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 our hero, 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 our hero, 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

Advertisements

Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

2019 #60
Kihachi Okamoto | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Having released anything up to four films a year for seven years, the Zatoichi series took 1969 off (apparently producer/star Shintaro Katsu had some other projects to focus on). But when it returned in 1970 it was with a big gun: as the title indicates, the main guest star for this film is the lead character from Akira Kurosawa’s films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, played by the great Toshiro Mifune. I don’t know if that was a deliberate move to mark the series’ 20th movie or if they weren’t even conscious of the milestone, but it certainly feels like it was meant to be a special occasion. “Meant to be” being the operative part of that sentence, because the result is sadly one of the least enjoyable entries in the series so far.

The film sees Ichi (Katsu) return to his hometown, which has rather gone to the dogs thanks to a local yakuza gang. Never one to just stand back or move along, Ichi ends up embroiled in the arguments between a powerful merchant (Osamu Takizawa) and his two wayward sons, one a yakuza boss (Masakane Yonekura), the other an employee of the government mint (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), who’s up to some kind of shenanigans with the gold that drives the plot… I think. Mifune’s character factors into all this as a ronin who’s been hired by the yakuza son to protect him, or kill his father, or something along those lines.

As you may have gathered, the plot here is by turns confusing and dull — one of those that loses you so thoroughly you just want to give up on trying to work it out. It has something to do with the people who make gold coins making them less well, and a hidden bar of gold that has something to do with that somehow, and a bunch of spies and stuff who are all looking for the gold bar, and some kind of feud or rivalry or disagreement between the local yakuza and Takizawa’s businessman, which may or may not have nothing to do with all the gold stuff… I think. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film with an underwhelming or unintelligible plot, but it tells it with so little verve, and with so few entertaining distractions (there’s not much action, and even less humour), that there’s nothing to make up for it.

Katsu vs Mifune

And to add insult to injury, the titular concept of the movie is a bait and switch: Mifune is not actually playing the character from Kurosawa’s films. “Yojimbo” means “bodyguard”, so it’s not like, say, casting Sean Connery in a film and calling it Meets James Bond only to have him play some unrelated character, but the promise of the title is clear and unfulfilled. It’s not like Mifune is playing an off-brand knock-off, either: he happens to be fulfilling the same job as bodyguard so that everyone can keep calling him yojimbo, but his actual name is Taisaku Sasa (not Sanjuro, as in Kurosawa’s films) and his character is nothing like his role in Kurosawa’s films (he doesn’t even look the same!) Seeing Zatoichi go head-to-head with the ‘real’ Yojimbo, with all his cunning scheming, could’ve been great. Instead, while Sasa is still a skilled swordsman, he’s a bit pathetic — lovelorn and, it would seem, not actually very good at his real job (which, as it turns out, is spying). Some of the scenes between Katsu and Mifune are good, at least. Not all of them, but some is better than none, I suppose. Ultimately, however, it’s one of the biggest disappointments in a film filled with them.

There’s plenty to be filled, too, because this is by far the longest of the original Zatoichi films: the others average 87 minutes apiece, making Meets Yojimbo a full half-hour longer than normal, and almost 20 minutes longer than even the next longest. There’s quite an extensive supporting cast, bringing with them all the varied subplots that having so many characters entails. Whether that’s what produced the extended running time, or whether an extended running time was desired so they shoved all those extra people in, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, because either way the result is a jumble that I don’t think was a good idea. Few of them have an opportunity to leave a mark — there’s too much going on, and we’re all here for Mifune and Katsu anyway.

Something I could have learned...

Eventually the story comes down to a simple, familiar message: “greed is bad”. The much-desired gold bar turns out to be hidden as gold dust, which ends up blowing away in the wind. It’s almost fitting and symbolic… except it only happens once most of the cast are dead or past it anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily symbolise much. I mean, there’s hardly anyone left to notice it happen. And it’s followed by a final scene that, like most of the rest of the plot, left me slightly confused. The town blacksmith tells yojimbo that Ichi isn’t motivated by gold… then we see Ichi realise his pouch of gold dust has been cut and emptied, so he scrabbles around in the dirt searching for the rest (which has blown away), when Mifune joins him. “You too?” “Just like you,” they say. And then they go their separate ways. So… they are motivated by gold? Or… they’re not, because it’s gone and they… aren’t? I don’t know if I’m being dim, or if the film bungled its own message, or if it just doesn’t have anything to say. It could be no deeper than a straight-up samurai adventure movie, of course. It would be better if it were.

This is the only Zatoichi film for director Kihachi Okamoto, who apparently was a prestige hire. I don’t think he did a particularly good job, to be honest. There’s the muddled plot, as discussed, which unfurls at a slow pace. The action scenes, often such a highlight, aren’t particularly well shot. It’s visually a very dark film, which kinda matches the grim tone, but is arguably taken too far. As Walter Biggins puts it at Quiet Bubble, “murk dominates. People wears blacks and browns. Eyes are cold, haunted, even in daytime[…] Even supposedly well-lit interiors look like homages to Rembrandt. This is a world half-glimpsed, that we squint at”. It was shot by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who worked on numerous Japanese classics and several other Zatoichi movies — I praised his work on Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, for example. It’s not that what he’s done here is bad per se — there are certainly some nice individual shots, particularly around the climax — but, well, there were clearly some choices made about lighting and the colour palette.

Windswept

I knew going in that Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a particularly well regarded film, but I held out hope it was one of those occasions where I’d find the consensus wrong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s arguably the worst film in the series. It’s not just that it’s a poor Zatoichi film (which it is), it’s that it should’ve been a great one, showcasing the meeting of two top samurai heroes and the charismatic actors who play them. There may be outright lesser films in the Zatoichi series than this, but none could equal the crushing disappointment it engenders.

2 out of 5

For what it’s worth, Katsu and Mifune co-starred in another samurai movie the same year, Machibuse, aka Incident at Blood Pass. I’ve heard it’s a lot better, so I’ll endeavour to review it at a later date.

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

2018 #253
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

Sartana locked up

A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

Greed

Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970)

aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana / “Have a nice funeral on me, Amigo” …Sartana

2018 #229
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 12

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay

Gianni Garko’s back in the saddle as the titular roguish hero for the fourth official Sartana movie, which is apparently regarded as the best one — that’s what the guys on Arrow’s commentary track say, anyway, and it’s borne out by viewer ratings on websites like IMDb. I can’t say I felt similarly, though after listening to that audio commentary, their enthusiasm and highlighting of the good stuff did help increase my enjoyment.

The plot this time sees Sartana arrive at a remote shack just after its occupants have been massacred. Turns out one of the victims owned the land, previously thought to be worthless but now revealed to contain a gold mine, and everyone in the nearby town is eager to acquire it. As the deceased landowner’s daughter arrives to claim the property, Sartana sets about investigating who was really behind the slaughter, and possibly get involved in the land purchase himself.

That’s more or less the basis of the story, anyway. The plot has a “made up as it goes along” feel — it’s basically an endless series of “twists” where every character is revealed to be involved somehow, one by one, and there’s always something happening. I mean, at one point a whole gang of outlaws turn up merely to instigate another shoot-out and extend the running time by about five minutes. If you were to stop and unpick the plot, there’s actually quite a neat twist at the end, but it’s easy to miss its significance when there are so many other double-crosses and reversals going on. On the audio commentary they argue that, although people accuse these films of being badly plotted, they actually fit together and abide by their own rules, they just don’t unfold in the way you might normally expect. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

Sartana so cool

The affair is at least enlivened by some inventive and fun moments, which do eventually begin to mount up in such a way that the film seems to improve as it goes on. Highlights include Sartana using playing cards as a weapon, and one of the villains having a trick gun so ingenious even Sartana pauses to admire it.

Another member of the guest cast is a Chinese casino owner, played by Gordon Wang, who’s a bit of a “yellow peril” Orientalist cliché: a scheming gangster who always quotes Confucius and unleashes a barrage of kung fu at the end. Whether you find this offensive or let it slide (or even enjoy it) as being part of the era when the film was made is up to you. I think it could be worse: the guy isn’t a total villain, nor totally stupid (no more so than any of the white characters, certainly), and he does get some solid verbal sparring with Sartana (as well as the more literal sparring of the kung fu climax). At least he’s memorable.

Also memorable is a great Morricone-esque score by Bruno Nicolai (a friend and long-time collaborator of Morricone’s, so that explains that). There’s decent direction from Giuliano Carnimeo, though it’s not as immediately striking as in his two previous Sartana films. There are still a few well put-together sequences, not least the pre-titles massacre. According to Garko (quoted in Arrow’s booklet), cinematographer Stelvio Massi “had a significant weight in the direction of the ensuing Sartana films. It can almost be said that those films were made by two directors, Carnimeo and Massi. Carnimeo had a great sense of humour […] But, as regards the technical part, the camera movements were conceived almost entirely by Stelvio Massi.” One particular example of Massi’s superb camerawork comes in a scene highlighted by the commentary: it’s just a simple three-way dialogue exchange, but Massi lenses it in a single take that uses zooms, pans, and reflections in a mirror to create different close-ups and two shots, all within one take.

Sartana about to pay for more funerals

Maybe Have a Good Funeral is an above-average Sartana film after all. Or maybe the whole series exists within quite a narrow quality range and so it’s swings and roundabouts which you say is better than the others. At least the film’s extravagant title has direct relevance for once: a running gag sees Sartana pay for lavish funerals for everyone he kills — and, naturally, he kills a lot of people. At the other end of the film, the print used for Arrow’s Blu-ray concludes with the word “fine” appearing on screen, which about sums it up.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin (1970)

aka C’è Sartana… vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!

2018 #188
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

Sartana's Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin

The third official Sartana movie is to this series what On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to the Bond films: its one-shot leading man isn’t as good as the regular fella, but the film around him is a cut above.

Sartana’s just settling down to a nice picnic when he witnesses the robbery of a wagon by, apparently, a gang of horse thieves. The wagon was transporting gold… except it wasn’t: the bags are filled with sand. It’s all part of a scheme by the local rep of the mining company to rip off the hardworking miners and keep their earnings for himself. Naturally, Sartana embroils himself in the plotting, which also features a local impoverished saloon owner and several other gunslingers with competing interests in the gold.

The blurb for Arrow’s Blu-ray release states that Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin “finds the series taking a more tongue-in-cheek turn while retaining […] the usual blend of inventive gunplay, plot twists aplenty and a playful sense of humour.” It’s a pretty fair summation, to be brief: the film features quite a few fun bits of dialogue and a smattering of inventive shoot-outs. The plot isn’t bad either, at least for a while. The first half-hour or so sees Sartana follow things from one situation to the next, which keeps the story moving nicely and the narrative varied. After that, I’m not sure the villains’ plans all make 100% sense, and it only gets worse once the whole cast have been introduced and there are shifting alliances and double crosses galore. As it dove into the third act, I don’t know if I lost track of what the plan was meant to be or if the film just never explained it. That seems to be par for the course in these movies, though.

Playing games

New boy George Hilton is fine as Sartana, selling the character’s ingeniousness, and here gifted with a particularly nice line in magicking his trademark pistol up out of nowhere. Much like Lazenby in OHMSS, he lacks the cool iconicity of the guy who originated the role, but he makes a fair fist of it.

More of a standout is Charles Southwood as Sabbath (aka Sabata, depending which language you’re watching in), a rival gunslinger who makes for a fun addition to the film. He doesn’t turn up until halfway through, but from then he steals the show. It starts with a great introduction: he rides into town in a crisp white suit, sporting a straw boater and a girly parasol, before kicking the arses of some tough guys in the saloon. And then, to cap it off, he shares some amusing banter with Sartana over the card table. As the film goes on, the English-accented gent trades bons mots, reads Shakespeare and Tennyson, and reveals himself to be as quick-witted and gadget-stacked as the title character. Naturally it can only end one way: a Sartana vs Sabbath shoot-out. Their duel, saved for the film’s climax, is absolutely fantastic, as they take playful potshots at each other’s clothing before the victor executes an all-timer final move.

The film’s entertainment value is bolstered further by more good direction from Giuliano Carnimeo. There’s plenty of the usual Leone influence in shootouts and whatnot, but every once in a while there’s a delightful flourish — most memorably, the use of split-screen to show three adversaries dying together, and a split-focus shot that shows Sabbath watching as Sartana’s arrival is reflected in a teaspoon.

This often happened to the other fella

Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin isn’t the quintessential Sartana movie, owing to the absence of regular star Gianni Garko — Hilton’s a solid stand-in, but lacks the regular’s roguish charm. But the rest of the movie packs enough value that it’s my favourite in the series so far. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit too much of a B-movie to really transcend those roots; but, for the sake of differentiation from the other two if nothing else, I’m going to generously round my score up to a 4.

4 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Rocky II (1979)

2018 #131
Sylvester Stallone | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky II

This first sequel could fairly have been titled Rocky Part II: picking up where the first film left off (literally — the first six minutes are just a replay of Rocky’s final fight), it goes on to detail what happens next for both Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and his world-champion opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). For the former, his childlike naïveté and heart of gold sees him carelessly burn through his newfound wealth as he tries to give the love of his life (Talia Shire) everything he thinks she wants. For the latter, it means an ongoing niggle that he didn’t really win the fight, so he tries to goad Rocky into a rematch.

Like the first movie, a lot of Rocky II is more of a character-based drama than a sport-driven movie, this time about someone who had a taste of the big time struggling to re-adapt to normal life. It’s not that Rocky’s ego has outgrown his means — he doesn’t seem to mind going back to working menial jobs when the money runs out — but his overestimation of his success means that he does indeed find himself in that position. It’s not bad as a dramatic work — it’s got the same writer as the first movie, after all, here also stepping up to direct (and did you know he wrote a novelisation too?) — but we know where it’s all headed, and so the second half is better than the first.

Run, Rocky, run!

Again, Stallone doesn’t lose sight of keeping events moderately grounded: Rocky struggles to focus on his training regime, and it begins to look like Creed may be right that his success in their first bout was all fluke. Of course, this is as much an underdog fairytale as the first movie was, and so events transpire to finally give Rocky his motivation, culminating in a triumphant revisit to the first film’s famous running-up-the-steps bit. The finale is, naturally, the big boxing rematch, where Stallone really shows off his directing chops: it’s a tense, drag-out duel that easily exceeds the first film’s for visceral impact.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say Rocky II is better than its predecessor — indeed, maybe it’s not quite as good — but I enjoyed it about the same; maybe even slightly more by the end. The Rocky sequels have a collectively poor rep, but I think this is a worthy follow-up.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of the latest Rocky sequel, Creed, is on ITV tonight at 9:30pm.

Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

    aka The Mystery of Mamo / Rupan Sansei / Rupan Sansei: Rupan tai Kurōn

    2018 #112
    Sôji Yoshikawa | 102 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

    Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo

    Best known to Western audiences thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin the 3rd is more than just one film in the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s illustrious career — it’s a popular and long-running franchise in Japan, with almost innumerable iterations: starting life as a manga which has run on and off since 1967, it has so far been adapted into six TV series, seven animated films, 26 feature-length TV specials, two live-action movies, and sundry other bits and bobs. Despite all that, this is one of only three Lupin III productions that has been available in the UK since the DVD era (the others being the fourth TV series, titled The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Cagliostro, natch), though that increases by one today with the Blu-ray release of the latest complete TV series, Lupin the 3rd: Part IV.

    The Secret of Mamo (more commonly known in English as The Mystery of Mamo, or in Japan as Lupin vs. the Clone) was the first big-screen outing for Lupin III. It was produced while the second TV series was being broadcast, with the intention of making a film that was more similar to the original manga, something Japanese censorship standards prevented the TV series from being. So, the tone is kids’ comedic adventure, but there’s nudity, moderately graphic violence, and a scene of sexy torture. Well, it’s not that graphic really… though it depends on your position on these things, I guess. Anyway, I’m certainly surprised the Americans let it pass as a PG-13, just because of the nudity. She may be a cartoon, but it’s not subtle.

    Car chase!

    Anyhow, the plot sees master thief Lupin III, along with his regular sidekicks Jigen and Goemon, pilfering the Philosopher’s Stone (I guess Americans would need to call it the Sorcerers Stone) at the request of his on-off love interest Fujiko Mine, who actually wants it for the mysterious Mamo. His nefarious schemes draw Lupin and co into a web that sees them pursued not only by Mamo’s forces, but also the Americans, and Lupin’s regular nemesis, Interpol Inspector Zenigata.

    One of the major inspirations behind Lupin the 3rd’s creation was James Bond, and so, appropriately enough, this is a globetrotting adventure that takes in Transylvania, Egypt, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Similarly, it also showcases some great action scenes, particularly an extended car chase through Paris and then the mountains. Unlike Bond, there’s a definite cartoonishness to many of the antics, and the third act takes a turn into outright science-fiction that gets a bit crazy. It’s also not entirely similar to The Castle of Cagliostro, therefore, showing how much Miyazaki brought his own tone and style to that film.

    That said, I thought the lead characters’ relationships felt clearer from the start here than they did in Cagliostro, which very much felt like a sequel or spin-off where you were meant to know who everyone was (as I noted in my review). It could just be I’m a little more familiar with them all now, but perhaps the film was indeed made to be more newcomer-friendly — it was the first movie, after all; though it is spun off from a TV series… Well, it’s quite neatly done, nonetheless — this isn’t “Lupin III Begins” with them all meeting for the first time, nor is there a viewer-surrogate being introduced to them all, but it handles how and when each character arrives into the narrative in such a way that it’s kept fairly clear how they relate to one another. It’s subtly done, so, as I say, it could be serendipitous or my own improved awareness.

    The mysterious Mamo

    It’s also perhaps worthy of note that the film is available with four different English dubs. The 2013 US DVD from Discotek Media includes them all, so lucky you if you have that. Everywhere online will tell you that Manga UK’s 2008 DVD includes the dub Manga produced in 1996, which seems logical, but, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I read up on it myself, and I’m 99% certain it’s actually the 2003 Geneon dub. According to Wikipedia, the Geneon dub “took a liberal approach with translating the Japanese dialogue,” so I compared the dub to the subtitles included for the Japanese audio, and they were totally different. You can see why anime fans hate it when discs only include “dubtitles”. Maybe I should’ve watched it in its original language…

    Anyway, the film itself is a very fun adventure, with an entertaining anarchism as well as exciting action and mostly amusing humour. Ever since I watched Cagliostro I’ve been meaning to watch some more Lupin the 3rd because I always hoped I’d enjoy it, and so far I’m being proven right. At least I’ve got the two Blu-ray-released TV series to tuck into next, but I’d like to see more of the extensive back catalogue make it to the UK. I guess that probably depends on how the Part IV release sells…

    4 out of 5

    Lupin the 3rd: Part IV is released on Blu-ray in the UK today by All the Anime.

    The Conversation (1974)

    2017 #10
    Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Conversation

    In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

    That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

    Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

    It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

    Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

    5 out of 5

    The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.