Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

aka Mononoke-hime

2018 #73
Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

Princess Mononoke

When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

Bloody princess

However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

5 out of 5

Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

2018 #42
Spike Jonze | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Germany & Australia / English | PG / PG

Where the Wild Things Are

Lonely and over-imaginative child Max (Max Records) runs away from home one night, finds a small boat at the edge of a pond, which becomes an ocean as he sails across it, and winds up on a remote island. There he encounters a group of maladjusted and mostly unlikeable large monster-like creatures, the Wild Things, and ends up having to deal with their tumultuous interpersonal relationships. But it’s a fun kids’ movie, honest!

Except it isn’t. Not really. Despite being adapted from a kids’ picture book, and resolutely rated PG, it didn’t strike me as a kids’ movie at all. It’s glum, depressing, and surely only understandable when filtered through an adult perspective. By which I mean, the film depicts a child’s imaginary adventure, and if you take it as just that it’s no fun whatsoever. Give it an adult reading and I think the adventure actually reveals Max’s subconscious, with the monsters being an externalisation of his personal issues… I guess. I mean, I’m not sure what personifying his issues achieves, or what the film is saying with them.

If I felt it came to some kind of interesting point by the ending, maybe I’d be more on board with it. But Max basically decides he’s had enough of the monsters (he certainly doesn’t seem to solve all their problems) and heads home. I guess he’s realised his home life isn’t so bad after all, but… well, is that it? In the course of one night (which he’s imagined is a longer stretch of time, but still, one night), the kid’s had a complete change of personality and heart? I don’t buy it.

Mournful monsters

Apparently director Spike Jonze has said he intended “to make a movie about childhood” rather than a literal children’s movie, so it would seem my interpretation isn’t too wide of the mark. I’m not sure he told the Warner Bros executives that, though, because they were reportedly so unhappy when they saw Jonze’s initial final cut that they considered reshooting the entire movie — which, with its $75 million price tag, wouldn’t’ve been a small ask. In the end they pushed the release back almost 18 months, giving Jonze more time and money to make a movie that satisfied both himself and the studio; though even after that they still spent 70% of the promotional budget targeting adult viewers, advising parents to “exercise their own discretion”.

Maybe it was that compromise that kicked the meaning out of the film. Maybe it was never there. Maybe I missed something. On the bright side, technical merits are strong: Lance Acord’s cinematography is beautifully golden, and the monster effects (a mix of Jim Henson-made suits and CGI, which replaced animatronic heads that weighed too much) look perfect. But that’s not enough to save a thin and tedious story.

2 out of 5

The Ragtag Review Roundup

My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

    aka Zatôichi rôyaburi

    2018 #257
    Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi the Outlaw

    The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.

    It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.

    Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.

    Hot stuff

    It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.

    This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.

    Violent delights have violent ends

    And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.

    There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.

    4 out of 5

    Unsane (2018)

    2018 #219
    Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Unsane

    Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

    It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

    This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

    Hello, Domino's?

    But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

    From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

    Just say no

    The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

    And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, it’s whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

    4 out of 5

    Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

    Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.

    Blindspot Review Roundup

    Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

    aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

    2018 #241
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Cane Sword

    The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

    Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

    Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

    Zatoichi and his sword

    I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

    Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

    4 out of 5

    The Best & Worst of 2018

    Later than planned, here it is: my picks of the best (and worst) films I saw in 2018! Plus, as usual, a list of some major titles I missed, thus explaining why they’re not on my top list (i.e. because I haven’t seen them).

    I’d hoped to have this up by Sunday morning, but life increasingly got in the way, not helped by it being a more mammoth task than usual. You’d think picking a top 26 would be easier than picking a top 10 (there are more slots!), but you end up with the same dilemmas, just further down the scale. And, of course, a longer list means there are more films to sort into order — I mean, how do you decide which is ‘better’ between a dystopian sci-fi parable, an excoriating relationship drama, and a groundbreaking action movie when you love them all? And that’s just one example…

    Anyway, this is what I ended up with. And just a final reminder before we get going: these films are selected from all 261 movies I saw for the first time in 2018, not just new releases.



    The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018

    This year I watched some films so bad that The Snowman hasn’t made the cut. Perhaps The Snowman is worse than some of these films, and certainly everyone involved in it should’ve done better; but it seems something went wrong during its production (15% of the screenplay wasn’t even shot!), so I feel like those involved can’t be wholly to blame. However, the following five films are (to the best of my knowledge) just bad. So, in alphabetical order…

    The Cloverfield Paradox
    The third film in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi anthology series was dumped on Netflix at short notice, presumably in the hope people would watch it before hearing how terrible it was. Its sci-fi concepts are internally inconsistent, while the Cloverfield connections were clearly retrofitted with reshoots. [Full review.]

    Geostorm
    Talking of nonsensical sci-fi, this is even worse — not only is the science stuff implausibly done, it can’t create plausible character logic either. Big dumb popcorn fun shouldn’t be this dumb, because it stops it being fun. [Full review.]

    Lost in Space
    I avoided this movie for two decades because I heard how bad it was, but then caved when the Netflix reboot came along. Sadly, its reputation is fully deserved — it’s bad in every way you’d care to consider. Even Gary Oldman’s no good in it. And, 20 years on, it also looks incredibly dated.

    Phantasm
    This is a cult favourite with some people (known as “Phans”, I believe), but I thought it was awful. None of it makes any sense, from the mythology to the way characters behave, and it’s not very well made, either.


    Skyline
    Another sci-fi movie! I clearly made some poor genre viewing choices in 2018. Anyway, even his is Cloverfield meets Independence Day filtered through the minds of the directorial brothers behind Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, and is every inch as terrible as that sounds.



    The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018

    Rather than end the year with a good ol’ top ten, since 2016 I’ve been doing a “top 10%”. This year’s record-obliterating tally was 261, so it’s my biggest top “ten” ever too, with 26 films. Think that’s too many? Feel free to scroll down and start wherever you like.

    As I said at the start, all the movies I watched for the first time in 2018 are eligible for this ranking, not just new releases. However, I did watch 50 films that made their UK debut in 2018, and nine of them made it into my top 10%, so I’ve noted their ‘2018 rank’ too.

    26 April and the Extraordinary World

    This French steampunk adventure features gorgeous animation to render a creative alternate history. A sharp turn into pulp sci-fi almost lost me, but it’s too wildly imaginative not to enjoy.

    25 Sholay
    Probably the most iconic Bollywood movie of all time, Sholay’s 3½-hour running time has something for everyone: it’s an action adventure comedy romance musical thriller!

    24 The Lives of Others

    This German Cold War tale is tense and thrilling like a spy movie, but emotionally and politically loaded like an art house drama.

    23 Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
    2018 #9 The year’s best fourth-wall-breaking superhero comedy. It’s a kid-friendly cartoon, but there are plenty of jokes aimed at adult superhero fans too.

    22 Das Boot: The Director’s Cut

    A rounded portrait of life and combat beneath the waves, with one of the most effective surround sound mixes I’ve ever heard.

    21 Network
    A newsroom satire so insightful and timelessly pertinent, you could remake it virtually word-for-word set today.

    The blind masseur-cum-swordsman turns babysitter in this atypical but excellent instalment of the long-running series. [Full review.]

    Rocky returns to train his dead friend’s son in this spin-off that honours the series’ legacy to emotive effect. [Full review.]

    The kind of movie that makes me nostalgic for a time I never experienced (and, to be honest, wouldn’t necessarily actually enjoy). [Full review.]

    17 Muppet Treasure Island
    Our felty friends take to the high seas for one of their best movies, packed with swashing buckles and superb musical numbers.

    16 Suspiria

    Dario Argento’s seminal shocker was remade this year, which led me to finally see the original. It’s a masterpiece of uneasy atmosphere, with striking colours and music.

    2018 #8 Hilariously funny, with some of the best line deliveries of the year (or ever), and cleverer than it has any right to be, this is so good it makes up for the bait-and-switch of the cute dog being prominent on the poster but not in the film. [Full review.]

    14 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    2018 #7 Fantastic performances colour in all the shades of grey for some complicated characters in this dark (but, at times, surprisingly funny) drama.

    Once eyed by Tarantino for a remake, this instalment sees Ichi attempting to atone for all his killing… only to get drawn into protecting a village from a vicious gang boss. [Full review.]

    2018 #6 The Marvel formula, now available in black. But there’s more than that to this film, which plays an Afrofuturist Bond movie. [Full review.]

    11 The Warriors
    A gang must fight their way home across a city out to get them in Walter Hill’s actioner, which is thrilling thanks to an almost-mythological simplicity and directness.

    2018 #5 Netflix attracted a lot of attention by suddenly announcing and releasing this “choose your own adventure” movie at the end of December. Unlike when they pulled that stunt in February (see my worst movies list, above), Bandersnatch merited the hype. It could’ve been a gimmick, but, in the hands of Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team, content mirrors form, and we’re treated to a paranoid sci-fi story that couldn’t’ve been told as well any other way. [Full review.]

    2018 #4 Spider-Men other than Peter Parker have been a fixture of comic books for yonks now, but here they make it to the big screen, accompanied by a powerful message about who can be a hero. Realised with startlingly inventive animation, it’s destined to be a genre classic. [Full review.]

    8
    Full Metal Jacket

    Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie is best known for its bootcamp first half, with the abusive drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey, who brought his experience of having done the job for real. Nonetheless, I was impressed to find the second half (set in Vietnam itself) was equally affecting.

    2018 #3 I’d rather gone off the work of Paul Thomas Anderson in recent years, and a drama about a London fashion house in the ’50s didn’t particularly appeal either… but blow me down with a feather, the combination has produced this work of exquisite beauty. Maybe not “beauty” in the traditional sense, but as a character study of two very particular souls, with more than a touch of Gothic melodrama about its style and story, it’s my kind of beauty. [Full review.]

    2018 #2 This year, the superhero movie went full comic book, with both Spider-Verse and this bringing the storytelling style of a team-up event series to the big screen. In the case of Infinity War, it was the (beginning of a) culmination of ten years’ work that has revolutionised the blockbuster movie business. But even leaving that aside, what Marvel produced here is a film with a scope, scale, and narrative style not quite like any other. [Full review.]

    5
    Heathers

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    Yes, I only got round to seeing La La Land this year. The Best Picture winner that wasn’t, you can certainly see why everyone thought the tradition-led Academy Awards would pick this as their winner — it is, in part, a love letter to classic Hollywood musicals. But the songs are better than just pastiches, there’s a realism to the storytelling and performances that’s more modern, and the whole film sings with the joy of moviemakers dedicated to producing something beautiful. [Full review.]

    3
    Snowpiercer

    If La La Land is about beauty, Snowpiercer is about human ugliness. Its setup may stretch credulity (following an apocalyptic event, the remnants of humanity all live on one long train that constantly circles the globe), but just go with it and you’re treated to an insightful commentary/allegory about class divides and interdependence, wrapped up in a pulse-pounding action thriller with the relentless forward motion of… well, you know what.

    2
    Before Midnight

    The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy catches up with Celine and Jesse in middle age, after years of togetherness, with two kids (plus his kid from a previous relationship) and a host of problems bubbling under the surface. Midnight is notably different from the lovey-dovey-ness of Sunrise and Sunset, but it’s a powerful examination of the tension in a long-term relationship, and all the more so because we’ve connected with these characters on and off in real-time. The first two leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; this is more like being punched in the gut. And yet, together, they are one of the greatest trilogies ever made. (I really hope they do a fourth one, though.)

    2018 #1 I have the whole history of cinema to choose from, but, once again, a new release tops my top ten. Sometimes, with hindsight, I wonder about my picks for #1; other times, I’m pleased to see I was right many years later, as my top film stands the test of time. I suspect this will be one of the latter, because the lengths to which writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and, especially, star Tom Cruise have gone to show us something we’ve never seen done before, and to entertain us with cleverly conceived and astoundingly executed action sequences, is really above and beyond the call of duty. It’s resulted in one of the best action movies ever made. As the first film I felt compelled to see twice on the big screen for nearly a decade, not to mention that I listened to over six hours of podcast interviews with McQuarrie as he dissected it every which way, there couldn’t really be any other pick for my film of the year. [Full review.]


    As ever, there were lots of films I liked a lot that there simple wasn’t room for (my original long list, which I add to throughout the year, had 93 films on it). If I just listed a bunch more films I liked that would be kinda cheating (why not just do a longer list?), but, nonetheless, there are a few I’d like to highlight for specific reasons.

    While compiling my top 10%, I hit on two kinds of movie that I felt should be eliminated from consideration but that I still really wanted to mention in some way. In other years, any or all of these films might’ve made the “best” list, but it was a tough year and something had to go! Well, that’s exactly what “honourable mentions” are for, right?

    The first are movies that were not traditionally “good”, but I still got a lot of enjoyment out of them; what some people might call “guilty pleasures”, I guess. In particular I’m thinking about Gods of Egypt (my review explains all about that) and the 1975 Zorro, which was an entertainingly chaotic romp. Also Happy Death Day, which I really enjoyed as a tonal throwback to turn-of-the-millennium teen horror movies, and Benji, which is a young kids’ film through and through, but with a loveable doggy star to ‘aww’ over.

    The latter crosses over somewhat into the second category: films that were only fairly good overall, but I bloody loved one element of them — so, Benji in Benji, for example. Also: Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin, the Live Aid sequence in Bohemian Rhapsody, and all the action sequences in The Villainess. If I did lists like characters or scenes of the year, they’re the kind of the thing that would be right near the top.

    Now, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, all of which have already been mentioned in this post, one way or another. In chronological order (with links to the relevant monthly update): La La Land, Black Panther, Happy Death Day, Avengers: Infinity War, The Warriors, Sanjuro, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Christopher Robin, Heathers, Suspiria, Creed, and Snowpiercer.

    Finally, I never end this without mentioning all the films that earned 5-star ratings in the year. There were 39 in total during 2018, including 22 that made it into my top 26. Those were Avengers: Infinity War, Before Midnight, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Black Panther, Das Boot: The Director’s Cut, Call Me by Your Name, Creed, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Full Metal Jacket, Heathers, La La Land, The Lives of Others, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Network, Phantom Thread, Sholay, Snowpiercer, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Suspiria, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Warriors, and Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage. The remaining 17 were The 400 Blows, Big Fish, Compulsion, The Director and the Jedi, The Elephant Man, The Hunt, Laura, Paper Moon, Princess Mononoke, Ran, Sanjuro, Scarface, The Shape of Water, Strangers on a Train, Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D, They Shall Not Grow Old, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Plus I also gave full marks when I wrote about rewatches of Blade Runner 2049 (in 3D) and Superman: The Movie.


    I watched 39 films from 2018 during 2018, which leaves a considerable number of notable releases that I’ve not yet seen. Therefore, as is my tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that I’ve not seen which are listed as 2018 on IMDb. That means some of these ‘missed’ films are awards-y movies that aren’t actually out in the UK yet, but that’s the way this goes. (I have included one film that’s listed as 2017, because it only had a handful of festival screenings that year. But there was another that I was going to put here which was actually released in several countries at the end of 2017, so I decided it shouldn’t be allowed. That was, ironically, You Were Never Really Here. Oh how I laughed at the accidental pun. Now you can too, readers.)

    As always, the films in this list have been selected for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety. There are many more I want to see that I could have included, but I always make some attempt to include a spread of styles, genres, successes, and failures.

    Aquaman
    Creed II
    First Man
    Mary Poppins Returns
    Sicario 2: Soldado
    Suspiria
    BlacKkKlansman
    Early Man
    Isle of Dogs
    The Predator
    Skyscraper
    Venom
    Aquaman
    Bad Times at the El Royale
    Bird Box
    BlacKkKlansman
    Bumblebee
    Cold War
    Crazy Rich Asians
    Creed II
    Early Man
    Eighth Grade
    Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
    The Favourite
    First Man
    First Reformed
    The Girl in the Spider’s Web
    Green Book
    The Grinch
    Halloween
    The Happytime Murders
    Hereditary
    Holmes & Watson
    If Beale Street Could Talk
    Isle of Dogs
    Johnny English Strikes Again
    Leave No Trace
    Love, Simon
    Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
    Mandy
    Mary Poppins Returns
    The Meg
    Ocean’s 8
    Pacific Rim: Uprising
    Peter Rabbit
    The Predator
    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    Rampage
    Roma
    Searching
    Sicario 2: Soldado
    A Simple Favour
    Skyscraper
    A Star is Born
    Suspiria
    To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
    Tomb Raider
    Upgrade
    Venom
    Vice
    Widows
    A Wrinkle in Time


    Whew! That’s that over for another year. (Well, aside from the insane number of reviews I still have left to post…)