I’ll start out with a series I only partially watched on TV but as Netflix recommended it to me, and I decided to write a review to warn others, I’m including it in this roundup.
Shallow and trite. Historically inaccurate story burdened with modern liberal sensibilities to the detriment of plot and character. Defunct of charm and wit. What Downton Abbey lacks in quality it also lacks in taste. Comparisons to Jane Austen films or Robert Altman’s Gosford Park are based solely on the label of period piece and completely ignore the glaring difference in quality. Ironic enough as Fellowes himself wrote the script for Altman’s film, though it was not his original idea. I would suggest PBS’ Manor House as it has genuine modern perspective but, unlike the tripe of Downton Abbey, manages intelligence, character and charm. I admit to not watching all seven episodes of Downton, in fact I wasn’t able to finish watching the first episode. Some people might say that prohibits me from being able to make a fair and accurate review but writer Julian Fellowes isn’t playing fair, so neither will I. Understandably, some series portray wild adventures audiences think could never possibly happen in real life only to find out the story is based on actual events. Real life has that sort of chaos but Downton Abbey does not portray real life. It hardly manages to pass as fiction. Every quirk is so perfectly constructed into the shape of chaos in hopes that it will pass as enigmatic and nuanced but underneath the period drama-shaped package is a shapeless, snotty, smut-glazed story and there’s really nothing modern about that.
Throne of Blood
Kurosawa meets Shakespeare in this captivating adaptation of Macbeth. It is long, uneven, and the black and white often lacks depth but there’s a transformative sensation when Kurosawa is in charge. A feeling always compounded when Toshirô Mifune fills the screen. I still prefer his role in The Seven Samurai, as he did a lot less mugging, but in the role of Macbeth his wildly dynamic quality carries the film. Without Mifune, even the mighty combined powers of Shakespeare and Kurosawa could not have succeeded. Macbeth is a desolate story filled with tragic characters brought to tragic ends, as much by the literal means of death as the psychological, and Kurosawa embodies and propels the desolation and tragedy further than any other adaptation. Tempered only by shots of vast wasteland engulfed by fog his proclivity for theatricality and Kabuki-like grandeur are observable in this film more than any other. Even with large-scale locations like the castle fortress and forest maze, the film maintains the essence of stage. Compared to Hidden Fortress, which seems so connected to the visceral world the characters are imprisoned in you can taste their sweat, the focus of Throne of Blood is so tightly held on the story’s characters you taste their paranoia. The insatiability of Lady Macbeth, as played by actress Isuzu Yamada, is intense and vile. She is not a little bee in her husband’s ear but rather a poisonous asp tightening round his neck. There’s nothing cloaking her contempt, lust for power, or treacherous aims. Nothing to even soften it. Kudos to Kurosawa to not show restraint, to not lighten the portrayal for sake of her sex. In the story of Macbeth, there are no winners, but in watching Throne of Blood, there are.
Another from the master Akira Kurosawa but this time the focus turns to the physical, as two greedy peasants travel through enemy territory trying to make their way home. A road trip movie? Sort of. But so much more. From TV Tropes: “Akira Kurosawa’s first widescreen movie is a Jidai Geki with an interesting twist: the movie, rather than concentrating on the hero, focuses instead on a pair of bickering peasants…best known in the west as a major influence on Star Wars as the basis for R2-D2 and C3-P0.” Toshirô Mifune stars again, this time as the silent type. His wide stance and fierce furrowed brow are large enough to truly inhabit the varied world of the film, a much larger, textured world than other Kurosawa films. Claustrophobia is replaced by more tangible threats; capture in enemy territory, dangers on the road ahead, and death. (That’s tyrannophobia, hodophobia, and thanatophobia, respectively.) There is a lot of misery and suffering for the characters in this film but it doesn’t come off as sadistic. For the character of the Princess, this suffering actually serves to humanize her and just when the film is wrapping up, you realize there’s been more to the sweat, blood, fears and tears than the surface objective. Lives have changed. However, slightly less so for the peasants who return to a familiar place personally and physically. But somehow their cyclical journey allows Hidden Fortress’ end to feel complete.
Roman de gare
The first thing you need to know about Roman de gare is that it’s good. For 45 minutes of the movie, I wasn’t sure. At the end, I knew I liked it for everything it wasn’t. It reminded me of classic thriller films, which I love, but it also felt incredibly like a good read. The second thing you need to know is my words here are chosen carefully, so as not to spoil even the faintest bit of story, tone, or plot. The third, in order to get the full effect of this film, watch it all the way through with a nice glass of wine and without interruption. I can perfectly understand why this film is not for everyone. In some ways you have no chance of getting ahead of the story so if you’re patient, you will be rewarded. But this film doesn’t allow you to simply release your expectations and enjoy yourself, it’s too taught, you can’t see around the curves so don’t bother tilting your head. Already by mentioning this, your expectations have changed so I will refrain from further analysis. Roman de gare, French slang for trashy novel one reads in a train or train station, similar to the English phrase airport novel, is just that. In all the right ways. Literary, layered, cerebral, satisfying, and even the unique sensation of being page-turning cinema.