That’s the Second Biggest Monthly Review of April 2022 I’ve Ever Seen!

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the once-formidable computer game developer LucasArts, you might think the title of this month’s review is setting up an almost-but-not-quite record-breaking affair. Not so, dear reader.

As those au fait with the aforementioned studio’s venerable output are doubtless already aware, this month’s title is, rather, referencing a running gag from the Monkey Island games. That was prompted by the recent announcement that 2022 will see the release of a sixth game in the series. The Monkey Island games have been a big part of my life, ever since I played the original on our family’s first PC when I was about six years old, so I’m thrilled that we’re getting another. I’ve already begun replaying the preceding games in anticipation.

None of which has anything to do with films, of course (except for the trivia that Steven Spielberg and ILM did nearly make a Monkey Island film once), other than that it’s taken away some of my film-viewing time. Consequently, the following has occurred…



This month’s viewing towards my yearly challenge

#26 Death on the Nile (2022) — New Film #4
#27 Munich: The Edge of War (2021) — Wildcard #1
#28 Encanto (2021) — Series Progression #2
#29 The Father (2020) — Rewatch #4
#30 High and Low (1963) — Blindspot #4


  • I watched 11 feature films I’d never seen before in April.
  • Just four of them counted towards my 100 Films in a Year Challenge, along with one rewatch.
  • That means I’ve fallen behind schedule for the first time this year — I should’ve reached #33 to be on track to hit #100 in December at a steady pace.
  • I’m not too worried, though. This month, for example, I watched seven films that didn’t count towards the challenge, so there’s plenty of leeway to watch more challenge-compliant films in the future.
  • Nonetheless, I deployed my first ‘wildcard’ in April, counting Munich: The Edge of War as a second 2022-released film watched this month. It’s a nice category to be able to use a wildcard in… but now that I’ve done it once, I can’t do it again. Them’s the rules.
  • In case you weren’t sure, the series Encanto progresses is the Disney Animated Canon (or Animated Classics, or whatever else you want to call it — the official name has varied over time). It’s not the ‘next’ entry I need to see in that series, but that’s okay, because it’s one of the few I’m making my way through in any old order.
  • This month’s Blindspot film saw the great Akira Kurosawa in a Hitchcockian mode for kidnap thriller cum social drama High and Low.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film didn’t happen in the end, leaving me with one to catchup — next month, hopefully.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Death on the Nile and Fast & Furious 9.



The 83rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Aside from the films listed above, my viewing this month included such acclaimed and/or popular recent releases as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Best Picture Oscar winner CODA. But, while they were good isn their own ways, probably the best film I saw was a classic: Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Nothing truly terrible this month, but Fast & Furious 9 finally burst that franchise’s bubble, for me. Those films have been ridiculous but fun for about half the series’ run now, but I thought F9 tipped the balance too far — it was more ridiculous than ever, but it was no longer fun.

Most Unfortunate Casting That Didn’t Happen of the Month
Withnail & I is one of those films I’ve been meaning to watch forever but never quite cared enough to make the effort to get round to, until this month. Then, entirely by coincidence, I later happened to see on Twitter this bit of trivia: apparently, early in the development of Sherlock, creator(s) Steven Moffat and/or Mark Gatiss mentioned to Paul McGann that they were considering casting him as Watson with Richard E. Grant as Holmes. Now, obviously they’re Withnail & I personas wouldn’t be right for those roles, but they’re both much more versatile actors than that. As great as I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were, a film/series with Richard E. Grant as Sherlock Holmes and Paul McGann as Dr Watson is something I now feel we’ve been robbed of.

Most Pointless Extra-Textual Question of the Month
When the trailer for Death in the Nile came out, one line from it went semi-viral: “we have enough champagne to fill the Nile!” Of course, the character is being metaphorical: no one thinks they actually have that much champagne; she just means they have a lot. But, as I said, the line went viral, and therefor you can find multiple articles that tried to answer the question, how much champagne would it take to fill the Nile? The answer? It’s complicated. And, really, for such a fundamentally pointless question (no one’s going to try to do it for real), does any answer closer than that matter?

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Just three posts compete for this honour, once again (hopefully May will be when I finally get back on top of that), and the winner is the one with actual reviews to read: 2022 Weeks 9–11.



Every review posted this month, including new titles and the Archive 5


I’m going to try to get both my challenge viewing and my general reviewing back on track. We’ll see how that goes…

Sanjuro (1962)

aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô

2018 #139
Akira Kurosawa | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Sanjuro

Yojimbo was such a box office success that the studio requested a sequel. Director Akira Kurosawa obliged by reworking his next project, an adaptation of an unrelated story (Peaceful Days by Shūgorō Yamamoto), so that it featured Toshiro Mifune’s eponymous scheming samurai, Sanjuro. This follow-up came out just nine months later — and, by genuine coincidence, I happened to watch it nine months after I watched Yojimbo; and now, in a mix of tardiness and planning, I am also reviewing nine months after I reviewed Yojimbo. All of which signifies absolutely bugger all, but it happened so I’m noting it.

This time, Mifune’s anti-hero becomes involved with nine young samurai who suspect corruption among the local authorities. The youngsters are well-meaning but naive to a fault, and so Sanjuro decides to help them. That’s a real boon for them, as it turns out, because they’d all die several times over if it weren’t for him stopping them and guiding them in a better direction. As well as showing us what a smart operator Sanjuro is, it’s often quite humorous, something this film feels more inclined to than its predecessor. For instance, there are several great bits of funny business with an enemy guard they capture and stash in a closet, but who keeps being let out after he sort of converts to their side.

Sanjuro's sword

In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD of the film, Michael Sragow writes that “in the Akira Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” I’d certainly agree. It doesn’t feel as significant as Yojimbo, probably because of the lighter tone (in my review, I described the previous film as “almost mercilessly nihilistic”) and a less fiddly story. But I found it more readily enjoyable than Yojimbo. It’s got a straightforward but clever plot, plenty of funny bits that don’t undermine the rest, and some decent bursts of action. It’s also just as well-made, particularly the cinematography, which is beautifully composed and framed by DPs Fukuzô Koizumi and Takao Saitô.

The making-of documentary that accompanies Sanjuro begins with Kurosawa stating that “a truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” I can think of few better quotes to describe Sanjuro, which is a truly good movie.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo (1961)

aka Yôjinbô

2017 #126
Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Yojimbo

Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

Observing the conflict

Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Seven Samurai (1954)

aka Shichinin no samurai

2013 #110
Akira Kurosawa | 207 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai used to be a striking anomaly amongst the top ten of IMDb’s user-voted Top 250: it’s a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. These days it sits at #21, presumably through a mixture of IMDb tweaking the voting rules and it being rated lowly by people keen to see all of the Top 250 but who don’t typically like three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white films. Nonetheless, it has a claim to wide popularity (alongside its critical renown) that is rarely achieved by three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movies.

In 16th Century Japan, rural communities are terrorised by gangs of bandits stealing their crops, raping their women, and all that other nasty to-do. One village has had enough and, knowing they can’t defend themselves, sets out to employ a band of samurai to defend them when the bandits come again the next year. Samurai aren’t cheap, but the villagers have no money, so they’ll have to make do with what they can get. Managing to snag Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to lead the defenders, he assembles a team, including wannabe Kikuchiyuo (Toshiro Mifune) and five others (Daisuke Katō, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, and Yoshio Inaba), who then set about preparing the villagers for battle…

Despite its epic running time, Seven Samurai isn’t really an epic film — this isn’t the story of a war, or even a battle, but of a skirmish to defend one village. How does it merit such length, then? By going into immense detail, by having plenty of characters to fuel its narrative and its subplots (and if you think there’d be plenty of time to explore seven characters in over three hours, turns out you’d be wrong), and by using the time to familiarise us with these people, so that when the final fight comes — and that’s a fair old chunk of the film too — we care what happens. Plenty of other films make us care in a shorter period of time, of course, but here we feel truly invested in the outcome.

The titular seven (well, six of them)It’s also unhurried. As Kenneth Turan explains in his essay “The Hours and Times: Kurosawa and the Art of Epic Storytelling” (in the booklet for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, and available online here), the film “unrolls naturally and pleasurably… luxuriating in its elongation — it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven.” As a viewer, I think you have to be mentally prepared for that pace, in a way. Most other films would use a snappy montage to collate the team, with key scenes or moments later on being used to highlight their personalities — witness any number of Hollywood (and Hollywood-esque) ‘men on a mission’ movies that do exactly that. Kurosawa’s expanded version makes the film more a marathon than a sprint, with only some of the negative connotations describing something as “a marathon” entails.

In truth, this is not the most fascinating portion of the film, but nor is it without merit. As discussed, it’s establishing these characters in full so that we are more attached to them later, but it’s also commenting on, perhaps even deconstructing, the image and role of the samurai. In “A Time of Honor: Seven Samurai and Sixteenth-Century Japan” (again in Criterion’s booklet, and available online here), Philip Kemp explains how Kurosawa’s depiction of the samurai overthrows some simplistic ideals that had become associated with them, and shows them instead as normal human beings, more likely to run away to save their own skin than pointlessly fight to their death. The villagers have indeed managed to employ professional combatants, but they’re not so different to the villagers themselves, just better trained.

The rain in Japan falls mainly on the actionThe length ensures our investment in the village, too, just as it does for the samurai. They’re not being paid a fortune — in fact, they’re just being paid food and lodging — so why do they care? Well, food and lodging are better than no food and lodging, for starters; and then, having been in the village so long in preparation, they care for it too. It is, at least for the time being, their home. You can tell an audience this, of course, but one of the few ways to make them feel it is to put them there too — and that’s what the length does. To quote from Turan again,

The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. … When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats — we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.

It can seem like a blind alley to go on about a film’s length — many an epic is long just because it has a long, or large, story to tell — but in Seven Samurai, the sheer size, and the way it uses that, are almost part of the point.

The film ends with a melancholic note. That “eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers” comes to an end — with victory won, the surviving samurai are no longer required. The farmers return to farming, the samurai return to… what? They are not really at home in the village, they were just guests; nor are they rich, because there was no pay — so what have they got out of the conflict? As Alain Silver notes in “The Rains Came: Kurosawa’s Pictorial Approach to Seven Samurai” (in Criterion’s booklet, of course, but not online), The final shotthe final scene, the way it’s edited and framed, ties the remaining samurai to their deceased comrades, the living and thriving farmers a distant and separate group. Fighting is the way of the past, perhaps, and peaceful farming the future. Or is the samurai’s only purpose to be found in death, because other than that they are redundant?

Even if you don’t want to get into the film’s philosophical underpinnings, there are plenty of other, more visceral thrills to enjoy. The characters provide humour as well as emotional depth; there are scattered “action sequences” throughout; and the big climax may technically only be a skirmish, but it’s one played out in detail, to epic effect. There’s not the choreography that viewers used to modern blockbusters or Hong Kong fisticuffs might expect, but that doesn’t meant the rough and realistic fighting isn’t exciting or well-constructed. Drenched in rain and covered in mud, it’s messy and, in its own way, beautiful. The whole film is visually stunning, as you’d expect from a Kurosawa picture. You may not realise it at the time, but many a familiar type of shot actually originated here, and then was copied down the ages.

It might seem difficult to credit now, but Seven Samurai was only fairly well received in Japan on its initial release: as Stuart Galbraith IV reveals in “A Magnificent Year” (also in Criterion’s booklet (where else?)), most of the awards for Best Picture went elsewhere, and at the box office it was comedies and romances that were the big crowd-pleasers. 'I can't believe Toho cut our movie'And it wasn’t as if it was overseas viewers who hit on the magic: as Turan reveals, “Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length.” The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose — how many Great Films from Hollywood are ignored by awards bodies and audiences, only to endure in other ways?

Seven Samurai is definitely a case of the latter. Its standing on the IMDb list may have slipped with time (and rule changes, no doubt), but it’s still a trend-bucker — a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white film that can appeal, if not to the masses, then to some people who wouldn’t normally go in for that kind of thing. A marathon but not a slog, requiring investment rather than passive absorption, Kurosawa’s epic rewards the viewer with one of cinema’s most enthralling, gorgeous, and vital experiences.

5 out of 5

Seven Samurai placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Rashomon (1950)

2008 #24
Akira Kurosawa | 88 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

RashomonOne has to wonder if Dr. Gregory House was exposed to Rashomon at a young age. House’s universal truth — “everyone lies” — is also the conclusion of Kurosawa’s much-lauded film, in which four witnesses tell different versions of the events surrounding a samurai’s murder.

The “Rashomon” of the title is one of two gates to Kyoto, built in 789 and in disrepair and disrepute by the film’s 12th Century setting, but thanks to this film the word has come to signify a narrative that retells the same event from multiple perspectives. Mentioning it seems unavoidable when writing about a film (or episode of TV, or novel, or…) with such a structure, as reviews of recent thriller Vantage Point would attest. However, most similar tales aren’t quite as radical as this ‘original’ (which is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa), in which the four tales differ wildly.

Justifiably, much has been written about Rashomon, both critically and analytically. As such I’m not going to dig too deeply here, but instead just highlight a couple of reasons why it’s so acclaimed. For one, it looks great. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is exemplary, producing gorgeous rain at the gate, wonderful shadows in the forest, and employing numerous inventive shots and moves, always effective rather than showy. Fumio Hayasaka’s music underscores proceedings beautifully, coming into its own during long dialogue-free sequences. The performances are also accomplished, especially Toshiro Mifune as laughing bandit Tajomaru, but also Masayuki Mori’s largely silent turn as the murdered samurai, and Fumiko Honma’s chillingly freaky medium.

As I said, there’s much more that could be (and has been) written about Rashomon — I’ve not even touched on the intricacies of the plot, the presentation of the courthouse scenes, the significance of the fights, and so on. Certain viewers might be put off by the subtitles, the black and white photography, the film’s age, and its occasional ‘arthouse’-ness — and, I confess, I’m one of the first people to get fed up with films like Tati’s Play Time or Ozu’s Tokyo Story — but, for me, Rashomon was an incredibly enjoyable first encounter with Kurosawa.

5 out of 5

Rashomon placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.