The Hidden Fortress

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

In a fleet-footed adventure, two clownish peasants with a comical love-hate relationship (famously the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2) accompany a princess in disguise and her samurai guard on a trek through enemy territory. In exchange, they’ll get a piece of the gold that they help to haul… that is, if they don’t succumb to temptation and try to steal it before journey’s end. 

Mostly light in mood, it shows Kurosawa playfully poking fun at human greed and the distrust it can sew between people, making up for a lack of complexity in character with captivating use of widescreen compositions (you wouldn’t know from the splendor of it that this was his first time employing the format). Most memorably striking are the high and low angle shots of the towering, jagged mountain peaks that the titular fortress is nestled between, where the peasants first meet their royal companions.

For laughs, the movie does rely heavily on the peasants quarreling and quickly becoming selfish, but for me, it stopped short of growing tiresome. It’s the blend of comedy and action that makes this a rip-roaring ride. The action is spectacularly staged, from the large set pieces (such as the early sequence in which a mass of imprisoned peasants revolt and flee from their captors) to the more contained confrontations (such as the spear duel between the guard and an old friend turned foe). The latter scene is shot with patience and deliberation, and is another clear inspiration for Star Wars, the spears reminiscent of lightsabers. 

The Hidden Fortress Trailer

The Hidden Fortress is currently playing on Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

To the Ends of the Earth

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

No matter what she’s asked to do, be it to suffer on a janky amusement park ride that’s more like a torture device or eat an under-cooked plate of food, Yoko has a peppy, exuberant personality so long as the camera is rolling. Behind the scenes though, she’s anxious and fretful. As the host of a Japanese reality travel show currently on assignment in Uzbekistan, Yoko and her small all-male crew often attract the attention of on-lookers as they meander around the country documenting cultural customs and sites, but Yoko (Atsuka Maeda, so wonderful) is too nervous to even make eye contact with the locals, let alone actually engage with them. The fact that she can’t say more than a word or two in the local language doesn’t help. 

In crafting in this delightfully strange character study, Kurosawa moves between tonal registers with the same ease as that with which Yoko turns her bubbly persona on and off for the camera. Offbeat comedy mingles with nerve-wracking tension and suspense as we follow Yoko’s winding, unusual path towards something like self-actualization, or at least a newfound self-confidence. Yoko is a young woman with a fear of the unfamiliar, but even more than that, she’s afraid of feeling trapped. Rather than straightforwardly dissect Yoko’s psychology, however, Kurosawa takes a thrillingly unconventional approach to character, stringing together moments that follow one another unpredictably and reveal only partial, incremental insight into Yoko’s desires and insecurities. It makes her an impossibly alluring character, and Maeda delivers an immensely charming performance. Rather than TV reporting, Yoko’s true dream, we learn, is to be a singer. That detail allows for two slightly surreal musical moments that are as rapturous as they are unexpected.

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To the Ends of the Earth Trailer

To the Ends of the Earth is currently available to watch through select Virtual Cinema Venues