Sholay (1975)

2018 #200
Ramesh Sippy | 205 mins | DVD | 4:3 | India / Hindi | PG

Sholay

For many Western readers (and the stats say most of mine are, though India is in 3rd of all countries for 2019 so far), there’s every chance you’ll’ve only heard of Sholay (if you’ve heard of it at all) as “one of those Indian films that’s on the IMDb Top 250 nowadays”. But in Indian culture it’s a much bigger deal, a huge and longstanding success; like Star Wars or something is to us, I guess, only without the reams of sequels and spinoffs and merchandise and theme parks. Instead, it’s enjoyed remarkable success of its own: it topped the Indian box office for 19 years, was the first film in India to celebrate a Silver Jubilee at over 100 cinemas, and eventually set a record of 60 Golden Jubilees across India. From a British perspective, in 2002 it topped the BFI’s “top ten Indian films of all time” poll, and in 2004 it was voted the “Greatest Indian Movie” in a Sky poll of 1 million British Indians. I first heard about it years ago in that context, and my desire to see it was only exacerbated when it made it onto IMDb’s list. All of which is why I chose it to be my second-ever #200.

It’s a tricky film to sum up, because it offers a massive mash-up of tones and genres in a way we’re not accustomed to from Western cinema. There are whole sequences (not just fleeting moments) of broad slapstick humour, epic action, heartfelt romance, brutal violence, colourful musical numbers, intense tragedy, plus backstory that’s filled in via regular, lengthy flashbacks. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say its primary genre was Action, or Comedy, or Musical, or Western — it’s all of those things, by turn; sometimes at the same time. Apparently it’s a defining example of the “masala film”. Masala is, of course, a mix of spices in Indian cuisine, and the films that take that name blend genres together, typically (according to Wikipedia) action, comedy, romance, and melodrama, plus musical numbers.

Who doesn't enjoy a colourful sing-song?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what’s perhaps most remarkable about Sholay is that it pulls them off. Thanks to engaging characters and relationships, powerful and humorous performances, quality filmmaking (there’s some strikingly effective camerawork and editing in the big scenes), it all flows. You can see why it became such a success: there’s something for everyone. And you can see why it struggles to transcend the culture it originates from, because when Western movies ever even vaguely attempt this kind of range of tones, there are trolls aplenty waiting to rip them apart for the perceived fault of being tonally inconsistent.

The heroes are Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), a pair of crooks with hearts of gold, who are recruited by a retired policeman who once arrested them, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a wanted outlaw, Gabbar (Amjad Khan), who’s terrorising Singh’s village, and who he has a personal history with. The way that storyline plays out is highly reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns and the samurai movies that inspired some of them — anyone who’s seen the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West (or any of the other films that have riffed on / ripped from them) is going to see a lot of reflections here. I don’t mean that to be a criticism — after all, Dollars was an unendorsed remake of Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai was remade as classic Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, so there’s strong pedigree among these movies for reworking each other to excellent effect.

I'm not sure that's safe...

Sholay certainly adds its own stuff to the mix. I mean, those other films I’ve mentioned don’t have musical numbers or slapstick comedy (not much of it, anyway). Lest you think this plays as a spoof, Singh eventually unveils a tragic backstory (and a neat twist to his character), and Gabbar is a properly despicable, nasty villain. Plus, like most of the best bad guys, he’s not just evil for evil’s sake — he’s motivated to subjugate this particular village for a reason — but he’s still a properly nasty piece of work, excessively and inventively cruel. Rather than a spoof, then, the different genres come into play via an array of plots and asides. At times it does feel like a selection of unconnected subplots to bulk out the running time (and, as you may’ve noticed, it does have a long running time), but most of them come together in the end. Your tolerance for those that don’t (a lengthy comedic aside in a prison, for example) is another matter.

Musical numbers are another thing that put some people off. There are only five though, and they don’t actually drive the plot that much — I was kind of forced to assess their impact, because for some reason my DVD copy didn’t bother to subtitle the songs, leading me to search out translations online so I could get the gist. Still, when they fill several minutes of screen time each, it is nice to at least have an idea what’s being said sung!

In the West, Sholay has been hard to find at times (personally, it was years ago that I managed to source an out-of-print DVD by a label you’ve never heard of from an Amazon Marketplace seller), but as of this week it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK (either as part of a subscription or to rent and buy individually), and in HD to boot! Based on the running time it’s the shorter widescreen theatrical version; there’s also a longer, open matte 4:3 “director’s cut”, which is what I watched. There’s info on the differences between the two cuts here, but the mostly it’s a couple of bits of violence that were censored. The biggest change, though, is the ending. No spoilers, but I think the original version is better — it included one of my favourite parts of the entire film, in fact. The revised version was at the insistence of India’s censor board, and includes a heavy-handed moral lecture — it’s not just less good in itself, it also feels overtly censor-mandated. Oh well.

Vicious villainy

On the bright side, the 4:3 version isn’t great to watch compositionally. The makers wanted to produce an epic 70mm widescreen kinda movie, but didn’t have the tech to do it properly, so they shot it in full frame 4:3 on 35mm and then had it cropped and blown up in London. Watching in 4:3, it’s obvious that it was always intended to be cropped to widescreen: there’s loads of dead space above everyone’s heads, things like that. That said, every once in a while there’s a shot that seems to be perfectly framed. Maybe they look just as nice cropped, I don’t know. To further muddy the waters about different versions, five years ago Sholay was converted to 3D. Despite the film’s enduring popularity, it didn’t come close to making its money back (the conversion cost US$3.5 million, but the 3D release only grossed US$1.4 million). In the West the studio would seek to recoup more of that with home media, but apparently Blu-ray isn’t popular or successful in India, so the chance of getting a 3D BD is basically nonexistent. But, as I said, it’s on Amazon in HD now, so at least there’s that. (Hopefully it has subtitles for the songs…)

Whichever version you watch, Sholay is best described as “an experience”. Perhaps lots of Bollywood movies are like this (after all, with huge success comes huge influence, and I’m sure many have tried to emulate it), but I’m not familiar with them so this was all new to me. That epic running time makes it feel like an event to watch, and the winding plot and variety of tones it encompasses make it feel like a whole buffet of entertainment, as opposed to the just one meal that most films offer. I guess, like any food that is foreign to an individual, it comes as an acquired taste, but it’s one I enjoyed immensely. It would also be entirely accurate and fair to roll out a somewhat clichéd sentiment: if you only watch one Bollywood film, this is the one to watch.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, Sholay is available on Amazon Prime Video now.

It placed 25th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Review Roundup

This small selection may at first look a little disparate, including as it does two comedies, with release dates separated by a quarter of a century, and a horror movie. The two points of connection are that I watched them all last year, and I didn’t really enjoy any of them.

In today’s roundup:

  • Phantasm (1979)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
  • Step Brothers (2008)


    Phantasm
    (1979)

    2018 #92
    Don Coscarelli | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Phantasm

    A cult classic horror that spawned a pile of sequels and numerous novelty-packaged disc releases, Phantasm is about a supernatural undertaker, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who (to quote Wikipedia) “turns the dead of earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves.” Sounds totes plausible, right?

    Well, implausibility is no sin — many great fantasy or horror movies feed off setups that are just as outlandish. No, the problem here comes from the storytelling, because what happens in Phantasm is resolutely illogical. None of it makes any sense. No one behaves plausibly. Is there a mythology? I don’t know, because it all seems random. It appears to operate on some kind of dream logic, wherein stuff… just happens. And then at the end it’s revealed that it was, in fact, all a dream! Eesh. Are either of those things ok? Telling a story with “dream logic”, maybe. But then again, why should that be ok? We can’t control dreams, so we can’t expect them to obey the rules of narrative; but films are consciously made, so surely they should aim for coherence? And as for an “it was all a dream” ending, that’s just about the most despised device in storytelling for a reason. (Of course, there’s an “or was it?!” final twist, because it’s a horror movie and that’s how they always end.)

    It doesn’t help matters that the film simply isn’t well made. No one can act. Characters turn up out of nowhere. Most of it is cheaply shot and uninterestingly edited. There are a couple of good bits of imagery, but the rest of the movie is so nonsensical that that’s all it is — imagery. There’s no meaning attached.

    And yet the Phantasm series has its fans (or, predictably, “Phans”). Perhaps, if we’re being kind, we can say it’s an acquired taste — you either get something from its strangeness or you don’t. Clearly there are people (“Phans”) who see something in it. I wasn’t one of them.

    2 out of 5

    Phantasm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    National Lampoon’s
    Vacation

    (1983)

    2018 #140
    Harold Ramis | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    National Lampoon's Vacation

    Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation certainly has strong pedigree (I’m not even going to begin to list all the classic comedies attributable to their names). It also spawned three sequels and a remake, so it’s clearly popular. Unfortunately, something about it didn’t click with me.

    It’s about a family going on a summer holiday; specifically, a cross-country road trip from Chicago to California, to visit Disney Walley World. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go to plan, and a series of episodic hijinks ensure. These include such hilarious escapades as meeting some black people (who of course steal their hubcaps); falling asleep at the wheel and careening through a town; hanging out with a cousin who French kisses his own daughter; and accidentally dragging their aunt’s dog along behind the car until it dies. Good times!

    There’s also a song by Lindsey “Fleetwood Mac” Buckingham, called Holiday Road, which is played again and again throughout the film. I started out hating it, but by the end I was listening to it on loop while I updated all my post-viewing lists. It’s sort of gloriously terrible. Sadly, I didn’t have the same Stockholm syndrome reaction to the film itself.

    2 out of 5

    Step Brothers
    (2008)

    2018 #204
    Adam McKay | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Step Brothers

    Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two developmentally-stunted man-children who are forced to live together after the former’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and the latter’s dad (Richard Jenkins) move in together.

    The movie relies on the notion that watching two 40-year-old men behave like bratty 10-year-olds will be constantly hilarious. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Unlike the infamous recent collaboration between Ferrell and Reilly, Holmes & Watson, this effort does at least manage some funny bits, though they generally occur when it moves away from the primary conceit for a moment. It also has the most implausible sex scene this side of The Room, which is some kind of achievement, I guess.

    2 out of 5

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Review Roundup

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

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

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


    Model Shop
    (1969)

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

    Model Shop

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

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

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

    “Open the pod bay doors, Lola.”

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Getting Straight
    (1970)

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

    Getting Straight

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

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

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

    Ranting and rioting

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

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

    2 out of 5

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

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

    aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

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

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

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

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

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

    Creating a new one-armed swordsman

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

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

    The real one-armed swordsman

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

    aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

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

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

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

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

    A sweet transvestite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    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. ^