The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

aka Zatôichi monogatari / Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi

2013 #92
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of ZatoichiAdapted from a short story by Kan Shimozawa, The Tale of Zatoichi was a low-key release for its studio, Daiei: despite being helmed by “a topflight director”*, it was shot in black and white, its leading man, Shintarô Katsu, “was not really a huge star”, and his co-star, Shigeru Amachi, “had been one of the main stars at Shintoto studios before it went bankrupt and ceased production” — surely a mixed blessing. And yet it was “a surprise hit… touch[ing] a nerve with Japanese audiences, who loved to root for the underdog.” Despite the fact our hero gives up his sword at the end of the film, Daiei produced a sequel, and… well…

Some things are created as film series (all those ’30s and ’40s Hollywood mysteries; Cubby Broccoli and co always intended to do multiple James Bond movies), others just turn into them. The Tale of Zatoichi was the latter. Far from a low-key one-off, it would go on to be a huge touchstone for Japanese culture, spawning 24 sequels over the next 11 years, followed by a 100-episode TV series in the ’70s, and a revival film in 1989 — all starring Katsu. Although he passed away in 1997, Zatoichi has lived on through several remakes and spin-offs in the past decade. Although the character and series has a cult following in the West (brought into sharper focus by the well-received 2003 remake), added significance has been imbued by the incredible, beautiful, 25-film, 27-disc, dual format Criterion Collection box set released last year.

Blind men get all the girlsBut enough hyperbole — what about The Tale itself? The story sees blind masseuse Zatoichi accepting an old invitation to visit an acquaintance, Sukegorô (Eijirô Yanagi). But Sukegorô is a yakuza boss, and he presses Zatoichi to join his side in a brewing war with rival Shigezô (Ryûzô Shimada) — because although he’s blind, the masseuse has legendary sword skills. On Shigezô’s side is a hired samurai, Hirate (Amachi), who Zatoichi encounters by chance. Despite the mutual respect between these two coerced warriors, the eventual gang battle comes down to a duel between them…

Though Zatoichi is best (or quickest) defined as a series of samurai films, those taking that to mean copious swordplay will leave with their expectations unmet after this first movie (I can’t speak for the others yet). Tale is more of a dramatic piece, exploring the dilemmas faced by Zatoichi and Hirate — honour and what is right vs. money and misplaced promises — as well as the fatal romantic entanglements of a couple of other characters in Sukegorô’s camp. Even at the climax, the final (well, only) confrontation between the two warriors is an ‘action sequence’ more in the vein of Sergio Leone than Michael Bay: the characters face each other, they wait, the tension grows, and then there’s a couple of short bursts of to-the-point violence.

CalmThose prepared for a calmer, more considered film may find much to like, however. Katsu’s understated style holds your attention and makes you want to learn more about the character; not his past, necessarily, but his qualities as a man. The same is true of Amachi, in some ways even more appealing as the doomed ronin. You get a genuine sense that Zatoichi and Hirate would have had a great, long-lasting friendship if they’d met under better circumstances, which makes the manner of their encounter all the more tragic. For all the bluster about a big gang war on the horizon, it’s the relationship between these two men that forms the heart of the film.

Also worthy of note is Misumi’s direction, including some choice angles and compositions. There’s the restraint to not always be showy: at times, the bulk of a scene plays out in one static but immaculately framed take. At others, however, the camera is shifted around into positions that are never distracting but always beneficial to the storytelling or beautiful to the eye. Credit to cinematographer Chishi Makiura too, of course, especially for some magnificent lighting. Many a shot here would challenge the best of film noir for shadow-drenched beauty. (I should say, I picked up on none of this from the crummy old DVD I first saw the film on, but a re-watch from Criterion’s Blu-ray was glorious.)

The cane swordReportedly this opener is “not the best of [the] series”, but remains “a grand introduction to the character and a touchstone for many of the themes and gags presented in the later films”.** To me, that suggests much promise for the 24 further instalments: what The Tale of Zatoichi lacks in action, it more than makes up for in character and, perhaps surprisingly, emotion. I thought it was excellent.

4 out of 5

Reviews of further Zatoichi films will follow next year.

* All quotes in the opening paragraph from Chris D.’s notes in the Criterion booklet. ^
** According to The Digital Bits. ^

Seven Samurai (1954)

aka Shichinin no samurai

2013 #110
Akira Kurosawa | 207 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai used to be a striking anomaly amongst the top ten of IMDb’s user-voted Top 250: it’s a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. These days it sits at #21, presumably through a mixture of IMDb tweaking the voting rules and it being rated lowly by people keen to see all of the Top 250 but who don’t typically like three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white films. Nonetheless, it has a claim to wide popularity (alongside its critical renown) that is rarely achieved by three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movies.

In 16th Century Japan, rural communities are terrorised by gangs of bandits stealing their crops, raping their women, and all that other nasty to-do. One village has had enough and, knowing they can’t defend themselves, sets out to employ a band of samurai to defend them when the bandits come again the next year. Samurai aren’t cheap, but the villagers have no money, so they’ll have to make do with what they can get. Managing to snag Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to lead the defenders, he assembles a team, including wannabe Kikuchiyuo (Toshiro Mifune) and five others (Daisuke Katō, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, and Yoshio Inaba), who then set about preparing the villagers for battle…

Despite its epic running time, Seven Samurai isn’t really an epic film — this isn’t the story of a war, or even a battle, but of a skirmish to defend one village. How does it merit such length, then? By going into immense detail, by having plenty of characters to fuel its narrative and its subplots (and if you think there’d be plenty of time to explore seven characters in over three hours, turns out you’d be wrong), and by using the time to familiarise us with these people, so that when the final fight comes — and that’s a fair old chunk of the film too — we care what happens. Plenty of other films make us care in a shorter period of time, of course, but here we feel truly invested in the outcome.

The titular seven (well, six of them)It’s also unhurried. As Kenneth Turan explains in his essay “The Hours and Times: Kurosawa and the Art of Epic Storytelling” (in the booklet for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, and available online here), the film “unrolls naturally and pleasurably… luxuriating in its elongation — it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven.” As a viewer, I think you have to be mentally prepared for that pace, in a way. Most other films would use a snappy montage to collate the team, with key scenes or moments later on being used to highlight their personalities — witness any number of Hollywood (and Hollywood-esque) ‘men on a mission’ movies that do exactly that. Kurosawa’s expanded version makes the film more a marathon than a sprint, with only some of the negative connotations describing something as “a marathon” entails.

In truth, this is not the most fascinating portion of the film, but nor is it without merit. As discussed, it’s establishing these characters in full so that we are more attached to them later, but it’s also commenting on, perhaps even deconstructing, the image and role of the samurai. In “A Time of Honor: Seven Samurai and Sixteenth-Century Japan” (again in Criterion’s booklet, and available online here), Philip Kemp explains how Kurosawa’s depiction of the samurai overthrows some simplistic ideals that had become associated with them, and shows them instead as normal human beings, more likely to run away to save their own skin than pointlessly fight to their death. The villagers have indeed managed to employ professional combatants, but they’re not so different to the villagers themselves, just better trained.

The rain in Japan falls mainly on the actionThe length ensures our investment in the village, too, just as it does for the samurai. They’re not being paid a fortune — in fact, they’re just being paid food and lodging — so why do they care? Well, food and lodging are better than no food and lodging, for starters; and then, having been in the village so long in preparation, they care for it too. It is, at least for the time being, their home. You can tell an audience this, of course, but one of the few ways to make them feel it is to put them there too — and that’s what the length does. To quote from Turan again,

The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. … When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats — we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.

It can seem like a blind alley to go on about a film’s length — many an epic is long just because it has a long, or large, story to tell — but in Seven Samurai, the sheer size, and the way it uses that, are almost part of the point.

The film ends with a melancholic note. That “eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers” comes to an end — with victory won, the surviving samurai are no longer required. The farmers return to farming, the samurai return to… what? They are not really at home in the village, they were just guests; nor are they rich, because there was no pay — so what have they got out of the conflict? As Alain Silver notes in “The Rains Came: Kurosawa’s Pictorial Approach to Seven Samurai” (in Criterion’s booklet, of course, but not online), The final shotthe final scene, the way it’s edited and framed, ties the remaining samurai to their deceased comrades, the living and thriving farmers a distant and separate group. Fighting is the way of the past, perhaps, and peaceful farming the future. Or is the samurai’s only purpose to be found in death, because other than that they are redundant?

Even if you don’t want to get into the film’s philosophical underpinnings, there are plenty of other, more visceral thrills to enjoy. The characters provide humour as well as emotional depth; there are scattered “action sequences” throughout; and the big climax may technically only be a skirmish, but it’s one played out in detail, to epic effect. There’s not the choreography that viewers used to modern blockbusters or Hong Kong fisticuffs might expect, but that doesn’t meant the rough and realistic fighting isn’t exciting or well-constructed. Drenched in rain and covered in mud, it’s messy and, in its own way, beautiful. The whole film is visually stunning, as you’d expect from a Kurosawa picture. You may not realise it at the time, but many a familiar type of shot actually originated here, and then was copied down the ages.

It might seem difficult to credit now, but Seven Samurai was only fairly well received in Japan on its initial release: as Stuart Galbraith IV reveals in “A Magnificent Year” (also in Criterion’s booklet (where else?)), most of the awards for Best Picture went elsewhere, and at the box office it was comedies and romances that were the big crowd-pleasers. 'I can't believe Toho cut our movie'And it wasn’t as if it was overseas viewers who hit on the magic: as Turan reveals, “Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length.” The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose — how many Great Films from Hollywood are ignored by awards bodies and audiences, only to endure in other ways?

Seven Samurai is definitely a case of the latter. Its standing on the IMDb list may have slipped with time (and rule changes, no doubt), but it’s still a trend-bucker — a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white film that can appeal, if not to the masses, then to some people who wouldn’t normally go in for that kind of thing. A marathon but not a slog, requiring investment rather than passive absorption, Kurosawa’s epic rewards the viewer with one of cinema’s most enthralling, gorgeous, and vital experiences.

5 out of 5

Seven Samurai placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

2013 #91
Charles Laughton | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 12

The [box office] failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it

The Night of the HunterBox office gross is one of the methods most often used to summarise a film’s success and standing, and yet it’s one of the most useless markers of quality — and quotes like the above, from Terrence Rafferty in his article “Holy Terror” for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter (and available online here), prove why. This is an exceptional film, by turns beautiful, funny, and not merely scary, but terrifying. If Hollywood movies can be art — and I think we know they can — then this is surely a foremost example.

Based on the 1953 Southern Gothic novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter sees convict Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) attempt to find the hidden robbery haul of his former cellmate, by inveigling his way into the man’s family posing as a preacher. While the mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the lies, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is more suspicious, and tries to protect himself and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), while keeping the money hidden.

The story is largely told from John’s perspective. It’s a big tale to put on small shoulders, full of complex emotions and sometimes difficult themes (per Rafferty, “those venerable American subjects: fear, sex, money, and religion”), but Chapin bears it well. I guess this is one of the reasons why groups including the BFI recommend it as a must-see for kids. Although it’s dark and grim, it rarely wavers from the John’s point of view — it’s an induction into the harshness of the adult world for the two young siblings; a harshness the sweet, innocent community they come from does nothing to prepare them for.

Perceiving a knifeIn another piece in Criterion’s booklet, “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee” (online here), Michael Sragow reckons the film is a “meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions”. I couldn’t have put it better myself (hence the quote). John is also the only one to see the truth of Powell — as, of course, do we — which completely ties in to how it can feel to be both a child and an older sibling: adults are dumb and don’t see the truth that children do; and younger siblings need protecting because they can be easily persuaded to the adults’ side (as Pearl almost is). Although it’s a tough film in many ways, this depiction of childhood, and at least one aspect, the loss of innocence that comes when you realise the world isn’t all fluffy and safe, is well captured.

Don’t think it’s too kid-friendly, though. Rafferty asserts that it’s “among the greatest horror movies ever made”, while Sragow thinks it’s the “intimate observations of the children’s psychology” we just discussed that “make the suspense almost unbearable.” Without once resorting to blatant horror techniques, the film builds a quiet and implacable sense of fear. The overall effect is one less of terror and more dread. It’s best described as chilling, which is so much scarier than the occasional jump.

Love-hate relationshipAnd yet, as Rafferty explains, “the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter… is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.” I wouldn’t say that humour is one of the film’s defining characteristics, to be honest, but it does undercut its villain. He’s not some unstoppable supernatural creature, but a man who can trip over while chasing you up the stairs, and so on. In some respects it’s this very ordinariness that makes him so scary: however much they creep you out during the film itself, you know there’s no such thing as vampires or werewolves or ghosts. There are Powells in the world, though; an everyday evil that you might not see coming, but can still get you. Brr.

It’s also stunningly shot — not just beautiful, but routinely incredible. It has imagery that instantly sears itself on your brain, with gorgeous lighting and perfect composition. Whatever else the film has to offer (and that’s a lot), it’s exceptional just to look at. That it’s the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton may be a crying shame, because on this evidence — not just the pictures, of course, but the entire picture — we’ve missed out.

A long nightIn my 2013 top-ten, I described The Night of the Hunter as “darker than a long night of the soul”. That’s too good an expression to not repeat, partly because I think it sounds good, and partly because I can’t think of another way to succinctly summarise the film’s unique feel. I’m not convinced it’s a great film for children, not because they need protecting from the darkness of the world, but because it’s almost too good — it’s a great portrait of childhood, but perhaps one best appreciated in hindsight. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen it until adulthood. Whenever you catch it, this is a film of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty.

5 out of 5

The Night of the Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Touch of Evil (1958)

1998 Reconstructed Version

2013 #58
Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Touch of EvilA bomb is stuck to the underside of a car. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera drifts up into the sky, and proceeds to follow the automobile through the streets of a small Mexican border town, until it crosses the border into the US… and explodes. It’s probably the most famous long take in film history, and probably the thing Touch of Evil is most widely known for; that, and it being one of the most commonly-cited points at which the classic film noir era comes to an end.

So who planted the bomb? Who was their target? And why? None of those questions matter. I’m sure they’re answered, but I don’t recall what those answers were, because they’re not what the film is about. What it’s about is Charlton Heston vs Orson Welles. The former is Vargas, a righteous Mexican drugs enforcement officer who witnesses the bombing while out walking with his new American wife. The latter is Quinlan, the policeman charged with finding the culprit — and he isn’t an honest copper. When Quinlan works out who he thinks is guilty, he makes sure there’s the evidence to back that up. And I don’t mean by doing thorough police work. Vargas catches him more-or-less in the act; Quinlan won’t allow himself to be exposed. It’s a game of cat and mouse; at stake, not just two men’s reputations, but justice and the law (not the same thing); and just waiting to get tangled in the middle, Vargas’ new wife — sweet, innocent Janet Leigh.

This is not film noir as many think they know it. Instead of a doggedly determined wisecracking PI solving a slightly seedy case, Touch of Evil is suffused with a sweaty and disquieting atmosphere. Vargas and his wifeIt’s like a terrible fever dream, with events and characters that sometimes seem disconnected, but nonetheless interweave through a dense plot. In this sense Welles puts us quite effectively in the shoes of Vargas and his wife — out of our depth, out of our comfort zone, out of control, struggling to keep up and keep afloat. It might be unpleasant if it wasn’t so engrossing.

Similarly uncomfortable are the film’s moral implications. Well, possibly. In the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release, French critics François Truffaut and André Bazin both assert that Welles’ Quinlan, while ostensibly the villain, is really a hero; that though he technically breaks the law, he’s morally right to do so. Essentially — or in Truffaut’s case, explicitly — they are defending policemen who fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately for all their so-called intellectualising, Welles completely disagrees: “The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power… The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself… that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.”

Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that “in the interviews which he gave me… Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely”. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s praise-filled essay asserts that, in the film’s ending, “[Vargas’] sneakiness and mediocrity have triumphed over [Quinlan’s] intuition and absolute justice.” Elsewhere, Welles summarises that “it’s a mistake to think I approve of QuinlanQuinlan at all… there is not the least spark of genius in him; if there does seem to be one, I’ve made a mistake.” You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the “mediocre” (Truffaut’s word) moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.

Welles:

What I want to say in the film is this: that in the modern world we have to choose between the law’s morality, and the morality of simple justice, that is to say between lynching someone and letting him go free. I prefer a murderer to go free, than to have the police arrest him by mistake. Quinlan doesn’t so much want to bring the guilty to justice, as to murder them in the name of the law, and that’s a fascist argument, a totalitarian argument contrary to the tradition of human law and justice such as I understand it.

So that’s the end of that.

Welles’ beliefs about filmmaking were similarly forthright, stating that “all of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room” — the images were important, but the real art was in how they were placed together in the edit. It must have been especially hard for him, then, that so many of his films were “violently torn from [his] hands”: as of 1965, he says only Citizen Kane, Othello and Don Quixote were movies he’d been allowed to edit to his own specification (and that last one barely counts).

a 58-page memo?Notably and obviously absent from that list is Touch of Evil. It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD.) The version I chose to watch, dubbed the “Reconstructed Version”, tries to recreate Welles’ vision, using footage from the theatrical cut and a preview version discovered in the ’70s to follow his notes. Despite the best intentions of its creators, this can only ever be an attempt at restoring what Welles wanted. Equally, although it was the version originally released, the theatrical cut ignores many of the director’s wishes — so as neither version was finished by Welles, surely the one created by people trying to enact his wishes is preferable to the one assembled by people who only took his ideas on advisement?

But that’s not all, poor viewer! There’s also the issue of the film’s aspect ratio: Welles was forced to shoot the film for projection at 1.85:1, but he did so on the understanding that an open matte 1.37:1 version would be shown on TV. He penned an article the same year as Touch of Evil’s release, called “Ribbon of Dreams”, in which he firmly advocates the Academy ratio and shows a strong distaste for widescreen (reading it today, it’s reminiscent of and comparable to Christopher Nolan’s comments on the film vs digital debate). With that considered, the full screen version would seem the preferable choice. It's enough to drive you to drinkTo quote from Master of Cinema’s booklet, “the familiar Wellesian framing appears in 1.37:1: indeed, the “world” of the film setting emerges with little or no empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, almost certainly beyond mere coincidence.” There are things to recommend the widescreen experience (“a more tightly-wound, claustrophobic atmosphere”), and undoubtedly the debate will continue… and such is the wonders of the modern film fan that, rather than having to make do with someone else’s decision on what to put out, all the alternatives are at our fingertips.

Obviously I can’t speak for all the different cuts of Touch of Evil, but considering its constituent elements, it’s hard to imagine a version that isn’t complex, thought-provoking, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, and all-round an impressive work of cinema.

5 out of 5

Touch of Evil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/1978)

aka The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Short Version)

2013 #61
John Cassavetes | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Killing of a Chinese BookieEver since I read the blurb for Masters of Cinema’s DVD of Maurice Pialat’s Police, I’ve been casually enticed by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Said blurb asserts that “Police is a genre-defying excursion rivaled only by John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in the pantheon of cinema’s most idiosyncratic thrillers”, which is both a nice turn of phrase and an intriguing one. The thriller is very much a Genre — that is to say, it’s a label loaded with rules and expectations, and to be idiosyncratic within such a form is an interesting notion. Both “thriller” and “idiosyncratic” are pretty accurate labels for Chinese Bookie, though, even in its re-cut (by the director) ‘short version’.

The plot sees strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) lured in to killing the titular bookie as payment for his gambling debts to some gangsters. The title kind of gives away whether he does it or not (though an ever-doubtful Cassavetes reportedly considered having him not go through with it), but nonetheless the film doesn’t lack the genre’s requisite tension and suspense. However, it’s more of a character study. How aware is Cosmo of the mess he’s getting himself in to, and how far is he prepared to go? What drives the man? There are no easy answers, unsurprisingly, but that doesn’t make the questions unworthy of consideration.

According to the notes accompanying the BFI’s Blu-ray release, the ‘short version’ — which Cassavetes created after his original cut was “almost universally panned [and] yanked from the theatres within days” — not only makes the film shorter, but also more focused, clarifying various plot points. The style of much independent ’70s cinema — Good timesnaturalistic to the point of being almost documentarian, with half-caught snatches of dialogue and sequences that seem trimmed to (almost) the relevant moments from much longer filming — still begs that you pay attention, but it seems this cut gives you more of a hand: it gets to the killing quicker (“63 vs 82 minutes”), a meeting with gangsters is “longer, more coherent and explicit”, and so on.

Perhaps the biggest change is early on: the short version implies Cosmo takes his girls out to celebrate (then gets into debt); the original cut implies he’s been invited to the gambling den so he can be set up. That’s quite a shift in emphasis, turning the lead character from a picked-on ‘mark’ in the long version to a sort-of-coincidental brought-about-his-own-downfall type in the re-edit. In his 1980 review (included in the BFI booklet), John Pym asserts that Cosmo is “clearly” a patsy, a fact obscured in the short cut by the removal of that scene where he’s invited to gamble. Is he an easily-lulled patsy, then, as the gangsters think? Or is it more as I interpreted: here’s a man who acts the fool, who pretends to be easily tricked, in order to keep people happy; but who is actually much more competent and aware of what’s going on? Look at his speech near the end about being what others want. This is a man determined to keep others happy and thinking well of him; not in a superficial way, but as some fundamental character trait. Is that how he gets lured into the killing, then — purely because they asked nicely? But then later, when he escapes and gets some kind of revenge or freedom… well, that’s not so friendly. Is he finally doing something for himself? Or was he selfish all along — not much of a leap, especially considering the world he operates in.

WorriesThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a neat little thriller in any respect. As Tom Charity puts it (in the BFI booklet again), “if the scenario sounds generic, the film is something else”. It reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, a film I didn’t particularly like (but which did inspire Cassavetes), but I had more time for this. Perhaps that’s just me ageing (it’s the best part of seven years since I saw Mean Streets) and becoming more attuned to this kind of movie; the kind that uses “hesitations, repetitions, and loungers as tools of disruption and misdirection”, by a director so “mistrustful of anything that smacked of tidy resolution, he regularly turned his movies around in the editing to more ambiguous and purposefully aggravating effect.”

That’s the kind of movie Chinese Bookie is: ambiguous, purposefully aggravating, without a tidy resolution. It requires the audience to work a bit. Is it worth the effort? You know, I’m never quite sure (see Bicycle Thieves for another example), and whether I appreciate it or not probably depends as much on the mood a particular film catches me in as much as its inherent quality (see also Rage). This one, while as awkward as any, engaged me just enough.

4 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

2013 #38
Sergio Leone | 220 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Italy & USA / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in AmericaPart of Leone’s intended trilogy about the history of violence in the USA, Once Upon a Time in America is the life story of four friends and gangsters in Noo Yoik during a large chunk of the 20th Century. So it’s a gangster film focusing on violence, then? Well, no… not at all, really. Indeed, saying Once Upon a Time in America is a film about gangsters is a bit like saying Die Hard is a documentary on police procedure during a hostage crisis — sure, there’s something of that in there, but if you’re focused on it then you’re missing the point.

I refer to “the point” as if, a) I’m some kind of expert about to expound on it, or b) there is a singular ‘point’ to this three-and-a-three-quarter-hour epic. Neither is true. In fact, I’ve perhaps never felt less qualified to discuss a film in depth. Thing is, it’s a difficult film to digest in one viewing, because there’s so much there. It’s not just the length (Titanic is pretty straightforward through its three-and-a-bit hours; even something superior like Apocalypse Now Redux I ‘got’ first time), though that is a factor: over such a long time, it’s packed with incident, and shaped in a non-traditional — or non-common (uncommon, you might say) — narrative structure. A first viewing is an exercise in following what’s going on, what connects to what else, why things are happening in such an order. It fairly begs, “get a handle on it this time, you can analyse it when you watch it again”.

And analysing it may, I think, be a requirement, because this isn’t a film of straightforwardness or easy answers. For one, it asks much of the viewer in our interpretation of the characters: this is a film where our (supposed?) heroes do truly despicable things, and not in aid of a “they’re actually the villain” twist either. Is Leone exposing us to reality — that not all those who do horrible things are horrible people? Or is he just a misogynist? Or a lover of violence? It’s something grander critics than I have battled with for decades.

Boyz...Leaving aside the less savoury aspects (as, it seems, many have to), a lot of the discussion when it comes to a Leone film is always of his fantastic visual and storytelling style. That’s not unmerited, and while it’s not as overt here as in his Westerns, it is present. But he was a filmmaker with an awful lot of substance too — perhaps a daunting amount. What he created here is an Epic in the truest sense of the word, but in addition to that, it’s a peculiarly intimate one. It has an epic’s length and a decades-long sweep, at times exposing and commenting on facets of entire eras that it traverses; but it’s really ‘just’ the story of a small group of friends, their successes and their failures, their triumphs and their tragedies — probably with the emphasis on the latter — over a more extended period of their lives than most movies are prepared to tackle. That probably doesn’t make it unique (someone else must have attempted such a feat, surely), but it does make it rare; and when something rare is created with such undoubtable skill and achievement, it certainly merits deeper consideration — over an equally long period of time, I suspect, as the ghost of 82 notes in his summation.

My relationship with Leone’s oeuvre is, on reflection, a vexed one. While I liked A Fistful of Dollars and was instantly beguiled by For a Few Dollars More (both fairly straightforward action Westerns, or at least digestible in that way), it took me two or three viewings to appreciate Once Upon a Time in the West (now it would contend for a place among my favourite films), and I wasn’t congruent with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — to a point where, about a decade on, I still haven’t found time to revisit it and try to see what all the fuss is about....2 Men Once Upon a Time in America falls somewhere between these two stools. It’s a film that is, I think, easy to instantly admire — if not wholly, then for its majority; but also one I found difficult to process a full personal reaction to. With the recently-extended version set to arrive on DVD/Blu-ray/download later this year (in the US, at any rate), an ultra-convenient chance for a second evaluation looms.

4 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in America was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (2013)

2013 #102
Nick Hurran | 77 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

The longest-running science-fiction TV show in the history of the world ever marked its 50th birthday with a feature-length cinema-released one-off special — I think we can count that as a film, right? Good.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor theatrical poster

The pressure on showrunner/writer Steven Moffat when it came to this special must have been immeasurable. To distill over 30 seasons of television and 50 years of memories into a relatively-short burst of entertainment that would satisfy not only fans, both hardcore and casual, but also Who’s ever-widening mainstream audience. Not only that, but to produce it in 3D, preferably in such a way that the 3D wasn’t pointless, but also that played fine in 2D; and to make it of a scale suitable for a cinema release, but for only a BBC budget; plus, the weight of an unprecedented (indeed, record-shattering) global TV simulcast audience. And all that in the wake of years of griping and disappointment about the direction he’d led the show in, not least the less-than-usual number of episodes being released during the 50th anniversary year as a whole. Yeah, no pressure…

That The Day of the Doctor delivers — and how — is part miracle and part relief, and all joy for the viewer. Well, most viewers — you’ll never please everyone, especially on a show as long-running, diverse, and indeed divisive, as Doctor Who has become. But for the majority it wasn’t just a success, it was a triumph. Evidence? There was that record-breaking global audience; it was the most-watched drama in the UK in 2013; its theatrical release reached #2 at the US box office, despite being on limited screens two days after it aired on TV Come on in...(and it made more than double per screen what The Hunger Games 2 took that night); it recently won the audience-voted Radio Times BAFTA for last year’s best TV programme; and, last week, a poll of Doctor Who Magazine readers asserted it was better than the 240 other Who TV stories to crown it the greatest ever made.

Phew.

As we well know, popularity in no way dictates quality, especially when it comes to TV viewing figures or opening-weekend box office takings… but those audience polls tell a different story, don’t they? The story of something that managed to satisfy millions of people who it seemed impossible to please.

There are many individual successes in The Day of the Doctor, which come together to make something that is, at the very least, the sum of its parts. The star of the show, however, is Moffat’s screenplay. Eschewing the “standard” Whoniversary format of bringing back all the past Doctors and a slew of their friends for an almighty stand off with a huge array of popular enemies (so “standard” it was only actually done once), he instead opts to tell a different kind of story: the series is never about the Doctor, just the adventures he has, so what could be more special than shifting that focus? And with the backstory previous showrunner Russell T Davies had created for the revived show in 2005 — the Time War, and the Doctor’s role in ending it — Moffat had the perfect canvas to tap in to our hero.

Does he have the right?The Doctor’s role in the Time War has not only dominated many of his actions and personalities since it happened, but it also stands awkwardly with his persona as a whole. Here’s the man who always does the right thing, always avoids violence, always finds another way, even when there is no other way… and this man wiped out all of his people and all of the Daleks? The same man who, in his fourth incarnation, stared at two wires that could erase the Daleks from history and pondered, “do I have the right?”, before concluding that he didn’t? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

So Moffat crafts a story that shows a little of how the Doctor came to make that decision… and then, thanks to this past Doctor getting to see a little of how his future selves reacted to it, the chance to make a different one after all. If that sounds a little bit Christmas Carol-esque, it shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s a favourite form of Moffat’s. Indeed, for a series about time travel, very few pre-2005 Doctor Who stories involve it as a plot point (merely as a mechanism to deliver the main characters into that week’s plot), whereas Moffat has frequently tapped into the whys and hows of that science-fictional ability. In these regards — and others, like the sublime structure where things are established in passing, or for one use, and then resurface unexpectedly later with a wholly different point — The Day of the Doctor is inescapably a Moffat story, albeit one without some of his other, less favourable, predilections that have coloured the series of late.

The (new) Three DoctorsI think some fans would have preferred a big party history mash-up; they certainly would have liked to see their favourite faces from the past. But let’s be honest: from the classic era, only Paul McGann could pass muster as still being the Doctor he once was (and he got his own, fantastic, mini-episode to prove it); and how the hell do you construct a story with a dozen leading men? It’s clearly enough of a struggle with three. The Doctor is always the cleverest person in the room, so what do you do with multiples of him? Moffat finds ways to make all of the Doctors here (that’d be David Tennant’s 10th, Matt Smith’s 11th, and John Hurt’s newly-created ‘War Doctor’) have something to do, something to say, and something to contribute — because really, the oldest (i.e newest) Doctor should be the most experienced and have all the ideas, right? There are ways round that, but only so many.

No, instead Moffat treats us to a proper story, rather than an aimless ‘party’… and then serves up a final five or ten minutes that deliver fan-centric treat after treat, without undermining what’s gone before. I guess a lot of that is meaningless to the casual viewer, or is at least unintrusive, but to fans there are moments that provoke cheers and tears — often at the same time. All the Doctors flying in to save the day! Capaldi’s eyes! Tom Baker — as the fourth Doctor, or a future Doctor? Doesn’t matter! And then the final shot, with them all proudly lined up! It’s an array of effective, emotional surprises that far surpasses what could have been achieved if the whole episode had been executed in this style.

An excellent MomentAlong the way, Moffat nails so many other things. The dialogue and situations sparkle, and frequently gets to have its cake and eat it: familiar catchphrases and behavioural ticks of the 10th and 11th Doctors are trotted out to a fan-pleasing extent, and then Hurt’s aged, grumpier, old-fashioned Doctor gets to criticise their ludicrousness, speaking for a whole generation of fans who hate “timey-wimey” and “allons-y” and all the rest. I think it’s this self-awareness that helps so much with selling the episode to everyone, both calling back to well-known elements of the series that many love, and pillorying their expectedness for those that aren’t so keen. Well, it would be a pretty awful party if you had a cake but couldn’t eat it, right?

Tasked with delivering all this, the cast are uniformly excellent, to the point where it’s difficult to pick a stand out. Hurt makes for a creditable ‘new’ Doctor in a relatively brief amount of screen time, while Tennant slips back into the role as comfortably as he does his suit. Special praise should be reserved for Billie Piper, though, having a whale of a time as the quirky Bad Wolf-inspired interface to The Moment. She could’ve been an excuse for exposition and plot generation, two roles her character does fulfil, but if you think that’s all she was then I suggest you watch again: there’s more complexity at play there; a weapon not only with sentience, but with a conscience too. She’s not Rose Tyler, but perhaps she has a part of her…

Clara and one of her DoctorsSmith and Jenna Coleman are on form too, of course, but as the series’ regular cast members that feels less remarkable. That’s not intended to sell them short, however, as they hold their own against actors who are arguably more, shall we say, established. If there’s one weak link it may be Joanna Page’s eyebrows, possibly the side effect of duelling with an English accent. (Complete aside: I’m rewatching Gavin & Stacey as I write this, and feel horrible even going near criticism of such a lovely person.)

They’re backed up by a cornucopia of technical excellence. Yes, OK, it’s a TV episode really — but gosh darn, it looks like a movie. I’m sure some would dig in to criticism of the direction (don’t get me started on the increasingly-regular internet commenter’s cry of “the direction was made-for-TV quality”, but suffice to say I generally don’t hold with that as a complaint), but Nick Hurran’s work is suitably slick. The battle of Arcadia is a sequence any modestly-budgeted big screen extravaganza would be proud to contain, and all achieved on a tighter-than-most-people-realise BBC budget. It won a BAFTA Craft award for special effects, which is more than deserved. Combining full-scale effects, CGI, and even model work (personally, I didn’t even realise there were models involved until I read so in an article months later), it looks incredible, with a scale that’s completely appropriate for a major battle in the war to end all wars. Elsewhere there are a few slip-ups, like a bit of heroic slow-mo undermined by not being recorded at a higher frame rate, but these are few and far between.

Dalek explosion!Credit too to editor Liana Del Giudice, not only for crafting cinematic action sequences, but for stitching together a narrative that is often told with imagery and flashbacks, rather than people stood around chatting. Look at the sequence just after the Doctor sees the painting for the first time as just one clear example. That sequence may be dialogue-driven, but the faded-in and intercut flashbacks and glimpses of other events are what’s really conveying information. This is first-class visual storytelling, not just when compared to the rest of British TV, or international TV, or cinema, but the whole shebang.

Perhaps (as in “it isn’t, but let’s see what some people think”) the editing is even too snappy. In the run up to the special’s release, some fans moaned about its length: an hour-and-a-quarter wasn’t enough to do justice to 50 years, they said; it should be at least 90 minutes. Which is exactly the kind of ludicrous small-minded pettiness some fanbases talk themselves into these days. Moffat commented in an interview somewhere that his scripts for The Snowmen (the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special) and A Scandal in Belgravia (the first episode of Sherlock season two) had exactly the same page count, and yet, when shot and edited, one episode was an hour long and the other 90 minutes. Screenwriting is an inexact science like that. I seriously doubt anyone at the BBC commissioned a 75- or 80-minute Doctor Who special; instead, I would imagine Moffat wrote a roughly-feature-length script that seemed achievable within Who’s limited-despite-what-the-Daily-Mail-think budget, then it was filmed, edited, and it ended up being the length it is. Indeed, the scheduler-unfriendly final running time of 77 minutes is merely further indication of such a notion.

Heroes just for one DayStill, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and not everyone liked The Day of the Doctor: it may’ve topped DWM’s poll, but there were voters who scored it just one out of ten. But then, that’s true of 239 of the series’ 241 stories; and almost 60% of voters gave it a full ten out of ten — that’s a pretty clear consensus. I didn’t get round to voting myself, but I would’ve been amongst them. There are undoubtedly some weak spots that I haven’t flagged up, but conversely, there are myriad other successes — both minor (the opening! The dozens of sly callbacks!) and major (the use of the Zygons! Murray Gold’s music!) — that I haven’t mentioned either.

Even if The Day of the Doctor isn’t flawless, as a Doctor Who story — and certainly as a great big anniversary celebration — it is perfect.

5 out of 5

The Wolverine: Extended Cut (2013)

aka The Wolverine: Unleashed Extended Edition

2013 #101
James Mangold | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English & Japanese | 12

The Wolverine Extended CutRather than a sequel to the poorly-received X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I mistakenly gave four stars back when it was in cinemas — hey, everyone else was too harsh), Fox’s X-Men film franchise here jumps back to the present day (after a ’60s aside for the excellent First Class) for the first time since 2006, to see what happened to fan-favourite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) after he (spoilers!) killed the love of his life to save the world in poorly-received (though, again, it’s not as bad as most people think) X-Men trilogy-closer The Last Stand.

We catch up with Logan as a recluse in the wilds of his native Canada. He’s soon sought out by swordswoman Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been sent to bring him to Japan. There, a man whose life Logan saved in World War II (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has become a technology giant, and wants to offer Wolverine the one thing no one else has: the removal of his healing factor, and with it the chance to finally die a normal death. Of course things aren’t all they appear, with numerous threats emerging to the old man, to his family — including his daughter, and Logan’s love interest, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) — and, of course, to everyone’s favourite beclawed mutant.

For the most part, The Wolverine feels refreshingly different to other superhero movies. That’s largely thanks to its Japanese setting and supporting cast, the primary element inherited from the acclaimed Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries that loosely inspired the film (not that anyone gets a credit for that). Those might sound like superficial differences, but the change of faces, scenery and culture seems to have infused the film’s attitude. Couple that with a plot that is more of a thriller than one of the usual three Superhero Movie storylines, Loganand the end result is a moderately unique movie. OK, it doesn’t ooze originality, but nor does it feel quite like your run-of-the-mill powered-people-punch-each-other comic book yarn.

Indeed, in places it threatens to become a proper character study. Although almost all of the X-Men movies have focused on Logan, it’s debatable how much they’ve dug in to him as a person before now — they’ve not dwelt on what his mutation means for his life or personality, merely used his memory loss as the chance for a mystery. There’s lots more exploration of the former here, at least by the standards of a summer blockbuster; and alongside that, the plot incorporates issues of honour and familial responsibility, which are suitably echoed by the Japanese setting and culture.

While it may be Jackman’s film — something only emphasised by a sprawling array of new characters that there isn’t quite enough time for — he’s not the only one who stands out. It’s Fukushima and Okamoto who are memorable in particular, and having such effective female characters once again distances the film from the majority of its genre brethren. It seems a shame neither feature in Days of Future Past — not that there’d be room for them, I suppose — but if the mooted third Wolverine solo outing comes to pass, I hope one or both are back.

YukioTalking of women, you can’t overlook Logan’s lost love, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey. Considering the build-up pitched The Wolverine as a standalone film, with perhaps the occasional nod to the wider X-universe, including rumours of a Jean cameo, the final film is surprisingly tied-in to previous events: there’s actually loads of Jean (how? Well…), and Wolverine’s personal journey is very much grounded in the events of The Last Stand. I’m sure you could watch this without having seen or remembered a previous X-movie, because the bulk of the plot is indeed standalone, but the emotional journey is invested in what came before.

Unfortunately, a couple of things spoil the party — for starters, another woman: as Viper-lady, Svetlana Khodchenkova camps it up too much. When the rest of the film is more serious, almost plain dramatic in places, her OTT comic book stylings jar uncomfortably. It doesn’t help that the movie is bizarrely overstuffed with villains. Considering the general dramatic emphasis, it needs them even less than usual; plus, when it’s been observed for over 15 years (i.e. since Batman & Robin) that a superhero movie suffers under the weight of too many antagonists, there’s no excuse for it anymore.

More of a let down is the regular-superhero-schtick climax. A mix of muddled storytelling (things go unexplained, then are suddenly clarified in a rush of exposition) and a trashy “make the villain stronger, then punch him lots” escalation of action, it’s a disappointing end to a film that has otherwise felt on course for “genre classic”-level distinctiveness. Mariko & coWithout seeing all the behind-the-scenes goings-on it’s difficult to know whose fault this was, but it’s equally difficult to imagine the screenplay that Darren Aronofsky (far from your regular blockbuster director) described as “a terrific script” could have concluded this way; and knowing that his replacement, James Mangold, fiddled with the script before shooting commenced… well, draw your own conclusions.

Still, other technical elements shine: there’s beautiful cinematography from Ross Emery, and Marco Beltrami’s score is nice — no bit particularly sticks in my mind, but it felt suitably evocative. Even if the climax disappoints, there’s a smattering of entertaining action sequences before that, including some great claws-on-sword duelling. Some of this has been amped for the twelve-minutes-longer extended cut, though a lot of that additional time actually goes to the dramatic side of things, as detailed here. There are 65 alterations in all, which frankly I couldn’t be bothered to read through. (However, I noticed at least three uses of the F-word, a number which I believe America’s tick-box classification system grants an automatic R. In the UK it seems such antics can be allowed to slide at a 12.)

The Wolverine will return...The Wolverine isn’t quite the movie it could have been; nor, I think, quite the one the makers hoped they were producing. Jackman has intimated since that it’s studio interference that pushes for silly-big action sequences and the like, but that fan feedback might slowly be winning them around to the things viewers actually care about. Whether that’s true or not, I guess we’ll see in the next instalment…

4 out of 5

X-Men: Days of Future Past is released in the UK today, the US tomorrow, and pretty much everywhere else at some point this week. The next Wolverine movie is currently scheduled for release on 3rd March 2017.

Tom Conway as the Falcon, Part III

If you’re not familiar with the Falcon by now, may I recommend my three previous collections of reviews, in which I covered the first 10 films of RKO’s detective series.

This is, unsurprisingly, the fourth compendium. Below you can find my reviews of the final three films to star Tom Conway as the eponymous investigator.



After eight adventures with the Saint and 13 with the Falcon, you might think I’d be getting sick of them… but now that they’re done, I rather miss them. Suggestions for similar — and similarly good — series are always welcome.

The Falcon’s Alibi (1946)

2013 #99
Ray McCarey | 60 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*

The Falcon's AlibiOnce again smitten by a pretty lady, the Falcon finds himself co-opted into guarding a wealthy woman’s jewellery. But when said jewels are promptly stolen, and murders ensue, our charming hero is implicated. Who would do such a dastardly thing? And what’s going on with the DJ in the roof of the hotel?

The jewels are almost an aside as the twelfth Falcon film gets stuck into a main plot about secret lovers and betrayal. It’s darker than usual fare for the series, bordering on the noir-ish. There’s still the usual Falcon charm and comedic antics of Goldie to lighten the mood, but they feel bolted on to the core of a slightly grimmer tale — everyone’s a crook; half of them die. Some elements are woefully underdeveloped, in that churn-’em-out B-movie way: we never see the conductor’s reaction to his lover being murdered by her secret husband, for instance; or the explanation for the jewel theft, stuck on the end in a throwaway moment — that was what drew the Falcon in, therefore ostensibly the main case! And what instead turns out to be the primary plot would have played out the same way even if the Falcon hadn’t become involved. Oh dear.

From all this, the film is somewhat rescued by Elisha Cook Jr.’s performance. He’s great as ever, a remarkably dependable character actor. (Though it does come with the slightly odd sight of Cook Jr. and Esther Howard being all best-chums-y after recently seeing him try to kill her in Lady of Deceit. I guess that kind of encounter probably happened a lot in those studio contract days.)

Elisha Cook Jr, great as everAmong the rest of the cast, Vince Barnett becomes the fourth actor to play the Falcon’s sidekick, Goldie; and Jean Brooks and Rita Corday each appear in their fifth Falcon films! Brooks was previously in Strikes Back, in Danger, the Co-eds and in Hollywood, while Corday was in Strikes Back, the Co-eds, in Hollywood and in San Francisco (making this three in a row). Can you imagine anyone doing that today? (And Brooks is in literally one shot, I think. Considering she was a leading lady in at least two previous Falcons, that’s a tad weird to boot.)

I’m not sure Alibi is that good as a Falcon film, but the storyline featuring Cook Jr.’s performance make it watchable in spite of the other problems.

2 out of 5

* As with the vast majority of the Falcon series, The Falcon’s Alibi hasn’t been passed by the BBFC since its original release. Nonetheless, it’s available on DVD, rated PG. ^