Queued Up: ‘Throne Of Blood,’ ‘Closed Circuit,’ ‘The Butler’ and More

REIGN IN BLOOD — Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1957 film Throne Of Blood transplants Macbeth into feudal Japan, altering some elements to suit Japanese history and folklore. Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune stars as samurai commander Washizu, who becomes Lord of the Spider’s Web Forest through a mixture of deceit and murder. His forceful performance is suitably over the top at times, and it is absolutely amazing at the climax of the film, in which Washizu’s men turn against him and archers shoot at him. In truth, these were real archers firing real arrows at him, something that would never be done in the modern world of CG effects. Mifune certainly had guts. Criterion’s dual Blu-ray/DVD release offers a nice restoration of a visually sumptuous black-and-white film, and it includes a 23-minute documentary shot when Kurosawa was still alive, commentary from Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck, two alternate subtitle translations by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie, as well as a booklet with notes by film historian Stephen Prince and an explanation on the subtitling by Hoaglund and Richie. Even if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, you will certainly appreciate this rendition, which includes a few scenes with numerous warrior extras, something you will not get on stage.


PRIVATE EYES, THEY’RE WATCHING YOU — While it did not garner as much attention as it should have, the political thriller Closed Circuit starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall (now on Broadway in Machinal) is a modest, well-done film. The duo play British barristers (lawyers) who are former lovers now working on the same case representing an Arab man who has been accused of masterminding the bombing of a London marketplace. With the way that the English legal system handles cases sensitive to MI5 and national security, he will represent their client in open court and she in closed session, although they are not allowed to communicate. But when Bana’s barrister suspects they are being monitored by shadowy figures seeking to obscure facts in the case for sinister reasons, and prove that they will go to violent means to reach their ends, they must secretly ally and save themselves from an ominous fate. While this kind of cinematic tale has been told before, there is a sincerity to the performances and intriguing characterizations that keep you watching, with an ending that is not as obvious as one might expect. The film received a lukewarm response, possibly because it is not as over the top as bigger Hollywood movies, but that makes it feel more realistic.


FREE YOUR MIND — It took 41 producers, high profile cast members willing to take pay cuts, and a hell of a lot of determination for Lee Daniels’ The Butler to make it to the big screen. But it has made its mark. The protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was inspired by Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served under eight presidents in the White House. Gaines’ transformation from plantation worker to notable servant allows him, his wife (Oprah Winfrey), and their two sons to live a comfortable middle class existence, one that becomes fractured when his long hours create romantic friction even as one of their sons keeps clashing with the law during anti-racial protests and his civil rights activism. There have been many films made about the civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s, but this one has an emotional spark and sense of outrage tempered by an understanding of what older African-American generations endured in order for their children to take the groundbreaking steps that they did. It’s a study of sharp contrasts. The portrayal of various presidents by known actors (John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan among them) are a tad distracting, but many of them are spot-on impersonations. Overall, The Butler is a fine film.


FIVE FINGER DEATH CHOKE — If there was one movie that fucked up my childhood, it was The Beast With Five Fingers, a 1946 black-and-white fear fest co-starring the eerie Peter Lorre. I had nightmares about it for years. Taking place at an Italian manor, the story concerns an elderly pianist who dies, leaving various people (including his personal nurse, relatives, and musicologist Lorre) fighting over the will. But some of them get a creepy comeuppance when the pianist’s disembodied hand returns from the grave to strangle the deserving as well as freak people out with late-night performances. The issue of whether this is truly a supernatural manifestation plays throughout the film, and the gothic ambiance and Lorre’s exaggerated performance of his distraught character add to the fun. There are some odd dashes of humor, and the film is far less scary to me now, but it’s an underrated gem that horror fans should check out. This Beast was summoned by director Robert Florey (Murders In The Rue Morgue) and screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), who adapted W.F. Harvey’s short story of the same name. The Warner Archive Collection DVD reissue is pretty good quality too and long overdue.



Jack’s Back (1988)

This lesser known James Spader movie offers an unusual variation on serial killer movies. He plays twins: one is a young med student who could be suspected in a spate of Jack The Ripper-ish killings in L.A. that coincide with the 100th anniversary of the infamous British murderer’s misdeeds, and the other is a rebellious type who has problems with the law but knows who the killer is and seeks to bring him to justice. This is a moody psychological thriller that definitely has that late ’80s feel—lots of moody lighting, heavily saturated color schemes, and a synth-driven score—but it’s still a bit of a charmer today that offers some genuinely surprising plot twists. Spader, co-star Cynthia Gibb, and director Rowdy Herrington (Road House) make it work.




Machete Kills — The sequel to Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse film inspired by a funny short film trailer in Grindhouse features Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, and Lady Gaga (in a cameo).


Riddick — Vin Diesel returns for a third time as the titular character in this enduring sci-fi saga.


You’re Next — This home invasion thriller generated a good buzz last year and even got a decent review from the NY Times.