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Judge Dan Mancini's Blog

Judge Dan Mancini • Location: Tucker, GA
• Member since: April 2002
• 344 full reviews
• 234 small claims

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Ozu Clue
January 12th, 2006 4:52AM

Based on this little graphic in the latest e-newsletter from The Criterion Collection, it appears that we'll be seeing a DVD release of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring in '06:

Made in 1949, the picture traces the delicate emotional turmoil between a widower and his no-longer-so-youthful daughter (played by Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, who were both in Tokyo Story) when he pretends to marry in order to motivate her to leave home and start a family of her own. It's a great flick.

(Also posted at Stray Dog)

Blog Review: The Hidden Blade
December 12th, 2005 12:32PM

After a long career of milking his formulaic but sort of charming Tora-San series of domestic light comedies for all it was worth, writer-director Yoji Yamada is having a bit of a career renaissance in his seventies. His latest picture, 2004's The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: Oni no Tsume) is a follow-up to 2002's internationally-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai, an outstanding tale of feudal strife at the beginning of the Meiji period. Anyone who's seen even a handful of the 48 Tora-san adventures shot between 1969 and 1995 won't be surprised that The Hidden Blade bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor: Yamada's career seems to have been built on the close and repeated study of social minutiae.

In Blade, a low-level samurai named Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase, The Sea is Watching) is unwillingly sucked into intrigue when an ambitious friend, Hazama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), is arrested for his involvement in a reform plot. Katagiri happens to be one of his clan's most formidable swordsman because of a "hidden blade" maneuver taught him by his now pacifist mentor. Hazama, naturally, is the one samurai who might be even more deadly than Katagiri. When Hazama escapes from captivity, and holes up at the foot of a mountain range, Katagiri is manipulated into facing off against his old friend.

If all of this sounds similar to the duel in Twilight Samurai, it is. Yamada appears to have become enamored with orchestrating scenes of mirror-image samurai in sadly fateful confrontations as a metaphor for the samurai class' self-destruction -- its devouring of itself -- during the Meiji period. There's no reason he shouldn't be smitten. The metaphor nicely encapsulates the themes he's exploring, and it's dramatically compelling on a literal level, too.

In another Twilight Samurai echo, The Hidden Blade also features an understated romance between Katagiri and his family's maid, Kie (Takako Matsu). The duo's love for one another goes unexpressed for years due to their class differences and Katagiri's general reticence with regard to matters romantic and/or erotic. It plays with the same sort of will-they/won't-they dynamic one finds in an Edith Warton novel...or a daytime soap opera...or Twilight Samurai. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you'll like it here; if you find it frustrating in The Age of Innocence, Yamada's picture might not be the piece of entertainment for you.

Though The Hidden Blade is built on the same plot skeleton as Twilight Samurai, it offers variation in emphasis and tone. There's more comedy here (some of it broad); slightly less emphasis on romance, and slightly more on clan intrigue. Those who liked Twilight Samurai as a well-performed though low-key chambara, will probably find The Hidden Blade redundant -- its pace is slower and it offers little we haven't already seen. Those interested in Japanese history, may find a poetic density in Yamada's subtle shifts in focus. It's as if he's performing an inch-by-inch exploration of Japan's cultural transition from feudalism in the Meiji restoration.

Unfortunately, Yamada once again demonstrates his nearly limitless capacity for clunky endings. The finale of The Hidden Blade is weaker by far than that of Twilight Samurai. It's so out of place, in fact, it almost undoes all of the gossamer beauty that's come before.

It's doubtful the aged Yamada has enough time to make 46 more variations on the samurai theme he's introduced. But based on his tenacious devotion to Tora-san, if he does by some miracle of genetics make it into his 140s, I'm sure we'll see many more pictures in the style of Twilight and Blade.

The Hidden Blade is not yet available on DVD in North America, but there's a solid Region 3 disc from Shochiku if you've got a player that can handle it. Colors are slightly muted here and there, but the image overall is quite beautiful. The original Japanese audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.

(Cross-posted on Stray Dog.)

"A Fool Is a Man Who Pays Twice For the Same Thing"
December 8th, 2005 11:32AM

How do you like them apples, double-dippers?

The good news is that it looks like The Criterion Collection will be saving us the folly of a double-dip with their release of Mr. Arkadin, the flick from which the quote above is taken (saving those of us who weren't suckered in by any of the crappy public domain discs out there, anyway). Three different versions of Orson Welles's 1959 butchered would-be classic will be presented on Criterion's three-disc The Complete Mr. Arkadin.

Here's the cover, newly posted on Criterion's site, where you can also check out the specs (just click the link above):

I can't wait to get my mitts on this one.

(Also posted at Stray Dog)

A Good Read on Nakadai
November 15th, 2005 6:21AM

The Criterion Collection has posted their latest Focus piece, a long essay on actor Tatsuya Nakadai by Village Voice film critic Chuck Stephens. It's an excellent overview of one of Japan's most famous thespians. Nakadai's film career spans five decades and includes work with many of Japan's finest filmmakers, from Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition trilogy and Harakiri, to Mikio Naruse's A Woman's Life, to Kihachi Okamoto's The Sword of Doom, to Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Ran.

It's a great piece on a great actor. Check it out.

Links are also provided to a Nakadai filmography, the actor's eloquent eulogy for Kurosawa, and thoughts on Nakadai from Kurosawa and Kobayashi.

Here's a list of some reviews of Nakadai films here at DVD Verdict:

Yojimbo
Sanjuro
Harakiri
High and Low
Kwaidan
The Sword of Doom
Samurai Rebellion
Kill!
Zatoichi: The Fire Festival
Kagemusha
Ran

(Also posted on Stray Dog).

Re: I Want to Stop Poverty Too, But...
July 6th, 2005 11:38AM

Just a note to Judge Bossig: Live 8 was about kicking off "The Long Walk To Justice," not stopping poverty.

Didn't you hear? Rock stars already stopped poverty 20 years ago with Live Aid. They've moved on, baby.

The Dark Knight Arrives
June 20th, 2005 6:08AM

Bats.

We've finally got a Batman movie with bats. And lots of them.

Seeing the scene from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One in which a cornered Dark Knight calls in a thick, roiling cloud of bats as backup recreated on the big screen was one of the most thrilling moments of Batman Begins, and just one example of how Christopher Nolan and company have finally delivered a Batman movie that captures the atmosphere of the best years of the comic book. Finally.

I've only seen it once, but Batman Begins may be my favorite film adaptation of a comic book ever. My initial reaction, anyway, is that I liked it more than either of the X-Men movies. A lot more. And, unlike Richard Donner's mostly excellent adaptation of Superman, I liked it from beginning to end.

Critics are going on and on about how Begins is darker and more somber than the Burton/Schumacher series. That's true, but what impressed me is how perfectly they nailed the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As in the earlier series, there's a fine psychological line dividing Batman and Gotham's villains, but it's a clearly delineated line, one of which the Dark Knight is fully cognizant. Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer have returned Batman's nobility. No longer a Burtonesque wackjob seeking vengeance on behalf of his parents, he's a man pursuing justice, viciously but with a moral clarity capable of winning the trust of Gotham's only good cop, Jim Gordon. That Nolan and Goyer were able to rediscover Batman's nobility while shaping a characterization more complex than the Burton/Schumacher take is what makes Batman Begins so great. It flies in the face of the current comic book movie vogue that heroes must be weak, conflicted, morally confused. Batman/Bruce Wayne is strong and focused (though occasionally unsteady as he learns his trade), yet far more compelling a character than, say, Wolverine, or the quirky/nutty/disturbed Wayne of the previous Batman flicks.

On a technical level, Nolan does something incredibly interesting and thematically resonant. He gives us long looks at the individual pieces of Batman's costume -- we see lingering shots of the body armor, the mask, the gauntlets -- but he hides the caped crusader in action. Draping him in shadow, he keeps the camera a step behind as though the action sequences were shot by a documentarian unable to keep up with the Dark Knight's quick and unpredictable movements. When Batman's stationary, he's presented either in iconic silhouette, or tight close-up -- either way we never get a good look at the full costume on Wayne. As noted in various reviews, Nolan and Goyer establish a fairly firm logic to Batman's outfit and tools, and how he acquires them. What's not noted is how effectively this serves Nolan's expressionistic approach to presenting the crime fighter on the go. The whole man is bigger and more mysterious than the sum of his parts, and for the first time in a Batman movie we understand why criminals fear him. We had to take it on faith in Burton's version, but not in Nolan's. In Begins, Batman is a terrifying monster, and Nolan uses a lot of subjective camera work and sound design to emphasize the criminals' experience of him. Batman's Gotham debut takes place on a shadowy dock and feels like a scene from Alien; the criminals sweat bullets as they hear the inhuman skittering sounds of something moving all around them, and their cohorts are devoured by the dark. Later, when Batman questions Gordon's corrupt partner, Flass, we hear our hero's voice not as it is, but as Flass hears it -- and it's absolutely terrifying.

Batman Begins is the epic tale the character deserved, three hours of story squeezed into two by tight scripting and Nolan's honed skill at manipulating narrative time. Best of all, it feels like the Batman comics I read as a kid in the '70s: shadowy, mysterious, a little scary, and with touches of the surreal.

We finally have a Batman movie with Batman.

The Dark Knight Calls a Do Over
June 7th, 2005 5:58AM

Moriarity's review of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, posted yesterday at Ain't It Cool, has gotten me excited about the film. Not that I find Moriarity's opinion entirely reliable (isn't he the one who favorably compared Punisher to The French Connection?), but the points he makes mostly confirm my hopes that Nolan would deliver a Batman movie that finally does justice to the character.

Specifically, I'm enthused by his report that the film is genuinely scary, that it succeeds in giving us a criminal's-eye-view of Batman as a seemingly supernatural monster. He claims the picture is a hard PG-13, bordering on R. I hope I agree.

I don't read comic books anymore, but I like comic book movies for some reason. More accurately, I want to like them. I dig the rollercoaster thrill they provide, but am often disappointed with the laziness of the scripting, the sort of generic comic book template applied to the plots and characterizations of most entries in the genre. The substance of the extremely preliminary buzz on Batman Begins (from geeks and mainstream critics alike) suggests that Nolan and company may have defied all that, finally delivering a modern comic book flick that rivals the first two acts of Richard Donner's Superman (when I was a kid, I couldn't wait to get past the Clark Kent stuff and to Superman saving the day, but I found the third act corny and difficult to sit through when I revisited the picture as an adult). Granted, Richard Schickel panned Begins in Time, as did David Denby in The New Yorker. But Schickel's dis was on on the basis that the movie lacks a hammy villain like Nicholson's Joker (an asset in my opinion), and Denby seems to have an axe to grind over Nolan's "capitulation" to Hollywood. Most of the remaining reviews out there are positive. More importantly, they appear to be positive for all the right reasons -- an admiration for the tone, style, and substance of the picture.

Man, I hope the positive buzz is right. In any event, I'll be queuing up to see the movie come June 15, that's for sure.

Great Googly-Moogly!
May 23rd, 2005 8:49AM

That Desperate Housewives season finale was...well...I don't know. I didn't see it. I've never seen the show.

Like Judge Gibron, though, I've been lured into the gooey trap of Extreme Makeover - Home Edition. What is the deal with this show? What is its power? Damn it. The show sucks me and gets me all watery-eyed every time. See, they trick you with the promise of power tools and demolition, then sucker-punch you with sick children, fallen soldiers/firefighters/cops, and the destitute.

I swear, if I watch the show one more time I'm going to be hooked like it was sweet crack.

Listen Up, You Primitive Apes
May 16th, 2005 6:25AM

Over the weekend, I picked up the Boomstick Edition of Army of Darkness, despite the fact I've never dug the flick. I'd seen the theatrical cut years ago on VHS, and the director's cut a few years back on DVD. Neither did anything for me. My primitive intellect couldn't understand it, I guess.

I bought the Boomstick because it was cheap, plus the kickassness of Bruce Campbell compelled me to give it one last shot.

For the first time ever, I genuinely enjoyed it.

Here's the thing: each of my previous viewings had followed closely on the heels of watching the first two Evil Deads. Army is so different in tone, budget, focus, everything, that I had trouble switching gears, finding the movie's unique rhythm. Sure, the one-liners were funny, but the movie itself came off as weak.

I still consider Evil Dead II the best of the trilogy. It's visually magnificent, and it has a low-budget charm without being as shoestring as the original. But II's greatest asset is that it doesn't mix comedy and horror so much as it is somehow hilarious and horrifying at the same time. It's a brilliant little movie, just about perfect.

Army of Darkness is a completely different animal. Separated from its predecessors, I found it laugh-out-loud funny. It's all about The Bruce, and there's sure as hell nothing wrong with that.

Yep. Saturday morning, Army of Darkness finally gave me some sugar. I'm better off because of it.

Who Ate the Last Moon Pie?
May 5th, 2005 6:02AM

I love Elvis movies. I'm not talking about movies starring Elvis. I mean the biopics, made for the small screen. From the 1979 John Carpenter/Kurt Russell telefilm, Elvis, in which the TV-shootin' King of Rock 'n' Roll is haunted by his stillborn twin Jesse Garon, to the 1988 'Cilla mini-series, Elvis and Me, I love 'em.

Why? I don't know.

It's got something to do with hillbilly chic: the spectacle of white trash with unprecedented fame and vast quantities of cash; the gossamer mix of drugs, philandering, temper tantrums, karate, paranoia, guns, peanut butter 'n' banana sandwiches, Cadillacs, redneck entourages, sequins, naugahyde, mutton chops, lip curl, and bloat. I can't get enough of E's fights with Vernon over money; his fights with Colonel Tom Parker over career; his adoration of Gladys; and his jealous protection of Priscilla. It's a treasure trove of bad taste, completely mesmerizing. John Waters couldn't invent this stuff. It makes Dawn Davenport's Yuletide rage over cha-cha heels look like Leave It to Beaver.

This Sunday will see the premiere of the latest incarnation of the great hillbilly mythos, unimaginatively titled Elvis. Randy Quaid as Colonel Tom Parker? Camryn Manheim as Gladys? Rose McGowan as Ann-Margrock, er, -Margret? The T-1000 as Vernon? I'm there. Yes, indeed, gentle readers, break out the artery-clogging comfort food. I'm there.

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