Tag Archives: Rashomon

The Best $6,000,000 Hollywood Ever Spent: The Usual Suspects (1995), Or Double Indemnity Meets Rashomon.

A new follower of JPFmovies, JF (no relation), requested our thoughts on the lineup scene in The Usual Suspects.  As you know, we don’t turn down requests so JF this one is for you.

In 1995, director Brian Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie created The Usual Suspects for $6,000,000.  It is some of the best money ever spent in Holly Wood.  The title was taken from the famous scene in Casablanca:

Captain Renault: Major Strasser’s been shot.

[Renault looks at Rick, Rick gives him a look]

Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

[The police pick up Major Strasser’s body and leave, Renault looks over at Rick, who is smiling]

The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and then initially released in a few theaters.  The film received favorable reviews, and was eventually given a wider release.  McQuarrie won an Academy Award for the screenplay and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.  Ultimately, the film grossed about $24,000,000 during its run.

The film begins where it ends, on a ship in San Pedro Bay, as someone acknowledged as “Keyser” briefly speaks with an injured man named Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and then shoots Keaton and sets the ship aflame.  The next day, FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) and U. S.  Customs special agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) appear on the scene to determine what happened.  There are only two survivors: Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a con man with a case of CP and a limp, and a fried Hungarian mobster named Arkosh Kovash.  Baer (while smoking a cigar) attempts to question the still smoldering Kovash in the burn unit, who is delirious but claiming that Keyser Söze, a ruthless Turkish criminal with a legendary reputation, was killing everyone in the harbor. Kovash manages to give a description of Söze to a police sketch artist.

In the present, looking back on events, Kint sits across a desk from Agent Kujan, unfolding the tale as he remembers it.  Five criminals are brought together in a police lineup: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former police officer who has apparently given up his life of crime to become “a lawyer’s wife;” Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a short-tempered professional thief; Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner who speaks in distorted English; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a hijacker who forms an instant rivalry with McManus; and Verbal.

The lineup scene is the most famous scene in the film; a snapshot appears in the movie’s posters and other promotional materials. The scene caused the movie to run into scheduling problems because the actors kept blowing their lines.  If you watch the clip closely the actors were fed questions off-camera and they improvised their lines.  When Stephen Baldwin would give his answer, all of the others kept breaking character.  Spacey is quoted as saying that the hardest part was not laughing through takes, with Baldwin and Pollack being the worst culprits.

Anyways back to the show.  While in the bull pen, McManus convinces the others to join forces (in part as retaliation for the harassment) to commit a robbery targeting New York’s Finest Taxi Service, a group of corrupt NYPD police officers who escort smugglers to their destinations around the city for a few hundred dollars a mile.  After robbing and humiliating the NYPD the fab 5 head to L.A. to fence the goods. The fence talks them into another job: robbing an ostensible jewel dealer.  Instead of carrying jewels or money as they were told, the dealer had heroin.  After an angry confrontation, the fence reveals that the job came from a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite).  The thieves later meet with Kobayashi, who claims to work for Keyser Söze and blackmails them into attacking a ship at San Pedro harbor.

Back to the present, Verbal tells Kujan the legend of Keyser Söze: Keyser understood that true power was not in how many guns you had, it was having the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t do, so the story, said Kint, was that after some Hungarian rivals invaded his home, raped his wife and killed one of his children, he showed these mobsters what true will really was by killing his own family rather than having them live another day after that. Then he butchered the entire mob and went underground, never directly dealing with anyone in person, and became “a spook story criminals tell their kids at night.”

With Verbal’s story finished, Kujan divulges what he knows: an Argentinian body was found that morning on shore, and it is revealed that the man, Arturo Marquez, in order to escape jail time, had said that he could personally identify Keyser Söze.  A group of Hungarians was offering to buy Marquez (not drugs) for $91 million.  Using the drug deal as cover, Kujan believed that Söze used Verbal and his crew to allow Söze to personally kill Marquez.  Kujan concludes that Keaton actually was Keyser Söze and Verbal admits that the whole affair was Keaton’s idea from the beginning.

His bail having been posted, Verbal retrieves his personal effects from the property officer including the gold watch and lighter seen in the opening minutes of the film.  As Kujan, looks around the office he realizes with shock that all the details and names from Verbal’s story are from various objects in the room.  Kujan realizes that most of Verbal’s story was improvised and chases after him, running past a fax machine as it prints the police artist’s sketch of Keyser Söze that is none other than Verbal Kint.  As Verbal walks away from the police station, he drops his feigned limp and gets into a waiting Jaguar, pulling away just as Kujan comes outside, searching in vain.


The Usual Suspects came out the year of Kevin Costner’s acute downfall with Waterworld and (rightfully so) is lauded as Bryan Singer’s best film and Christopher McQuarrie’s masterpiece.  When people talk about the film, its surprise ending is the most commented upon, followed by Kevin Spacey’s performance, Benicio Del Toro’s crazy accent, and the famed lineup scene.  The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that is on the one hand beloved and on the other hand often nitpicked by the small minded screw-heads.  Even those who don’t readily identify with the film should recognize that it belongs in the must-see file.  Any movie that has the guts to tell a story largely based on the rumor of a phantom villain so terrifying his mere name inspires horror at the very least deserves to be seen.

The Usual Suspects is also another variation of the Rashomon technique known as the “unreliable narrator.”  Verbal Kint, our unreliable narrator, is revealed at the end to have referred to random words and visual details visible to the Kint in the interrogation room (i.e. a Kobayashi brand coffee mug) raising the question of how much, if any, of his story was true.  Kujan begins his questioning with a particular theory in mind, and Kint happily leads him astray by telling Kujan exactly what he’s expecting to hear (he even states that this is how police officers think, they only find what they expect to find).  What a film.


Posted by on February 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews


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Kurosawa: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” or, What You See is Not Always What You Get.

The “Rashomon Effect” is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of the same event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.  It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways.  The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka,” otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Later films and TV users of the “Rashomon effect” focus on revealing “the truth” in a now conventional technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only approaches Kurosawa’s film.  Here are some examples of the half-ass Rashomon Effect employed in western programing:

  • All in the Family            “Everybody Tells the Truth.”     Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic give conflicting accounts of an incident involving a refrigerator repairman and a black apprentice repairman.
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation “Rashomama.”  The episode required the CSIs, deprived of any of the usual forensic evidence, to rely on the eyewitness accounts of guests at a wedding to solve the case.
  • Fame (the TV series)    Under a theater marquee, two characters wait out a rainstorm.  Only after the entire story has unfolded in flashback does the camera divulge that the theater marquee announces “A Kurosawa Festival.”
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air      “Will Goes a Courtin.”  When Will defies his uncle’s orders by having his friends over by the pool after he refuses to pay his rent to his Uncle Philip unless Philip repairs the air conditioner in Will’s guesthouse, Phil sues the two stubborn men and they plead their cases in court before Judge Reynolds.  Uncle Phil, and Will and Carlton respectively, paint very different pictures before the judge of the same incident.
  • Grey’s Anatomy           “I Saw What I Saw.” A patient dies because of a mistake and Chief Webber interviews Owen, Cristina, Bailey, Alex, Lexie, Jackson, Reed and April and gets all differing versions of what transpired that night to determine who made the mistake.
  • Happy Days     “Fonzie Gets Shot.”      Fonzie is shot on a weekend camping lodge trip with Potsie, Chachi, and Roger.  At the hospital, they all offer different versions of how the Fonz was shot, each of which is transformed to make the speaker look more heroic.

The Film

Kurosawa’s film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Rashomon is the film that introduced Kurosawa and the cinema of Japan to Western audiences, albeit to a small number of theatres, and is one of his masterpieces.  The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.

Now the Show

The film opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rashōmon gate to stay dry in a downpour.  A commoner joins them and they tell him that they’ve witnessed a disturbing story, and begin recounting it to him.  The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities.  The priest says that he saw the samurai and the woman traveling the same day the murder happened.  Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they met the captured bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), who claimed responsibility for the rape and murder.

The Bandit’s Version

Tajōmaru, a notorious outlaw, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered.  In the grove, he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought his wife there.  She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually “seduced” by the bandit.  The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know her dishonor.  Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him.  In Tajōmaru’s version, they each fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajōmaru was the victor and the woman ran away.  At the end of the story to the court, he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai’s wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.

The Wife

The samurai’s wife tells a different story to the court.  She says that Tajōmaru left after raping her.  She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly.  She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace.  He continued to stare at her with a look of loathing.  His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand.  She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest.  She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts.

The Samurai’s Story

The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a spiritual medium.  The samurai claims that Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to travel with him.  She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men.  Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her.  “For these words alone,” the dead samurai recounted, “I was ready to pardon his crime.”  The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free.  The samurai then killed himself with his own dagger; later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.

The Woodcutter’s Story

Back at Rashōmon gate (after the trial), the woodcutter explains to the commoner that the samurai’s story was a lie.  The woodcutter had actually witnessed the rape and murder, he says, but just did not want to get too involved at the trial.  According to the woodcutter’s new story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai’s wife to marry him, but the woman instead freed her husband.  The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman’s love.  She spurred the men to fight one another, but then hid her face in fear once they raise swords; the men, too, were visibly fearful as they begin fighting. They began a duel that was much more pathetic than Tajōmaru’s account, and Tajōmaru ultimately won through a blind stroke of luck.  After some hesitation, he killed the samurai, and the woman fled in horror.  Tajōmaru could not catch her, but took the samurai’s sword and left the scene limping.


At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter’s account by the sound of a crying baby.  They find the baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby.  The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner chastises him.  Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him, “a bandit calling another a bandit.”  The commoner leaves Rashōmon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.

These deceptions and lies shake the priest to his very worldview of humanity.  He returns to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest’s arms.  The priest is suspicious at first, but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children, of whom he already has six.  The simple revelation recasts the woodcutter’s story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a whole new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity.  The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby.  The rain has stopped and the clouds have opened revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was overcast.

These stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and the Asian tradition of face.  Apparently even the actors kept approaching Kurosawa wanting to know the truth, which he claimed was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth.  Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II.  A little too much of a stretch for my taste but we need to keep professors employed now don’t we?

What can you say about a film when its title has become synonymous with a story-film technique used to this day and not even nearly at the level Rashomon does?  For some this movie may seem a little boring, but for the real viewer it will show the origins of a method we have seen numerous times but probably without knowing its nomenclature or origins.  Rashomon needed to be reviewed after Vantage Point because I didn’t want JPFmovies readers thinking that Vantage Point employed the use of the Rashomon Effect nearly as fittingly as seen in the Kurosawa source.  If you are into films, this is one to see since Kurosawa realized an innovative technique that no one has really been able to duplicate to date.


Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Movie Reviews


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Vantage Point (2008) is no Kurosawa’s Rashomon, (1950)—but in all fairness what is?

Vantage Point is a 2008 political thriller by first time director Pete Travis that focuses on one 23-minute segment in time covering an assassination attempt on the President of the United States.  The film begins without development behind its characters; rather, action takes off in the first few minutes.  The premise is straightforward: view a Presidential assassination from eight character angles, each having a different take on the ensuing events.  Once a character sees what he or she was supposed to see, the film rewinds, and plays the same situation over with another character, theoretically revealing additional details of the 23 minute attack.

The 23 minutes is seen through the eyes of eight unrelated parties.  Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox as Secret Services Agents, Forest Whitaker as a video taking tourist, William Hurt as the President and Sigourney Weaver as a producer of multinational news organization all star in principal roles.  These five actors/actresses are not exactly second rate talent. Weaver and Quaid put in the best performances without a doubt.

Because of the film’s technique using different characters that view the same 23 minutes and showing the audience what they perceive, Vantage Point is often compared, unfavorably, to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which was the first movie to use this technique to tell the story of a rape/murder in order to question the possibility of “truth.”  Rashomon was also the film that introduced Kurosawa to the west.  Unlike the “Rashomon Effect,” which tries to piece together the different perspectives and viewpoints in order to reveal a justly “truthful” account of what happened, Vantage Point instead opts to cut and paste plot and dialogue in between special effects, kidnapping, assassination and terrorism scenes.  While Vantage Point does reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view, in Rashomon those views are shown as flashbacks.  However, in Vantage Point each point of view is not a flashback, instead it merely provides a certain view of the story, while the story (supposedly) moves forward.

In Vantage Point, U.S. President Henry Ashton (William Hurt) attends a political gala in Salamanca, Spain peddling an international anti-terrorism treaty—I am sure one that will infringe on our civil liberties even more.  The assassination attempt on the President occurs over a time span of 23 minutes.  Whenever the 23 minutes have run their course with the relevant character, the events start from the next vantage point.  Each segment reveals additional details that complete the superficial story behind the assassination.  There are eight segments; out of mercy I will only describe three.

Viewpoint number one: GNN producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) is in charge of the media personnel there to cover the event from a mobile television studio.  The Mayor (Jose Carlos Rodriguez) delivers a short introduction for the President, but the President is shot twice as he approaches the podium.  An explosion outside the plaza soon follows.  Moments later, the podium itself is destroyed by a larger secondary explosion, killing and injuring numerous people.  As the smoke clears, GNN reporter Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana) is seen lying dead in the rubble.Vantage Point [2008] The TV Studio. 

The second perspective follows Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox).  While on post, Barnes notices a curtain fluttering in the window of a nearby building that was allegedly vacated.  He also observes American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) filming the audience.  After the President is shot, Barnes tackles a man rushing to the podium named Enrique (Eduardo Noriega).  Taylor pursues a lead to a potential assassin.  Following the second explosion, Barnes barges into the GNN mobile studio and asks to view their footage.  He calls Taylor, who reports the direction of the suspected assassin’s escape route.  Barnes then views an image on one of the camera’s live feeds that startles him and prompts him to run out without saying a word.

By the sixth vantage point, we have been introduced to terrorist Suarez, who shoots Ashton’s body double using a remote-controlled automatic rifle placed in an adjacent window next to the one with the fluttering curtain that had drawn Barnes’ attention earlier.  The rifle is retrieved by Taylor, whom Barnes sees leaving the scene wearing a Spanish policeman’s uniform on one of the GNN live feeds, even though he tells Barnes that he’s in pursuit of the assassin over the phone.  Barnes realizes Taylor is actually part of the terror plot.  The man Enrique saw embracing Veronica (who we meet in one of the earlier vantage points) is revealed to be sharpshooter Javier (Edgar Ramirez), whose brother is being held hostage to ensure Javier’s cooperation with the terrorists.  Javier kills the guards and aides within the hotel, and kidnaps the President.  Ashton is later placed in an ambulance with Suarez and Veronica disguised as medics.  At the overpass, Enrique, who did not die in the blast at the podium as intended, confronts Javier and Taylor.  Enraged, Javier shoots Enrique, mistakenly believing he had knowledge of his kidnapped brother’s whereabouts.  Javier is then shot and killed by Taylor when he demands to be brought to his brother, who had been killed earlier by Suarez.  Enrique dies of his wounds as Barnes reaches the scene on foot firing several rounds at Taylor, who attempts to flee.  After crashing his car, a critically injured Taylor is dragged out by Barnes.  He orders Taylor to reveal where the President has been taken, but Taylor dies.  Barnes runs to an ambulance where he sees Veronica lying dead.  He shoots Suarez dead and rescues the President—tying everything up nice and neat in less than 2 hours.

In the end this film all winds up—or trickles down—to yet another chase through crowded streets in commandeered cars, with an ending meant to be ironic but that simply provides a crowning howler to all the nonsense.  Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, which is structured around multiple retellings of the same event, in Vantage Point nothing is gained from all the stopping and restarting.  Aside from the meager changing-perspectives device, the film has nothing going on and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for adopting this strategy which gets really old after about the fourth time. Vantage Point, like several other movies we have reviewed here at JPFmovies, is yet another example of Hollywood making an action-adventure movie that is short on plot intricacies but long on gimmicks and explosives. No amount of ripening time would make this artificial and ultimately harebrained movie anything more than crude, nerve-grinding and finally as un-salvageable as the car accidents it keeps inflicting on its characters.

Clearly, this is not a movie to take its audience’s intelligence for granted.

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Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews


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