Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.

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By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.

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Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.

On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

I finally saw The Hunger Games a couple of nights ago. Pretty good for a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

It’s a gladiator movie, of course. Sure it’s all dressed up in science fiction hardware and leftwing economic attitudes. The story involves a television spectacle where 24 mostly unwilling teenagers are placed in a forest filled with hidden TV cameras and forced to fight to the death. Only one will come out alive. In other words, gladiatorial combat.

But gladiatorial combat produces some interesting problems for a commercial filmmaker. You’ve got an action movie, and that requires a hero–a good guy–who has to kill a lot of bad guys. But how can you have good guys and bad guys when everybody is a victim? image

The Hunger Games gets around this pretty well, but it’s not entirely honest. The heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), only kills in self-defense or to defend someone else. This is admirable, of course, but in a kill-or-die situation, it’s not a survivable strategy.

There real villains, of course, are the ones running the government and the game, and the movie makes that clear. But there’s another set of villains within the gladiators. Four of the competitors comes from wealthy districts, and have all sorts of advantages. They’ve been trained in combat, and they have far better supplies. They team up together, act arrogantly, and are very enthusiastic about slaughtering their less-advantaged adversaries. They’re quite happy with their situation.

Which is kind of ridiculous. At best, three of the four will die. One assumes that they, like the poorer contestants, had no choice about entering the game. The Hunger Games slides into emotional dishonesty to give us people whose deaths we can cheer.

But The Hunger Games feels extremely honest compared to the 2000 Best Picture Oscar winner, Gladiator. I haven’t seen it since it was first in theaters, but I remember being quite shocked at its refusal to treat gladiatorial combat as anything bad.

This movie’s hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a Roman general turned by bad luck and an angry emperor into a slave and then a gladiator. When he fights in the arena, his adversaries are characterless bad guys, existing simply so we can cheer their deaths. Gladiatorial combat here isn’t a horrible exploitation of human life, but a valorous way for our hero to reek vengeance, mostly on people forced to fight him, and prove his manly worth. image

In this strange version of human exploitation for the greater good, Maximus ends up leading a team of gladiators–his friends and comrades. Yet somehow, the evil emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), who is trying desperately to destroy our hero, never thinks to put him in the ring with one of his friends. Of course not. To do so would call into question the inherent virtue of forcing slaves to fight to the death.

When Gladiator won its much underserved Best Picture Oscar, one of the producers thanked the studio heads who supported it. “In those early days when it looked like all roads might lead…to ruin, you were gladiators.”

What the hell did that mean? Is he suggesting that the people who financed his movie was forced to do so against their will? Of course not. In his mind, gladiator had become something to aspire to–a pseudonym for hero.

The greatest gladiator movie, of course, was Spartacus (the original, not the TV show). Here the gladiators are unquestionably victims. They’re heroes too, but not for what they do in the arena. In rising up against their oppressors, and fighting the true villains who turn others into gladiators, they become heroes.

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Spartacus has only one scene of gladiatorial combat. But that scene says more about that evil than The Hunger Games and Gladiator combined. Check it out.

Harrison Ford at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught the Harrison Ford event Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, I got a lousy seat. Near the back and over to the side. That's what I get for wasting time.

After an introduction by Ted Hope, and clip reels honoring the recently-deceased donor George Gund III and, of course, Harrison Ford, David Darcy came onstage to lead the discussion. He introduced Ford, who received a standing ovation.

Ford was relaxed and funny. He was clearly enjoying the experience. Some highlights of their discussion and the Q&A with the audience:

  • “I'm not really a leading man anymore. That's my former job. I'm happy to now play supporting parts, character parts.”
  • On how the business has changed: “I think films are more sophisticated today than 20 years ago. I find complex to characters that I didn't see twenty years ago, and in the kind of movies that need a leading man.”
  • “I'm sorry that people don't watch movies in theaters as much as they used to. Movies are best seem with strangers, in the dark. [Then the lights come up and] you're with people you've gone on an emotional journey with.”
  • One audience member asked if Ford would name his soon-to-be-born son. He declined.
  • When asked about whether he's involved with Disney's upcoming Star Wars sequel: “I'm not at liberty to discuss it. Either Star Wars or the incident with Lady Gaga.”
  • About Indiana Jones: “I felt we needed to learn something new about Jones every time. I'd still like to do one. I'd like to see what happens when he can't run that fast. And when he doesn't like hitting people or getting hit. I think we should do that in the next five years or so.”

After the talk, enough people left to allow me to get a good seat for The Fugitive.

It was digitally projected, and looked like the kind of presentation that gives digital cinema a bad name. There was little detail. Everything was a bit soft. I don't know what it was projected off of, but if it was a DCP, it was a really bad transfer. If it was a Blu-ray, it was still a bad transfer. I just checked Blu-ray.com's review, and they described the transfer as “mostly abysmal.” I agree.

But the movie itself holds up (I hadn't seen it since it was new). In a very Hitchcockian plot (adapted from a 60's TV show), Ford plays a doctor arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. He escapes, and spends the rest of the film running from a US Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones in a career-defining role) while trying to solve the mystery. The movie sports some great action set pieces (including a train wreck), but is built mostly around the twin mysteries and the characters driving them. The final sequence goes on a little too long, but overall very good.

Let me put it this way: If you love North by Northwest, you'll like The Fugitive.

New Movies I’ve Seen Recently…and How I Saw Them

I’ve managed to see six first-run movies in theaters over the last couple of months. I liked all of them to varying degrees. Here’s what I thought about the movies, and about the conditions in which I saw them.

Technical note: All of these films were screened digitally, two of them on screens that had only recently been converted. Four of the films and part of another were shot digitally. They all looked good, although the only one shot on film looked the best (Lincoln).

Non-Technical note: Five of these films had clear, individual protagonists, all male. The exception was about four people; three of them male.

I’ve written this in the order in which I saw them. The first grade is the for the movie; the second for the presentation.

A-/A Skyfall
Daniel Craig continues to rewrite the whole idea of James Bond in his third outing as fiction’s favorite spy). This time he suffers a traumatic experience in the pre-credit sequence, disappears, then comes back months later only because he feels that M needs him. He’s physically and emotionally unfit to serve, but he does so anyway because some shady figure appears to be targeting MI5. This may be the first Bond film set mostly in Brittan, and the first since The World is Not Enough to give Judi Dench a part worthy of her acting talents. Her M carries the story almost as much as Craig’s conflicted and emotionally tortured Bond. And speaking of Craig’s unromanticized interpretation of the character, has anyone else noticed that he never ends the picture happily in a beautiful woman’s arms?

My wife and I saw Skyfall at the Cerrito, projected onto their beautiful, big screen. The Cerrito is always fun, with their couches and good food. But that night they had something special. Someone had gone to the trouble to prepare an appropriate pre-show playlist. As we waited for and ate our dinner, we were treated to theme songs from classic spy movies and TV shows.

B/C+ Argo
Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for this allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.

My wife and I (I saw all six of these films with my wife) caught Argo at the UA Berkeley. This former movie palace has been broken up into so many many auditoriums that only the lobby retains any grandeur. We saw Argo in a tiny hole in the wall down a long hall.

A logo before the movie proudly proclaimed a Sony 4K projector. I turned around and, sure enough, two stacked light sources told me that they hadn’t bothered to remove the 3D lens for this 2D movie. Thankfully, the image wasn’t horribly dark, suggesting that they at least removed the 3D filters. Still, Argo didn’t look as good as it might have.

A-/B Lincoln
What? No vampires? And how much a movie called Lincoln wasn’t about me?

Seriously, I liked most of Lincoln very much. Tony Kushner’s intelligent screenplay concentrated on the struggle to get the 13th amendment through the House, ending slavery before the South was defeated. That made Lincoln a film about the political process, showing us the arguments, backroom deals, and compromises behind one of the most important and idealist laws ever to go through the American government. The script doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity, either–Lincoln is clearly prolonging the war, leading thousands of young men to an early grave, in order to end slavery. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. But director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams occasionally overdo it, bashing us over the head with whatever emotion they want us to feel.

For what it’s worth, this is the only picture of the five shot entirely on film, and it’s also the best looking. But Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork is occasionally too beautiful, distracting us from the story.

We saw Lincoln at the Shattuck soon after it went all digital. However, the particular auditorium we saw it in has been digital for over a year. I have absolutely no complaints about the projection or sound, but there was nothing exceptional about it, either.

A/B+ A Late Quartet
Artistic collaboration is always a tricky business. A string quartet that’s been playing together professionally for decades begins to come apart in Yaron Zilberman’s musical drama. The problems start when the cellist (Christopher Walken, for once not playing a psychopath) tells his partners that he has Parkinson’s disease, and will not be able to play for very long.This sets off various chain reactions, as personal and creative differences that have long been simmering for years bubble to the top. People get hurt, they get angry, and they sleep with the wrong people. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are brilliant (aren’t they always?) as the frustrated second violist and his violist wife. Like the Beethoven piece that gives the film it’s title, the picture is slow, deliberate, and rewarding, with the joy coming primarily from the performances.

Like Hoffman’s character, I’m married to a violist, so seeing A Late Quartet was inevitable. We saw it downstairs at the Albany. This was our first experience at the Albany since they went digital.

Before the movie, an employee came down to the front of the theater and welcomed us. The movie itself It looked and sounded great. No complaints.

A-/D Life of Pi
I came in wondering what Ang Lee could do without his major collaborator, writer/producer James Schamus. Pretty darned good. Told in flashback and shot almost entirely in a studio water tank, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who’s shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific ocean, sharing his lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. Clearly, this is meant as a parable, as the boy gains skills and discovers abilities he didn’t know he had, while wrestling with fate, God, and a companion who wants to eat him. The computer-animated tiger, I’m glad to say, behaves like a real beast, not an adorable Disney creation. The digital effects aren’t always convincing, and the story occasionally drags, but the film’s best parts easily outweigh the weak ones. What’s more, this is the best use of 3D I’ve seen since Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I wanted to see Life of Pi in 3D, on a really big screen. In the East Bay, by the time we got around to seeing it, that meant the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville. Yes, the screen was big, and the sound was terrific, but the left side of the image looked slightly blurry, with a sort of double-vision effect, as if the two parts of the 3D lens weren’t properly aligned.

Did I complain? No. It was the AMC Bay Street 16. Why bother.

B+/D Hitchcock
Don’t go to this movie expecting to learn anything about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. From the opening scene, where Anthony Hopkins appears in a fat suit and addresses the audience directly, Hitchcock is clearly what Sir Alfred would have described as "only a movie."  Helen Mirren is far more glamorous than the real Alma Reville–Hitchcock’s wife and major collaborator–but that doesn’t hurt the picture an iota. The story, part of which actually happened, shows how Hitch and Alma got the idea for Psycho, struggled to find funding, cast and shot it, then did brilliant work in the editing room, and all the while with Hitchcock suspecting that his wife was having an affair. Fun escapism disguised as film history.

Just one warning: Don’t see Hitchcock if you haven’t seen Psycho. It contains spoilers.

We saw Hitchcock upstairs at Berkeley’s California Theatre–our first time there since it went digital. Made up of what was once half of a balcony, the auditorium was small and oddly shaped.

And familiar. We’d been there many times.

But this time, there was an audio problem. The California’s other two auditoriums were both showing The Hobbit, and the theater isn’t sufficiently soundproofed to block out such a loud movie. Battles and explosions did not improve Hitchcock.

The Dark Knight Rises…and Falls

In Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan rebooted and revitalized a tired franchise, turning Bruce Wayne and his alter ego into an interesting character. In The Dark Knight, he turned the wealthy superhero into a mythic figure and created one of the screen’s great villains. In the third and final chapter of his trilogy, the filmmaker succeeds primarily in being loud–with occasional grace notes of character development.

The Dark Knight Rises was the first movie I’d seen theatrically in nearly three weeks. A vacation, followed by surgery, kept me out of theaters. Now I wish I had restarted my movie going with something better.

The movie isn’t all bad. A handful of well-written, well-acted scenes shed light on darknight_risesseveral central characters, including, of course, Bruce Wayne. When you think about it, the whole Batman concept only makes sense if you assume that Wayne’s brain lacks something important. A sane man of such massive wealth would find safer and more effective ways to create a better world–think of Bill Gates. Nolan apparently agrees, and Christian Bale plays Wayne/Batman as a deeply disturbed and driven man.

He’s also initially a physically broken man. Being a superhero–especially one with no actual superpowers–takes a toll on one’s body. He seems to heal awfully quick, though.

Anne Hathaway gives the movie some much-needed style and humor as Selina Kyle–otherwise known as Catwoman. She’s sexy, funny, easy to root for, and great in a tight spot (and in tight clothes). She’s also morally ambivalent in a movie where everyone else is either all good or all bad.

I wish she had been the main villain. That would have been a movie worth watching.

Instead, we get Bane (Tom Hardy), a colorless strong man who never rises above worn-out villain clichés. He kills lots of people, has devoted followers, and plans mass destruction, but so what? There’s nothing clever or interesting about him. Hardy’s non-performance is made worse by a mask that hides his face and makes his voice difficult to understand. Every time he says something mean and threatening (and he never says anything else), I wanted the threatened person to say "What? I can’t understand what you’re saying!"

The action scenes are big, loud, and accompanied by a musical score comprised darknight_rises_banealmost entirely by drums. I’m not talking about creative percussion, but a deep, endless rhythm of deep boom, boom, boom, intended, I suspect, to make us realize how important and bad-ass everything is. On a positive note, Nolan doesn’t overdo the CGI, but I felt at times that he was showing off his budget. "Look, I was able to blow up all these buildings that are blocks away from each other and show them all go off in one big aerial shot." Yet there’s nothing as exciting as the Mac truck flipping over in The Dark Knight.

Another problem: The movie is so reactionary that it borders on fascism. Nolan managed to play it both ways with The Dark Knight–both progressives and conservatives felt that the movie validated their world view. Not so in Rises. When Bane takes over Gotham City, he does so with the vocabulary of  the Occupy movement, promising liberation for the masses and an overthrow of the wealthy and powerful. He doesn’t mean it, of course, but his speeches make the common people go wild and attack their betters. Yes, we really do need the 1% to keep order.

Even the Imax, for which I crossed the Bay and paid a high ticket price, disappointed. More of the film filled the giant Imax screen than did the earlier film, but to less effect. It just didn’t look as impressive anymore, largely because of overuse and shortcuts. He even used the full height of the screen for close-up dialog scenes, but I don’t think they were actually shot in Imax. They were too grainy for that.

(Some of you may wonder why I, a fan of digital projection, would cross the Bay to see a movie in 70mm Imax, when the same picture is showing in digital Imax a short bike ride from my home. Simple: Not all digital systems are superior to all film formats. For details, see The Digital and Deflated Imax Experience.)

Nolan ends Rises in such a way as to kill the franchise (at least until the next reboot). But the ending also suggests the birth of a whole new franchise. Unfortunately, it won’t be about Catwoman.

SF Silent Film Festival Report 1: Wings

I always felt that realistic sound effects weren't appropriate for silent films. I was wrong. Or perhaps this was just an exception. Realistic sound effects are fantastic if they're performed live by an ensemble directed by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt. Using bicycles, drums, a typewriter (I think) and devices that I couldn't possibly name (but all, I suspect, existing in 1927), Burtt and his team brought the air and land battles of World War 1 to life. The thrills, shocks, and horrors of combat came through in Burtt's audio as much as in William Wellman's images.

Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra helped, as well. One of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today, they make any silent film come alive. But this time, to be honest, they were upstaged by the sound effects. I don't think they minded.

Silent movies were meant to be seen, not heard, so let's talk about visuals. Paramount's new restoration of Wings–the first Best Picture Oscar winner–is simply stunning. A couple of scenes looked grainier than the rest, but most of it looked like a brand-new black and white movie. Except there wasn't much black and white. Most of the movie was tinted, and if the tints lacked the excitement of those in Napoleon, they were still effective. Flames were hand-painted orange (or CGI'd to look hand-painted). I don't know if I saw a brand-new 35mm print or a digital copy, and frankly, I don't care.

But what about the movie itself? I don't know if it was the audio, the restoration, or my age, but Wings seemed much better than I remembered. A great, big epic of regular soldiers at war, it took its time developing the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we're entirely invested.

The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There's a moment when Arlen's character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face spoke more volumes than any dialog ever could. Among the other impressive performances are a not-yet-famous Gary Cooper in a small but effective role, and Henry B. Walthall as a father trying his best to repress emotions raging inside. The wonderful Clara Bow, despite her top billing, is wasted here as the ingenue in love with a man who doesn't realize he's in love with her.

Tomorrow night, we'll watch Bow shine in Mantrap, a movie more suited to her talents.

 

Violence as Light Entertainment–The Moral Question

I love a good turn-off-the-brain action movie–one where the hero gets to dispatch multiple bad guys without remorse but with plenty of clever quips. But the older I get, the more I begin to wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with these pictures. Do they teach us that we can solve our problems by killing the right people?

I’m not talking about thrillers, which usually involve a relatively normal person stuck in a dangerous situation and having to find a way out. I’m talking about movies with an exceptional hero, a high body count, and absolutely no moral ambiguity.

Some personal history:

I was a very serious young cinephile in the spring of 1974. I loved Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and The Seventh Seal (I still do). I thought of cinema only as a serious art form in the service of fixing the world. I also loved Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, but I justified these on the grounds that.great comedy was inherently subversive, and thus doing it’s part for making the world a better place.

But action movies? Unless they were black satires, or lessons in the horror of violence, I had no interest in them.

That spring, I attended a special afternoon screening devoted to three-strip Technicolor. It included two features, the second of which was The Adventures of Robin Hood.

That movie was a revelation. I had no idea that a simple action movie, with a silly plot, witty dialog, and beautifully-choreographed but utterly unbelievable fights, could be so much fun. I discovered a whole new purpose for cinema, and I was hooked.

I still consider Adventures of Robin Hood the gold standard for mindless (but not witless) action. Other such movies that I love include the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), The Flame and the Arrow, Die Hard, some of the James Bond movies, and the first and third Indiana Jones movies.

None of these movies are entirely amoral. The villains are unquestionably evil, whether they’re imperialists, usurpers, exploiters of the working class, heartless murderers, and/or Nazis. Not using violence would only result in more innocent deaths.(Actually, I don’t really see usurpers as necessarily evil. The fact that your father was king doesn’t–in my book–make you the right person to rule the country. But the usurpers in these movies are always far worse than the rightful king.) But in real life, things are never that simple. Even Nazis have mothers, wives, and children. Most of the hero’s victims are mere henchmen who, for all we know, were forced into serving evil.

There’s a wonderful shot in The Bridge On the River Kwai. A new recruit has just killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It was, in the context of war, an entirely justified act. But the camera briefly lingers the dead man’s Buddhist prayer beads and a photo of a smiling family. That sort of nuance never shows up in mindless action pictures.

Real conflicts don’t just dirty the hero’s hands–they dirty his (or her) soul. Sometimes, they kill the hero or people very close to him. In Adventures of Robin Hood, with all of its battles, not a single merry man takes a mortal wound. By contrast, Harry Potter is very realistic.

So what do these movies tell us? That violence, when in the cause of good, is trouble-blackswanfree? That killing the right people will solve your problems and not cost you anything except a minor wound and a few hours’ annoyance?

In these movies’ defense, I could argue that they’re so unrealistic that I have a hard time believing that anyone would take them seriously. I’ve shown these movies to my kids when they reached appropriate ages–and with Robin Hood, that was very young. I don’t regret it. And I’m not going to stop watching them. After all, what serious examination of the horrors of violence can match something like this video (which I unfortunately can’t embed).

But I wonder…

James Bond 50th Anniversary at the Castro

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday night at the Castro. But then it deserts San Francisco’s major revival palace for three days. During that time (Friday through Sunday if you haven’t bothered to figure it out), the Castro will screen eight of the first 12 James Bond movies.

Next month marks Hollywood’s longest and most successful film series’ 50th anniversary. Dr. No was released in the US on May 8, 1962.

Here are my quick thoughts on the eight that the Castro will screen, in the order they’ll be shown. I’m grading only the one I’ve seen in the last few years.

  • Dr. No, Friday. I saw the first Bond movie as a kid when it from_russia_with_lovewas relatively new, and again about 20 years ago. Didn’t care for it either time.
  • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Friday. I agree with most people: George Lazenby stinks. I also don’t like the plot.
  • A From Russia With Love, Saturday. The James Bond films never got better than this, perhaps because it didn’t yet feel obliged to stick to a formula.
  • Diamonds are Forever, Saturday. Sean Connery running through the motions without much enthusiasm.
  • The Spy Who Loved Me, Saturday. Roger Moore running through the motions, with even less enthusiasm.
  • Thunderball, Sunday. Saw it on a date in the 1970s. I thought it was boring. So did my date.
  • Live and Let Die, Sunday. Never saw it. Never wanted to.
  • For Your Eyes Only, Sunday. Saw it at the UC Theater when it was relatively new. It’s the only Bond starring Roger Moore that I even vaguely liked.
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