The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

2016 #152
John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

4 out of 5

Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

aka Du bei dao wang

2016 #101
Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

3 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #67

There were three men in her life.
One to take her…
one to love her…
and one to kill her.

Original Title: C’era una volta il West

Country: Italy, USA, Spain & Mexico
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 166 minutes (international) | 145 minutes (US theatrical) | 175 minutes (Italy)
BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | 15 (1989) | 12 (2011)
MPAA: PG (1969) | PG-13 (2003)

Original Release: 21st December 1968 (Italy)
UK Release: 14th August 1969
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Claudia Cardinale (, Fitzcarraldo)
Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men)
Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, Tora! Tora! Tora!)
Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish)

Director
Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

Screenwriters
Sergio Donati (Face to Face, A Fistful of Dynamite)
Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite)

Story by
Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria)
Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, For a Few Dollars More)

The Story
The mysterious Harmonica arrives in the town of Flagstone, out for revenge against Frank. Frank, working for a railroad baron, is busy murdering Brett McBain for his land and blaming the crime on the bandit Cheyenne. Cheyenne teams up with Harmonica to help McBain’s newly-arrived widow, and therefore owner of his land, Jill. Jill finds herself caught in the crossfire between the three men pursuing their own interests…

Our Heroes
Jill McBain, a former prostitute who’s still subject to the will and whims of men. Harmonica, a formidable gunslinger known only by the instrument he plays. Even Cheyenne, a bandit leader, is a good buy when they’re all arranged against…

Our Villain
Frank, the meanest sonuvabitch in the West. What did he do to Harmonica in the past? What will he do to Jill to get his way? Nothing good…

Best Supporting Character
Crippled railroad tycoon Morton only wants to intimidate the McBains to relinquish their land, which I guess makes him a nice guy when compared to his murderous handyman, Frank, who he clearly can’t control.

Memorable Quote
Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
Snaky: “Well, looks like we’re… looks like we’re shy one horse.”
Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

Memorable Scene
In one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, three gunmen arrive at a train station and… wait for a train. For ten minutes. Ten real-time minutes, accompanied only by sounds like a squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, and distant bird cries. Then the train arrives… and then the train leaves… and then a harmonica plays. And the action… threatens to start. Ah, Leone.

Memorable Music
It’s a Sergio Leone film, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone score — and it’s one of his best. It was composed before shooting began so Leone could play it on set, so it fits like a glove. The best bits include the striking leitmotifs: a haunting one for Jill, with wordless vocals by Edda Dell’Orso, and a dramatic one for Harmonica, threatening guitar combined with a melody played on a… well, you know.

Technical Wizardry
The entire picture looks fantastic thanks to the work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. It displays all the framing and composition Leone is famous for, but also evokes an oppressive hot, sweaty feeling, and the light and texture of the image have pure cinematic quality. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Letting the Side Down
Leone’s original plan was for the three gunmen in the opening scene to be cameos for the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach — but Eastwood (who’d already turned down the role of Harmonica) was unavailable. Shame.

Next time…
Considered by some to be the first part of a thematic “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which continues with A Fistful of Dynamite (released in some regions as Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon a Time in America.

What the Critics Said
“The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. […] Once Upon the Time in the West thus is a movie either for the undiscriminating patron or for the buff. If you fall somewhere in between those categories, you had better stay home” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Just so we’re clear, I think this is a terrible review.)

Score: 98%

What the Public Say
“The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on. […] So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but [this] still feels like the genre’s final word.” — Owen Williams

Verdict

America didn’t ‘get’ Once Upon a Time in the West when it first came out (hence the retrospectively laughable reviews, like the one above). The French did, though: it played for literally years in Paris cinemas, even inspiring fashion trends (the long duster coats). I confess, my initial reaction was a little more akin to the Americans’ — OUaTitW can be quite a slow film, and the plot is deceptively obscured until quite late on. But it certainly rewards repeat viewings, because it’s a film of rich content and, perhaps even more importantly, supreme style and technical achievement. The French were right (but don’t tell them that).

#68 will be… completed while you shop.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #66

Far up! Far out! Far more!
James Bond 007 is back!

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, German & French
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | PG (1987)
MPAA: M (1969) | PG (1994)

Original Release: 13th December 1969 (Japan)
UK Release: 18th December 1969
US Release: 18th December 1969
First Seen: TV, c.1995

Stars
George Lazenby (Who Saw Her Die?, Gettysburg)
Diana Rigg (The Assassination Bureau, Theatre of Blood)
Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes)

Director
Peter Hunt (Shout at the Devil, Death Hunt)

Screenwriter
Richard Maibaum (From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me)

Additional dialogue by
Simon Raven (Unman, Wittering and Zigo, The Pallisers)

Based on
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the tenth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

The Story
After James Bond saves the life of Teresa DiVincenzo, her mob boss father offers him information on the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who Bond has been unsuccessfully tracking for years. Operating against orders to drop his investigation, Bond goes undercover in Blofeld’s Swiss research facility to find out what nefarious scheme he’s plotting now…

Our Hero
Bond, James Bond, agent 007 of the British secret service. On this mission, he falls in love and gets married — that never happened to the other fella!

Our Villain
Bond’s second face-to-face confrontation with the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., evil mastermind and archetypal uber-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, now played by Telly Savalas. It’s a very good villainous performance, though possibly suffers by coming after Donald Pleasance’s iconic turn in You Only Live Twice.

Best Supporting Character
Contessa Teresa Draco DiVincenzo — aka Tracy, the only woman headstrong, intelligent, and bold enough to tie down international playboy James Bond.

Memorable Quote
“It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.” — James Bond

Quote No One’s Going to Use in Everyday Conversation Anymore, That’s For Sure
Bond: “I find her fascinating, but she needs a psychiatrist, not me.”
Draco: “What [my daughter] needs is a man… to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!”

Memorable Scene
As M, Q, and Moneypenny sit around wondering where the devil 007 is, a shadowy man drives an Aston Martin accompanied by the Bond theme. (As in we hear it — he’s not got it on the stereo.) To his surprise, he’s overtaken by a woman. A few miles down the road, he sees her car stopped by the beach, and she’s walking out to sea. He runs after her, scoops her up and carries her back to the shore. As she wakes up, we see his face for the first time — and it’s not Sean Connery! But he does say, “My name’s Bond. James Bond.” Then he has a punch-up. A tradition (keeping the new Bond’s face a ‘secret’ until some kind of reveal*) is instantly born.

* Not that this happens in Live and Let Die. Or Casino Royale, really. Oh well.

Write the Theme Tune…
Regular series composer John Barry aimed to help cover for the absence of Connery by making the score “Bondian beyond Bondian”, and this certainly applies to the main title theme: an instrumental number (of which there are only three in the entire series) which is surely second only to the main James Bond theme in its Bondianness. It’s a fantastic action number that sits just as well over the ski sequences as it does the opening titles. (There’s also a great cover version by the Propellerheads on David Arnold’s Shaken Not Stirred album, by-the-by.)

Sing the Theme Tune…
Nonetheless, the film does contain an original song, composed by Barry with lyrics by Hal David, and — most famously — sung by Louis Armstrong in his final recording: We Have All the Time in the World. Considering the 1967 Casino Royale also produced The Look of Love, it was clearly an unusually fertile time for Bond films to produce songs that transcended their origins.

Technical Wizardry
Various methods were used to capture the Alpine action scenes, including camera operators skiing alongside the stuntmen (backwards while holding a camera!), and using Swiss Olympic athletes for the bobsled chase (with the sequence rewritten to incorporate their accidents). Most remarkable, though, was the aerial photography achieved by cameraman Johnny Jordon. To get flexibility to shoot scenes on the move from any angle, he developed a system where he was dangled 18 feet below a helicopter in a parachute harness. Mad.

Looking good, Lazenby!Letting the Side Down
There’s little doubt that George Lazenby is the worst big-screen Bond (though all of those who came after have their detractors), but he’s not actually that bad — he certainly sells the film’s emotional ending in a way I can’t quite picture Connery managing. If he’d stuck around for a few more movies I imagine he’d be better regarded. What really lets him down is his costuming — that frilly-shirt-and-kilt outfit is half the reason people who dislike the film dislike it so much, I swear. (Here it is bigger, if you want a good look.)

Making of
Various stars of The Avengers (the classic British TV series, not the Marvel superheroes) have appeared in the Bond series — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, Patrick Macnee in A View to a Kill (plus narrating loads of the DVD documentaries), and of course Diana Rigg here — all after they appeared on the TV show. The exception is Joanna Lumley, who appears in a small part here a few years before joining The New Avengers. Despite the diminutive size of her role, Lumley spent two months on the production, dubbing the voices of Blofeld’s whole cadre of women using German, Chinese, and Norwegian accents. She also taught the other actresses to crochet, so that was nice.

Previously on…
Five James Bond films starring Sean Connery.

Next time…
After Lazenby pulled out of his contract, Connery returned for Bond’s next adventure. There have been 17 Bond adventures on the silver screen since that, and the series continues indefinitely, with a 25th entry due in 2018 or so. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was adapted for radio in 2014, the fourth of (to date) five Bond radio adaptations starring Toby Stephens as 007.

Awards
1 Golden Globe nomination (Most Promising Male Newcomer (George Lazenby))

How OHMSS Got a Bad Reputation
“I suspect the average filmgoer still believes Lazenby was fired because the movie flopped. Wrong on both counts. OHMSS was not a blockbuster on the scale as Connery’s previous two films, but it was a solid hit. Box-office returns were no reason to fire Lazenby, and he wasn’t fired. He quit. […] OHMSS would go over schedule and over budget and [director Peter Hunt] would continually clash with his producers as well as his star. When OHMSS didn’t prove to be a runaway success, the public would blame Lazenby, but Saltzman and Broccoli and United Artists privately blamed Hunt along with his insistence on creating a tense, serious action film faithful to Fleming. Perversely, the finest film in Broccoli and Saltzman’s series became the model of everything they wanted to avoid in the future. In their desire to run from all that OHMSS represented, they turned the next film, Diamond Are Forever, into the dumbest, sloppiest mess in the series’ history. But Connery had returned so it was another substantial box-office hit, and the producers felt vindicated in their artistically disastrous decisions. The success of Diamonds Are Forever dealt a hit to OHMSS’s reputation. Thankfully, quality cannot go ignored for long and as more people discovered Hunt’s neglected masterpiece, the more admired it has become.” — Jeffrey Westhoff, Culture Spy (that whole piece is excellent, by-the-by)

What the Critics Said
“it is nothing short of miraculous to see a movie which dares to go backward, a technological artefact which has nobly deteriorated into a human being. I speak of the new and obsolete James Bond, played by a man named George Lazenby, who seems more comfortable in a wet tuxedo than a dry martini, more at ease as a donnish genealogist than reading (or playing) Playboy, and who actually dares to think that one woman who is his equal is better than a thousand part-time playmates. […] The love between Bond and his Tracy begins as a payment and ends as a sacrament. After ostensibly getting rid of the bad guys, they are married. They drive off to a shocking, stunning ending. Their love, being too real, is killed by the conventions it defied. But they win the final victory by calling, unexpectedly, upon feeling. Some of the audience hissed, I was shattered.” — Molly Haskell, The Village Voice

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“Not everybody is wrong about this film, of course. Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan are both fond of this film. As am I. There are problems with this film, to be certain, and the problems do lie (mostly) with Lazenby. […] Having gone with the amateur Bond, they upped the ante for the girl. Diana Rigg was already a star from The Avengers and was perfectly suited to be a Bond girl. [She] is the answer, of course, as to why this film ranks as high as it does on the list of Bond films when Lazenby is so lackluster a Bond. Yes, there are good things in the film beside her – the ski scenes, the bobsled scene (you can tell the close-ups are rear projection but the longshots are real and exciting), the tragedy of the ending. But, for the first 40 years of the series she was the height of the Bond girls and she pulls this film higher than we had any right to originally expect.” — Erik, News from the Boston Becks

Verdict

The history of opinion on OHMSS is a fascinating one: written off as a failure, the series’ black sheep thanks to Lazenby and the less fantastical tone than the films that surround it; then gradually rehabilitated precisely because of that tone, to the point where it’s now almost “the Bond fan’s Bond film” (it certainly still has its detractors, who are either baffled by or in denial of its acclaim in other quarters). The ways it subverts the Bond formula are part of what makes it so memorable, but so are the ways it plays up to it, like Blofeld’s mountaintop base: considerably more plausible than the hollowed-out volcano (it’s a real place, for one thing), but no less incredible. Similarly, there’s an atypical plot, but also incredible action sequences — all done for real, too (well, aside from some iffy back projection). It does have faults that hold it back from being the best Bond movie in my estimation, but it’s up with the series’ best nonetheless.

#67 will be… a Western fairytale.

Mary Poppins (1964)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #58

It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G (1972)

Original Release: 27th August 1964 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd December 1964
First Seen: by osmosis in childhood.

Stars
Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music, Torn Curtain)
Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
David Tomlinson (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
Karen Dotrice (The Gnome-Mobile, The Thirty-Nine Steps)

Director
Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

Screenwriter
Bill Walsh (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
Don DaGradi (Blackbeard’s Ghost, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

Based on
the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers.

Music and Lyrics
Richard M. Sherman (The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Robert B. Sherman (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh)

The Story
Not impressed by the nannies selected by their domineering father, Jane and Michael Banks write a letter describing their ideal applicant. Conversely, Mr Banks is not impressed with their requirements, and tears up the letter and throws it in the fire… from whence it reaches Mary Poppins, who floats down to bring fun and discipline to all of the Banks household.

Our Hero
The magical nanny who comes from the sky, Mary Poppins can be (whisper it) actually a little bit annoying at times. Julie Andrews, on the other hand, is practically perfect in every way.

Our Villains
Ultimately, bankers. Some things never change.

Best Supporting Character
Ostensibly this is the story of children Jane and Michael Banks and their need for a SuperNanny to help them with their oh-so-terrible father — and, as a child, that’s where your focus lies. Really (and I guess you need to grow up at least a bit to see this), it’s about how said SuperNanny saves their father, Mr Banks, helping to transform him from a miserable corporate drone into a joyful family man. David Tomlinson negotiates this arc fantastically.

Memorable Quote
“You know, you can say it backwards, which is ‘docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupus’… but that’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?” — Mary Poppins

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” — Mary Poppins

Memorable Scene
Chimneysweeps dancing on the rooftops! (Fun fact: I always thought Step In Time was called Stepping Time. I mean, the dance does contain a lot of, sort of, steps…)

Best Song as a Child
Iiiiiiit’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious. (Sacrilege maybe, but the version from the 2004 stage musical is even better.)

Best Song as an Adult
When I was little, the whole part of the film around the bank, Feed the Birds, etc, was The Boring Bit between the fun and the return of the fun. Now, I still think most of Feed the Birds is a little insipid, but the instrumental reprise as Mr Banks walks slowly back to the bank, his world and everything he knows torn asunder, his humiliation imminent… It’s heartbreaking, and the music is most of the reason why.

Technical Wizardry
The sequence where Mary, the children, and Bert jump into one of the latter’s street paintings — all of it animated, with the exception of the leads — is a sterling extended example of combining live-action with cel animation.

Truly Special Effect
As a lad, I could never work out how exactly they’d managed to create Mary’s bottomless bag. I haven’t watched the film for a while and imagine it’s painfully obvious now… I also used to think the little bird that lands on her hand was a miraculous effect and didn’t understand why some people slagged it off, but then I watched that bit on YouTube a couple of years ago and finally saw what everyone else saw. Oh, the sadness of ageing…

Letting the Side Down
The fact that real cockneys don’t sound like Dick Van Dyke. No, I don’t mean it the other way round — the fact that the real-life denizens of East London sound nothing like Bert is the problem here, not Bert’s accent. That is how I think cockneys should sound, and it always will be.

Making of
See: Saving Mr. Banks. Knowing biopics it’s probably not 100% accurate, but it is a good film.

Next time…
Despite several attempts, a sequel never happened. The director and/or writers worked together on multiple films at Disney over the next few years — most famously, an early-’70s blatant attempt to recreate the Poppins magic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mary Poppins herself returned in 2004 in a Cameron Mackintosh-produced West End musical, based on the film but re-incorporating more from the books. Talk of it being adapted into a film seem to have come to nowt. Instead, a (very) belated sequel with Emily Blunt in the title role is due in 2018.

Awards
5 Oscars (Actress (Julie Andrews), Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee), Substantially Original Score, Editing, Visual Effects)
8 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Sound, Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Julie Andrews))

What the Critics Said
“Of course, it is sentimental. And, as Mary Poppins says, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their feelings.” But being not practically perfect, I find it irresistible. Plenty of other adults will feel the same way. And, needless to say, so will the kids.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“It is the single glowing moment of sheer unmixed genius in the long stretch of lightweight successes and dreary failures that made up nearly three whole decades of Disney’s output in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; a fantasy of the most delicate touch and charming disposition, sweet and precious while being neither sickening nor cloying.” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Verdict

I feel like Mary Poppins is the kind of movie that it would’ve been easy to overlook in putting together this list of favourites — a childhood favourite, that’s maybe so obvious you kind of forget about it as A Movie — which is one of the reasons I made sure to get it on here. Another is how well it works for both children and adults. As the former, the magical adventures and toe-tapping songs are pure joy, a wonder-filled experience that doesn’t date. As the latter, those elements are still entertaining, but the depth of some of the film’s messages (especially pertaining to the adults) really comes through. It’s a film for all ages, and one for the ages too.

#59 will be…

Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

2016 #107a
Marv Newland | 2 mins | streaming | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

At the risk of my blog becoming some kind of film-watching Inception, with a host of viewing goals within viewing goals (the titular one; “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” / Blindspot; all those ones I mentioned in my review of Home on the Range), here’s something new I’m setting out to do (in a vague, loose, ‘will get there one day’ kind of way):

Regular readers will surely remember iCheckMovies, the movie list website where you can check off films you’ve watched and see how many you’ve seen on particular lists, like the IMDb Top 250, or They Shoot Pictures’ 1,000 Greatest, or 179 other ‘official’ lists (or 8,603 user-added ones — seriously). Obviously you can use this as an empty-headed list-completing exercise (and some people do), but it’s also a way to motivate watching well-regarded movies, and to discover new ones.

(What does this have to do with Disney’s dear deer meeting Tokyo’s greatest monster? I’m getting to that.)

There are several lists in particular I have my eye on, for one reason or another. Getting around to some more films on those lists was part of the motivation behind my selections for this year’s WDYMYHS, for example (most of the motivation, if I remember rightly). However, even while I’m a decent way through completing some lists, I happened to notice last night that there are a handful of those 181 official lists on which I have precisely zero checks. 26, to be precise, which in some ways sounds like a lot, but in others is only 14%. Naturally, this inspired one particular thought: to endeavour to get at least one check on every single list.

(The bereaved fawn and gigantic lizard are coming up imminently.)

There are pretty obvious reasons why I’ve never seen any films on many of those lists — quite a lot are country or continent specific, and as Western film viewers we’re notoriously poor at having seen movies from, say, Africa. The lack of acclaimed films I’ve seen from the likes of Belgium, Finland, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Spain is my own fault though, I guess. Anyway, this is something I intend to rectify in the coming days / weeks / months / years / decades — however obscure some of my missing lists may seem, there’s at least one film I’ve heard of on all but one or two of them, so there’s that.

Anyway, I started with the easiest list of all lists: Best Cartoons Ever – A Gift List From Jerry Beck. This list contains “the 50 greatest cartoons of all time, from a poll of 1,000 animation professionals conducted by author/film historian Jerry Beck for the 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.” There’s all sorts of famous stuff on there, from 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, to Mickey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie, to acclaimed classics that appear on multiple other lists, like Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? But I started with possibly the shortest of the lot: 92-second one-gag short Bambi Meets Godzilla.

I say “one-gag” — there’s one headline gag, but I’d argue there are at least five jokes slipped into the film’s minute-and-a-half running time. Describing the ‘plot’ would be pointless, especially when it would be almost as quick for you to watch it yourself on YouTube; or, if you really want, a couple of years back a fan restored/remade it in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (seriously), which you can watch here. It loses a lot of its charm in that form, if you ask me. Either way, there are less amusing ways to spend 90 seconds of your time.

Why is this film notable? In fact, is it notable? Well, it was voted in to The 50 Greatest Cartoons by some of 1,000 animation professionals, so there’s clearly something there. It was created by animator Marv Newland while he was a film student in L.A., after a live-action project he’d been planning to submit was scuppered (according to Wikipedia, uncited, that was due to the loss of “an essential magic hour shot”). Newland created the short animated gag in his room and submitted that instead. It’s a pretty straightforward piece of animation — black-and-white line drawings, some text, few moving elements — with a couple of music tracks on top (Call to the Dairy Cows from Rossini’s William Tell, which you might not know by name but will certainly recognise, and the final chord from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life).

Maybe it’s the subversiveness that makes it significant? It comes from an era when that must have been a factor, surely — there’s a certain Monty Python-ness to it, and it was made the same year Flying Circus first aired. Perhaps it just has some familiarity — I’ve seen comments by people saying it was regularly screened at sci-fi conventions throughout the ’70s, and it was attached to film prints and VHS releases of Godzilla 1985. There are even two sequels, Son of Bambi Meets Godzilla and Bambi’s Revenge, which weren’t made by Newland and are apparently hard to come by. I suppose Beck’s book must explain its inclusion, but if anyone has a copy of that to hand then they’ve not bothered to quote its entry online.

Anyway, for what it is it’s very effective, but it is slight, so I shall give it:

3 out of 5

Hamlet (1964)

aka Гамлет / Gamlet

2016 #96
Grigori Kozintsev | 142 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | U

A black-and-white, two-and-a-half hour Shakespeare adaptation in subtitled Russian? No, wait, come back! Actually, don’t bother, because if you’re turned off by any or all of that description then, yeah, this isn’t for you. If you don’t object, however, then you’ll find a film that the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Kenneth Branagh have hailed as the greatest film adaptation of arguably the Bard’s most revered play.

I shan’t bother to summarise the plot, because if you don’t know the story already this isn’t a film for you. Even for those who have no problem with black-and-white, or Shakespeare, or subtitles, the latter occasionally race by at a rate of knots, making them hard to keep up with. Unless you fancy regularly pausing and/or rewinding, you’ll have to accept that you’re going to miss a line here or there. (If you do keep up with them throughout, well done, you’re better at quickly parsing Shakespearean dialogue than I am.)

For those in a position to appreciate it, however, this is a great version of the play. Based on Boris Pasternak’s translation, it moves through the narrative with reasonable speed, but without losing anything fundamental (as far as I was aware). Director Grigori Kozintsev expressed a particular interest in the political themes, in contrast to their de-emphasis in Olivier’s 1948 film (which I’ve not seen). He particularly highlights Elsinore’s role as a prison, framing characters through bars, constraining Ophelia in a metal corset, and staging Hamlet’s dismissal to England on a courtroom-like set. I felt like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had bigger roles here than in other versions I’ve seen, with Hamlet’s plot to have them dispatched also given focus. Ophelia’s storyline is more present than normal too, whereas the roles of Gertrude and Horatio felt consequently reduced. This is partly down to which sections of the text are used, but Kozintsev also features dialogue-free realisations of elements of the story, which build up these parts further.

In the famously complex lead role, Innokenty Smoktunovsky gives a Hamlet who you really feel is more intelligent than everyone else around him — like a student fresh home from his studies, who has surpassed his parents and old acquaintances in sheer learning and attentiveness to philosophical topics, but doesn’t yet have a firm handle on his swirling thoughts. It’s possible he’s going genuinely mad with it, too, rather than the playfulness some choose to interpret in the part. Anastasiya Vertinskaya embodies sweet innocence as Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to genuinely care for, but has a poor way of showing it. Conversely, Mikhail Nazvanov makes for a somewhat neutered Claudius — he’s almost bumbling, outwitted by Hamlet but with enough innate power (he’s King, after all) to mask it. I suppose that emphasises the “student who’s outstripped his parents” point, but it doesn’t exactly make for a powerful villain. Still, different interpretations are always interesting.

As a film it looks incredible, with Jonas Gritsius’ cinematography bestowing grandiosity on the striking castle set (built on location over six months), without losing sight of the characters who inhabit these spacious environments. Nighttime scenes are a visual standout — it’s a time of day that’s always set to look good in black-and-white, with light cutting out details from the pervading darkness, and Gritsius doesn’t waste the opportunity. The outdoor staging of the play-within-a-play, and the events around it, is a particularly memorable sequence. Whereas Branagh would use editing to guide us around the various observers in his film, Kozintsev more often achieves it with well-chosen pans and tilts. The visitation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another tour de force moment, the kind of visual impact that benefits not a jot from being described in text.

I don’t normally comment on my method of viewing when reviewing a film, but the UK R0 DVD of Hamlet has at least one aspect worthy of note: in an era when widescreen TVs are the norm, someone at Mr. Bongo had the bright idea to release this 2.35:1 film in fullscreen, and to let the subtitles fill the black bar underneath the picture to boot. Practically, this means you have to watch the film in a small box in the centre of your TV — and, at 2.35:1, that’s a very small box. It’s not as if Mr. Bongo do it with all their releases, so goodness knows what made them think it was a bright idea in 2011 to release a fullscreen DVD of a widescreen film. However, I was fortunate enough to catch BBC Four’s screening, in HD, as part of the current BBC Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it, it’s unfortunately not available in HD on iPlayer, but I’d wager the BBC’s SD version is at least the equal of the DVD in terms of resolution, and it doesn’t have the problem of stupidly-placed subtitles.

In many respects this is a 5-star adaptation — it brings vitality to the text, there are several strong performances, the staging is highly cinematic — but the language is something of a barrier to entry. This is most certainly not a neophyte’s Hamlet. But then, why should it need to be? That’s not a fault of the film, just a factor in deciding when to watch it. Even with the subtitle issue feeling like an obstacle to engagement, this was perhaps the most enjoyable Hamlet film I’ve seen. Maybe that’s because it has an advantage in that I’m now more familiar with the play (something which hindered Branagh’s version, as that was the first time I’d seen it), but it speaks to the film’s overall quality that it has more to offer than just Shakespeare’s words.

5 out of 5

Hamlet is available on BBC iPlayer for another seven days.

From Russia with Love (1963)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #32

James Bond is back!
His new incredible women!
His new incredible enemies!
His new incredible adventures!

Country: UK
Language: English, Russian, Turkish & Romany
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1963) | PG (1987)
MPAA: GP (1971) | PG (1994)

Original Release: 11th October 1963 (UK)
US Release: 8th April 1964
First Seen: TV, c.1995

Stars
Sean Connery (Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Zardoz)
Daniela Bianchi (Special Mission Lady Chaplin, Operation Kid Brother)
Pedro Armendariz (Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers)
Lotte Lenya (The Threepenny Opera, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone)
Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons, Jaws)

Director
Terence Young (Dr. No, Wait Until Dark)

Screenwriter
Richard Maibaum (Bigger Than Life, Licence to Kill)

Adapted by
Johanna Harwood (Dr. No, Call Me Bwana)

Based on
From Russia with Love, the fifth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming — one of John F. Kennedy’s favourite novels.

The Story
When Soviet consulate clerk Tatiana Romanova offers to defect, she has one condition: that she is extracted by James Bond. Although M smells a trap, as collateral Tatiana offers a Lektor, a decoding machine MI6 have wanted for years. Bond travels to Istanbul to steal the Lektor, unaware he’s being manipulated by the criminal organisation SPECTRE…

Our Hero
The name’s Bond, James Bond. In only his second big-screen outing, so Connery is still establishing the character here — considering all the ‘fun’ antics that came since, Bond is quite a hard bastard in Dr. No and From Russia with Love (which is only appropriate for a government-sponsored killer, of course).

Our Villains
They may not be as grandiose as the volcano-dwelling types that came later in the series, but From Russia with Love has two of Bond’s most memorable adversaries: the hard former KGB officer Rosa Klebb, with her deadly shoe (well, it sounds silly when you put it like that), and assassin Red Grant, who may not know what wine to have with fish but could certainly gut you like one. A fish, that is. Not wine. You can’t gut wine.

Best Supporting Character
Kerim Bey, British Intelligence’s man in Turkey. An affable, witty soul, he’s also an invaluable ally during Bond’s time in Istanbul.

Memorable Quote
Tatiana: “I think my mouth is too big.”
Bond: “I think it’s a very lovely mouth. It’s just the right size… for me, anyway.”

Memorable Scene
On the Orient Express, SPECTRE assassin Red Grant manages to corner Bond in his compartment. Although he has Bond at gunpoint, Grant is distracted by the offer of gold coins hidden in Bond’s case. Bond tricks Grant into setting off the case’s booby trap, allowing Bond to tackle him. A rough close-quarters fight ensues.

Write the Theme Tune…
Having arranged and performed Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme for Dr. No (for which he didn’t receive a credit), John Barry was the main composer for Bond’s second adventure. However, the producers tapped Lionel Bart — then popular from Oliver! — to write the title song. Barry didn’t like that Bart’s lyrics had nothing to do with the film’s story, a point he set out to rectify when given full control of the soundtrack to Goldfinger.

Sing the Theme Tune…
A good answer if you’re ever faced with a trivia question about James Bond theme singers, Matt Monro was — so Wikipedia tells me — known as “The Man With The Golden Voice” and “became one of the most popular entertainers on the international music scene during the 1960s and 1970s.” With the Bond formula not yet fully established, a snippet of his song is heard on a radio early in the film, but not played in full until the end credits. (The title credits are scored with an instrumental version of the song, plus the James Bond Theme.)

Technical Wizardry
Projecting the title credits on writhing half-naked girls? It’ll never catch on.

Making of
Although Red Grant is presented as a physically-imposing male specimen, including showing off his half-naked physique the first time he appears, in reality actor Robert Shaw had to stand on a box when opposite Sean Connery because he was so much shorter than the Scot. (4 inches shorter, according to CelebHeights.com. Yes, that’s a real website.)

Previously on…
This is the second film about the adventures of James Bond, after the previous year’s Dr. No.

Next time…
The next film, Goldfinger, set the template for much of the rest of the Bond series. To date, that has encompassed a further 22 canonical movies, with the series’ 25th already in development. From Russia with Love was adapted for radio in 2012, the third of (to date) five Bond radio adaptations starring Toby Stephens as 007.

Awards
1 BAFTA nomination (British Cinematography (Colour))

What the Critics Said
“Don’t miss it! This is to say, don’t miss it if you can still get the least bit of fun out of lurid adventure fiction and pseudo-realistic fantasy. For this mad melodramatization of a desperate adventure of Bond with sinister characters in Istanbul and on the Orient Express is fictional exaggeration on a grand scale and in a dashing style, thoroughly illogical and improbable, but with tongue blithely wedged in cheek.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
From Russia with Love turned out to be amongst the best of the Bonds. Distinctly low key, and relying on the strength of its cast over the spectacular thrills and gadgetry that would come to define the series, it’s a great couple of hours’ cinema that may delight viewers who come to it expecting the same old nonsense from 007.” — Mike, Films on the Box

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed From Russia with Love as part of a retrospective on Connery’s Bond back in 2012, when I noted it was “a very faithful rendition of the book. That makes it a Cold War spy thriller, albeit one with fantastical touches […] Mostly, though, it feels remarkably plausible. Sequences like the theft of a decoding machine from the Russian consulate, or the famous confined train carriage fight with Red Grant, have real-world heft rather than typical Bond action sequence fantasticism.”

Verdict

It’s only the second Bond movie, so there’s no template yet, but in retrospect From Russia with Love is an oddity among the Bond flicks of the ’60s and ’70s. Although it has many of the series’ regular trappings — exciting action, exotic locations, beautiful women, grotesque villains, nifty gadgets — it also functions as a straight-up ’60s Cold War spy thriller, with few of the fantastical touches the Bond films would become known for. Such atypicality means anyone looking for a “Bond formula” movie will be disappointed, but otherwise it’s an accomplished thriller, and one of the series’ finest instalments.

The first rule of #29 is… don’t talk about #29.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #31

The man with no name is back!
The man in black is waiting…

Original Title: Per qualche dollaro in più

Country: Italy, Spain & West Germany
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1967) | 15 (1986)
MPAA: M (1969) | R (1989)

Original Release: 18th December 1965
UK Release: January 1967 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, Unforgiven)
Lee Van Cleef (High Noon, Escape from New York)
Gian Maria Volontè (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Le Cercle Rouge)
Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo)

Director
Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West)

Screenwriters
Luciano Vincenzoni (Death Rides a Horse, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)
Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

Scenario by
Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rhodes, A Fistful of Dynamite)
Fulvio Morsella (My Name is Nobody, A Genius, Two Friends, and an Idiot)

The Story
A pair of bounty hunters team up, in spite of their mutual distrust, to capture the most wanted fugitive in the Wild West. That’s the short of it — the ins and outs get complicated.

Our Heroes
The Man With No Name (who this time is called Monco) is played as coolly as ever by Clint Eastwood. This time he teams up with The Man In Black — not Johnny Cash, but Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Much older than Monco, but played with equal amounts of cool by Lee Van Cleef.

Our Villain
El Indio, a murdering, raping, bank-robbing outlaw. Has his own gang; has greater loyalty to money. May also be the first character to smoke marijuana in a major film production.

Best Supporting Character
Klaus Kinski plays a hunchback. I mean, what more do you need to know?

Memorable Quote
“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.” — title card

Memorable Scene
It’s a Leone film; there’s a tense climactic pistol duel — surely that’s all the recommendation you need.

Memorable Music
The score is by Ennio Morricone, of course, so of course it’s fantastic. His main theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be more famous, but personally I prefer this one.

Letting the Side Down
I suppose I should mention the dubbing, which is always skew-whiff in these movies. But it is what it is.

Making of
Leone felt that Gian Maria Volontè’s performance was too theatrical, so he often subjected the actor to multiple takes in an attempt to tire him out. Volontè eventually stormed off the set… but, unable to get a ride out of the desert, returned to filming.

Previously on…
A Fistful of Dollars, also starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone, started both the Man With No Name Trilogy (aka the Dollars Trilogy) and the entire Spaghetti Western subgenre.

Next time…
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly completes the trilogy — not that it was intended as such by Leone: US distributor United Artists invented the “Man with No Name” concept as a way to sell the three films together. Eastwood’s character actually has a name, and a different one in each film at that.

What the Critics Said
For a Few Dollars More, like all of the grand and corny Westerns Hollywood used to make, is composed of situations and not plots [but] on a larger, more melodramatic scale, if that’s possible. […] The rest of the film is one great old Western cliché after another. They aren’t done well, but they’re over-done well, and every situation is drawn out so that you can savor it.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 94%

The Joys of Putting Different Reviews Right Next to Each Other

What the Public Say
“It’s a wacky and irreverent film, exactly the type of cheeky genre fare that you’d expect as the follow-up to a blatant act of plagiarism […] This irreverence is what makes the film fun, but it also never stops it from being intelligent. Like its predecessor was to a slightly lesser extent, For a Few Dollars More is a film about the value of life (often literally and monetarily) and the cost of our connections with other human beings (specifically men in this predominantly male society).” — Wes, Screening Notes

Verdict

Sergio Leone defined the Spaghetti Western subgenre with A Fistful of Dollars, and some would argue perfected it with The Good, the Bad the Ugly, but in between those two he made this, my favourite of the trilogy. Leone’s trademark style tells a story whose scope is in the sweet spot between the first film’s one-town tale and the third’s epic narrative, with a pair of sparky heroes going up against a ruthless villain, and a nice twist in the tail.

#31 will be… Бонд зовут. Джеймс Бонд.