Reel Life #14: The Last King of Scotland, Throne of Blood, Blackmail, and The Philadelphia Story

This was the week Eighth Grade got a larger release. However, I’d already seen it, and there were no other films that seemed interesting, so no trips to the theater this week. I instead decided to take it easy after pushing myself to get the reviews of Spirit Tracks and BioShock Infinite done and get acquainted with several classics at home.

The Last King of Scotland by Kevin Macdonald (2006)

The year is 1970 and Nicholas Garrigan has just graduated from medical school at the University of Edinburgh. He decides to make use of his skills abroad by working at a Ugandan missionary clinic. It is run by Dr. David Merrit and his wife, Sarah. Shortly after he arrives, General Idi Amin overthrows incumbent president Milton Obote in a coup d’état. After a bizarre situation involving Amin striking a cow and injuring his hand, Nicholas earns the favor of the new president. Amin is particularly delighted to hear of Nicholas’s Scottish heritage, seeing the country as a symbol of resilience due to resisting the English. He makes Nicholas his personal physician. Nicholas accepts the proposition under the naïve belief that Amin will help the country improve.

I had been meaning to get into this film for the longest time because I heard many great things about it. Critics were especially quick to cite Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin as a reason why the film excelled as much as it did. This was reflected during the following award season when Mr. Whitaker proceeded to win the Academy’s “Best Actor” award along with at least twenty-two additional ones from various other sources. I can certainly see how he managed to accomplish this feat because it’s an incredibly dynamic performance. Part of what makes his portrayal so terrifying is how he can switch between being affable to vengeful to paranoid to depressed in the span of ten seconds.

Of course, James McAvoy playing the viewpoint character deserves a lot of credit as well. Part of what makes this film fascinating is watching the relationship between these two characters pan out. All of the scenes in which the two share jokes and stories become immensely off-putting once the entire film has been watched. In doing so, it shows how awful it would be to have a friend who is revealed more and more to be a sociopath who only cares about themselves. While in this case, the fact that said friend happens to be a despotic, sociopathic ruler, it has the potential to be a surprisingly relatable story – one that’s most certainly worth watching.

Verdict: Recommended

Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa (1956)

Invaders are laying siege to Spider’s Web Castle, which is situated in a vast forest. Lord Tsuzuki sends Generals Miki and Washizu and their troops to combat the invaders. They easily eliminate their lord’s enemies. On the way through the forest surrounding the castle they meet a spirit capable of foretelling the future. She declares that Washizu shall be named the Lord of the Northern Garrison while Miki will become the commander of the first fortress. She then says that Washizu will become the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle with Miki’s son succeeding him. When they return, they are astonished when Tsuzuki rewards them exactly how the spirit predicted. Washizu discusses his encounter with the spirit with his wife, Asaji. She implores him to fulfill the second part of the prophecy by killing Lord Tsuzuki. With the prospect that he was awarded his new position just so he could perish in battle, Washizu makes a decision that will decide the fate himself, his lord, and everyone close to him.

As readers may have noticed, I have been checking out many of Akira Kurosawa’s films this year. Having been thoroughly impressed with Rashomon, I discovered High and Low, which is currently one of my all-time favorites. As I was looking into more of his filmography, I was at something of a crossroads. I made myself choose between The Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood. I opted for the former when I used Rotten Tomatoes as a tiebreaker. It too became a firm favorite, but I decided because I was splitting hairs (their scores were 100% and 98% respectively), I might as well check out Throne of Blood as well.

Much like Ran after it, Throne of Blood is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays: Macbeth. While the basic plot of King Lear eluded me for the longest time, I was pretty familiar with Macbeth, having read the script in elementary school. Ultimately, I agree with those who consider it one of the greatest adaptations of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Washizu is particularly memorable |– he goes from being in shock due to murdering someone in cold blood to causally offing anyone who poses a threat|. And of course, Isuzu Yamada as the Lady Macbeth analogue, Asaji, is something else as well. Up until the moment she goes mad, she is soft spoken and polite, yet everything she says is laced with poison. She almost doesn’t seem human when you realize she doesn’t blink once throughout the entire film.

The ending is incredible as well. |In a departure from the source material, Washizu is killed by his own troops with his deception having been revealed. He makes a pitiful attempt to strike back, but he succumbs to his wounds. The really cool thing about this sequence is that expert archers were called upon to shoot arrows at Mifune – though only the ones intended to miss by a large margin. Any of the arrows that were intended to hit him or miss him by inches were pulled using strings behind the walls. Even if it was standard practice at the time, there’s something to be said knowing the fear in the character’s eyes is only barely an act.|

I’ve also been watching a fair share of Shakespeare adaptations between this film, Chimes at Midnight, and Ran. Between those three films, I’d say I liked Throne of Blood the most. Whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not, I’d say Throne of Blood is worth watching.

Verdict: Recommended

Blackmail by Alfred Hitchcock (1929)

Frank Webber, a detective from the Scotland Yard, escorts his girlfriend, Alice White, to a tea. There, they have an argument, causing Frank to storm out. As he reflects on the evening, he notices her leaving with Mr. Crewe, an artist she agreed to meet earlier. He invites her into his studio. After painting a picture together, Mr. Crewe gives Alice a dancer’s outfit while he sings and play “Miss Up-to-Date” on the piano. He then takes advantage of the situation by stealing a kiss. Disgusted, she tries to leave, but Mr. Crewe takes her dress from the changing area and forces her onto the bed in an attempt to rape her. When her cries for help are not heard, she takes a nearby bread knife and kills him. Little does she know that a man with a criminal record espied her leaving the flat.

Blackmail is commonly considered the first British sound feature film. Despite what the above poster claims, it was originally shot as a silent film, which is evident by the fact that it takes roughly six-and-a-half minutes for anyone to begin talking. Hitchcock, not convinced of the idea, nonetheless surreptitiously filmed rest of the film in sound. This presented a bit of a problem because actress Anny Ondra had a thick Czech accent. This wasn’t an issue when films were silent, but now actors and actresses where expected to use their voices. They ultimately got around this by dubbing her lines. Due to technical limitations at the time, this was accomplished by having another actress, Joan Barry, recite the dialogue off-screen as Anny mouthed the words.

Being not only Hitchcock’s first talking film, but also Britain’s, I was interested in seeing a significant part of the medium’s history for myself. Indeed, as of this writing, it is the oldest film I have watched. Even to this day, it’s considered one of the country’s best films, so the driving question is how well it holds up. To such an inquiry, I would say it’s a decent film – dated visuals aside. The idea of depicting a near-rape experience back in the late-twenties was pretty audacious, and it did pioneer a lot of suspense tropes such as a chase sequence taking place in a well-known location and showing the hand of a dead body. There’s little questioning that, for its time, Blackmail was a remarkable technical achievement.

That said, though it proved influential, it has clearly been surpassed many times over in the decades to come. It doesn’t help that the pacing isn’t particularly good; it takes a long time for the pivotal crime to take place and an even longer time for the blackmail to occur. The blackmail doesn’t hang over the victims’ heads for long before the plot is wrapped up hastily in about twenty minutes. At the end of the day, it’s easy to tell in hindsight that this was made by someone who had a lot of talent as a filmmaker and would develop quite a bit more as time went on. However, I would argue Hitchcock didn’t yet have that certain something down that would make his later works such as Rope or Shadow of a Doubt so memorable.  At the end of the day, I would recommend it for film historians and cinephiles, but not really anyone outside of that circle.

Verdict: Mostly recommended

The Philadelphia Story by George Cukor (1940)

Tracy Lord, a member of a wealthy socialite family, was married to C.K. Dexter Haven, a yacht designer until she divorced him two years ago due to his excessive drinking. She is now about to marry nouveau riche George Kittredge. Meanwhile, Spy magazine publisher Sidney Kidd is eager to cover the wedding and assigns Macaulay “Mike” Connor and Liz Imbrie for this task. Assisting them will be Dexter Haven, who is to introduce them as friends of Tracy’s brother, Junius. Tracy isn’t fooled, but allows Dexter and company into the wedding when her ex-husband threatens her with an article detailing her father’s affair with a dancer. In the day leading up to the wedding, Tracy will find herself in a bizarre love triangle.

If anyone is expecting any odd story of how I discovered this film, prepare to be disappointed. That’s because, in all honesty, I don’t remember what compelled me to check it out. Chances are that I discovered it through any number of “best films ever” list, but otherwise I have nothing. It just happened to be on one of the channels I have available, and I remembered being interested in checking it out some time ago, so I quickly made the decision to see it. It helps that it’s one of the few films currently sitting at a cool 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

All in all, I enjoyed this film; it’s a quirky romantic comedy with a solid cast of characters. Though it may not seem like it now, this film was actually quite bold in 1940, making allusions to extramarital affairs in a time when Hollywood was subject to the Hays Code. As a result, I would cite The Philadelphia Story as an example of getting the most out of the stifling circumstances surrounding its era. For those looking for a straightforward film from this era with a good sense of humor, this is worth looking into.

Verdict: Recommended

2 thoughts on “Reel Life #14: The Last King of Scotland, Throne of Blood, Blackmail, and The Philadelphia Story

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