Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954). I sometimes identify Akira Kurosawa’s Ran as epic filmmaking writ as large as the screen allows. Seven Samurai, made over thirty years earlier, is epic filmmaking in the inverse, pruned and delicate and piercingly intimate. There are major moments to it, too, and scenes of pounding cinematic glory, but what really makes it work is the painstaking intricacy of Kurosawa’s storytelling. There’s a reason other creators return to it time and again, extracting what is useful for their own tales of valor and ironic victory. Kurosawa and his collaborators (Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni are co-credited on the screenplay) find unfussy human truths in the story of a band of hired swordsman pulled together to protect an impoverished farm community from bandits who return like perennial crops, not least is the way that the honor of a just cause and the futility of war are often indiscernibly similar. This is especially true when the conflict starts to recede into the past, leaving only the damaged survivors to weigh the worthiness of what they’ve endured.
Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940). The second film directed by Preston Sturges feels like the product of a filmmaker still coming into his own. The story hinges on a perpetual dreamer’s belief that he has won a contest to pick the new slogan for a coffee company, thanks largely to a cluster of boorish coworkers pulling a prank. The comedy arises from the pile-up of misunderstandings that follow, all in the manner of classic screwball comedy but lacking some of the snap that makes it one of Hollywood’s greatest genres. It’s a funny notion that Sturges never quite develops into the pointed societal observation that marks his most brilliant work. Instead, it’s little more than a nice diversion, about as peppy and insignificant as a ineffective radio jingle.
Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013). I find it remarkable that Marvel Comics’ Thor is the focus of a major film franchise (not until the second wave of Marvel films arrive with the likes of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man will more unlikely heroes grace the screen), especially given that the films that solely feature the thunder god, without assembled, avenging pals, seem to have only the foggiest of ideas about what they’re trying to be. The Shakespearean machinations of the godly realm of Asgard are shoved up against fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor on Earth, cavorting with the mortals. The latter aspect provided many of the highlights of the first film, but Thor’s engagement with his earthbound allies is notably weak here. Chris Hemsworth still prospers in the title role is a way that defies belief, but the whole endeavor is merely biding time until Tom Hiddleston’s increasingly splendid take on the trickster Loki can be fully unleashed. Seasoned HBO director Alan Taylor, undoubtedly offered the gig thanks to work on Game of Thrones, does well enough, but there’s ultimately too much blockbuster noisiness to be contained by anyone unworthy of hefting Mjolnir itself.
Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013). Based on a true story and co-scripted by star Steve Coogan, Philomena is one of those well-meaning dramas, sprinkled with comedy and the gentlest of social and political commentary, that can’t transcend its tepid good intentions. Coogan plays a disgraced governmental spokesman who slinks back to journalism, begrudgingly pursuing the human interest story of an elderly woman (Judi Dench) seeking out the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier. It’s a reasonable sturdy film, thanks largely to the steady hand of director Stephen Frears, but it holds almost no surprises, neither with the plot nor with the emotional notes it hits. Anyone with a passing knowledge of a certain brand of cinematic tropes can sketch the architecture of the narrative within the first few minutes. It is pure blandness, stretched to two hours and presented at twenty-four frames per second, or at least the digital equivalent.
The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943). Pairing with director Mark Robson for the first time, after RKO promoted his previous collaborator, Jacques Tourneur, to more prestigious opportunities at the studio, noirish horror maestro producer Val Lewton delivered a typically creepy and atmospheric tale of a menacing New York satanic cult. Robson lacked the panache of his predecessor, but the movie still carries much of the unsettling wonder that was the hallmark of Lewton’s efforts. There’s a fairly brilliant set piece in a subway car that is creepy as can be with the simplest of elements. Similarly, the collection of devil worshippers are unnerving mostly because of the almost bureaucratic calm of their gatherings, even when facing down an adversary who’s on to their devious ways. The main problem comes from the casting, with future Oscar-winner Kim Hunter (in her first film role) hopelessly wooden as the heroine desperately searching for her missing sister.