DVD Reviews – ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘United 93’

     September 5, 2006

Seven Samurai: The Criterion Collection
Boasting a remarkably spiffed up image, surprisingly colloquial English subtitles and a passel of intriguing supplements, The Criterion Collection’s upgrade of ol’ number two in the company canon, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, is a superb three-disc set that should please everyone but the knee-jerk, double-dip hardliners, who are probably too busy plotting all-out guerilla warfare on Anchor Bay to notice its existence. Like Citizen Kane, The Searchers and D.C. Cab, Seven Samurai is one of those films every film buff has seen, has an opinion on and has in their DVD collection its place in the pantheon is never seriously challenged and its influence is such that it’s impossible to imagine the second half of 20th Century cinema without it.

It’s also, in 2006, kind of impossible to write about without sounding like little more than an amen corner.

But this conundrum is actually a testament to Seven Samurai’s most salient virtue: it is a very simple film. It is also an exceptionally Western film inspired by the small “w” westerns of John Ford, which allowed it to reach a sizable audience in the states despite its nearly three-and-a-half-hour length. Though Rashomon was the picture that vaulted Kurosawa to international renown, Seven Samurai is the work that secured for him a multicultural following comprised of beard stroking, pipe smoking, smart-guy-stuff-doing cineastes and regular moviegoers in search of transporting narratives that didn’t require too much intellectual heavy lifting. This is not to suggest Seven Samurai is a shallow film it’s phenomenally rich in character and incident, and is far less morally certain than most American westerns. But its narrative is so clean and so straightforward that there isn’t much room for differing interpretations. By the end of the film we know why each of the titular warriors have committed to this cause of minor glory offering a meager reward (i.e. all the rice they can eat), while the only surprise centers around who will be left standing for the final shot. And theme is not only clearly imparted, but very often spoken aloud by the main characters (most often by Takashi Shimura as the sage, measured Kambei), which only comes off as ham-fisted during Kikuchiyu’s overwrought “This baby is me!” epiphany (though it avoids risibility on account of Kikuchiyu being played by some guy named Toshiro Mifune).

Usually, there’s some semi-fresh angle from which to approach a classic of Seven Samurai’s magnitude, but, after hours and hours of thinking about the film, I’ve failed to find it. At the end of the day, Seven Samurai is, blessedly, what it is: one of the most enthralling adventures to ever go before cameras, and a near flawless evocation of Kurosawa’s unfettered humanism before his worldview darkened in the 1960s. The highest compliment I can pay it is that my fourth viewing was as immensely pleasurable as my first. There is no diminishing.

Criterion has laudably opted to spread the feature over two discs so as to present the film in the highest bit rate possible, which is something I wish the studios would do more often. There are two accompanying commentaries: the first being Michael Jeck’s excellent track from the 1998 release, while the second is a new film scholar free-for-all that finds Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns David Desser, Joan Mellen and, of course, Donald Richie sharing their insights and remembrances individually. The second disc includes a segment from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, but the real meat is on disc three, which features a two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and director Nagisa Oshima that miraculously remains engaging despite being nothing more than two old dudes chatting around a coffee table. Also on this disc is an excellent Criterion-produced documentary on the origins and influences of Seven Samurai. As for the obligatory booklet of essays, Criterion has jammed this one full of brief, but perceptive writings from Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Stuart Galbraith Part IV, Alain Silver, Peggy Chiao, Philip Kemp, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn and that Toshiro Mifune guy. This may not be my favorite Criterion set of the year (that would be Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales), but it’s still a landmark release and a must-own.

United 93

From my review of the movie last April:

“As for unflinching, documentary-style recreations of actual events, United 93 is as relentless as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (though, obviously, much more contained and much, much less political). Greengrass has no intention of sparing the audience any of the ugliness that transpired on the ill-fated flight, particularly in the grisly third act, and his ferociousness will certainly prove too much for more sensitive viewers. As someone who viewed the smoldering Twin Towers from the twenty-sixth floor of the MetLife Building in midtown Manhattan, and, like so many other New Yorkers, glumly went through the motions for a week or two following the attack on our city, I often wondered what the hell I was doing in the theater. Aside from bearing witness to Greengrass’s maturation as a filmmaker (and this is easily his most accomplished work yet), I spent most of the moments prior to the start of the film trying to figure out why I’d bothered. Since I’m as likely to forget 9/11 as pitch a perfect game for the Cleveland Indians, my presence in the theater had nothing to do with remembering.

Or did it? What I hadn’t expected was the depth of remembrance Greengrass would dredge up with a single shot (and, seriously, the amount of information this guy can convey with a seemingly innocuous image will vault him into the first class of working directors he’s too damn good to be wasted on the Bourne franchise). The sight of that day’s New York Times, which was eerily bereft of actual news (and sat unintentionally atop my newspaper recycling pile for weeks), knocked me right back to the morning of September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, forgotten details started flooding back I was overwhelmed as I placed my meaningless actions into the timeline, and a little inspired as I noted the imperturbability of Ben Sliney, whose day was about to get a lot worse than mine could’ve ever been.

Unless, of course, I was on one of those planes, and that’s why United 93 needs to exist, and why I think it will become an important, widely seen documenting of the day everything changed for Americans. We need to remember the heroic deeds in the early hours of 9/11, and, for the sake of unity, we don’t necessarily need politics to enter into it. That said, the apolitical nature of Greengrass’s film may end up rendering it a little quaint once writers and directors grow a bit bolder in tackling the subject. Rossellini’s Open City and Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers still resonate today because they have a contentious point of view though far from timid, the objective United 93 is ripe to eventually get overshadowed by more opinionated works. As happened in the weeks following 9/11, figuring out the “what” will give way to ascertaining the ‘why’, and, once again, the American push-pull of pride and guilt will assert itself.”

I should amend the second sentence of the last paragraph to include “and we certainly don’t need unthinking sentiment to cloud our view”. Universal Home Entertainment has done an atypical-for-them solid job with the supplements on this single-disc release. The one-hour documentary, “United 93: The Families and the Film”, brings together the actors and the families of those aboard the flight, and never once feels overly manipulative as its reducing you to tears. It’s well worth watching. And Paul Greengrass’s feature-length commentary is a fascinating accounting of the creative and logistical difficulties of recreating such a horrific event.

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