almost like watching a Mexican stand-off: at various points, though they outnumber him, the clan’s samurai stand frozen because Hanshiro has them in such a way that if any of them make a move, he can kill them. Tatsuya Nakadai is mesmerizing in this scene: you can tell he truly wants to die, but since the clan wants to make it difficult, he’ll take as many of them as he can with them.

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Though Hanshirō is brutally killed at the end (with guns no less, they couldn’t even kill him with swords), I do think one person learned something from this, even if he won’t admit it. Saitō Kageyu, the senior counselor for the clan, is seen with a very ponderous look on his face while Hanshirō is being pursued and killed. I believe that Hanshirō’s words did have an effect on him, and maybe he is starting to believe that the system is broken. In fact, after learning that one of the samurai who participated in forcing Motome to kill himself has also committed harakiri, he instructs a messenger to order the other two participants to kill themselves also, adding: “Send a squad of men to make sure it is done.”

Ultimately (and this may be the greatest tragedy of all) nothing seems to change as a result of Hanshirō’s actions. The courtyard is cleaned, all signs of the fight are removed, what was the point of all of this? Maybe the point is there IS no point, sometimes sacrificing yourself to prove a point accomplishes nothing. That, at least, is my thought as I consider the ending of a very moving film.

If you’ve seen Harakiri, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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Dual Roles Blogathon: Jean Marais in Beauty and the Beast (1946)

This post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon hosted by Christine Wehner and Silver Screenings

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I finally got to see Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece this summer and I fell head over heels in love with the production. Long before Disney’s Beauty and the Beast took the world by storm, Cocteau created a film based very closely on the original fairy tale, using ingenious practical effects to bring the story to life. Jean Marais starred as the Beast who eventually wins Belle’s heart, but that’s not all. He also portrays the human Prince….AND Avenant, the villain who also loves Belle and wants her for himself!

If you watch this film without seeing the credits, it would be easy to miss that Marais plays a TRIPLE role in the film. As the Beast, he is hidden under a gorgeously complex makeup that completely transforms him from head to toe. The human Prince doesn’t appear until the last ten minutes of the film, and Avenant is just so…different from the other characters he plays.

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Let’s start with the Beast: It is revealed by the end that the Beast was a prince whose parents did not believe in spirits. As punishment, the spirits transformed their son into a Beast, and the castle was laid under a heavy enchantment. The Beast was then given several magical items (a magic mirror that could show you what you wished, a glove that could take you where you wished to go and the ability to create precious gifts at will.) The only way for the curse to be lifted is for the Beast to earn the willing love of a woman. But all the time the Beast is fighting the instinct to turn into a wild animal, and this is impeding his ability to fall in love with Belle (and also receive her love). Marais’ performance as the tormented beast is a sight to behold: he (as the Beast) truly wants to love Belle, but at the same time he doesn’t believe he deserves that love (because of his beastly nature).

As I said before, the makeup for the Beast is simply amazing! (It puts all CGI motion capture to shame). He is covered in fur so well that it looks completely natural!

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Eat your heart out Gaston, Avenant did it all long before you came around!

In his role as Avenant, Marais transforms into something else entirely (and not in a good way). He starts off innocently enough as a childhood friend of Belle’s who only wants to help since the family has fallen on hard times. He offers at the beginning to marry Belle, knowing this would help the family’s position (and it’s implied he’s offered before) but Belle politely refuses, as she wants to help her father. Avenant is angry about this gentle rejection (for the moment), and contents himself with helping the family however he can. Things become complicated after Belle disappears to be with the Beast and Avenant “helps” Belle’s brother Ludovic with his debts by introducing him to a moneylender, a deal that eventually leaves the family in near total poverty. Avenant feels no blame for the role he played in putting the family in this situation, showing a hint that he is not as good-natured as he appears to be.

Things get much worse when Belle returns for a visit, richly appareled in robes fit for a princess (complete with a crown!). Though Belle denies it (and simply isn’t aware of it yet), everyone else can see that the young woman is head over heels in love with the Beast, and Avenant becomes overwhelmingly jealous, to the point that he is nearly seething with rage. When Belle’s jealous sisters plot to keep Belle at home longer than her promise so the Beast will become angry and kill her, Avenant willingly goes along with the plan, initially hiding Beast’s horse Magnifique and then stealing the horse (along with Ludovic) so that they can ride back to Beast’s castle to steal the Beast’s treasure (and kill the Beast as well).

Avenant’s plan MIGHT have succeeded (the Beast is already half-dead of grief at this point) except he and Ludovic are unaware of the Beast’s warning to Belle that the treasury (dubbed Diana’s Pavilion) must ONLY be entered by the front door using the key, going in any other way has deadly consequences. This is because the treasure room is guarded by a living statue of Diana that fires a magic arrow on any intruder. In this case, the target is Avenant who, before the horrified eyes of Ludovic, turns into an exact duplicate of the Beast before toppling to the floor of the treasure chamber, presumably to his death, since he is not seen again.

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, (aka ‘Belle et la bête, La’), Jean Marais, Josette Day, 1946

And then there is the brief appearance of the Prince. So different is this character that it wasn’t until I went back and checked the credits that I realized Marais was playing three roles! In fact, the dialogue teases the fact that the two roles are played by the same person when Belle admits that the Prince resembles someone from the village she might have loved once. But where Avenant was full of jealous rage, the Prince is gentle and patient, the perfect match for Belle.

Jean Marais is such a versatile actor in this classic film, it takes great talent to be able to play two roles in a film, let alone three! If you haven’t seen Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, I highly recommend it 🙂 Thanks to Christine Wehner and Silver Screenings for hosting this great blogathon!!

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