What I Watched, What You Watched: Installment #37

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This week I was inspired by me recent purchase of “Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema” to watch a pair of Kurosawa films I had yet to see and then I finally got around to watching a Coen flick I had been neglecting for quite some time.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
QUICK THOUGHTS: One look at my Netflix queue tells me I’ve had this film at my house since December 28, 2009. It only took three months for me to find the time to sit down and give it a watch when there wasn’t anything more pressing asking for my attention. I wasn’t avoiding it, I had actually tried watching it a couple of times and things just sort of … got in the way. No matter, here it is, and I finally have it under my belt and it isn’t all that bad, although it seems to be the least talked about film from the Coen brothers based on the articles I have read.

My best description would be to say it goes down nice and easy, like a warm glass of milk. It grabs your attention with beautiful photography (the film was converted from color into black-and-white in post) that made for a few excellent screen grabs and the dialogue is on par, as always, turning what would otherwise be a slow moving film under most any other circumstances into a feature that moves along at a pace that never faulters. The Coens bring such great dialogue to the table, their characters can’t help but be interesting at every moment. I also don’t believe there are many directors out there that cast their films better than the Coens do, along with their casting director Ellen Chenoweth.

With this film out of the way, there is only one film from the Coens I have yet to see, and I can’t say I am chomping at the bit to give it a watch. The film is Raising Arizona. When will I get around to it? Who knows…?

Dersu Uzala (1975)
QUICK THOUGHTS: The first Kurosawa film I watched was his 1975 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Dersu Uzala as it made its way to TCM during their month-long celebration of Kurosawa celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday. Unfortunately I forgot all about this celebration earlier in the month when I could have knocked off a few more of his titles, but I guess that’s the way things go.

Dersu Uzala was an absolute gem and it was released four years after Kurosawa attempted suicide on December 22, 1971 when he used a razor to cut his throat six times and his wrists eigh. Just last year I read a lot about the making of this film in Teruyo Nogami’s fascinating diversion “Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa” and bits and pieces came back to me as I watched, particularly the scenes with the tiger.

The film is based on Vladimir Arsenjev’s autobiographical book “In the Jungles of Ussuri” telling the story of a group of Soviet military cartographers who happen across a hunter by the name of Dersu Uzala who ends up serving as the Soviets’ guide as they map out the land. Dersu ultimately forms a close bond with the captain of the group. I can’t recommend the film highly enough and hopefully Kino will give it an updated DVD/Blu-ray release soon as even the HD presentation on TCM was letterboxed.

High and Low (1963)
QUICK THOUGHTS: This 1963 film from Kurosawa, teams him with his frequent actor of choice from 1951-1965, Toshiro Mifune. It’s the most modern film of Kurosawa’s I have seen, as most anyone exploring the director’s work is likely to begin with his period pieces and go from there. Well, “there” is where I have arrived, with his highest profile period pieces behind me it is now time to begin exploring the rest of his filmography and with High and Low available on Netflix Instant Play it was the obvious place to start.

The story of High and Low isn’t necessarily where this film encourages a fascination. Telling the story of a kidnapped boy, ransomed for 30 million yen, the story is rather pedestrian while Kurosawa’s telling is stamped with the director’s intuition. Mostly, it feels like a showcase of the “highs” and “lows” of Japanese society. Mifune plays a wealthy businessman whose house sits atop a hill overlooking the entire city, based on Ed McBain’s “King’s Ransom“, it’s not at all curious how the book got its literal, yet metaphorical, title.

People beginning their journey into the films of Kurosawa will likely begin with Seven Samurai as the first film of choice. It has a cool name, it inspired The Magnificent Seven and everyone talks about how great it is… and it is great and it’s the first film of Kurosawa’s I watched. However, after now seeing High and Low and getting ready to explore the likes of Drunken Angel, The Bad Sleep Well and Stray Dog, I think it may be better for newcomers to check out some work that may be a bit more familiar to them than to immediately dive into the samurai films and period epics inspired by Shakespeare, though I don’t think anyone could go wrong watching Yojimbo… that is if you have ever watched and enjoyed a western in your life.

There you have it. Now share your weekly recaps and weigh in with any thoughts you may have on the films I saw. And remember to connect with my Netflix queue by clicking here, I have already added several titles from those that have already linked up.