A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 569 – Danger: Diabolik

Danger: Diabolik – September 20th, 2011

As with most of our done-by-MST3K movies, this is probably my fault. I don’t know why, but every time I see a movie MST3K featured in an episode I feel like I need to buy it and have an unaltered copy. I don’t know that I ever truly planned to watch things like this and The Deadly Mantis. I just liked knowing I had them. I grabbed this one from the video store we used to work at in Pennsylvania. Can you imagine, they were selling this off? How could they?! But there it was, getting shrink wrapped to go in the used VHS bin. So we snapped it up, and regardless of who initially picked it up – me or Andy – I will take the blame here. I’m always willing to take the blame for non-MST3K versions of MST3K movies. Always.

Now, I will say that this one was special. It was featured in the very last MST3K episode and consequently, I think we’ve seen it twice. Most of the other episodes out there, well, we’ve seen them oodles of times. But it was hard to watch the last episode. I’m veering away from the movie a bit, but I’ll come back to it. I just think it’s worth explaining that MST3K was incredibly important to me when I was in my teens. I didn’t make friends easily and suddenly I had a bunch thanks to the online fan forums. Andy and I started talking because he saw a couple of tapes I was letting a mutual friend borrow. So when a bunch of the people I knew online all got together to watch the end of the show together (I think there were about 30 of us) it was hard. I cried, and I wasn’t the only one in tears. Consequently, we never put the episode featuring this movie into our VCR. Ever. I can remember tons of specific moments because I associate them with watching the episode in a room full of my friends and fellow MSTies. The line “Is that stud coming?” caught us all by surprise and I will never forget it. But while this movie is precisely the sort of cheese I adore, I do not know it nearly as well as I would like.

And what sort of cheese would that be? Why, a 1960s romp with a super suave master thief named Diabolik! It’s based on a long-running comic serial from Italy and oh, oh does it show. Diabolik himself is played by a young John Phillip Law (this came out the same year as Barbarella to give you an idea of how young) and he’s basically a criminal but the hero at the same time. He has a super secret lair where he lives with his sexy girlfriend, Eva, and he drives fast cars and has lots of gadgets and is generally incredibly clever and smooth. He steals from anyone he likes, whenever he likes. Watching this I am put in mind of a combo of spy movies like Bond the newer Mission: Impossible movies (since I don’t know the older show) and then also the show It Takes a Thief, where the hero is a master thief working for the government (a plot which has been recycled more than a few times). The big difference here is that Diabolik is really just out for himself. He hasn’t been given assignments by anyone. His illegal actions aren’t sanctioned by some secret organization. Nope. He just likes stealing stuff.

Does it really matter what the specific plot is in this movie? Diabolik steals stuff! People try to stop him! He gets away! He and Eva roll around in a spiral-shaped bed covered in money! He tries to steal more stuff! He almost gets caught! He does get caught! But maybe he’ll still get away with it! The particulars aren’t so much a concern to me. But I suppose they might be a concern to someone else. We begin with Diabolik stealing an enormous sum of money from the government using a smoke screen. An actual smoke screen, not a metaphorical one. The government and police are pretty ticked off, so they up the stakes and crack down on every criminal and illegal business they can find. Crime lord Valmont gets ticked off by that and makes a deal with the police to deliver Diabolik to them. He kidnaps Eva and uses her to try and get Diabolik (and some emeralds Diabolik had stolen for Eva) but Diabolik gets the better of him and escapes with Eva. And the emeralds. This only escalates everything and after destroying all tax records with a bomb, Diabolik is able to try and steal molten gold that the government is selling off. This proves to be his undoing and the movie ends with him trapped in his heatproof suit, having been sprayed with molten gold when the police raided his hideout.

Look, don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all ridiculous and over the top. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to be outrageous and unbelievable. After all, what good would the story of a regular thief and his not-so-daring exploits be? The character is meant to be larger than life, with his underground lair and all. Not that it makes it a truly high quality film, but a lot of the stranger stuff in it is clearly informed by the comics it’s based on. What I find strange about that is that there’s a lot of talk about dollars in the movie and when Eva and Diabolik are rolling around in their ill-gotten gains the money looks like US currency. But the movie was filmed in Rome and it’s clearly dubbed, not to mention it’s based on a series of Italian comics that weren’t in wide circulation in the US at the time. While personally, I think the movie is fantastic and fun, I can see how it might be a hard sell, given the lack of anything explaining the character’s motivations and his thoroughly anti-establishment nature. Still, I’m not complaining that it exists. I do enjoy it, after all. Not enough to put in the MST3K episode more often, but maybe since I own it un-MSTed, I’ll put that in once in a while.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 446 – Dragon Princess

Dragon Princess – May 20th, 2011

Oh boy, this is going to be a short review. There’s not a heck of a lot to this movie and I’m afraid I’m going to end up focusing on its flaws instead of on its potential, but I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. This is yet another movie obtained from my coworker. We got it solely on the basis of Sonny Chiba’s involvement. Okay, Sonny Chiba and the promise of a kick-ass female protagonist getting revenge for her father’s sake. And well, Sonny Chiba is in it. And Yumi is pretty awesome and does kick a lot of ass. But the movie’s pretty lacking in almost every other area.

One of the first things we discovered when we put the movie in was that it was dubbed. And this is the sort of horrible dubbing that’s been lampooned on every sketch comedy show ever, with the audio not even remotely synced with the video on multiple occasions. The aspect ratio shifts between the opening scene and the rest of the movie. The camera appears to be hand held and not very steadily so. There is panning and scanning but not nearly enough of either since the camera often seems to be looking at the empty space between the two characters in the scene being filmed, or on the spot a character was in and has moved from. And well, this is very obviously a low quality transfer from what was likely already a low quality copy of the original, leaving the visuals blurred more often than not.

The plot is pretty simple, or so it seems. The basic story is, anyhow. A man is attacked by several men and gravely wounded in front of his young daughter. He lives, only to devote his daughter’s childhood to the study of martial arts so she can be his instrument of revenge. She grows up and after he dies she seeks out the men who attacked him when she was little, eventually taking them all down. That’s not terribly complicated. And if the movie had kept it nice and simple like that, perhaps things would have gone better. But there’s a whole plot with a karate school and the scheming leader, Nikaido, who wants it to be the only school or a state sanctioned school or something like that. I couldn’t really figure out exactly what his incentive was but it definitely had something to do with being a karate teacher. And he’s also into extorting protection money from the locals around his school and sets up a big tournament that’s supposed to bring prestige to the school and the local government somehow and then he rigs it so his students will win. And then there are his men.

The Big Four, as they’re referred to in the movie, are four of Nikaido’s men. They were with him when he beat up on Yumi’s father and they act as his agents all over the place. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have picked up on anything other than that one of them, who has longish white hair, is more than a little high strung. The trouble here, and through the vast majority of the movie, is that while it attempts to have a plot and characters and dialogue, the scenes between fights are so poorly shot and edited together that they’re actually hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Which in turn makes the whole movie hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Why did that one student at Nikaido’s school decide to help Yumi? I have no idea. If he ever said anything about his reasons I admit I totally missed it and it’s not like the movie gave me much to go on. But help he does. After the tournament is announced the Big Four go out to kick the asses of anyone who might dare to try and compete. This takes us to such far flung locales as Cuba and South America and. Um. I think that’s it. Cuba and South America. Where we spend about five minutes of fighting before going back to Tokyo.

Yumi’s staying with her grandfather in the city, and you do get to hear some from him, but not enough to keep my interest. He tries to stop her but she goes to fight anyhow. She gets her arm fractured and is told if she fights more before it heals she’ll probably never use it again. You might think this would be the source of some emotional weight or conflict but no. She doesn’t really bat an eye. Not that I saw. There’s also a sort of side plot with a man who picks Yumi’s pocket when she arrives in Tokyo and apparently sells pornography from a stall near his home and whose mother pays protection money to Nikaido, but it’s never delved into. That would take time away from the fight scenes.

The thing is, with the shaky and poorly framed camera work here, all the fight scenes sort of muddle together into one. If I were to tune into this movie, even having seen it, I’d probably find it difficult to tell by a fight scene where the plot was at any given moment. When a movie has well choreographed fights that serve to enhance or propel the plot you can see how unique they are. These fight scenes are only usually unique due to whom, specifically, Yumi is fighting. And even then, the villains aren’t terribly distinguishable for me, aside from the one with the long hair and Nikaido himself. The other three? They aren’t even characters. They’re just henchmen.

And in the middle of all that mess is a totally unrelated sexy dancing scene that’s not really at all sexy. I think sex is supposed to have happened? I’m not sure. It’s strip disco, as Andy said. Between two characters who aren’t even in this movie. For no reason I can divine aside from someone deciding that the movie needed some bare breasts for American audiences. That, along with the ever-so-70s horn section soundtrack just makes this movie ridiculous and cheesy on top of messy. And you know, I really wish it was better. I would love to see a remake of this with decent production values. Heck, I’d even settle for halfway decent production values. Because I like the basic premise and I’ve got to say I did enjoy Etsuko Shihomi as Yumi and she did indeed kick a lot of ass. But I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I wanted to, between the cropped and sloppy camera work and the horrible dubbing and the total lack of pacing and writing. If anyone knows of a remake or of something that takes the same premise and runs with it in a more coherent fashion, please let me know.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dragon Princess

May 20, 2011

Dragon Princess

I have to admit that this movie is a bit of a mess. I’m not sure if it is a result of the dubbing, or of the poor pan & scan, or if it’s because I am so debilitatingly tired or if the movie itself is really as slapdash as I felt it was as I watched it this afternoon.

What we have here is a Sonny Chiba karate movie from the seventies. The thing is that a lot of the time I felt like I should have known what was going on because it is a movie firmly rooted in the tropes of its genre. It involves revenge and a team of evil weapons masters that need to be defeated and a mysterious young man whose motives are not immediately clear and… well… a lot of concepts I’ve seen before in many an anime or martial arts movie. There’s just some kind of disconnect in the way it is presented.

For the most part this is the story of a young woman named Yumi. In the pre-credit sequence her father is brutally beaten by an evil quintet of backstabbing martial artists. (According to the dubbed dialog it is because he is up for a job as a karate instructor and the leader of the five meanies wants the job instead. I think it must have lost something in translation.) Anyhow, Yumi’s father is defeated and barely left alive. During the opening credit montage he trains his daughter relentlessly to be the greatest fighter of all time. Eventually (after many years) he dies – it is implied from the injuries he sustained at the start of the movie – and implores that Yumi avenge him.

All this is pretty standard and it’s no particular mystery where this movie is headed. Next we get to see what the evil master is up to now in Tokyo. He’s got his own dojo where he trains a big group of students by beating the crap out of them. One new student is able to hold his own against the master, and you know he’ll be back later. The dubbed dialog informs us that there’s a martial arts competition coming up and the evil Nakaido has his heart set on winning. So much so that he dispatches his four underlings to every corner of the Earth to kill the other masters signed up for the competition. (The movie begins to feel a little samey here as each rival master in turn is assassinated in a fight scene very reminiscent of the opening scene of the movie.)

There’s also a street gang that is extorting protection money from some local merchants (including our comic relief, a brightly dressed pickpocket and porn merchant.) Yumi, who has come to Tokyo to live with her grandfather, beats up the gang and attracts the attention of Nakaido, who is in cahoots with a corrupt politician and somehow involved with the gang as well. It’s unclear to me exactly what the connection is. Anyhow, the gist is that Nakaido sends his promising new pupil Masahiko to kill Yumi.

Instead Masahiko teams up with Yumi after revealing that he’s the son of a murdered police officer. They fight the five evil masters and although they survive Yumi is gravely wounded, losing the use of her left arm. She is determined to hunt down Nakaido even if it means she’ll die in the process. There’s a long scene where her grandfather begs her not to throw her life away, but pretty much tells her to go after Nakaido anyhow. Then there’s the climactic fight scene where Yumi and Masahiko confront Nakaido and his entire student body as well as his weapons masters in an overgrown field. There’s a lot of fighting and then the movie abruptly ends.

I really had trouble keeping up with this movie tonight. The fight scenes are frenetic and hand held and the cropping down of the frame to fit the movie to full screen means that a lot of action takes place off the sides of the picture, so I never really had a feel for what was going on. The movie has all the individual parts of a classic revenge action movie but for some reason they never really fit together. The strange translation and abrupt editing don’t help. (We were particularly amused by the non-sensical sex scene which appears to have been edited into the middle of the film from some other movie.)

I simply didn’t enjoy this as much as I would have liked. I can see that there is a cool movie buried in here, but it isn’t allowed to really come out to play. The end result is amusingly cheesy and more than a little bit cheap feeling. It’s so clearly not the movie it wants to be. I have to say I liked the concept more than the execution. I’d be very curious to see how different the movie is in the original Japanese and in wide screen.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 438 – 5 Superfighters

5 Superfighters – May 12th, 2011

One might think that last night’s movie was truly the ultimate when it comes to movies with incredibly thin plots to allow for a truckload of fight scenes. One would be wrong. Oh so very wrong. Because movies like this one exist and I’ve got to admit, it’s hard to beat. This was yet another movie acquired from my coworker’s husband. We knew nothing about it when we got it other than that it was a kung fu movie. IMDB doesn’t even have a running time listed (it’s about an hour and a half, for anyone curious) so we figured out if it was watchable tonight by popping it in and forwarding to the end to see what the timer on the DVD player read. The disc has no options, the dubbing is patchy, the soundtrack cuts out oddly in a few places and there are VHS artifacts carried over to the DVD release. It was a mystery to us and oh, oh am I glad we own it.

This is not going to be a long review because really, what can I say about this movie? It’s fairly low budget and the plot is a thin shell around fight scene after fight scene. I can’t comment much on the acting both because of the dubbing and because of the lack of plot. I can talk about the fighting and the soundtrack, but that’s really about where we stand here. There’s just lot a whole lot of substance and that’s clearly by design, not accident. No one set out to make this movie an epic masterpiece of storytelling. But more than one person obviously set out to make it a little over ninety minutes of king fu fighting.

There’s a trope I’ve noticed in watching the kung fu movies we’ve done so far. It’s the hidden kung fu master. The true masters, the people who can beat anyone and teach the main character the necessary skills to beat the villain and whatnot? They aren’t running schools or taking on student after student. They don’t walk around announcing that, like Neo, they know kung fu. No. They live normal and mundane lives until some heroic type brings trouble to their doorstep. In this movie we have a drunken beggar, a fisherman and a bean curd maker. The only reason we find out that they can do kung fu in the first place (let alone that they’re masters) is because they get forced into defending themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a teacher and his three students, whom he took in and raised after finding them as orphans. Granted, he’s not running around preening about his skills, but he’s not hiding in plain sight or anything. And so when the villain, a kung fu master proclaiming that he is the master of correcting bad kung fu, shows up, he kicks said teacher’s ass. And he whoops all three students too. So off they go to find new teachers so they can learn how to beat this mysterious master to exact revenge for their first teacher’s humiliation.

If you’re thinking there’s anything more to this movie than the three students (and their teacher) all going out and finding new people to learn from? You are clearly expecting too much from this movie. Even the scenery is minimal at best. Each of the three students goes out to find a new teacher. One finds a woman who makes bean curd and kicks the snot out of four potential suitors who won’t take no for an answer. He ends up getting some bonus lessons from her blind father too. One finds a drunken beggar whose character is a pretty hideous stereotype, so I kind of found other things to do whenever he was on screen and talking. Fighting, on the other hand, well, he’s pretty kick-ass, which is the point. Then there’s the third student, who meets a fisherman who tosses a net over him, then takes him on as a student. They all have to convince their prospective teachers to take them on. They all fight and train and fight some more. Meanwhile at home the teacher gets a new teacher of his own. And there’s more fighting. And more fighting. And eventually everyone meets back up again and there’s a big climactic fight with the villain and the teacher and students tag each other in and out and use all the techniques they’ve learned in their time apart.

There’s certainly a lot of humor here, with tongue in cheek characterizations and lines. I wish I could hear the original delivery and read the translation subtitled because while I suspect that things like “Your method of instruction is lousy!” and “[I come] from a far away place… all the way from HELL!” were intended to be hilarious, I can’t quite tell if they’re faithful to the original. It’s all so very silly. But I would say the dubbing takes away from that. It changes the timing and delivery on lines and exchanges and I can’t say this is a problem exclusive to this movie, it certainly could have been done better.

One thing I do like about the soundtrack we have here is the music. Again, no clue if it’s in the original, but man is it fantastic. It runs the gamut from cheesy late 70s jazz to hilarious 80s synth. It’s an incongruous combination of music and movie and there’s something so perfect about it. It adds into the whole vibe of the movie and I’ve got to say I thoroughly enjoyed it, dubbing and all. There’s just something fun and mindless about it. I didn’t even have to do any reading to enjoy this movie. I just sat back and enjoyed the fight scenes and humor and music and really, that seems to be the whole point of this movie.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Five Superfighters

May 12, 2011

The Five Superfighters

After watching several of the grand epic films of Yimou Zhang it is almost a relief to watch a simple, low budget, brainless kung-fu movie. It would be difficult to make a simpler movie than this one, at least plot-wise. It would also be difficult to fit any more kung-fu into a ninety minute film than is crammed into this one – the movie is seventy to eighty percent fighting scene with a couple seconds of establishing shots and a couple lines of dialog to explain why the next fight is going to happen.

My one complaint would be that I can’t figure out who the five titular super fighters are. Pretty much every single character in this movie is a kung-fu master of some sort, so it’s a lot more than five. I’m guessing the five refers to the three apprentices in the story, their master, and the wandering dickweed who starts the whole movie going by beating the crap out of all four of them.

Things get underway when a man in black drifts into a peaceful town and starts taunting and then beating up kung-fu fighters. He starts out by defeating an entire dojo of students and eventually their master. This is just to establish his M.O. As he leaves the dojo he comes across three young students and their master, and decides to teach them a lesson as well. He beats each of the students individually, then all three together, then their master as well.

That very evening, without rousing their master and his wounded pride from a troubled sleep, the three students decide to go out into the world to find other kung-fu masters so they can develop their skills and return on their master’s birthday in six months to defeat the man in black. (Of course they have one last quick friendly fight between themselves first to decide who gets to go south.)

Each of them finds an unlikely master to train with. One comes across a young widow who makes a living selling home-made bean paste and who he discovers while she is fending off a trio of ruffians. Another meets a drunken cripple who turns out to have uncanny skills. The third enters into servitude with a simple fisherman who has unearthly abilities with a bamboo rod.

They each fight their potential master/mistress to gain the right to learn. Then there’s some more fighting which is part of their training. And more fighting to establish at the end of the six months that they’re learned enough to go back out into the world. In the mean time their old master has a re-match with the man in black and becomes a depressed drunk since he’s humiliated a second time and his young apprentices have all left him. (He demonstrates the depths to which he has sunk by fighting his kindly neighbour who brings him food to eat.)

It’s just a movie packed with fight scenes. Which is actually pretty cool. I didn’t have to use my brain at all tonight. I could just sit back and take in the pretty pictures. The fights are full of cool moves and fun humor. Everything is very much tongue in cheek. At the start of the movie I thought that perhaps I had seen it before, but now I’m less sure. I think it’s more that this movie is so steeped in the tropes and cliches of the genre that were well established before this was made. It has hints of Drunken Master. It has familiar kung-fu settings and stereotypes. It just feels comfortable and familiar.

I also really enjoyed the eclectic soundtrack. It’s a mix of all kinds of different styles and each fight has its own theme. It uses jazzy seventies guitars and electric video-game bleepings such as would have been popular in the eighties when this movie was made. And oh, does the version we watched tonight feel gloriously mired in the eighties. To start with it is your usual cheesy US dub. It’s also clearly encoded from a VHS master (there are VHS artifacts like tracking errors at the top of the frame and occasional lines through the center of the picture.) It’s also pan & scan – mostly. The opening credits bizarrely change aspect ratio – anamorphic for any title that would otherwise have gone off the sides of the TV but cropped for shots that have no titles over them. (The credits are over the initial fight scene of the man in black coming to town and kicking some unworthy asses.) Taken all together I was transported back to my high-school days of renting Jackie Chan movies from Mike’s Video or watching kung-fu films on channel 38. It was a fun and nostalgic feeling.

This isn’t a big movie. It isn’t a great movie. It’s one of hundreds of low budget films ground out by the kung-fu powerhouses of the sixties, seventies and eighties. It doen’t have anything original or new to say. It’s just a bung of fun fights strung together, and that is just fine with me. Not every movie has to be great – some can just be fun.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

March 29, 2011

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

We own a couple of these Russian fantasy films from the fifties which we discovered through MST3K. I’m quite proud that our copy of Morozko is in the original Russian with English subtitles, but the three Aleksandr Ptushko films we own are all severely edited and dubbed into English. Perhaps someday we will get the films the way they were meant to be seen, but for now this is what we have. We already reviewed The Day the Earth Froze, which is based on the Kalevala, but until today I’ve always wondered what this movie was based on, because it is clearly not Sinbad.

A little quick internet research reveals that it is actually the Russian epic of Sadko. It’s a little difficult to figure out what’s going on much of the time while watching the “Sinbad” version of the movie as interpreted by Roger Corman. We know that Sadko finds himself in a vast city full of oppressed masses and that he wants only to liberate them. At first he tries to help the downtrodden masses by tricking the moneyed ruling class into distributing their wealth to the people. (He does this by betting his life that he can catch a golden fish, which miraculous feat he accomplishes with the help of a daughter of Neptune he has befriended using his harp.)

This fails to help all the people though, so Sadko sets out to sea in search of some other way to help his people. He gathers a hearty band of heroes including a young boy, an old sage, and a big slow dumb muscle man. They do battle with trident-bearing savages, match wits with a nasally voiced Indian horse fancier, and defeat a mystical blue harpy that tries to bore them to sleep. Ultimately they do not find whatever it is they’re seeking and turn back for home.

On the way home, however, they are beset by storms because Sadko has failed to pay propper homage to Neptune. In order to save his crew he must sacrifce himself, diving into the depths to confront Neptune himself. After some underwater hijinks he eventually escapes Neptune’s kingdom (with the help once again of one of Neptune’s daughters) and returns to land. He still hasn’t found anything to help the people of his home, but they don’t seem to mind much and everybody’s just so happy to see him again. The end.

I’m betting that most of the reason the movie feels so odd and disjointed is that the translation tries so hard to make it something that it is not. We’re told that Sinbad is seeking the bluebird of happiness, but I strongly suspect that this is an invention of the translators. So I have to admit I simply don’t know what’s going on for most of this movie, and yet I still enjoy it.

I enjoy it because Aleksandr Ptushko makes grand, sweeping, beautiful films. Even when they seem non-sensical as in this case they are still visually stunning. What this movie most reminds me of is the Douglas Fairbanks silent version of The Thief of Bagdad. It has the same scale to it, with it’s huge cast and colossal sets. It even has an interesting dry-for-wet underwater scene as part of its hero’s quest. (Although Neptune’s kingdom in this movie is played mostly for laughs. It’s a fairly goofy place full of puppets and dancing.)

As it stands in the version of this film that we own it is a fairly strange production. The plot makes little sense. The magical fantasy adventure descends at times into the laughably silly. Our hero is so clearly not Sinbad. But visually the movie still intrigues me. I long now to obtain the full-length and unedited Sadko with the original dialog. I’d really love to see this movie the way that Ptushko intended for it to be seen.

March 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 204 – The Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983 – dub)

The Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983 – dub) – September 20th, 2010

We totally own this movie by accident. I’m sure Andy will go into more detail, but he’s pretty sure he bought this to spite a guy who worked at one of the stores he worked at, who’d put it aside and then never bought it. So we kept seeing it on our list and I’d say “What is that?” and he’d say “I have no idea.” And then when we started it I described it to a friend who promptly said “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that.” All it took was “magical samurai movie with Sonny Chiba and a huge flying rubber snake”. Maybe there are others that fit that description. I don’t know. He knew it immediately and assured me there was plenty out there about the basic story that is the basis for the movie. He was right, and I’m glad, because I had questions.

Unfortunately for me, I’m not terribly well versed in the story this movie is based on. I did a little reading up, but I’d have to spend longer than I’ve got tonight to really know enough to make more than the most superficial of observations. The original work was a serial published in the early to mid 1800s. It’s been reworked a few times for various formats, including this movie. The basic story involves eight samurai who embody the eight ideals of Confucianism. In this version there’s a princess whose family was cursed and killed by an evil sorceress/vampire queen. Also unfortunately for me, the version we have is a poorly dubbed and pathetically pan and scan cut of the movie. So I fear a good deal of the mythology and folklore aspects of the story have been changed around to supposedly suit American audiences. It’s pretty obvious when the samurai are all called ninjas instead. I’ll get to the pan and scan issues later.

At first I admit I was a little lost. I blame the dubbing, which really does make the dialogue and the action seem thoroughly disjointed in many places. But as the movie went on, it got easier and easier to follow it. Princess Shizu’s family has been wiped out by the evil queen Tamazusa. When she runs off and hides from Tamazusa’s warriors, Shizu is first found by a rogue named Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada), then by two traveling samurai, Dosetsu (Sonny Chiba) and Daikaku. Dosetsu and Daikaku explain the backstory to Shizu, which involves a queen and eight magical stones which are now held by the eight samurai who will help Shizu defeat Tamazusa. With our backstory and plot in place, off we go to seek out the other six samurai! That’s really the vast majority of the movie. They encounter someone, they get attacked, a samurai joins them, attack, samurai, attack, lather, rinse, repeat. Like I said, it got easier to follow, largely because it became obvious what was going to have to happen.

From my reading, I know that some of the samurai characters were changed around. I don’t mind so much. Maybe if I was really into the original text and the more faithful adaptations, I’d be annoyed to see one of the samurai as a woman, but seeing as I’m not, I quite like her. My problem is that since there are eight samurai, a princess, an evil queen, her evil son and two demons in her employ, not to mention a number of minor characters, there’s a lot that there just isn’t time for on screen. This is based on a story that was published in series for over thirty years. It’s not concise. While the princess meets Dosetsu and Daikaku right away, and Shinbei’s around from the beginning, there’s still Keno, Shino, Sosuke, Kobungo and Genpachi to introduce and give background to. Keno and Shino get a bit of time, but we barely get a few sentences from Sosuke and Kobungo to explain their situation and poor Genpachi only gets a couple of meaningful looks and no real background whatsoever. Maybe it’s better laid out in the original cut of the movie. I honestly don’t know. I hope it is, because it’s kind of the major draw from the source.

I like the idea of each of the samurai having a different defining aspect, though it’s not really the only thing that defines them and in some cases it’s a bit vague. This very helpful site outlined the way the virtues went in the original text, but when I looked around I couldn’t find anything that really listed how things got moved around in the movie. Combining that with a couple of essays on the movie, I think I managed to make myself a list, but since the movie gives such short screen time to some of these characters, there’s no good way to tell just how well matched they are.

Dosetsu has chuu, or loyalty.
Daikaku has gi, or duty.
Sosuke has chi, or wisdom even though in the original he had gi.
Keno has rei, or propriety, or something that looks like it, though she’s supposed to have had chi.
Kobungo has tei, or brotherly affection.
Shino has kou, or filial piety.
Genpachi has shin, or faith.
Shinbei has jin, which I’ve now seen several definitions of but seems to be the embodiment of all virtue. I saw it defined as humanity and sympathy as well.

The trouble is that for some characters, the virtues they get suit them, but others really don’t. Dosetsu and Daikaku have loyalty and duty. Fine, they’re the first two to help the princess and they stick by her. Shinbei’s trait isn’t displayed until late in the movie, but it works fine. But then there are the rest. We barely get to know Sosuke and Kobungo. The rest of the group meets them in a cave, sees that they’re two of the samurai they’re looking for, and all we know is that the local villagers are scared of the caves and think they’re cursed. Kobungo being fond of his younger brother, Sosuke, is a bit of a cheat, and Sosuke never really displays the wisdom his crystal claims he has. Genpachi is a warrior for the bad guys for most of the movie and gets maybe two lines, tops, so who knows where his faith comes in. And then there’s Keno and Shino. Keno’s an assassin when we meet her and I honestly have no idea if propriety is supposed to be a joke for her. Shino’s much the same, defying his father right before it’s discovered that his crystal claims he has the virtue of filial piety. If it was on purpose, I get it, but given that some of the others fit, some are cheats and some don’t, it comes off as an odd choice.

I’m obsessing a little over the crystals and the samurai, but really they were what struck me about the movie. I wanted to know them better. To be honest, I didn’t care much for either Shinbei or Shizu, neither of whom are very deep characters. I wanted to know more of Keno’s background. What brought her to the point where she was posing as wedding entertainment in order to behead the groom? And what about Genpachi? How did he get sucked into working for Tamazusa? I want those stories! I get that there’s a whole epic love story going on with Shinbei and Shizu, but I’m not an epic love story sort of gal. It’s not a performance issue for either actor. They were both good with their material. It’s just that I want assassins and morally conflicted warriors!

Really, though, I liked the story. I’ve got quibbles and it’s got flaws, but overall I found it enjoyable. I haven’t really addressed the visuals and effects yet, and I think I have a good reason. Three words: pan and scan. I hate pan and scan. I am a firm believer in letterboxing and widescreen editions of movies. There are some classic examples of pan and scan ruining a scene, like when Obi Wan talks about Mos Eisley in Star Wars and the pan and scan version lingers on Obi Wan and the long shot of Mos Eisley is cut out entirely, so you have no clue what he’s on about. This movie is full of those. There’s lots of shots where I’m pretty sure there was something important going on elsewhere on screen, but whoever did the panning and scanning decided not to show it. The final scene, with Shizu and Shinbei is utterly laughable, as they’re ostensibly riding side by side but can’t be shown in the same shot, so it alternates between them. I can criticize the giant flying rubber snake and centipede and not feel bad about it, but I refuse to complain about the cinematography. There’s some good stuff in there, in theory. I’ll reserve judgement until we’ve got it in widescreen.

All in all, I really had no idea what to expect tonight and while I can’t say that this movie is a hidden jewel of a film, it is a heck of a lot of fun. More than I thought it would be. The messiness of the story, the annoying pan and scan, the rubber snake, the 80s synth music that permeates the entire film, yes, they’re problems. And maybe it’s that I really enjoy a fun quest film regardless of flaws. But I liked this. I liked it a lot and I enjoyed watching it. And yes, I think we are indeed buying the subtitled widescreen version. All because of an accidental purchase we knew nothing about.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment