Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

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aka Zatôichi kesshô-tabi

2018 #76
Kenji Misumi | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

It’s a bit ironic that whoever chose the English-language titles* for the Zatoichi films decided to emphasise fighting in the name of this eighth instalment, because it’s perhaps the least concerned with Ichi’s sword skills so far. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of nifty sequences of blade-clashing fun, but they’re not the film’s focus. You might think that’s antithetical to the series’ purpose, and yet Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest instalments, perhaps even the best of all.

It begins, as so many Zatoichi films do, with our hero on the run from some gangsters who want to kill him. Ichi accepts a ride from a pair of passing palanquin carriers, but his would-be assailants spot this and resolve to attack further down the road. Before they make their move, Ichi hears a woman struggling along the road with her baby, and insists she take the palanquin instead. The assassins don’t see the switch, however, and so attack nonetheless, killing the mother. Her papers reveal she was returning to her husband, the baby’s father, and Ichi, blaming himself for her death, insists he make the 65-mile journey to return the infant personally.

This is where Fight differs from the norm, because it’s at least as concerned with Ichi’s need to care for the child as it is with him fending off the assassins, who naturally pursue him on his way. The impromptu sidestep into de facto fatherhood leads to plenty of goofy comedy, much of it around bodily fluids, like when and where the baby pees, the stench of its used nappies, and also a scene where Ichi tries to get the kid to suckle on him while they wait for actual milk. Another amusing sequence sees Ichi hired a prostitute for the night, but only so she can look after the baby and he can get some sleep. But he keeps waking back up nonetheless, each time insisting on doing just one more thing for the baby.

Family unit

You see, Ichi really cares for the kid, and this is where the other side of the equation comes in: as well as comedy, the situation also brings up a good deal of character-driven seriousness, as Ichi is forced to reflect on the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. No one is better than Shintaro Katsu at playing both sides, transitioning between warm humorousness and grim introspection in the blink of an eye.

But it’s not only internally that Ichi has cause to consider his lifestyle. Halfway along their journey, Ichi inadvertently saves the life of a female pickpocket, Ko, who he then employs to be the baby’s nanny — mainly so he can teach her better ways and reform her. But she’s a pretty young lady, so naturally she falls for blind old Ichi, and for the child too, and suddenly they’re a little family unit. And Ko wants it to stay that way, for them to raise the baby together; and, despite his protestations to the contrary, Ichi has come to really like the child, and would probably like that life too. But, without spoiling anything, events transpire to make Ichi realise such an existence just isn’t possible for him, and he must do the right thing for the child’s sake. In the end, despite the laughter along the way, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a pretty emotional and sad film, with our hero ending up as he began, and as he always must: alone on the road.

Lest you think it’s too downbeat, let’s talk about the action! Despite being on babysitting duties, there are still some great fight scenes: there’s one where assailants keep bursting into a hut where Ichi’s trying to change the baby’s nappy (now that’s multitasking); and a gambling scene where he catches a cheating boss in the act, with an ensuing fight outside where Ichi keeps shh-ing his attackers because the baby’s asleep. Then the finale lives up to the series’ recent penchant for exciting visuals: the amassed villains surround Ichi with flaming torches in an effort to confuse his hearing, and as our hero slashes away at them even his clothing catches fire. Sure, we know he must prevail, but there’s real jeopardy in this one.

Fiery climax

So, in many respects, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has it all. It’s even got a unity of story and structure that feels almost rare in the series — everything connects up, pays off, has relevance; unlike other films, which often seem to start with a bit of superfluous action or something. But what it has most of all is a storyline that is unique and emotional, and therefore memorable and affecting. It’s easy to see why the film is so often elevated as one of the series’ very best. It’s probably best appreciated as part of the series, rather than as a newcomer’s entry point, because part of its effectiveness lies in it being different from the norm. That said, it stands as an excellent film in its own right.

5 out of 5

(A quick caveat: although this is the first Zatoichi film I’ve given full marks, I would, with hindsight, award the same to the first movie as well.)

* I say “chose” because a literal translation would be something like Zatoichi’s Journey of Blood and Laughter. ^

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Vintage Tomorrows (2015)

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2017 #120
Byrd McDonald | 67 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada, Czech Republic & UK / English

Vintage Tomorrows

Heard the term “steampunk” but don’t really know what it is? Or have an idea, but you’d like a fuller picture of the whole subculture? Then this is the film for you, my friend, because Vintage Tomorrows is basically Steampunk 101.

For those that don’t know, steampunk is a kind of alternate history, where Victorian-esque technology and fashion rub against advanced technology — think steam-powered cars; clockwork machinery; and cogs. Lots of cogs. Although little more than an hour long, Vintage Tomorrows does a good job of providing an overview of the movement, encompassing the cool literature, fun costumes, impressive self-built gizmos, and so on. It also doesn’t ignore the political dimension: how steampunk does — or, frequently, doesn’t — deal with the dark side of the Victorian era: the poverty, oppression, racism, colonialism, misogyny, and so forth. Mainly, the subculture still needs to “grow up” and tackle that stuff. With plenty of featured interviewees, it’s also interesting to hear the different ideas that different people have about what exactly steampunk is and should be — there are clearly dissenting voices, rather than a homogenous whole. I guess that’s probably true of any subculture, but I imagine particularly one that’s quite counter-cultural.

That said, when some people start placing steampunk in the context of widespread movements like the Beat Generation, hippies, punk, hip-hop — asserting that it’s following in their footsteps — I think they’re possibly going a bit far. It may be inspired by the same mentality (the rejection of the mainstream, the desire to create something different, the search for your own identity and people who share it), but to imply steampunk is having the same influence on wider culture that those earlier movements did… I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. In the future? Who knows.

Fire!

Indeed, some pretentious assumptions come to the fore when the interviewees get on to the subject of modern technology. They don’t like sleek, minimalist, Apple-esque design — it’s not complicated or tactile enough for them. Fine, if that’s your taste — but it is just your taste. A lot of people love that stuff. And, actually, it’s not a different subculture that loves it, it’s the mainstream. If the mainstream didn’t like it, something else would’ve swept it aside by now. But a level of self-absorption seems to go hand-in-hand with those at the forefront of niche movements, so I guess we should expect such attitudes.

Set aside those occasionally presumptive attitudes, and there’s a lot to like about steampunk. Well, if it meshes with your sensibilities, anyway. It’s not something I’d want to partake in myself, but it looks like a fun alternate reality to be a part of. And if Hollywood saw fit to give us a few more movies that fit into the genre (because there haven’t been many, I believe), I certainly wouldn’t complain.

4 out of 5

Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Muppets from Space (1999)


    The Muppets Take Manhattan
    (1984)

    2018 #48
    Frank Oz | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Muppets Take Manhattan

    Apparently (so I read somewhere) at the time this was intended to be the end of the Muppets — the performers were fed up and wanted to move on to other things, and they conceived this third movie as a capstone on the whole affair. That seems inconceivable now — I mean, just how much Muppet stuff has followed it? To date, five more movies, at least two TV series I can immediately think of, plus other specials, countless guest appearances, a theme park attraction…

    I think that tiredness shows through in the finished product. Or maybe it’s just the changing attitudes — they’d just made The Dark Crystal, which maybe indicates they had a hankering for more serious fare. Supposedly the first draft was dismissed by director Frank Oz as being “way too over jokey”, which is surely a terrible criticism of a Muppet screenplay, but Jim Henson encouraged him to tinker with it to emphasise the characters and their relationships. This was partly in response to The Great Muppet Caper, a particularly wacky effort that hadn’t done well at the box office, so they were toning it down.

    Well, I regard the Muppets as primarily comedy characters, and so it’s no wonder this one seems to miss the mark. There’s some occasional funny stuff, the odd good skit, but mostly Take Manhattan just kinda plods along. Personally I thought Caper was a bit of a poor sequel, but this is less good again. It straight up lacks some of the things that make the Muppets so memorable — there isn’t a single fourth wall break, for instance. There’s all together too much focus on plot, even though it’s a very thin one, and the gang spend most of the movie split up, meaning it lacks their camaraderie. So much for focusing on the relationships!

    Muppets in Manhattan

    There are still celebrity cameos, at least, though I feel they’ve aged particularly poorly. Well, there’s Joan Rivers (even if her younger self is always unrecognisable to those of us who mainly knew her in later made-of-plastic years), Elliot Gould, and Liza Minelli, so it’s not all bad. Other than that, the credits explicitly name who the cameos are, but I didn’t even recognise half the names. In fact, the best one is some other Henson puppets: the cast of Sesame Street! Though the presence of puppets isn’t always welcome: a furious Miss Piggy rollerskating after a mugger, filmed in wide shots that I can only assume feature a human in a Miss Piggy suit, is the stuff of nightmares.

    Nonetheless, I shall give The Muppets Take Manhattan a 3 — just. That’s the same as I gave Muppet Caper, which is a shame (that film was more of a 3.5 whereas this is a 2.5), but it’s not so bad that I can give it an outright 2. It’s middling. It’s fans-only, I guess. Some bits work, some bits are good, but overall it’s not quite there as a Muppet movie.

    3 out of 5

    Muppets from Space
    (1999)

    2018 #75
    Tim Hill | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppets from Space

    I’m afraid things aren’t going to pick up here: Muppets from Space is the lowest rated Muppet movie on IMDb. Personally, it would not be my pick for the worst film starring our felty friends… but it’s not that great, either.

    Hailing from the same era that gave us the likes of Independence Day (which gets directly spoofed), Men in Black (some of them show up), and The Phantom Menace (no references that I could detect, but they came out the same year, so…), you can see why the Muppet movie makers would’ve been inspired to move into the sci-fi realm. The plot concerns finally explaining just what Gonzo is, which is not only unnecessary but feels kind of against the spirit of the thing — no one knows what he is, there’s only one of him, that’s kind of the joke. Well, not after this film…

    Related to that, there’s almost a good thematic thing about belonging, and who your real family is or can be, but it’s only loosely nodded at early on before sort of popping up right at the end, without enough building blocks in between to really make it work as a payoff. But we don’t come to the Muppets for the themes, we come for the gags, and in that respect From Space is… fine. Well, I mean, it’s not really all that funny… or interesting… It just kind of toddles along until an underwhelming ending (it would’ve been better if (spoilers!) it turned out the aliens weren’t Gonzo’s people, thereby leaving what he is a mystery). And there’s a Dawson’s Creek cameo, because they were filming in the studio next door, which obviously feels terribly dated now, but that’s how these things always go I guess.

    So, I didn’t actively dislike it in the way I did Muppets Most Wanted (that’s why I’m giving it a 3 rather than a 2), but that might be the kindest thing I can say about it. Like Muppets Take Manhattan, it sits firmly in the middle of the field — not expressly unlikeable, if you enjoy the Muppets, but with nothing to elevate it.

    3 out of 5

  • Trekkies & Trekkies 2

    In today’s roundup:

  • Trekkies (1997)
  • Trekkies 2 (2004)


    Trekkies
    (1997)

    2018 #97
    Roger Nygard | 83 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English & Klingon | PG / PG

    Trekkies

    There are quite a few fan documentaries out there nowadays (a few years ago… wait, ten years ago? Bloody hell. Anyway, back then I reviewed the likes of Starwoids, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, and Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity). But before all of those, and I think the first of its subgenre, was Trekkies, which examined the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom — or, rather, the wild, weird extremities of it.

    Trekkies begins with the proclamation that “Trekkies are the only fans listed by name in the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s not true anymore (“Whovian”, at least, is in there), and that speaks to an interesting truth about this entire documentary. When it was released 21 years ago, Trekkies was exposing a niche thing to wider awareness, and these fans were seen as weirdos, fundamentally. Watching it today, though, you see that it’s mostly just cons and cosplay — stuff that’s been virtually mainstream for a few years at this point. It may’ve once seemed odd for these people to define their lives as “Star Trek fan”, but now, for many people (especially younger people), it’s perfectly routine to be defined by which fandom you’re in.

    Gabriel Koerner in 1997

    That said, Trekkies still managed to find some people who are pretty weird by any standard. At the time the filmmakers received some criticism for this — for creating a film that got laughs out of “look at the weirdos!” while ignoring the more normal side of fandom. That’s not a wholly baseless critique, but I didn’t think the film was cruel. As well as going “aren’t these people nuts!”, I think it does try to dig into why they do it, what they get out of it. I’m not sure how well it reveals the former (I mean, how did any of them go from liking a TV show to… this? It must be some personality thing), but it does a decent job of showing what benefits it brings them. And there are some incredible stories (mainly from interviewed cast members) about how Trek has changed, or even saved, people’s lives.

    Trekkies may’ve lost the uniqueness it once had, with elements of the lifestyle it depicts coming to increasing prominence, but it still remains an interesting look at that kind of world, with some very memorable characters. And if you think it might’ve aged into irrelevance after all this time, there’s a bit about the importance of Captain Janeway as a role model for female leadership and what women can do — we’re still having debates and arguments about that sort of thing over twenty years later, which is, frankly, depressing.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies 2
    (2004)

    2018 #98
    Roger Nygard | 93 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English, German, Italian, Portuguese, French & Serbian | PG / PG

    Trekkies 2

    Such is the strangeness of Time that, just 24 hours after I watched Trekkies, I jumped forward seven years to catch up with some of that film’s featured fans in this lesser-seen follow-up. It’s not just repeat visits to old friends, though — if you thought America had a monopoly on crazies, well, Trekkies 2’s got news for you!

    This time out director Roger Nygard and host Denise Crosby take us to Germany (visiting the set of a fan film); the UK (with a guy who turned his flat into a starship, which he’s listed on eBay for $2 million (a couple of years later it sold for c.$840,000, which was still 16 times what he paid for it)); Italy (where fandom is apparently centred around food); Brazil (where a collector has a rare playset from the ’60s… which Crosby accidentally knocks over); Australia (where the fans mainly seem to be female and obsessed with the sexy male cast members); France (which is really just “more international fans”, to be honest); and Serbia (where the series and its values has brought a lot of hope to people in a tumultuous region).

    We also meet more US fans, as the sequel tries to rectify some of the first film’s shortcomings. For example, there’s a much greater section on filk music (which is, basically, music tied to sci-fi/fantasy fandom), as well as some crazy-funny Star Trek punk tribute bands — there’s a whole scene of that kind of thing in Sacramento, randomly. Plus we’re shown the lighter side of fandom, like the theatre company staging a satirical Trek-ified version of Romeo & Juliet.

    German fan film

    And, as I mentioned, we catch up with some old friends, including Barbara Adams, the lady who wore her Trek uniform while on jury duty (and who has a hilarious Trek vs Wars debate with a coworker that’s like something out of The Office), and the film’s break-out star, Gabriel Koerner. A super-geeky teen in the first movie, seven years later he has a wife and has turned his hobby into a career in visual effects. It just goes to show, there’s someone and something for everyone.

    Indeed, overall it’s not quite as “look at the freaks!” as the first film. It takes time to explicitly discuss what’s going too far and what’s normal, and it also highlights how Trek fandom has been a force for good, like raising money for charity, or giving hope in war-torn regions. Consequently it’s not as funny as last time, but probably in a good way — this one’s a bit more thoughtful, a bit fairer to its subjects as people. Ultimately, I think the two films work quite well as a pair. There’s also been talk of a Trekkies 3, which I hope happens — as I mentioned about the first film, attitudes to this kind of fandom have changed massively in the past decade or so (for example, the rise of Comic-Con and its influence), so it would be very interesting to explore that.

    For my money, the most insightful moment in either film comes from Pierluigi Piazzi, a Brazilian publisher of Star Trek books, when he says that “this is a wonderful way to be crazy. Everybody’s crazy, but it’s wonderful this way.”

    4 out of 5

  • The Pixar Story (2007)

    2018 #110
    Leslie Iwerks | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Pixar Story

    Made to celebrate the first 20 years of Pixar, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary charts not only the genesis, founding, and rise to industry-changing prominence of the beloved computer animation company, but also the birth of computer animation itself.

    It starts at the very beginning, with John Lasseter’s education and time as a traditional animator at Disney, and, separately, explaining how computer graphics and animation even came to be. I won’t recap the full story here, but it recounts how Pixar come to be formed, how they pushed at boundaries, and, eventually, how the massive success of their feature films came to transform the American animation industry. While the documentary is primarily narrative, then, it also exposes a little of why all this happened — the processes and philosophies behind-the-scenes at Pixar that helped make their early films so good, and consequently so loved. It doesn’t explicitly dig into this, but their mindset and attitudes seep through in the stories of what happened.

    For example, there’s the case of Toy Story 2: Lasseter had just come off the gruelling production and promotion schedule of A Bug’s Life when Disney decided to upgrade Toy Story 2, which was being made by another team, from direct-to-video to a theatrical release. Pixar reviewed the project and were unhappy, but Disney thought it was fine and refused to move the release date. So Lasseter abandoned plans for a much-needed break to spend time with his family and set about retooling the sequel from scratch — but while the original Toy Story and Bug’s Life had each taken years to make, for Toy Story 2 they had just nine months. The rest is history: not only did they get the film out on time, it’s arguably even better than the first one. Quite rightly, that whole palaver is named as their proudest achievement — the way everyone came together to make it happen helped define the company.

    Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

    It also exposes another major contributing factor to the company’s success: Steve Jobs’ patience. Toy Story is when the wider world noticed Pixar, but they’d been going for years, pushing boundaries and breaking ground with short films and advertising, but not making a profit. But Jobs stuck with it, giving them more money, because he took a long-term view. Of course, it paid off, and when they did hit it big, it was his business acumen that secured the future of the company: taking them public (which brought in massive funds) and striking a new, better deal with Disney. It’s easy for us to look at the quality of their films and go “that’s what changed things”, but the business side is a vital component too.

    Change things they certainly did, as the documentary shows towards the end, with 2D animation dying off and the Disney buyout-cum-merger with Pixar that would lead to 2D being saved — hurrah! Of course, this film is now 11 years old, and we know things didn’t end so happily: despite Lasseter & co’s commitment to helping 2D stay alive, Disney have released jus two traditionally-animated feature films since then, and the last of those was in 2011, apparently with no more planned.

    Luxo, pre-logo

    It’s at this point the film is also forced to acknowledge Cars, which I think most would regard as Pixar’s first real critical flop. They talk about how it was “beautiful” and a “hit”, but then move past it speedily, presumably to gloss over the fact it didn’t go down nearly as well as their other movies. This highlights two things: firstly, that this is certainly no “warts and all” telling — if there were internal conflicts or difficulties, they’re glossed over. Secondly, that the film could do with an update. As I said, it’s 11 years old now, and much has changed in that time. Pixar had only released seven movies at that point and were on top of the world, but since then they’ve released many more (they’re up to 19 now, with #20 imminent) and faced challenges of less-well-received films, a resurgence in the quality and popularity of Disney’s main output, and the likes of DreamWorks and Illumination gaining ground. It would be very interesting to see an update on how that time has been for the company.

    Despite those drawbacks, The Pixar Story feels like a very good overview of one of the most significant forces in 21st Century movies. Without being too sycophantic, it definitely feels like a celebration, but one that they’d earned.

    4 out of 5

    Coco (2017)

    2018 #109
    Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Coco

    Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

    So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

    The magic of music

    Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

    Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

    Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

    Colourful vistas

    Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

    Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

    Coco is a good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

    4 out of 5

    The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

    Superman (1978)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Superman: The Movie

    You’ll believe a man can fly.

    Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

    Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
    Language: English
    Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
    BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
    UK Release: 14th December 1978
    Budget: $55 million
    Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

    Stars
    Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
    Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
    Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
    Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

    Director
    Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

    Screenwriters
    Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
    David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
    Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
    Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

    Story by
    Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

    Based on
    Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


    The Story
    The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

    Our Hero
    Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

    Our Villain
    Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

    Best Supporting Character
    Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

    Memorable Quote
    Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
    Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

    Memorable Scene
    As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

    Memorable Music
    John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

    Technical Wizardry
    The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

    Truly Special Effect
    You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

    Letting the Side Down
    In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compare to the sodding time travel.)

    Making of
    There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

    Previously on…
    As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

    Next time…
    Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies. There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
    3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
    1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
    4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
    5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
    4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
    Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
    2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
    1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
    1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

    Verdict

    Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

    Atomic Blonde (2017)

    2017 #166
    David Leitch | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English, German, Russian & Swedish | 15 / R

    Atomic Blonde

    The uncredited co-director of John Wick takes sole charge for this action thriller set at the tail-end of the Cold War, which sees Charlize Theron’s British spy dispatched to Berlin to find “The List”, a document naming all the active intelligence agents in the city, which has fallen into the hands of the KGB.

    It’s based on The Coldest City, a graphic novel that came out during my relatively brief flirtation with being a proper comic book reader a few years ago. Back then it caught my eye (though I never got round to buying it) because I got the impression it was a Le Carré-style thriller, so I was very surprised to eventually learn it was the basis for this film, the trailers for which promised a hyper-stylised actioner from the director of combat-focused John Wick. Watching the film, however, it’s easier to see how I might not’ve been wrong about the novel after all — take out the elaborate fight scenes and shoot it more like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy than The Guest, and this could indeed be a Le Carré-esque Cold War thriller.

    Lots of style, little substance

    Or maybe that should be “Le Carré wannabe”. The filmmakers were probably right to shift the focus in that way, because the plotting here isn’t up to that standard, particularly in a bevy of last-minute twists that bog down the final ten minutes, especially with their burst of misplaced patriotism (though I won’t say for which country lest it spoil something). Le Carré’s plots feel almost like the definition of substance being more important style (I’ve never actually read one of his books so certainly don’t mean that to be an insult), whereas Atomic Blonde is good ol’ style over substance. The best stuff here lies not in the intricacies of its spy-vs-spy storyline, but in the starkly coloured visuals, the cool ‘80s soundtrack, and (as you’d expect from the stuntman-turned-director behind 50% of John Wick) the expertly realised fight scenes.

    Chief among these is an incredible single-take action sequence that goes from a sniper-beset protest march, into a building, up in the elevator, back down the stairwell — all in a series of bruising hand-to-hand fights — and then, for good measure, continues back outside and into a car chase shootout. Obviously the single take aspect must be as faked as Birdman (according to IMDb, it actually includes almost 40 different shots, many stitched together with the aid of CGI — I’d wager mostly during the car chase, which feels less smooth than the rest), but it’s still impressively crafted. The choreography of it all — both the fight moves and the camerawork — really is something else.

    Fight!

    Despite the flashiness of that one long section, what’s really effective about all the fight scenes is the level of groundedness. I’m sure they’re not what a real fight is like — they’re still choreographed brawls between trained combatants — but Theron doesn’t take down an army singlehanded, she fights a couple of guys, it’s hard work, and she ends up battered, bruised, and exhausted.

    Sadly, between the confused plot and the irritating ending, Atomic Blonde ultimately rubbed me up the wrong way. Still, it’s worth watching for the style and the impressive action scenes. If only they’d managed to combine those with a better story, then this would’ve been something really special.

    3 out of 5

    Atomic Blonde is available on Sky Cinema from today.
    David Leitch’s new film,
    Deadpool 2, is in cinemas everywhere now.

    The Past Month on TV #33

    There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

    The City and the City
    The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

    This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

    Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

    Ordeal by Innocence
    Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

    I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
    Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

    Episodes  Season 5
    Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

    I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

    Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
    Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

    But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

    Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

    Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

  • Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

    2018 #105
    Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

    I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

    If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

    Fisticuffs!

    So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

    The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

    The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

    Miss Selina Kyle

    As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

    Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

    The Ripper approaches...

    In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

    As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

    4 out of 5

    Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.