Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

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  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Review Roundup

    To promote his new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, writer-director Quentin Tarantino has curated a selection of movies from the Columbia vault (because Columbia is owned by Sony, and Sony are releasing OUaTiH) that are in various ways connected to said new movie. Some are influences on its style; some are the kinds of movies that the film’s characters would’ve appeared in; some speak to the societal concerns of the era. Along with film writer Kim Morgan, QT has hosted a “movie marathon” of his ten picks on TV, broadcast in the run-up to OUaTiH’s release in various territories (it’s on Sony-owned channels in 60 countries, and has been sold to other broadcasters in 20 more — “check local listings for details” and all that).

    It’s been on this past week in the UK, airing nightly at 11:30pm on Sony Movie Channel, finishing with a double-bill tonight. If you’ve missed it, Movies4Men are repeating the lot next week from 6:30pm. I’m away from home this weekend so will have to catch some of those repeats, but I did watch the films on earlier in the week, and here are some thoughts on the first two…

  • Model Shop (1969)
  • Getting Straight (1970)
  • (If you watched this series elsewhere and are thinking “but those weren’t the first two films,” you’re right: for no apparent reason they’ve juggled the order in the UK.)


    Model Shop
    (1969)

    2019 #106
    Jacques Demy | 97 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA & France / English

    Model Shop

    The English-language debut of French writer-director Jacques Demy, Model Shop shows us a day in the life of George (2001’s Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old whose disillusionment is ruining his life. He’s quit his job at an architect’s because it was too low-level — he wants to design the big stuff, but isn’t interested in putting in the work to get to that tier. Consequently his girlfriend is getting fed up with him, he’s in debt, and his beloved car is about to be repossessed. George manages to talk the repo man into giving him until the end of the day to find the $100 he owes, and so he sets off on a drive around L.A. to find a friend to borrow it from. That’s when he spots a mysterious glamorous woman (Anouk Aimée) and begins to follow her.

    That perhaps makes the film sound more focused than it seems in viewing. There’s a definite European sensibility in play here — a laid-back, wandering feel, as George drifts around L.A. in his car, meeting up with different friends in different situations. The possibility of the draft hangs over their heads, informing their actions. As Morgan and Tarantino discuss in their introduction, some people might view the conversations and speeches in the film as being unnecessarily ‘heavy’, but it’s more than mere existentialism when there’s a genuine life-or-death experience just an unwanted call-up away.

    The atmosphere all that creates can make the film feel aimless, but, as Tarantino puts it, “the more you talk about Model Shop, the more you realise there is more to talk about.” Even while it feels like nothing is happening, stuff is happening. It’s the kind of film where we’re accumulating knowledge about the character and his world, and sometimes it’s only with hindsight we realise its signficance. At first it may not even seem like there’s much of a story — what could pass for the inciting incident (needing to acquire $100) is actually solved relatively quickly — but there is definitely a story, even if it’s a relatively small, somewhat undramatic one. This combination is I think why Tarantino describes the film as “deceptively simple and deceptively complicated.” I suppose it depends how much you want to see; how much you want to engage.

    “Open the pod bay doors, Lola.”

    Personally, I found George to be an immensely, almost painfully relatable character. The way he doesn’t quite know what he wants to do, just what he doesn’t; the way he doesn’t want to put in the long slog, just jump to the more interesting stuff at the end; the way he drifts and kills time rather than doing anything useful; and his big speech after he’s made to consider his own death “for the first time in [his] life”: he’s not a coward, but he doesn’t want to lose his life, because what’s better than life? Only, perhaps, art that reflects it. I’m not saying I am George, exactly, but boy, there were reflections.

    I was less engaged by Anouk Aimée’s character, Lola, who, once she’s properly introduced, takes over somewhat. Turns out she’s a character from Demy’s debut feature, Lola, making this a sort of sequel — only “sort of” because, while Model Shop does continue her story, she’s not at all the focus. Apparently a lot of Demy’s films feature crossover characters and connections in this way, which I guess was also an inspiration to Tarantino.

    I’d not heard of Model Shop before it cropped up in Tarantino’s selection, and it’s not been classified by the BBFC since its original release, so I presume it’s never had a video / DVD / etc release in the UK. While I would hardly say it’s some kind of ‘lost’ masterpiece, it does evoke a place and a time and the kind of lives that may’ve lived there — which is precisely why QT showed it to his Once Upon a Time crew, for the way it depicted L.A. in 1969 (he reckons it’s possibly the best movie ever for showing Los Angeles). Some of it is interesting, but at other times it retains that sense of aimlessness. It’s far from meritless, but I can also see why it’s the kind of film that’s been half forgotten.

    3 out of 5

    Getting Straight
    (1970)

    2019 #107
    Richard Rush | 120 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Getting Straight

    According to Quentin Tarantino (I suppose I could try to independently verify this, but I haven’t), Getting Straight is one of four “campus radical” movies that were all released in 1970 (the other three are Zabriskie Point, R.P.M., and The Strawberry Statement). It stars Elliot Gould as Harry Bailey, a post-grad student at an unnamed Californian university, where he intends to qualify as a teacher, but where he’s also revered by the other students for his history of activism — even as he’s basically trying to join the establishment, they’re trying to lure him back to his old radical ways, beliefs he hasn’t left behind but doesn’t seem to wholly stand by anymore… or does he?

    So Harry is, on the surface, a potentially interesting main character: someone caught between the revolutionary youth and the establishment; who tells the youth why they’re dreaming and deluded, and tells the old men why they need to listen and buck up their ideas; but who is, therefore, conflicted about his own place in it all. But while putting someone in the middle might seem like a fair why to argue for both sides, it’s a bit obvious; allowing the film to have its cake and eat it, to an extent. And while it might seem objectively true that Harry is conflicted, evidenced by his flip-flopping from side to side, he seems pretty sure of himself for most of the film. There’s little done to explore his fence-sitting; to question his status as someone who proclaims to believe certain things yet seems to still find himself sat in the middle. Is he a hypocrite? If he is, I’m not sure the film bothers to interrogate that. So, if he isn’t, is that just because the film doesn’t want to show him as one? Perhaps we’re meant to buy that he’s the only sane person in a mad world, which seems a bit of a cliché.

    At the end Harry does ultimately pick one side, dramatically rejecting the establishment to go join rioting students. Why? He’s goaded into snapping by a professor’s smug, self-satisfied interpretation of The Great Gatsby, but if we’re meant to know why this bugs him so then I missed it. Does he reject the reading? Is it the tone of it, which is like being lectured down to? Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I didn’t really follow that as an arc. Earlier in the film Harry talks about finding a student riot sexy, a turn on, and then the movie ends with him and his girlfriend stripping off to shag literally in the middle of a riot, which does make you wonder if he was just thinking with his dick. I mean, he was for half of the rest of the film.

    Ranting and rioting

    With its focus on Harry, Getting Straight is something of a character study, and if this is anyone’s film it’s Gould’s. At times he gets a chance to expose different sides of this divided person, but he also certainly does a lot of shouting, lecturing, and ranting in the role. So maybe instead it’s about the times, with Harry basically a cipher to explore pertinent issues and different sides. It’s based on a 1967 novel, so was a relatively prompt adaptation, though to remain timely it would’ve had to be. Then again, Leonard Maltin’s movie guide apparently describes it as a “period piece”, and there’s a point there: the film is so much about that specific point in time that it couldn’t be set anytime else. Along with the slightly detached view of its main character, it doesn’t seem to be in or of the moment, like you might expect from a countercultural film made during the actual counterculture. It’s reflecting on it, like a period movie.

    Getting Straight is “one of [Quentin Tarantino’s] favourite movies ever,” or so he says, which unfortunately is a sentiment I can’t get on board with. I’m not even sure I can stretch to giving it a passing grade, because it was a bit too freewheeling and, by the end, in spite of the climactic ranting and rioting, kinda boring.

    2 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, 14th August.

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

    aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

    2019 #99
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

    Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

    This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

    After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

    Creating a new one-armed swordsman

    An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

    The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

    The real one-armed swordsman

    Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

    The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

    4 out of 5

    The Eleventy-First Monthly Review of July 2019

    I’ve been writing 100 Films for 151 months now, but I only instituted these monthly progress reports in May 2010 — and that makes this the 111th one! I think that’s worthy of a Hobbity celebration…

    I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

    Coincidentally, it’s also the 50th month of these “new look” monthly updates (the ones with the funny titles and all the formal sections), which means it’s also the 50th iteration of my Arbie Awards. You can see how I’ve honoured that special occasion when you reach the relevant section.

    But before that, there’s this…


    #99 Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken
    #100 The Killer (1989), aka Dip huet seung hung
    #101 Toy Story 4 (2019)
    #102 Sherlock Jr. (1924)
    #103 The Lion King (2019)
    The Killer
    .


    • So, I watched just five feature films in July.
    • That continues my new fewer-than-10-films-per-month streak. Once upon a time such numbers were my norm (from 2008-2013, 58% of months had 9 or fewer films), but for the past few years it, er, really wasn’t (in 2014-2018, 95% of months had 10 or more films).
    • My longest previous fewer-than-ten streak was 7 months, from June to December 2011. If 2019 continues the way it’s going, it could replicate that exactly. But, equally, a lot can change: at the end of July 2016 I was at #127 and went on to finish the year with 195, and in July 2017 I was at #107 and ended on 174; but July 2015 was lower than both of those, ending at #102, and I went on to reach 200. So while I’ll be very surprised if 2019 even comes close to last year’s 261, never say never.
    • In terms of averages, it’s distinctly less heartening. It takes the average for July down from 9.9 to 9.5, leaving it as the only month with an average lower than 10. It also brings the 2019-to-date average down from 16.3 to 14.7, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 17.8 to 15.9.
    • Of of the five films I did watch, one was #100 — later than I’d anticipated, because my underwhelming June tally didn’t get me there, but still the 3rd earliest #100 ever (behind 2018 (10th May) and 2016 (28th May), and ahead of 2017 (15th July)).
    • It was a double catch-up for last month, too: I missed my should-be-monthly Blindspot film in June, so made a selection from that list to be 2019’s illustrious #100. My pick was John Woo’s career-defining heroic bloodshot classic The Killer. Still holds up today, for my money. It’d be nice if we could get a quality Blu-ray release of it, though.
    • And this month’s WDYMYHS film was Buster Keaton’s slapstick classic Sherlock Jr. At 45 minutes, it’s just long enough to qualify as a feature rather than a short. As well as the comedy, it has madcap stunts Tom Cruise would be proud of, and technical effects that still hold up almost 100 years later.
    • Finally, from last month’s “failures” I watched only Toy Story 4. Well, one is better than none…



    The 50th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    It’s the 50th Arbie Awards! In honour of that milestone, I’m… not doing anything special whatsoever. So let’s get on with this:

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Not much to choose from, though I did really enjoy almost all of the limited selection of films I did watch. The winner, though, is an action movie… and also a comedy: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which (as I said above) is not only very funny but also technically audacious and full of daredevil stunts.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    This is an easy pick. I didn’t hate it, but I was certainly left underwhelmed by Jon Favreau’s too-faithful live-action animated remake of animation The Lion King.

    Song That Should’ve Been Retitled of the Month
    Can You Feel the Love Tonight This Afternoon?

    Joke I Stole from Letterboxd of the Month
    See above + here.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    It was a relatively meagre month for new posts. Well, in fact, there were 10, and my average for the first six months of 2019 was 13, so maybe not so relatively low after all. Whatever, none of those new posts challenged archival ones for popularity: this month’s victor may’ve been a Netflix new release (outside the US) but it only came 39th overall. Perhaps Shaft isn’t the man after all.



    I didn’t rewatch a single film last month, which means I’ve got a mountain to climb to get to my goal of 50 rewatches this year — and July is barely helping…

    #21 Die Another Day (2002)

    To stay on target I should be on about #28 by this point. Oh dear. And the one I did watch was a fluke: I happened across it on TV the other day and ended up sucked in. So, okay, I didn’t really watch it — certainly not all of it — but I did see a fair bit of it; probably a comparable amount to when I caught Skyfall on TV last year, and I counted that, so here it is. I’m still intending to re-watch all of Bond properly at some point (or at least pick up where I left off, which was with OHMSS); but then I’ve been meaning to do that ever since the Bond 50 Blu-ray set came out in 2012…


    I made a couple of trips to the cinema this month, but I still missed some big titles — primarily, Spider-Man: Far from Home. There was also Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle/Beatles comedy Yesterday (which actually came out in June, but I didn’t mention it last month), and smaller releases (which therefore weren’t necessarily playing near me or at accessible times) like Midsommar and The Dead Don’t Die. (If you’re a US-based reader wondering why I haven’t mentioned Quentin Tarantino’s successful new film, it’s not out here for another two weeks.)

    Last month I noted that some cinema misses from February had now made it to disc, where I’d missed them again. That’s also true this month, with the release of Alita: Battle Angel. The same was true of Dumbo, though that was from my April failures — the fact it and Alita have now reached disc at about the same time shows something about the vagaries of release windows, I guess. Finally on disc, a rewatch candidate: Captain Marvel (not that I’ve posted a review from when I saw it in the cinema yet).

    The noisiest releases on streaming this month were TV series, but a couple of Amazon co-productions came to Prime Video: Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and Beautiful Boy, with a BAFTA-nominated performance from Timothée Chalamet. As for Netflix, they offered doc The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is the kind of thing that’s destined to sit on my watch list for ever and a day. They also threw up some stuff I missed from last year in the form of Paul Feig’s black-comedy mystery A Simple Favour and acclaimed comedy-drama Blindspotting.


    So, in conclusion, July’s prospects were marred by my being away on holiday for almost half the month. Perhaps that means August will see things perk up again…

    The Past Month on TV #49

    I’ve only got a small selection of TV viewings to offer this month (check out the “things to catch up on” section for all the big stuff I’ve missed), but at least that means it can be headlined by a series that I hope gets the attention it deserves…

    Year of the Rabbit  Series 1
    Year of the RabbitRipper Street gets a comedic makeover in Channel 4’s recent comedy series, which stars Matt Berry (of Toast of London fame, and also recently seen starring in the series version of What We Do in the Shadows) as a Victorian detective by the name of Rabbit. He investigates murders and other nefarious goings-on amid the scum of the East End accompanied by a rookie posh-boy sidekick (Freddie Fox) and the force’s first female officer (Susan Wokoma).

    Rabbit juggles three things at once: being a comedy, being a case-of-the-week cop show (with basic storylines that would hold up in a genuine cop show), and also a conspiracy arc plot. That it pulls all three off (just about) with only c.25 minutes per episode is impressive. In that respect it reminded me a bit of BBC Two’s wonderful The Wrong Mans, which was definitely a comedy but also definitely a crime thriller. The style and tone of the humour is very different, mind: Wrong Mans was quite grounded, whereas this is kookier and borderline surreal, as you’d expect from Berry, really. By way of example: every episode features an aside of street urchins selling a different East End delicacy, like “twigs in a bun”. It’s also quite freewheeling: running gags are quickly established and just as quickly abandoned; other things that seemed like discardable bits come back later.

    The three leads are stars that ably carry the show. Berry’s talents are well documented (I guess to a lot of people he’s Toast, but I’ve never actually got round to that. I always remember him from one of his first roles, in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). Fox’s family legacy may suggest he could play “posh boy” in his sleep, but a stint undercover as a Cockney geezer proves his range. Wokoma more than holds her own as the young woman determined to break into the police (her dad may be the boss, but he’s no help) and prove she’s as good as the guys. The recurring supporting cast are their equal, including Paul Kaye as a rival copper out to ruin Rabbit, Keeley Hawes as a scheming feminist, and, most memorably, David Dawson as a theatrically camp Joseph ‘Elephant Man’ Merrick (under a movie-quality prosthetic — the production values are no slouch either). There’s also blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Berry’s Shadows collaborators, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

    Rabbit wraps up its arc plot, but ends with a tantalising tease for a second series storyline. It’s not been recommissioned yet, but I’ve optimistically labelled this “series one” because the writers already have ideas for more and, well, I really want some more.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Shadow PlayHaving exhausted the top tens of both IMDb’s and ScreenCrush’s Twilight Zone episode rankings in my four previous “best of” selections, I’ve still only scratched the surface of the series: I’ve reviewed 16 episodes, which is 10% of the 156 that were produced. Now: the only reason I’ve been using ScreenCrush’s list is that I happened to see it on Twitter — it’s certainly not the only ranking of its kind. So after a bit of Googling for alternatives (which included rejecting BuzzFeed’s list because it was consistently illustrated with bloody big spoilers), I’ve decided to use Paste’s ranking to dictate which episodes I watch next. That’s partially because 50% of their top ten is episodes that weren’t in either IMDb’s or ScreenCrush’s, so that’s quite interesting. Indeed, their writer, Oktay Ege Kozak, has some very different opinions to ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer, as we’ll soon see…

    First, for reference, the episodes in Paste’s top ten that I’ve already reviewed are: Eye of the Beholder (Paste’s #1, IMDb’s #3, ScreenCrush’s #11); The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Paste’s #2, IMDb’s #5, ScreenCrush’s #1); Time Enough at Last (Paste’s #3, IMDb’s #4, ScreenCrush’s #4); Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Paste’s #5, IMDb’s #2, ScreenCrush’s #14); and The Hitch-Hiker (Paste’s #8, IMDb’s #21, ScreenCrush’s #6). Not a huge deal of disagreement there, but some of the gaps are about to get wild.

    Indeed, the second-biggest difference is up first: season two’s Shadow Play is right up in 4th on Paste’s list, but a whopping 98 places lower at 102nd on ScreenCrush (it’s 22nd on IMDb). It’s the story of a man sentenced to execution, who claims that they’re all living inside his dream and if he’s executed everyone else will cease to exist. Is he trying to plead insanity… or might he just be telling the truth? Paste are on the money here: this is a great little story, with Dennis Weaver as the condemned man driven to the brink by (he claims) being executed over and over in a never-ending nightmare; and, on the other side, the DA and court reporter struggle with the idea that he might be telling the truth, meaning they’re not people at all but mere figments in someone else’s dream. It’s a horror story of a nightmare and an existential musing all in one, with a strong vein of tension about what will happen in the end. Kozak praises it for pulling all that off, but Singer counters that “the premise is too convoluted [with] two ideas that would each work more effectively on their own.” I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t wholly agree — if you disconnect the two ideas, they’d both need something to fill the resultant gap in order to function as narratives.

    Five Characters in Search of an ExitThere’s closer agreement about Paste’s 6th choice, season three’s Five Characters in Search of an Exit, which ranks 14th on IMDb and 32nd on ScreenCrush. Singer writes that “if you enjoy the movie Cube you have this episode written by Serling from a story by Marvin Petal to thank,” which immediately put it high on my must-see list because I love Cube. This has a similar premise: five mismatched strangers awaken in a featureless metal cylinder, each with no memory of who they are and how they got there. The top of their de facto prison is open — if they can just climb up there, maybe they can find answers. The result is both a mystery drama about just what’s going on, and something of a character study on dealing and coping with situations you can’t explain or change. Naturally, there’s a twist ending. In fact, at one point the characters, theorising about why and how and where they are, list a bunch of options that all sound like Twilight Zone endings. It’s quite a bold move, really; almost acknowledging the show’s MO, and casually discarding a bunch of potential conclusions in the process — and if one of them was your guess, well, the show’s just laughingly dismissed you before the halfway mark! Weirdly, though, I did manage to guess the twist pretty precisely from early on. I’m not sure how, really — blind luck, I think, because there’s nothing to tip its hand. Possibly it’s just experience: as with so many Twilight Zone twists, this was probably highly innovative and/or unusual back in the ‘60s, but has been imitated and copied (deliberately or otherwise) since. Still, as a mystery thriller, the episode is as good as any of the similar works that have been produced in its wake.

    The InvadersOne of the series’ more famous episodes is in 7th place for Paste (IMDb #28, ScreenCrush #58): The Invaders, starring Agnes Moorehead as the lone inhabitant of a remote shack, who must suddenly deal with hostile six-inch spacemen landing their saucer on her roof. It’s a near-silent drama, as Moorehead is terrorised by the miniature monsters and struggles to fend them off. And, obviously, there’s a twist. I don’t want to sound boastful, but, yeah, I saw it coming. I’ve said this many times now, but I really do suspect the series is a victim of its own success in this regard — it’s 60 years old and highly influential, so of course all the media a modern viewer has experienced leaves us ready to guess the outcomes. Actually, I bet it’d be a great show for kids — a formative experience; and, with less media exposure, the twists might retain the appropriate level of mind-blowing-ness. Anyway, at least The Invaders has more going for it than just the final reveal, with the woman vs the mini-spacemen playing like a tense horror movie. There’s a lot of praise for Moorehead’s performance, but I thought she was overacting somewhat in compensation for her lack of dialogue. In fairness, though, this was made for 1961 TV sets — with no speech to work with, the performance needed to be ‘big’ to come over on those tiny tellies. Unfortunately, it’s another mark against the episode when watched in HD on a modern setup.

    Two season one episodes round out Paste’s top ten, both of which are placed considerably higher than on ScreenCrush’s list. In 9th place is Perchance to Dream, which is ranked way down at 128th on ScreenCrush, and 87th on IMDb — both sizeable gaps, and in this case I side with the latter. It’s about a man with a weak heart who thinks his dreams are trying to kill him, only it’s somehow much more dull than that setup sounds. It doesn’t even have any great point or twist to cap it off. Kozak reckons this is a “haunting, cinematically captivating campfire story [that] never lets go of its meticulously built suspense until the wickedly unforgiving finale,” an opinion I don’t agree with a word of, sadly. Singer says that “while Conte’s character is terrified to fall asleep, the whole thing is a bit of snooze,” and that I do agree with.

    The LonelyFinally for now is The Lonely, which is ranked 10th on Paste (obv.) but only 105th on ScreenCrush (IMDb is much closer at 27th). Sorry to harp on about this, but here’s another episode that may’ve been great once but recent years have seen other films and TV series tackle similar themes in much greater depth, far surpassing the mere 20-odd minutes it’s afforded here. Indeed, this is the rarest of things in my experience: a Twilight Zone episode where 25 minutes isn’t enough to explore its concept. It’s about a man imprisoned in solitary confinement. His cell? An entire asteroid (filmed on location in Death Valley, which adds a magnificent grit and desolation to the visuals). He’s visited quarterly by a supply ship, and after a few years the captain takes pity on him and brings a robot woman to be his companion. It’s as good a setup as any, but the episode simply doesn’t have the time to dig into the questions and musings it throws up — though it’s not helped by wasting most of the first half on chatter between the prisoner and the captain, establishing their relationship more fully than the one between the prisoner and his robo-woman; a relationship the episode supposedly hinges on.

    So if there’s one Twilight Zone episode that begs to be remade and expanded upon, it’s this one. It’s even ripe for someone to add one of the series’ trademark ironic twists — I thought of two or three while watching, but the episode itself doesn’t have one, exactly (I mean, it kinda does, but it’s more a plot development than a final, cruel twist of the knife like the series’ best). But then again, does it need remaking when other storytellers have already taken up this episode’s theme and expounded on it better? This is a forerunner to the likes of Her and Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 and the Westworld TV series. You’ll note those are all very recent works (the eldest, Her, has yet to reach its 6th anniversary), which perhaps shows how far ahead of its time The Twilight Zone was. But their thoughtfulness also really shows up how little The Lonely actually has to say about its subject matter.

    Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 1 Episodes 5-6 — Accidentally fell behind on this and only just finished it. My review of the first half of the series is here and still applies. Happily, it’s already been recommissioned for a second series.
  • How to Break into the Elite — This sounds like a bit of a “get rich quick” documentary or something, but it was actually far more insightful. Basically, about how class is the last great barrier to employment in the UK; the one thing recruiters still discriminate on (even if it’s subconsciously, or they don’t say it). To some (i.e. those who’ve struggled in the system) it might all feel obvious, but there’s evidence and proof to back it up. It’s available on iPlayer (for another 11 months) if you’re interested.
  • University Challenge Series 49 Episodes 1-3 — An excellent show for making you feel astoundingly unknowledgeable. I kill it whenever a film- or TV-related picture round comes up, though.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Stranger Things 3This month, I have mostly been missing Stranger Things season 3, which seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have seen news headlines that imply as much); and Veronica Mars season 4, which, er, seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have also seen news headlines that imply as much). As they’re only eight episodes apiece, hopefully I’ll have found time for them before next month’s column. (Veronica Mars still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster (in fact, I don’t think it has one anywhere outside of the US and Canada, I guess thanks to it being on Hulu (though other Hulu shows have international carriers, so who knows what’s going on here)), but where there’s a will there’s a way.) And if that wasn’t enough, Amazon also recently released subversive comic book adaptation The Boys, which also looks right within my wheelhouse. That’s also eight episodes, incidentally. I seem to remember reading a while ago that Netflix’s research suggested eight was the optimum number of episodes to have in a season nowadays. I guess everyone took that to heart.

    Next month… see above (with crossed fingers).

  • Il blogger prodigo

    Aside

    Buongiorno, dear readers — the prodigal blogger has returned! (“Prodigal” being a word I’ve here misused, as I’m sure many of us do, thanks to that Biblical story. Though as it actually means “spending money freely and recklessly”, anyone who’s seen the size of my unwatched DVD and Blu-ray collection might consider it fitting after all.)

    So, I’ve just spent two weeks in Italy, much of it during a heat wave (Jesus wept, it was hot), so at least I got to laze about doing next to nothing. I certainly didn’t spend it learning Italian — almost the entirety of the vocabulary I picked up has already been used in this post. I didn’t spend it writing blog posts either, as it turned out (I favoured reading books instead) — so that’s why there are no new reviews just yet, but instead this brief post to note my return.

    Anyhow, I’ve got plenty of blog-reading and review-writing to catch up on now, so if you’ll excuse me again…

    The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

    2019 #90
    Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

    The Girl in the Spider's Web

    I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

    The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

    Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

    l33t h4x0r skillz

    Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the reason she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

    And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

    Yas Queen!

    Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

    As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

    Burning down the franchise

    Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

    3 out of 5

    The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Shaft (2019)

    2019 #98
    Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Shaft (2019)

    I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

    John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

    Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

    Still a sex machine to all the chicks

    This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

    The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

    Shaft cubed

    So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

    3 out of 5

    Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

    aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

    2019 #80
    Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

    No, this isn’t a film about a samurai at a ‘luxury’ music festival (and that’s the extent of Fyre references you’ll get here, because I’ve not watched either documentary and don’t really know much about it). Rather, this 21st entry in the long-running Zatoichi series (once released on UK DVD as Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, and also known by sundry other variations of those words) sees the eponymous blind masseur-cum-swordsman clash with evil underworld boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori). This boss is as blind as Ichi, which he initially uses to claim a kinship with the masseur, but then Yamikubo engages in a series of schemes to kill our hero. Meanwhile, a nameless ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) stalks Ichi too, intending to kill him for an imagined slight.

    More or less business as usual for a Zatoichi adventure, then. The blindness of the villain should really add an extra frisson of something — it’s a clear parallel with Ichi, after all — but I’m not sure it does, in actuality. More striking is that Fire Festival is pretty sex obsessed. Sex has been a factor of Zatoichi films before, but I’m not sure any other is as consumed by it as this one. It starts with a mistress auction and teases of nudity; the mystery ronin’s quest is to kill everyone who slept with his wife, which he thinks includes Ichi; the major set-piece is a fight in a bathhouse between Ichi and an army of assassins, all of whom are stark naked; Ichi spends an evening with five prostitutes; the villains decide the best way to kill our hero is with a honey trap (who winds up genuinely falling for Ichi, of course); there’s the roadhouse owners we randomly come across, who are casually perverse… and that’s all before the one-hour mark. Though if you’re expecting to see flashes of flesh, the nude scenes feature almost Austin Powers-level endeavours to make sure nothing explicit is shown.

    A sweet transvestite?

    There’s also an androgynous fellow called Umeji, who’s played be Peter, aka Pītā, aka Shinnosuke Ikehata — to quote his Wikipedia page, “one of Japan’s most famous gay entertainers, Peter’s androgynous appearance has enabled him to often play transvestite characters and he often appears on stage in women’s clothing.” He first gained attention the year before, as the lead in Funeral Parade of Roses, and later would have a supporting role in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Here he’s the pimp of those aforementioned five prostitutes, part of an attempt to prove he’s a “real man”. That doesn’t really work out, so his next attempt is to try seducing Ichi. It’s a startling, unexpected sequence in a genre film of this era, especially as he seems to get quite far — I mean, they end up under a bedsheet where we can’t see exactly what’s going on… until a knife slips out, anyway, with which Umeji was trying to kill Ichi. Naturally Ichi’s not impressed by that murder attempt, although he has nothing to say about the apparent homosexuality.

    Peter isn’t the only noteworthy face here. Easily missed by Western audiences are Utae and Reiji Shoji as that roadhouse couple I mentioned — apparently they came from family of famous comedians, which perhaps explains all the screen time they’re given. More recognisable is Nakadai, who would also later star in Ran, and also appeared in Yojimbo and The Human Condition trilogy, amongst many more. One of those others is another samurai movie, The Sword of Doom, in which he reportedly plays a very similar character to his role here — I’ve not seen it so can’t vouch for that myself, but many other reviews cite the comparison. Depending which of those you listen to, he’s either “comically bad” (DVD Talk) or “puts in a stellar performance” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises). His character is a bit of an odd one — his motivation is thin and decisions border on nonsensical — but Nakadai brings immense presence to the role nonetheless.

    Is that a katana or are you just happy to see me?

    Mind, most of the rest of the film’s plot is similarly confounding. It starts with a title sequence in which Ichi tries to run away from a little barking dog, ends with an out-of-nowhere scene where Ichi turns down a horse ride, and in between is almost as odd and randomly constructed as those two extremes. And yet it does tick most of the regular Zatoichi boxes, especially in terms of the action scenes. They’re as slickly choreographed and staged as ever, continuing to come up with fresh ideas even after all these movies. The nude bathhouse fight is the obvious standout, but there’s also a finale where Ichi faces down an army and a cunning foe with a hostage, but has a trick up his sleeve… literally! (Ho ho ho.)

    If you’re wondering where the titular festival has got to in all this, well, it never really turns up. The climax does begin with Ichi stranded in the middle of a lake that’s then set alight, but that’s not really a “fire festival”, is it? But it is a visually arresting sequence, just one of several throughout the film. This is the last contribution to the Zatoichi films from director Kenji Misumi, who directed the first and would end up tied for the title of the series’ most prolific director; and also for cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot six of the films for various directors; and they both go out on a visual high with their work here. (I don’t like to over-clutter my reviews with pictures, so here are just a few additional memorable shots I grabbed. And this is really in a class of its own for images that evoke a sense of smell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

    The film’s story, as I said, is less commendable. Altogether, it makes for a movie that I wouldn’t rank among the Zatoichi series’ finest achievements, but nonetheless has its share of entertainment value for fans.

    4 out of 5

    The Puny Monthly Review of June 2019

    All good things must come to an end, and so a half-decade-long streak has concluded… well, we now know said streak ended last month, but it was this month that actually put a stop to it.


    #95 Deadwood (2019)
    #96 Murder Mystery (2019)
    #97 Untouchable (2011), aka Intouchables
    #98 Shaft (2019)

    (That poster was so pathetically small, I almost felt I shouldn’t bother… but then I wrote this note, meaning I could embiggen the image to go alongside here too, at which point it became much more satisfactory. Yay formatting!)

    Deadwood: The Movie
    .


    • So, I only watched 4 new feature films in June.
    • On the downside, that ends a five-year streak of watching at least 10 films every month. (A streak that lasted exactly five years, by-the-way — I forgot to mention that last month.)
    • On the bright side, it means there’s some slightly different stuff to talk about in these stats. Like, for example, that June 2019 is the lowest-totalling month since June 2013, which was six whole years ago.
    • It’s the 150th month of 100 Films, by-the-by, but also the 15th with 4 or fewer films. That means it’s in the bottom 10% of all months, which is its own kind of achievement.
    • It takes the average for June down from 10.5 to 10.0, meaning it just keeps its head above the waterline for something I’ve been working on for a while now, i.e. getting every month’s average above 10. (The only remaining outlier is July, which is on 9.9, so that’ll be fun next month…)
    • It also takes the average for 2019 so far down from 18.8 to 16.3, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 19.3 to 17.8.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: true-story French comedy-drama Untouchable, aka Intouchables in its original language, aka The Intouchables in the US. It’s amusing and heartwarming, but its elevated position on lists like the IMDb Top 250 oversells it somewhat.
    • There’s no Blindspot film this month. If I hadn’t upped my goal to 12 films on both lists that’d be fine, but now I’ve got one to catch up.
    • I also watched nothing from last month’s “failures”, so I guess that makes them a double failure. Oh dear.



    The 49th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Not much to choose from this month, obviously, so the belated TV movie revival/finale of Deadwood walks away with this one easily.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    It’s come in for a pasting from critics and box office figures alike, but I thought the new Shaft was passably entertaining, but as it’s fuelled by outdated gags and a buddy-movie tone that sits awkwardly with the franchise, it’s certainly the weakest of this meagre selection.

    Ranking All the Shaft Films I’ve Seen
    1) Shaft
    2) Shaft
    3) Shaft

    Look, I’m Struggling To Think of Categories For This Because I Only Watched 4 Films This Month, Okay?
    Er, I think that ‘award’ title just about covers it…

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Adam Sandler’s latest film generated Netflix’s biggest ever ‘opening weekend’ viewership this month, being watched by almost 31 million accounts over its first three days. So it’s no surprise to see Murder Mystery easily top this month’s list of my most-visited new posts — it had almost 15 times as many views as the post in second place.



    Considering I couldn’t even keep up with my main list goals, it should come as no surprise that my Rewatchathon suffered — and suffered worse, too, as I didn’t rewatch a single film this month. Oh well.


    In a month where I watched so little, it should come as no surprise that I failed to watch plenty of stuff in particular. On the big screen, I missed the finale for this iteration of the X-Men, Dark Phoenix, as well as attempted franchise revival Men in Black: International (based on the poor reviews, I expect said revival will be short-lived), and the seemingly-unnecessary but now acclaimed Toy Story 4. That last one looks like it’ll be playing for a while, so maybe I’ll catch it yet.

    At home, a couple of things I missed at the cinema in February have now made it to disc, where I failed to watch them again — namely, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which I bought) and The Kid Who Would Be King (which I didn’t, mainly because I couldn’t tell if its UK 4K release was actually happening or not (I suspect it’s not)). Other recent purchases fall into the Rewatchathon bracket: Glass, Annihilation, Schindler’s List, and the Mummy trilogy… although I never got round to seeing the third one, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, so, er, that’s not a rewatch.

    Actually, between sales and limited edition new releases, I also added a bunch of older films to my unseen pile, including The Blood on Satan’s Claw; The Holy Mountain; John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death; and Arrow box sets presenting trios of early Brian De Palma works (The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom!) and Jia Zhangke films (24 City, A Touch of Sin, and Mountains May Depart). I really ought to get on with watching some of them…


    I’m away on holiday for half of next month, so, along with everything else going on, there’s a very real chance July will continue this fewer-than-10-films streak — though hopefully it won’t be as disastrous as July 2009