Archive for March, 2012


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ****

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al.  Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others.  128 minutes. ***

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, *

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai.  Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. **

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

*

The citizens of a tiny, isolated village eking out a living from the land suddenly find themselves threatened by bandits who plan to swoop in, just a few short months from now, and take everything they have. The villagers are bereft. They are outgunned, outnumbered, and not used to fighting. But perhaps it is possible to mount an effective defense. Perhaps they can send representatives abroad, in search of warriors willing to fight for them – warriors who will fight for little pay other than their own subsistence and a chance for a meaningful death. Hungry warriors, who just might also be great warriors, able to defend a largely ungrateful village against a far superior force.

This is the germ of what many, including myself, consider the single greatest motion picture ever made by the single greatest movie director of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (It is sometimes referred to as The Seven Samurai, but the vagaries of translation and the absence of a Japanese equivalent for the word The render both titles equally accurate for English speakers. I usually include The because it’s a more natural way to say it, but omit the article when I have a second or two to think about it.)

Seven Samurai casts an enormous shadow, and not just because it was imitated by many of the action movies that followed it. It is, among other things, the first movie where a disparate team of fighting men are gathered one at a time for an impossible mission, and – given that we first see the lead samurai  helping a village rescue a hungry child from a kidnapper  – quite possibly the first film ever to introduce an action hero by first showing us how effective he is in an unrelated adventure. It was a key film in the careers of director Kurosawa, whose collaborations with his frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune encompass many of the greatest movies ever made; and for international star Mifune, whose performance as the clownish but effective warrior known only by the clear alias Kikuchiyo is quite possibly the best of his own career. It was the most expensive Japanese movie made up to that point, made by a studio that was also filming Godzilla at the same time and almost went under due to spiraling costs. It is so terrific a film that its first remake, the western, isn’t even half as good and still emerges as a classic; so memorable that it has been remade, unofficially or otherwise, in multiple  media ranging from comic books (a two-part Justice League story taking place on an Earth menaced by alien invaders, and featuring the various DC superheroes as the titular superheroes), to the Stephen King novel Wolves Of the Calla (very much a Samurai homage), episodes of Kung Fu and Star Trek (an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled “The Magnificent Ferengi”). Yet another remake, set in a backwater region of Thailand and featuring a motley crew of unemployed military contractors in the roles of the Samurai, has been announced for 2014, and the sheer awe people feel for the original film can be measured by how many people, temporarily forgetting the number of different eras and backgrounds to which the essential plot has been transplanted, angrily label the very idea as blasphemous. Seriously. C’mon. That ship has sailed, and I suspect the 2014 version might not entirely suck.

Seven Samurai (1954)
The most important thing any non-Japanese viewer need to know about the original Kurosawa film is that not all of it translates.
 
Oh, it’s very easy to understand in its broad strokes. A village is threatened by bandits who intend to arrive at harvest time and take all their food, leaving them to starve. The villagers can muster no defense by themselves. The old man who serves as the local repository of wisdom tells a delegation of citizens that they need to find samurai warriors to protect them. The villagers protest that they don’t have any money to pay samurai, except possibly in food. The old man says, simply, “Find Hungry Samurai.” This the villagers do, in large part because Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a respected but impoverished samurai of many years experience, puts his own persuasive skills to the task. Counting Kambei, six samurai are varying skills agree to go; as does a mysterious, filthy, and downright clownish derelict, Kikuchiyo (Mifune), who is no samurai but claims to be one. As the battle begins, Kikuchiyo turns out to be something the others never suspected: not just an able killer and useful comrade, but also a fine leader of men and a pivotal bridge between the samurai and the villagers who fear them.

These are some of the things that don’t translate.

For example, we first  see Kambei, having his head shaved so he can pass for a monk and therefore get close enough to a cornered thief to kill the man and rescue the child he has taken hostage. Much is made of the shaving of his head. Westerners may not understand that this is not just an aesthetic cost but also a social one; samurai of his rank traditionally wore their hair in top knots, and Kambei’s temporary sacrifice of his demonstrates among other things his willingness to descend to lower social strata if the need is urgent and the cause just. For the farmers who have traveled to the city to recruit samurai but been rebuffed by many, this is no small consideration in their decision to approach him with their life-and-death problem.


 
Secondly, westerners may fail to realize that samurai is not just a profession, but a social class; people were born to that exalted rank, and took deep pride in having a master to serve (one reason why being a ronin, a “masterless samurai,” is considered such a despicable fate). Understand this and Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, makes a lot more sense. Not only has he never been a samurai, but he will never be an samurai, and never could be a samurai, despite his evident skill with a sword. It is significant that he takes his name from a birth certificate that the others clearly recognize as stolen; it is also significant that – in a touch few westerners will understand – the name Kikuchiyo is mispronounced and misunderstood by him, and according to some sources might even obviously be a girl’s. It is also not just splendid slapstick but a very sensible point of character that he proves hopeless when it comes to handling horses; as peasant stock, he certainly would not have had any experience as a rider. Kikuchiyo picks at lice and scratches his unclean body and both worships and disdains the samurai simultaneously, all acts of a man eager to be accepted by the class that didn’t just oppress his own, but – as is revealed in one powerful scene – orphaned him.

(Kikuchiyo steals the movie outright, which here qualifies as grand theft.)
 
Thirdly, there’s the matter of the four samurai who die in the course of the mission to save the village. None die from arrows or swords. They’re all shot with one of the small handful of muskets possessed by the bandits, each one of them falling to what is – in a very real sense – the future. Even the most skilled samurai, Kyuzo, dies from a musket wound; it is profoundly powerful that when Kikuchiyo is shot and mortally wounded in the last few minutes of the film, he survives just long to stagger toward his murderer, a look of infinite rage on his face, and return the favor with a sword-thrust. There’s more going on, in that moment, more resonant history than a good guy killing a bad guy, a character we love killing one we have reason to hate. It’s the samurai code holding off the future for a few minutes longer, and Kikuchiyo becoming every bit what he pretended to be.

None of this is a hundred percent necessary to understand; certainly the same character notes (Kambei’s compassion, Kikuchiyo’s ambivalence toward his companions) are established in broad and subtle strokes, throughout. It is all so much of a piece that the 160-minute international version, for years the only one available in the United States, doesn’t seem to be missing all that much from the 207-minute restoration. (It certainly moves faster, one thing to keep in mind when introducing the film to skeptical friends who’ve never seen it, as I recently discovered when I brought the two-disk Criterion version over to show my friends with the home theatre.)

The movie manages to juggle a great number of character threads, including among them the journey of the young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who comes to Kambei as an inexperienced student and is distracted during the preparations for battle by, shall we say, the concerns of the young; villager Rikichi  (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who for deeply personal reasons of his own becomes angry whenever his own matrimonial status is mentioned; the timid villager Yohei, who is frightened of everything; and the supremely talented samurai Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is the only one of the bunch who you could really call a superhero of swordsmanship. It deals with the very real fear the villagers have for the samurai who have put their own lives on hold to save them, the very real reasons the samurai should fear them back, a love story, low comedy, great battle scenes, and deep sad reflections on the warrior’s lot. It starts slowly but builds in suspense and power throughout, until we get to the final hour, which races like wildfire as the last remaining bandits – evidently a band of slow learners – continue to charge the village that has been slaughtering them. It is beautifully filmed, like all Kurosawa films, and like most of the best Kurosawa films doesn’t permit depth or entertainment to rob from each other. It is considered, by many, the single greatest movie ever made. I happen to concur. Lawrence Of Arabia comes second, Casablanca third, Citizen Kane fourth. Or so goes my math. On other days I’d switch the order of numbers two through three. Nothing ever dislodges Samurai.
 

 
The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

When first released in the United States, Seven Samurai went by the name The Magnificent Seven, which was cribbed for a western remake starring a bunch of then-famous or soon-to-be-famous actors whose full roll call would someday fuel any number of trivia challenges. For the record, I post the full list of gunfighters without resorting to notes: Yul Brynner (who came pre-bald, but played the Kambei part, here named “Chris”), Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and (the one nobody can name) Brad Dexter.

The bandits of the original film were a bunch of faceless outsiders who were for the most part only glimpsed when they came close, but westerns of the time required a sneering villain, and so the first major alteration in the storyline is the addition of one, who styles himself the “friend” of the luckless village he loots every year and shows up in the first scene to kindly announce that he will be back in a few months, to take everything. (He also kills the one guy foolish enough to attack him, thus rendering it clear to even the stupidest member of the audience just what the stakes are.) This stretches common sense a little, as the bandits of the first film aren’t aware that they’ve inadvertently given their group of terrified farmers advance warning and these guys all but dare theirs to get guns and shoot back, but hey: in doing so, it fulfills many of the requirements of the western, and gives us an absolutely dandy villain in the person of Eli Wallach, who gets great lines like – again, typed here without recourse to notes – “If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!” What a nice guy.

The shorter running time means that the team is collected a lot faster, which is a good thing, even a great deal of psychological acuity is sacrificed. Here, as in the first film, we get two of the gunfighters, actually two-and-a-half, introduced at once: here by the simple expedient of having the two played by Brynner and McQueen, previously unknown to one another, voluntarily team up to fight a cause no reasonable person could possibly object to – in this case, agreeing to deliver the body of an indian who dropped dead in the street to Boot Hill over the objections of local racists who believe it more proper to let the corpse continue to lie in the street and attract flies. (More nice guys.) The third member of the future band of brothers, Horst Bochner – an amalgam of the Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo characters from the prior film, in that he’s BOTH the callow youth and the ex-farmer, wannabe gunfighter with the reason to hate gunfighters –  follows them on their journey with a big grin on his face,  enjoying the show. (There’s a great exchange during this interval as well. following an exchange of lead: McQueen asks Brynner, “You elected?” Brynner examines the bullethole in his hat and says, “No, but I’ve been nominated real good.”) The subsequent introductions of the Coburn and Bronson characters pretty much echo the introductions of their counterparts in the original film, but Robert Vaughn’s Lee is a fine innovation: an icy-cold killer who has made so many enemies in so many places that a suicide mission to save a bunch of a strangers actually sounds like a form of escape, to him.
  
It’s terrific Hollywood entertainment even at this point, but some of the changes from the original are already evident. To wit: the seven samurai included a number of guys who qualified as the best Kambei could get; these guys, even Bochner, are all prodigies, deeply dangerous men and dead shots. (Even Vaughn’s Lee, who it turns out has lost his nerve, pulls it together to prove himself an extraordinary talented gunman.)

Other changes: unlike the Japanese villagers, who always knew they needed samurai, the Mexicans only go out in search of weapons and acquire their gunfighters almost by accident; the love story ends happily as the youngest of the gunfighters voluntarily gives up on his life of violence and goes to join the girl; and, most notably, a twist that has never made any sense to this viewer. In this film, the bandits actually succeed in taking over the town, taking the gunfighters hostage; and Wallach’s bandit, believing that the gunfighters have learned their lesson, has them escorted out of town and released. Oh, sure, he says it’s because he thinks they’ll take word of his victory up north…but in that case, a guy this ruthless would simply kill most of them. Here, he lets them all go…and thus gets all his men killed stupidly when Brynner and company return for revenge. There is only one reason for this: namely, that this is a two-hour movie as opposed to a more than three-hour one, and John Sturges does not have the time to have it come down to the last few bandits, as Kurosawa did. So the screenplay gives us an unreasonable shortcut, and hopes we buy it.

It’s overall just about half as good a movie as the Kurosawa one is, but that’s still good enough to render it a classic of its kind, helped along by star power and some terrific dialogue I happily quote now. This is Charles Bronson’s O’Reilly to some local boys who idolize him:

”Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”
  
A dialogue between villain Calvera (Wallach) and captured hero Vin (McQueen):
  
Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hmm? Why, huh?

Chris: I wonder myself.

Calvera: No, come on, come on, tell me why.

Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”

Calvera And?

Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.

(And, finally, there’s this exchange, which I cheerfully count as the best gunfighter dialogue in the history of the movies.)

Chico: Villages like this they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years.

Chris Adams: You think it’s worth it?

Chico: Don’t you?

Chris Adams: It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.

Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn’t that true? Hmm? Well, isn’t that true?

Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name – maybe two hundred of ‘em! Rented rooms you live in – five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses – a thousand! Home – none! Wife – none! Kids… none! Prospects – zero. Suppose I left anything out?

Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you’re tied down to – none. People with a hold on you – none. Men you step aside for – none.

Lee: Insults swallowed – none. Enemies – none.

Chris Adams: No enemies?

 Lee: Alive.

Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.

Chris Adams: Yeah. So did I at your age.

 

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

It’s embarrassing to note this, but this – not officially a remake, but come on — is the first version of the basic story that I ever saw; and back then I kind of liked it, though it has aged horribly (or I have), and it is in its 105 minutes far more interminable than the 207-minute Samurai.

It was produced by Roger Corman, who did occasionally make some commendable contributions to cinema but much more frequently – I hate to say this to his many fans, but it is true – seemed less interested in making good movies than in making movie-shaped objects that people could somehow be fooled into buying tickets for. This, a knockoff of Star Wars, is one of them: a film in which one representative of peaceful planet beset by angry world-conquering types led by a megalomaniac named Sador (b-movie fixture John Saxon) recruits warriors to fight for it.
 
The special effects are awful, by today’s standards, but it’s a given that they would be. More to the point, the screenplay (by John Sayles, of all people), is largely a collection of colorless declarative sentences. It’s the kind of science fiction that uses the word “galaxy” to describe every possible unit of interplanetary distances, even when they’re really only talking about solar systems. And the performances are almost all terrible, even when they come from people like Richard Thomas and George Peppard who normally can be expected to deliver better. Darlanne Fluegel, as the female lead, is particularly awful, but Sybil Danning is even worse. She wasn’t always. But she was terrible, here.

We need not take up much space with it, except to note that a key scene from both prior films – in which the hired mercenaries show up in the village they’ve agreed to defend, only to discover everybody hiding from them – here ends pointlessly as the villagers just pop up and say, hi, whoops, we didn’t realize you were the good guys. This is ludicrous. In both prior movies, the antipathy of the villagers is part of the point; here, it’s a scene included only to provide the narrative parallel. We’ll also give the movie reasonable credit for its few good ideas, among them representatives of a race that communicates in degrees of heat and which is seen, at one point, acting as the “campfire” the humans utilize to cook weiners. That’s pretty funny. But alas, so is the alien makeup used by several others, worst of a bad lot being the pancake makeup and forehead-eyes worn by one race, of which it needs to be said that whoever thought this stuff would survive a close-up should have been shot.

Does anybody survive this mess unscathed? Well, yes…and here we get to one of the neatest bits of movie-geekery, ever. Robert Vaughn plays Gelt, a killer who we first encounter hiding in darkness, from the price on his head.

Gelt: I could buy your planet ten times over with what I’ve gathered in this room: plutonium, cadmium, quanine crystals… I’ve been very well paid for my work.

Shad: I’m sorry; I’ve wasted your time…

Gelt: NO… WAIT… Listen to the rest of it. I sleep with my back to the wall, when I CAN sleep. I EAT SERPENTS, seven times a week. There’s not a major city in this galaxy where I can show my face, or spend my wealth. Right now, your offer looks very attractive to me… A meal, and a place to hide. Agreed?

If any of this sounds familiar at all, it is because this is the same motivation professed by his character from The Magnificent Seven, twenty years earlier.  He had only sixteen lines in that first film and probably fewer here, but was memorable in both – and it started a cycle of self-reference that continued with a 1993 episode of Kung Fu: The Adventure Continues where he played a version of the same character, a third time. Nor is Vaughn finished with this. He’s wrapped a UK film set for release in 2012, The Magnificent Eleven, which turns the samurai into a neighborhood soccer team and casts him as the head of the “bandit” team they are gathered to defeat. Vaughn’s riffs on this one story now span more than fifty years, and counting. Impressive.

Three Amigos (1986), A Bug’s Life (1995)

Neither of these films are “official” Samurai remakes either, but it’s worth noting that the resemblance between their plots and the plots of the original film are very much deliberate. In the first, a Mexican village beset by a bandit called El Guapo seeks mercenaries to fight him off, and winds up with the titular idiot silent-movie stars; in the second, an animated Pixar film,  a colony of ants recruits makes the same request of the seven members of a flea circus, to protect their own harvest from a swarm of predatory grasshoppers. Three Amigos is a comedy grab bag, that doesn’t bother much with narrative consistency once it sets up its premise (and is funny only fitfully), but A Bug’s Life owes a lot to Samurai, especially in this speech from the lead villain, Hopper: “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line.”

The Warrior’s Code

Seven Samurai, a world classic and one of the greatest films ever made. The Magnificent Seven, one of the top twenty westerns. Battle Beyond The Stars, a reeking embarrassment. Three Amigos: Fitfully Amusing.A Bug’s Life: Also a classic of its own kind.

And now, the wife sounds the alarm.

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ***1/2

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others. 128 minutes. ***1/2

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, 1/2

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. (can’t rate as I’ve never forced myself to watch)

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

I’m probably going to anger a few purists, but I happen to like both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven about equally.  Both films carry the same energy and tell the same basic tale.  The transposition in time and place doesn’t affect the basic story or moral codes.  And, while the story presumes to play off the good versus evil, neither absolutely states that the lesser evil is better (only safer).

So, since this was so good twice, someone figured let’s do it again.  Only this time let’s set it in outer space, and use our new special effects to make It REALLY good!  (Small pause for sarcasm snarfs!)  OK, breathe easy.  Battle Beyond the Stars, 105 minutes of my life lost to one of the most poorly written, directed and conceived remakes ever!  Were any of the actors really even trying, or was this just a quick (I know Corman schedules) paycheck?  George Peppard pretty much meandered through his part, and Richard Thomas just attempted to un John-Boy himself and lost that fight. Robert Vaughn just hit replay, and I’m still not sure what the hell Sybil Danning was attempting, but porn acting is as close as she got.  Seriously, this could have been so much more, but it was just pieces and ideas stuck together with dry bubble gum.  No look or feel, just unending boredom, where even my bathroom break couldn’t have come fast enough.

Now, back to the good stuff.

( I’m skipping Three Amigos because I haven’t watched it, and recently having seen Martin Short perform live, really have no desire to see that movie.)

The achievements of Akira Kurosawa have made me a lifelong admirer.  Not a fan, but I do enjoy almost all of his work that I’ve seen.  For Seven Samurai, his clear vision is seen in every nuanced detail.  From casting to sets and locations, each decision is that of a master artisan molding his clay.  And, he has never gotten more out of his leading man, Toshiro Mifune, than in this film.  The matching brilliance of man, part and direction proves that no film is just the actors in it.  Maybe, current filmmakers could take note and try to remember how a good film will last well beyond its meager shelf life. My only problem with this classic, is that in its full length, it’s a tailbone buster. The pacing of the longest version tended to slow a bit much and left me time to think of other things.  The shorter lengths always kept me rapt.

As to The Magnificent Seven.  Wow, what can I say.  I Hate Westerns, but this is one of the group that I say isn’t just a Western.  This isn’t a cowboys and injuns shoot out at the ranch.  This film has bad men, searching for anything, worse men looking for a free ride, and good men, caught in the middle of a pincer trap.  The best compliment that I can pay to any  Western genre film, is to say that it really isn’t one.  This film is about people and good films of this type are few and far between.  The characters  here have become recognized as hero archetypes rather than caricatures.  The Magnificent Seven paid perfect homage to its revered predecessor.

Finally, I’ll touch on A Bug’s Life.  We included this one at my insistence.  I love this film.  It’s a perfect introduction for anyone to the Seven Samurai mythos.  The crew who worked on this are known as film buffs, and Stanton’s script and Lasseter’s shot direction clearly show their love of the earlier films. Both films have scenes adapted to this lighter version of a hard tale.

If there’s a tween film lover in your life, get them to watch A Bug’s Life, then a few days later, hit ‘em with The Magnificent Seven, and a week or so later, finish the education with Seven Samurai.  The discussions should prove fun.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Not all bad movies are so-bad-they’re-good. The majority of them aren’t even so-bad-they’re-painful. The majority are just so-bad-they’re-inert. They sit on the screen flashing pictures at you and expect you to be engaged, and yet there’s nothing there worthy of your attention, let alone the millions spent to put pretty people in front of cameras.

To wit: THE TOURIST (2010). Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in a mock-Hitchcockian thriller set in mostly in glorious locations in Venice. It is a dog. It doesn’t bark. But it is a dog. It doesn’t work at all.
  
For the benefit of those few of you will not take my word for this as I proceed, be apprised that this a fully spoiler review. In a paragraph or so I will be ruining the movie’s big closing twist, just so I can then go back through the plot from the beginning and demonstrate how little anything that happens here makes sense in terms of what we find out — or rather, since it’s not all that much of a surprise, confirm — in the last two minutes. Move beyond the next graf break and you have nobody to blame for yourself.

All right? You have lost your last opportunity to bail.

THE TOURIST is about high school math teacher Frank (Johnny Depp), who is traveling alone in Europe following the breakup of his marriage. Supposedly unknown to us until the end of the movie, this is an alias, and he is traveling on a forged identity. He is actually Alexander Pearce, once the accountant for a ruthless billionaire gangster, who stole billions of the gangster’s money and is wanted for Interpol, in particular, because he owes about 740 million in taxes on that money. While on the run, he has had about twenty million dollars worth of plastic surgery and has completely altered his appearance, so he can be anybody. It’s supposed to be a surprise that Frank, who stays in character until the very end, is actually Alexander. Keep that in mind.

Elise (Jolie) is Frank’s girlfriend, a glamorous and apparently independently wealthy woman who, in what is also supposed to be a surprise to us, a disgraced Interpol agent who spent a year undercover with Alexander in more ways than one, and is now deeply in love with him. She has not seen him in two years, has no idea what he looks like, and is now living a plush life of designer clothes and five-star hotels, while her ex-bosses spend millions and millions of dollars following her around waiting for Alexander to make contact.

So a street messenger hands Elise an envelope at the café where she’s eating lunch and, more importantly given the evident deep pleasure Jolie takes in her own presence, being seen. The letter from Alexander tells her to take a certain train for Venice, find a random man of Alexander’s body type, and spend time with him, to fool the cops into thinking that man is him.

Now, we will later learn that Elise has a serious character flaw, lethal to her effectiveness as an undercover policewoman: I.E, by her own admission, she falls in love with any man she spends any time with. This is important. If Pearce is aware of this, and he apparently isn’t, he has just risked setting her up with a vacationing rake salesman from Omaha. But as it happens, as she sashays through the train, smiling slightly at her own awesomeness, making eye contact with a great number of eligible, photogenic men who include a number of Interpol agents tracking her every move, the only guy on the train who not only fits that definition but also has an unoccupied seat opposite his is Frank: Frank, who has unkempt long hair and a mumbly way of speaking and, throughout the entire movie, only says one interesting thing. Frank, who happens to be secretly Alexander, though she doesn’t know it. Frank, who is written as a nigh-total cypher in a way that Hitchcock would not have permitted; he would have demanded that the character be played by Cary Grant and that he had interesting things to say, as was true of Roger Thornhill from NORTH BY NORTHWEST (another average guy on a train who sweeps a lady undercover agent off her feet, in a screen relationship we actually understand).

It’s not clear whether Alexander wanted Elise to pick him or whether it’s an incredible coincidence that he takes advantage of. What is clear is that there’s no chemistry between them, whatsoever. We know that Frank is evidently a well-meaning, somewhat shy guy a little startled to find himself picked up by this incredibly glamorous woman, but alas, he gets all of one good line throughout the entire film, where he tells Elise she’s ravenous and she tells him he probably means ravishing. That is about it, really.

Over at Interpol headquarters, the agents are 100% certain this is Alexander and set up a massive arrest operation at the station in Venice, but discover Frank’s records in time and call off the arrest. Except one of the agents is secretly in the pay of Reginald Shaw (Stephen Berkoff), the evil gangster, who sends his boss the news that Frank is Alexander but not that Frank isn’t Alexander. The revelation that, yes, Frank really is Alexander is the one that’s saved for the end of the film. The false-false identification is there only to summon Shaw, who is as scummy as most villains played by Berkoff, which is to say the kind of guy who kills his underlings with his bare hands for briefly disappointing him. (He does this in front of an innocent tailor fitting him for a suit, which struck me as villainy squared, because now he has to kill that guy too.)

So: after a not-scintillating train ride where Jolie shows too much charisma (of the I-know-I-have-charisma type, the kind that prompted the maxim that nines are tens who know they’re tens), and Depp shows none at all, she thanks the apparent clueless shlub for his time and dumps him cold. He starts fussing about with a tourist map, at which point she pulls up in a launch by a nearby canal and asks him to come with her. So he shrugs, why not, and next thing you know, she’s moving him into her suite of rooms at the Danieli.

More non-badinage ensues. They go to dinner. They are watched at every moment. She goes to bed and summarily tells him to use the couch. He meekly obliges.

This all makes sense if he’s Frank and he has no idea that he’s just being used. But he is Alexander and he knows he is just being used. He told her to just use him, in this way. What he doesn’t do is TELL her, even with a silent signal, that he’s actually Alexander. No story reason is given for this, except keeping the movie going.

Next morning: Elise leaves early in the morning without waking Frank. Frank is awoken by room service. Next thing he knows, thugs sent by Shaw have broken into the room to capture him. Still clad in his pajamas, Frank slips out a window and starts a not-thrilling rooftop chase, with the thugs chasing him. This movie contrives to have a world-famous star chased by assassins across the roofs of Venice and make it dull. That is an impressive technical accomplishment.

Interpol, which is still keeping Elise under surveillance, now has the note from Pearce instructing Elise to find an innocent dupe, and observes that this innocent dupe is being chased by assassins. The head agent is asked whether they should try to rescue the guy. He says no. He wants Pearce so badly that he’s prepared to let an innocent schmuck from Wisconsin die.

Fast-forward past a dull interval where Frank is in the custody of police, fast-forward past the crooked cop turning Frank over to the gangsters for money, fast-forward past Elise somehow — with no explanation given — knowing where this deadly exchange is taking place and showing up on her own boat to rescue him, fast-forward past another car chase,  fast-forward Elise dropping Frank off at the airport and instructing him to fly home (whereupon he says that he loves her, this woman ‘Frank’ barely knows who has set him up to be killed, fast-forward past Frank showing up at the fancy dress ball where Elise has gone to meet Pearce to dance an exquisite waltz with her, still without ever once taking the opportunity to quietly let her know that he’s Pearce. She still has no idea.

It all comes down to a scene where the crooks have Elise in an ornate house, threatening to disfigure her with knives if she doesn’t open the safe for them — which she says she can’t — and the cops refuse to order the snipers to take the shot because they want Pearce so much. Then Frank, who has just escaped the cops himself, walks in and tells Shaw that HE is Pearce. It is still, supposedly, ambiguous because to prove it he only gives Shaw information that Elise has given him. However, any viewer paying attention to the law of conservation of characters will note that Pearce has been in proximity to these events since the beginning, and there is no character OTHER than Depp’s who he can be.

Elise still hasn’t figured it out.

Neither has Interpol chief Timothy Dalton, who orders the snipers to take the shot out of sheer concern for the endangered hostages. Pearce leaves a check for the back taxes, and lets Elise know he is secretly Pearce,  though somehow she doesn’t slap him. He gets away with Elise on a sailboat. The end.

The fact that there is no chemistry between the leads is a major problem. The fact that the guy getting the girl has no emotional impact is another. But the fact that Depp’s Frank acts in character *as* Frank, throughout, even when nobody’s watching or when he’s in private with the woman Pearce supposedly loves, is fatal. THAT DOESN’T MAKE RETROACTIVE SENSE, at all.

What Hitchcock would have done with it!

 

 

 

 

T

Morty

Posted: March 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

At one point during my eye-rolling seventeen years at the Job From Hell, I was appointed the manager  of the Customer Service Department, an assignment that I was to learn reflected the company’s belief that the sales jobs were for people who could produce and customer service was where you put any asshole who couldn’t.

This makes me one of the assholes. I freely admit it. I was burned out on sales and extraordinarily bad at dealing with abusive morons. But as manager, my job was often dealing with psychopaths or losers even in the office, among them the guy whose idea of a fun afternoon was to take his car out after a big rain and drive fast over puddles, to splatter the old ladies waiting at bus stops; and the guy who I had to stop from singing jolly songs about, excuse me, old broken down  niggers in the office. There was also a guy so clearly crazy that, while he was working there, was mistaken by a TV news crew as homeless and filmed for a news report on mentally ill people roaming the streets.

Then there’s Morty.

Morty was a greasy little man of about fifty, and if you think I abuse him by calling him greasy, I assure you that I am being 100% accurate, as you could tell what papers he had been handling from all the see-through fingerprints.

He could not ad-lib a fart after a heavy meal.

This is a drawback in customer service. Yes, we had a script for handling problems, but people will say things that are off-script; you need to be able to deal with them as a human being. Morty kept putting his hand over the mouthpiece and asking me questions like, “This woman just said that she has to rush out the door and pick up her daughter — what do I say?” I had to give him an answer, each time. He did this even when the customer’s problem was identical to one our guidebook accounted for, only phrased differently. We were set up for customers who wanted us to take their payments on pay day, for instance…but Morty would ask me what to say if the customer said “Friday” instead. He was that helpless. And each time I gave him guidance he had to scrawl my instruction on a yellow post-it note and pop it up onto the wall, so many of them that soon he had the whole wall feathered with them, in a system opaque to me.
  
Morty was so worthless that when, at one point, he had to call a customer whose check had bounced, and was told by a sobbing woman that her husband had just died in a flaming car wreck and that she was out the door and on her way to the hospital, he said, “So will you be able to replace that payment when you get back?”

I hollered, “MORTY! FOR GOD’S SAKE! BE A HUMAN BEING! TELL THE WOMAN YOU’RE SORRY FOR HER LOSS!”

He took out a yellow post-it-note and wrote on it that when a customer referenced a sudden death in their family, he should say that he was sorry for the loss.

Which wasn’t so bad until the next time something like that happened, a few weeks later, and the son of a bitch actually said to the customer, “Excuse me, ma’am, I’ve written down what I have to say in a case like that,” then stood up and rifled through his forest of yellow post-its and, reading robotically, said, “I…am…sorry…for…your…loss…”

This ACTUALLY happened. I know you cannot countenance any human being that stupid. But it actually happened.

But even this was not Morty’s most horrific point of incompetency.

That was this: he could not say ”Visa, Mastercard, or Discover Card” to save his life.

Every time he offered payment options he said, “Vista, Mastercharge, or the Discovery Card.”

This, people, burned in my breast.

I’d say, “Morty. It’s the Visa, Mastercard, and Discover Card.”
 
He said, “Vista. Mastercharge. Discovery Card.”
  
“Morty. Say Visa.”
 
“Visa.”

“Say Mastercard.”

“Mastercard.”

“Say Discover Card.”

“Discover Card.”

“Now say the whole thing.”

“Vista. Mastercharge. Discovery Card.”

Go Back to line one.

This became an issue.

He’d be on the phone with a customer, while I monitored him.

“You can pay by Vista –”
  
“MORTY! VISA!”

“Sorry, Visa…or Mastercharge…”

“MORTY! MASTERCARD!”

“Sorry, Mastercard…or the Discovery Card…”

“MORTY! THE DISCOVER CARD!”

“Sorry. Discover Card. You can pay by Vista, Mastercharge, or the Discovery Card.”

Later:

“Morty. Here’s the card from my wallet. What does it say?”

“Vista.”

“Look again, Morty.”

(Defensively) “It’s a Vista.”

“MORTY. WHAT DOES THAT LOGO SAY?”

“Visa.”

“Okay. So what kind of card is it?”

“A Vista.”

We are talking dozens of corrections a work shift, going on for a period of several months.

“Morty. Visa.”
  
“Vista.”

“No. Not Vista. Visa.”

“Visa.”

“Fine. Say it again.”

“Visa.”

“And this is a Mastercard.”

“Mastercard.”

“And this is a Discover.”
|
“Discover.”

“Now say them all.”

“Vista. Mastercharge. Discovery Card.”

He couldn’t do it. He honestly couldn’t do it.

Came the point where 90% of my energy was dedicated to making sure Morty could have a conversation with a customer without screwing up on this or any other major point, and I decided to go for broke and attempt a thought experiment. I went out to an art supply shop and bought a giant piece of posterboard, upon which I painted, in letters six inches high, VISA. MASTERCARD. DISCOVER. Before he came to work I cleared the wall above his desk of every single yellow post-it-note and put this poster up, in a place where he would be staring at it from two feet away during any phone call he made.

He came in, sat down, and did not notice that all his yellow post-its were gone.

He spoke to a customer. “Vista…Mastercharge…and the Discovery Card.”

He spoke with another customer. “Vista…Mastercharge…and the Discovery Card.”

He spoke with a third customer. “Vista…Mastercharge…and the Discovery Card.”

Five more times in rapid succession.

I told him, “Morty. Look up.”

He stared at the wall. “What?”

“Morty, read the words actually in front of you.”

“Vista. Mastercharge. Discovery Card.”

“No. Read THAT POSTER.”

Slow blinking. “Oh, yeah.”

“What does it say?”

“Visa. Mastercard. The Discover Card.”

“Do you think you can say it right, with a customer, just once?”

“Okay.”

Next call, staring fixedly at the poster, he got it wrong AGAIN. He could not get it right even with a billboard instructing him on the right way to say it.

Morty was not fired for cause, but not long afterward for budget cuts; when we started hiring again, he called me up to get his old job back, telling me that he knew he had excelled at it. I was gentle. I didn’t actually hate the guy. He was not a bad guy. He was supporting a young son and would clearly never, ever excel at anything enough to make a good living. I just didn’t want him working for me.

He was an average human being.

And the saddest part of that statement is that it means, half the people out there are *beneath* him in basic competency….