Film of the Day: YOJIMBO (1961)

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Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa.

Another film that stumped nearly everyone at our film quiz last Monday was the samurai classic, Yojimbo. The question was in relation to the fact that Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western is an unofficial remake of this film – a fact that no-one seemed to know.

A-fistful-of-yojimboWide and low-angle shots showing just the head and torso of the protagonist – the famous Man With No Name – is just the beginning of all the possible points of comparison, not least of all being the plot. The Man With No Name (so-called, not necessarily because he remains nameless, so much as because he enters the site of action as an outsider, unrecognised and mistrusted; his past and origins a mystery; his intentions unknown), a ronin called Sanjuro (in Dollars called Joe) enters a town divided by, and in the clutches of, two rival gangs.

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He quickly assesses the situation and decides the town would be better off if both gangs were wiped out.

yojimTo this end he hires himself out as a master swordsman, first to the leader of one gang and then, later, to the other, all the while manipulating both and causing fatalities on both sides until, ultimately, he is the last one standing, leaving the town free.

zatoichi-meets-yojimbo_05pBeautiful cinematography, music and mise-en-scene mark this as one of Kurosawa’s finest achievements and amongst his most influential films. But it is also not surprising that it led to the fantastic homage that is A Fistful of Dollars. In fact, Kurosawa himself was much influenced by American cinema and was particularly taken with westerns as a genre, a fact that is obvious in Yojimbo. So really, Sergio Leone just brings the whole thing full circle from western gunslinger to Japanese ronin to western gunslinger: Hamburger western to udon western to spaghetti western.

Slurp!

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posted by Dixie Turner

Feature Review: Meek’s Cutoff

Written by Rob Munday

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEmL9at6JT0

Meek’s Cutoff is Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams’ follow up to Wendy and Lucy. As with their previous collaboration this is a deceptively simple tale about those who long for a world just out of view.

Meek’s Cutoff is set in 1845 in an America that seems untouched by man. The story focuses on a small community: three women, their husbands, one child and six oxen who hire Stephen Meek to guide them across the Oregon Trail.

Fortunately this is neither your traditional western nor some Little House On The Prairie TV movie. Here we take the female characters’ point of view and what emerges is a picture that seems far more truthful than countless cowboy films.

The characters here emerge slowly and say little yet we care about their fates because of the way we have gently observed them. Often seen in wide shot they are figures in the distance, iconic and unknowable.

The cast is faultless. Much of what they think and feel is conveyed in still expressions. We watch their sun-battered faces and feel the internal conflicts. Despite this, we never feel short-changed.

As Meek’s failures become clear we see how the rest of this miniature community react, how they pull in different directions yet succumb to the hierarchy of the male members. When an unexpected addition to the group arrives it is funny to observe the mix of panic, awe and outright disgust that is aroused in our protagonists, such is their ignorance of a world beyond their own.

 Michelle Williams once again conveys a tough intelligence and drive while (like the rest of the cast) never grandstanding or ‘acting’. These are just people trying to get on.

The relationships are always believable but never cosy. These people are lost and grasping for answers and it always seems like the solution is more to likely come from a female mouth.

Throughout Meek’s Cutoff incidental details are heightened. In the opening scene we quietly watch as the group crosses a river, the women walking through the shoulder-high water carrying their possessions on their heads. This includes a bird in a cage – a beautifully odd image when framed against the epic American landscape.

Early on there is one of the most magnificent dissolves you’ll ever see. A landscape shot plays out and suddenly it seems like cattle are appearing from the clouds. But what appears to be a mirage is merely another wide shot creeping in. The result gives us a stunning glimpse of mankind’s insignificance in this untamed world.

Unusually for a modern film Meek’s Cutoff uses the academy ratio (1.37:1). This is a clear stand against typical Westerns that emphasize the grand American landscape using picture postcard vistas. Instead of worshipping big skies the framing here highlights the terrain. The hard slog of the journey is always put to the fore. We come to understand what is must be like when this trail becomes a trial of endurance and belief. However rather than be worn down by the daily slog the whole journey takes on an almost hallucinogenic haze.

Kelly Reichardt has a knack for taking material that could seem pedestrian and transforming it into vital cinema. She has a keen eye for the essential moment and telling detail that makes characters and situations fizz with life.

Meek’s Cutoff is a mesmerising film that confirms Reichardt as one of today’s major directors.

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Main Cast: Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Bruce Greenwood

Country of origin: USA

Certificate: PG

Running time: 104 minutes