Tag Archives: Criterion Collection

Collecting Criterion – Seven Samurai (1954)

 

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The Criterion Collection has many selections of classic Stateside films, but what I like is that Criterion is the go to place for home video releases of movies from across the world.  This is helpful if your favorite filmmakers are international and have limited access to the American film markets.  Famed directors like Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein, and the like are found almost exclusively within the Criterion Collection here in America, which makes it likely that any discerning film buff will have one or more Criterion title on their shelf.  As a fan of certain directors, I am among those who collects movies according to someone’s distinctive body of work. While it is easy to collect the films of say Spielberg or Scorsese here in America, foreign filmmakers’ movies aren’t exactly published for the mass market here in the same way, unless they are an internationally successful filmmaker like Hayao Miyazaki or Lars von Trier.  Hence why I gravitate towards the Criterion Collection when I want to include foreign classics in my film collection, particularly when they come from a one of my favorite directors.
In this article, I want to highlight one such filmmaker who stands out as one of my favorites, and whose films have become staples within the Criterion Collection.  I am speaking of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker whose influence is without comparison in world cinematic history.  Kurosawa, over the span of his career, directed 32 films from 1943’s Sanshiro Sugata to 1993’s Madadayo.  Some of his films have become world renowned classics and in some cases, considered among the best ever made.  Some of his most influential films would be his movies depicting the era of the Samurais in Japan’s cultural history.  Two of these, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) would go on to be remade as Westerns by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone in his A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965).  Given that Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by John Ford westerns in his youth, I’m sure he would have found these remakes appropriate.  Yojimbo and Sanjuro are available in the Criterion Collection, but the title that I wish to focus on is one considered to be Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and one of Criterion’s best titles to date.  That film is 1954’s Seven Samurai (Criterion Collection #2).
The story of Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) is set in the 1600’s, during the Feudal period in Japan.  The start of the film finds a small village of farmers tormented by a group of bandits who raid their food supplies and kidnap their women nearly every year.  The fed-up farmers make the decision to hire Samurai to protect their village, which is a plan made with some reservations because of the fact that some Samurais are just as bad as the bandits that are attacking them.  Still, a group of farmers set out for the city where they run across a veteran Samurai named Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who sympathizes with their plight and agrees to help the farmers in their search for more Samurai.  In the end, Kambei finds Seven warriors willing to fight on behalf of the farmers, even for the limited offerings that the peasant farmers can give them.  Among the Seven is a hot-head with a giant sword named Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), whose Samurai lineage is questionable and who’s more likely to start trouble than prevent it.  The remainder of the film follows the Samurai as they fortify the village and help train the farmers to protect themselves for the bandits return. Once the battles begin, it becomes a memorable fight for survival for both the Samurai and the farmers.
If the story sounds familiar, it is because it was remade a few years later by director John Sturges as the Western The Magnificent Seven (1960), a rare example of a respectful Hollywood remake of an international classic.  Thankfully, the original has stood the test of time and still works just as well today as when it was first released.  I should state that Seven Samurai actually stands as one of my absolute favorite movies.  To me, it represents the absolute pinnacle of cinematic storytelling. The film’s narrative is very basic, and yet is executed to absolute perfection in both the writing as well as in the pacing.  The movie runs 3 hours and 27 minutes, but you would never tell because it holds your attention so completely.  The cinematography is both stunning and influential.  Many people have often called this the first modern action film, because of Kurosawa’s use of slow-motion and hand-held photography to heighten some of the action scenes; techniques that are still being used today.  You also see some of the most iconic uses of Kurosawa’s trademarks in this film; in-particular, the use of rain.  The downpour seen in the movie’s legendary final battle is a sight that needs to be seen, and will often leave the viewer wondering how it was all accomplished.
The performances are also what makes this film so beloved, even all these years later.  Toshiro Mifune was already a popular actor in Japan when Seven Samurai was released, but this film is what turned him into an international movie star and put him on the radar of many Hollywood filmmakers as well.  Mifune is simply magnetic in the role of Kikuchiyo, and steals pretty much every scene he is in.  He balances both the humorous moments in the film with some of the heavier ones, and makes the character feel wholly three-dimensional in the process.  Mifune and Kurosawa would make 16 films together; a partnership unmatched in all of film-making.  Takashi Shimura also lends considerable weight to the role of Kambei, the Samurai leader.  The remainder of the cast too are also strong.  One of the things that I love so much about the movie is the surprising depth that you find in each character, both large and small.  Even the many farmers get special treatment in the film’s screen time.  It all contributes to one of the most enriching and complex screen stories ever brought to life.
The Criterion Collection’s edition of Seven Samurai is also nothing short of a masterpiece.  The film comes in a special two-disc blu-ray set, with the film taking up the entire first disc.  The film’s restoration is a perfect upgrade for the film; bringing out every little detail in the nearly 60 year old picture, while still maintaining it’s intended look.  The black and white photography is razor sharp and the sound is appropriately mixed to retain the film’s original sound design.  For a movie as old as this one, Criterion’s restoration makes it feel both consistent and revelatory to longtime fans of the movie.
The extras are also top-notch and worth delving into if you’re a fan of the movie.  First there is a trio of documentaries, related to both the film and Kurosawa himself.  The first one is titled, My Life in Cinema, and it is a two-hour interview with Kurosawa himself, done in 1993 with fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima.  The documentary has Kurosawa looking over the works of his career as he films one of his final movies, Rhapsody in August (1991).  The second documentary is It is Wonderful to Create, which is part of a Japanese TV series documenting Kurosawa’s filmography, movie by movie.  This 50-minute entry of course documents the making of Seven Samurai, and remaining episodes of the series can be found on Criterion editions of each corresponding Kurosawa film.  The last documentary, Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, details both the inspirations in Japanese culture behind the film as well as the influences it made on pop-culture after its release.  A gallery of production stills and poster art round out the extras, helping to make this a well rounded special edition.
Seven Samurai has earned it’s place in cinema history, and that makes it a no-brainer entry into the Criterion Collection.  There are many more Kurosawa classics in the collection, but this is the one that I believe deserves special consideration for any fan of cinema.  Criterion’s edition of the film is appropriately top-notch and no one would expect less.  It is worth revisiting again if you have seen the film before, just so you can take in the remarkable restoration.  And if you’re a first-timer, you’ll be in for a treat.  It’s a movie that really transcends cultural and language barriers and can be appreciated by just about everyone.  Kurosawa had that special gift as a filmmaker to make films that were undeniably Japanese, and yet universally appealing.  This is a worthy addition to your collection of Criterion films and it certainly holds a sacred place in my own collection.
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Collecting Criterion – Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, it is like manna from heaven for film nerds.  Criterion is an independent home video publisher that includes in its library films that range from the classic to the obscure.  Many of them are foreign masterpieces not widely seen by American audiences (such as the classics of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman), but Criterion also adds many lost classics to its library including the films of Charlie Chaplin, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or cult hits like 1958’s The Blob.  What’s so great about the Criterion Collection is that not only do they release these hard to find films onto the market, but they also give them much needed restorations along with a healthy collection of behind the scenes material as extra features. For film buffs, it’s essential to have at least one or more Criterion title in their home video collection. If you’re an avid collector like me, a Criterion set would be like having a masters course curriculum on your shelf.  That’s why I want to highlight select films from the collection with you in this series of reviews, in the hope that it will make some of you consider looking at the Collection as a way broadening your film knowledge as a whole.
Since this week marks the release of a notoriously over-budgeted and under-grossing Western into theaters (The Lone Ranger), I thought it would be appropriate to look at another such Western that had a troubled history.  Today I’m reviewing Criterion Collection #636, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  Heaven’s Gate has earned the reputation over the years as being one of the biggest box office disasters of all time; so much so that it actually led to the bankruptcy of the company that made it, United Artists.  UA had existed since the early years of cinema, when it was founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks; the first film company not owned by Studio executives, but rather by the artists themselves.  It was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories and the company made many classic films over the years, including being the home of the James Bond franchise.  But things turned sour when the company put their money behind director Cimino’s ambitious new epic.  What followed was a perfect storm of ego-clashing and unchecked ambitions that ultimately led to the destruction of many careers.
While it’s unfortunately not included on the Criterion release, there is an excellent documentary that the Trio Channel created called Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, which goes into more detail as to what the hell happened with the making of this film.  Basically, the documentary states that Heaven’s Gate was made at the tail end of a period of time when film directors had enormous clout in Hollywood, and were given free reign to make whatever films they wanted.  While this paid off sometimes, such as with George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what more usually happened was that studios ended up pouring money into self-indulgent productions that satisfied the filmmakers, but were a tough sell for audiences.  Michael Cimino had just come off his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter (1978), and he was ready to tackle an epic retelling of the Wyoming Johnson County War of the 1890’s as his next film.  What looked like a sure win on paper turned into a nightmare scenario, as United Artists found the film going over-schedule and over-budget within the first week of production.
Cimino’s refusal to play by the rules was one of the main issues behind the film’s problems, according to the documentary, as was United Artists timidity in addressing those problems. The film ended up costing close to $44 million; nearly four times it’s initial budget.  Cimino finished the film after a long 11 month production period, and his first cut came in at an un-releasable 5 hours in length.  UA managed to get Cimino to cut it down to 3 1/2 hours for it’s premiere, which still proved to be a disaster for all.  Critics panned the film and it made only $3 million at the box office.  In today’s numbers, that equals a loss of over $100 million.  The fallout from this could be felt for years afterward.  Of course, United Artists lost it’s independence as a company and ended up selling off all of it’s assets to MGM.  Michael Cimino’s career has never recovered too; he’s only made a handful of modest films since.  Only the cast seemed to come out unharmed, though they don’t look back fondly on the experience.  For a film with this kind of stigma attached to it, it’s a surprise that Criterion has chosen to include it in their collection.
The story follows a Harvard educated lawman named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as he tries to defend the immigrant population of Johnson County, Wyoming, of whom many have been put on a death list by the greedy cattle barons of the region, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). While maintaining the peace in his town, Averill is also caught up in a love triangle with a local brothel owner, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and her volatile hired gun boyfriend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).  Averill soon learns that he’s powerless against the forces coming up against him, and all he can do is stay true to his position in life, which is to protect the helpless.  Keep in mind, this is a very simple story that takes 3 1/2 hours to tell; one of the main problems with the film.
As far as my reaction to the film, I didn’t think it was as bad as the reputation behind it would have you believe.  Is it flawed?  Absolutely, but I’ve seen more tedious films than this.  One of the key problems is the pacing.  It’s not so much slow, as inconsistent.  Some of the scenes are very full of life and engaging, such as the roller-skating dance or the final battle at the end, while other scenes drag on longer than they need to; particularly the ones surrounding the love story elements.  What helps carry the film along are the visuals.  You can see that Michael Cimino put special care into the compositions of his shots, and the cinematography by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond is top quality. The vistas from the location shooting in Glacier National Park are absolutely breathtaking and really help to transport the viewer into the old West.  The cast likewise is also excellent; with Christopher Walken being a particular standout.  Kris Kristofferson does okay with a main character that is sadly very generic.  Good supporting performances also come from John Hurt and Jeff Bridges, and you also get to see actors like a very young Mickey Rourke and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn in their first film roles.  All in all, it’s a fascinating watch, seeing this film separated from the toxic reputation behind it.
While the film is a mixed bag, the Criterion edition is nothing short of excellent.  Housed in a two disc set is the restored director’s cut of the film, with a restoration supervised by Michael Cimino himself.  The restoration is top notch, especially on Blu-ray.  When the film was first released, there were no tools available to do an accurate color correction on the picture, so for many years Heaven’s Gate looked washed out in very brownish hues.  Roger Ebert once called it “one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.”  Now, with the technology we have today, Cimino was able to restore the film to the way it was meant to look, especially when it comes to the coloring.  Gone is the brownish tint and all the blues and greens are now in full splendor in this restoration.  The film takes up the whole first disc, while the second is devoted to extras.  Among them is a new, 30 minute audio interview with Cimino, where he details his experiences and perspective on the film. Also included are short video interviews with star Kris Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield, and 2nd Assistant Director Michael Stevenson.  A booklet is also included in the set which includes scholarly essays, as well as a print interview with Cimino.
So, while I would give the film a pass, I do give the Criterion set a strong recommendation.  This set represents what Criterion does best, which is to give a film a proper release where it where it wouldn’t otherwise.  It’s been over 30 years since Heaven’s Gate crashed and burned in theaters, which has led the film to being rediscovered by a whole new generation today.  While I don’t think the film will ever shake off it’s toxic reputation in Hollywood, it can nonetheless stand on its own as a film thanks to the care that Criterion put into their edition.  In any case, watch the film and judge for yourself.  This is a prime example of a quality Criterion release.  I hope to share more with you as this series goes along.  Look through the collection yourself and see if you find a lost gem worth rediscovering.
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