Monday, August 06, 2012

Old and new

I can't remember if I've ever seen The Seven Samurai before; if I have it didn't leave any visual impressions.  However, it's been on my 'would-be-good-to-see' list of movies for decades, and the other night I discovered by chance that it was available free online at something called  The quality of the video wasn't ideal - in some sections it almost became like watching a bunch of pixels without being able to discern what they were showing, but in general the film's impact remained.  This is sometimes a problem with these films that are free online: the quality can be very poor, though usually only in sections rather than as a whole.

Anyway, I watched all 200 plus minutes of the movie, with a couple of tea breaks.  It hasn't lost any of its power to engage the viewer, and the performances haven't dated in any way.   Toshirô Mifune plays Kikuchyiyo, the last one of the samurai to join the group, and he plays him as the ultimate wild man, sometimes verging on the crazy, completely careless of his life.  He's both a child and a man, the source of much amusement to the more serious samurai, but also a man of bravery.   

We first meet Kanbei, played by Takashi Shimura, who is quickly acknowledged as the leader of the samurai, when he's cutting off his hair (including the distinctive samurai knot at the back) in order to disguise himself as a priest, so that he can unman a thief who has taken a child as hostage.  His wonderful priest-like serenity, even throughout the battle between the farmers and the bandits that takes up much of the second half of the movie, is a total contrast to Mifune's character.  Isao Kimura is the young 'disciple' who is accepted as one of the samurai, and even though he was 31 when he played the role, he comes across easily as a naive youth in his late teenage years.  

The cast is full of wonderfully-played characters, every one of them distinctive (at least once you get to grips with who's who).   The story, which is basically a matter of a battle to the death between the farmers trying to protect their village (aided in due course by the samurai), and the bandits who come every year and carry off food (and women, apparently), is simple enough, but the scriptwriters weave a number of other elements into the tale so that complications arise from the personalities of the characters as well as the plot.  

Not surprisingly, it's a violent film, and there are a number of deaths on both sides.  It shows the awfulness of battle, particularly when you're not experienced, and shows how easy it is to move from cowardice to heroism, from fear to fighting mode.  The last section of the battle, which takes place in pouring rain, has the actors and horses struggling in ever-increasing mud, with swords and spears and arrows flying everywhere - as well as the gun that causes ultimate havoc.

For a more detailed review, check out Roger Ebert's one here.

Onto the new: How to Train Your Dragon is a fairly straightforward rendering of the ancient plot in which a (Viking) father doesn't understand his son (or read daughter, in the case of the even more recent, Brave), and the son has qualities that are at odds with the community.   Of course the father will continue to misunderstand his son until the latter proves his worth.  In fact there are a lot of similarities between this movie and Brave, not least the Scottish accents (Vikings with Scottish accents?).  In both cases the father is very capable in his own compartment; he just doesn't realise there are other compartments.

Hiccup, the hero of this film, is that sort of age that you can't quite pin down: according to Roger Ebert he's ten, but if that's the case he's a very competent ten-year-old (when he's doing what he does well).  However, the dialogue he's given is rather too smart for a ten-year-old, and sometimes so undercuts the warmth of the character that he doesn't become particularly endearing.   His female counterpart is feisty, as you'd expect in the 21st century, although she does have a brief moment when she succumbs to the boy's charms (her usual response to him is to thump him on the arm).

The story is about a Viking village, which at first appears to have a tiny population; our view is significantly altered towards the end when it's plain that it's a much bigger place, with a lot more people, than the filmmakers first implied.  Dragons continually carry off the sheep (they're the equivalent of the bandits in Seven Samurai, perhaps), and the Vikings, including Hiccup, continually devise ways to kill them, because that's what Vikings do.  However, Hiccup inadvertently captures one, tries to kill it and can't.  This leads to a delightful friendship, and the big showdown when it's discovered that the dragons themselves aren't actually the problem.

There are some good comedy moments, and the main characters are fairly sharply drawn - the lesser characters quickly lapse into 'flat' characters - although the overweight boy who seems to have no brains is the one who's actually read the manual on dragons, unlike the others in his group.  The film would be better on the big screen: as a DVD it seemed too busy at times.   Perhaps a second viewing would improve that, as it often does.   (Is it me, or do animated movies tend to include far too much detail?)

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