Operation Finale


The banality of evil.

(2018) True Life Drama (MGMOscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Torben Liebrecht, Michel Benjamin Hernandez, Joe Alwyn, Greta Scachi, Peter Strauss, Haley Lu Richardson, Pêpê Rapazote, Rainer Reiners, Simon Russell Beale, Rocio Muñoz, Rita Pauls, Ania Luzarth, Tatiana Rodriguez, Antonia Desplat. Directed by Chris Weitz

 

When describing Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of Hitler’s Final Solution and who organized the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps, historian Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” Eichmann was one of two high-profile Nazis who managed to escape Germany before the Nuremberg trials (Josef Mengele was the other). This film is about the efforts of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and their efforts to capture Eichmann who had fled to Argentina and bring him to trial in Jerusalem.

Kingsley plays Eichmann with as a man of iron wrapped in a cardigan sweater. He is hunted by a team dispatched by Mossad chief Isser Harel (Raz) and led by Rafi Eltan (Kroll) with operatives including interrogator Peter Mendel (Isaac) and physician Hanna Elian (Laurent). Mendel is particularly haunted by the deaths of his sister and her family at the hands of the Nazis.

Told in the style of a spy thriller but lacking the twists and turns of a good one, Weitz manages to keep the dramatic tension at a decent level (although not an extraordinary one) and benefits from powerful performances from Kingsley, from whom we have come to expect them, and Isaac who is rapidly becoming a big star in his own right.

The movie flew under the radar when it was released in the dog days of August back in 2018 which is a bit of a shame; it deserved a better fate. That can be rectified however as you have the opportunity to catch this via a variety of streaming platforms, listed below. It is worth your while to do so.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances by Isaac and Kingsley. There’s a good sense of dramatic tension.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times the film feels a little bloodless.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are decidedly adult and there are some graphic images related to that; there is also some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Benjamin Hernandez is the younger brother of Oscar Isaac.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:
Munich
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Wife

22-July


One of the most heinous crimes ever committed.

(2018) True Life Drama (NetflixAnders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Ølgarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, Ola G. Furuseth, Marit Adeleide Andreassen, Øystein Martinsen, Valborg Frøysnes, Harald Nordmann, Anders Kulsrud Storruste, Monica Borg Fure, Mathias Eckhoff, Selma Strøm Sönmez, Hilde Olausson. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

As meaningful a date September 11, 2001 is in the United States, so July 22, 2011 is in Norway. On that date, a lone right-wing extremist detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo near the central government district which killed eight people, then continued on to Utøya island and a youth summer camp where many children of the liberal Labour party were staying. This massacre resulted in 69 more dead for a total of 77 dead, the worst massacre in Norway since the Second World War.

We meet Anders Behring Breivik (Lie) as he is preparing his explosives, mixing fertilizer and an accelerant and adding enough explosives to cause some real damage. In the meantime, children are arriving at their summer camp, playing soccer, renewing friendships and exchanging furtive looks across a campfire. Among them are Viljar Hanssen (Gravli) and Lara Rachid (Witt) who are certainly attracted to one another.

\When the attack comes to the island, everything falls into complete chaos. Viljar, Lara and his brother Torje (Aglen) take refuge on the cliff face near the beach. Breivik discovers them and Viljar is seriously injured protecting his brother. Eventually the police, who had been occupied with the bombing, make it up to the island and apprehend Breivik. As Viljar recovers and goes through often-frustrating physical therapy, his family adjust to the tragedy while Breivik requests that lawyer Geir Lippestad (Ølgarden) represents him during his trial. Although Lippestad leans to the left politically, he is required by law to provide representation to Breivik and despite a personal cost, he does his best.

Greengrass has done these sorts of true story films before as in Captain Phillips, Bloody Sunday and United 93. There was some concern that the movie came too soon after the massacre; many families are still grieving. However, he did turn in a nifty movie that not only showed the mechanics of the tragedy but also how the survivors were affected. The movie also follows the trial and how the lawyer for Breivik was also affected.

There is some (although in some cases, not enough) as to why this happened and certainly there are some clear parallels to what America is facing in violent extremist behavior and easy access to military grade weapons. Sensitive conservative-leaning viewers might be uncomfortable with the message being sent here but I can’t believe that anyone would argue that extremism is a bad thing other than an extremist.

Greengrass utilizes a mostly Norwegian cast (speaking in English) and a Norwegian crew; Cinematographer Pǻl Ulvik Rokseth does a magnificent job, showcasing the beauty of the island, and capturing the frantic chaos in the aftermath of the dual attacks. Greengrass wisely doesn’t linger on the attacks themselves although he doesn’t soft-pedal the horror of them either; in fact, I thought that the most superb scenes in the film were the courtroom scenes near the end.

I don’t know if this film is capitalizing on the trauma from the attacks or is merely documenting them. I tend to lean towards the latter, but I can understand people who are disturbed that this film was even made. It’s a very think line to walk, but I think Greengrass navigated it well particularly since he chose to focus on the victims rather than on the cowardly attacker. This is one of the most viscerally gripping films to come out of Netflix to date.

REASONS TO SEE: The courtroom scenes are riveting. Beautiful cinematography. Follows up with the victims and how the events of the day affected them.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have trimmed a bit of excess
FAMILY VALUES: There are sequences of violence and some very disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the project was announced, there was great sentiment in Norway against it being made. Over 20,000 signatures were collected in a petition denouncing the film..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriots Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Equalizer 2

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)


Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

(2012) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright, David Boat, Ethan DiSalvio, Delphina Belle, Gary Littman, Maggie Villard, Joe Ochman, Ashley Brooke, Marsha Clark, Ashley Earnest, Cameron Dickson. Directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

Florida Film Festival 2014

Childhood was a magical time. It was a time of perfect summer days, running around outdoors in the fresh air and finding places where there were meadows, greenery, fresh water or a lovely beach – places we would find we could play in and let our imaginations run wild. It was a time of cold winter nights, tucked into our warm beds after a cup of hot cocoa and a story. It’s not like that anymore.

These days it is a time of video games and day care, a time when overworked parents working harder and longer hours just to make ends not quite meet spend less and less time with their kids. It’s a time of fear and paranoia, of worrying about all the lunatics out there who want to hurt our children. It’s also a time of plopping the kids in front of the TV, computer screen or videogame console just to get them out of our hair for an hour or two.

Ernest & Celestine, a French animated feature based on a series of classic children’s books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, is a welcome return to that feeling of warm comfort that only comes in childhood. There is a hand-drawn feel that is simple but not in the way of the excremental Cartoon Network crap that passes for animation these days – there’s a pastel watercolor beauty to the film that shows why animation is art first and foremost. That it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards is no accident.

In an underground city of mice, Celestine (Foy) is an orphan who is obliged to go out in the above-ground city of bears to steal discarded teeth so that the school of orthodontics can practice (apparently all mice want to be dentists) as well as scraps of food so that they can, you know, eat. The mice orphans are regaled with tales of the Big Bad Bear who will eat misbehaving mice by The Grey One (Bacall) at the orphanage. It is definitely the bedtime story from Hell.

One night a mishap occurs while Celestine is trying to steal teeth and she is obliged to spend the night in a trashcan in the Bear Town. Ernest (Whitaker), a down on his luck bear, has just awakened from his winter hibernation and man, is he starved! With nothing in the house, he busks around the town square as a one man band, getting hassled by the police. Desperate, he starts foraging in trash cans and finds the sleeping form of Celestine. About to eat her, the quick-witted mouse manages to convince him not to and shows him a way to get into the candy store. Delighted with this turn of luck, Ernest gorges himself on candy until he is discovered. Celestine hides him in the Mouse city and soon, a friendship of necessity is born as both mouse and bear become wanted as fugitives.

This is a simple tale of friendship and of getting past preconceptions, although it must be said that children are much better at it than adults are to begin with. Still, as this is most certainly geared towards younger children, it is a lesson that bears reinforcement.

I’m told that the original French version is superior to this (and it was originally shown in the U.S. in that form) but I have to say – Forest Whitaker was born to be a bear. He captures the essence of bruin vocally, gruff and growly but with a big heart. The look of Ernest is just perfect too, rumpled and disreputable – a bear whose every move should be accompanied by the sound of a mournful oboe. It is also nice to hear Bacall’s distinctive voice once again.

This is a fairly short film so it won’t tax the attention span of the very young. While the attitude and vibe is very French, American kids will love this – it’s as charming as can be and waaaay better than the stuff they see on cable and the humor is kind of Looney Tunes style so adults will get a kick out of it too. As far as this adult is concerned however, the best part was feeling that warm fuzzy feeling of being cared for that one gets as a child – that’s a priceless commodity these days that makes the effort of seeking this out worth every bit of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful animation. Heartwarming and not boring for adults. Whitaker was born to be a bear. Perfect for toddlers and very young children.

REASONS TO STAY: Older kids may find this unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfectly suitable for all family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated movie to win Best Film at the Magritte Awards, the Belgian equivalent of the Oscars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charlotte’s Web

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Druid Peak

Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin