Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

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aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

2020 #95
Shintarô Katsu | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi in Desperation

The 24th and penultimate film in the original Zatoichi series is also the first to be directed by star Shintarô Katsu. (He previously wrote the 21st film, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and would later direct 22 episodes of the TV series and write & direct the 1989 revival movie.) Despite such fundamental creative control by the man who arguably knew the character best, Zatoichi in Desperation is widely regarded as one of the series’ worst instalments, and yet you’ll find some people full of praise for it. It’s one of the series’ darkest entries, and I suspect it’s unpopular overall because it’s so grim; but for those who do like it, they love it.

The plot starts with Ichi accidentally causing a polite old woman to fall from a bridge and die — as I said, cheery. The woman was on her way to visit her daughter, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), so Ichi seeks her out. She’s a prostitute, so, as recompense, Ichi sets about raising the funds to free her from prostitution. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Kaede (Kyoko Yoshizawa) is also employed at Nishikigi’s brothel, to earn money to care for her younger brother Shinkichi (Yasuhiro Koume); so when some out-of-town bigwig starts letching over her, well, you can guess what route she’s set to head down. Said bigwig is funding a move by gangsters to crush the local fishermen and set up some kind of modern fishing empire. Just the kind of ordinary folk vs yakuza fight that Ichi would normally find himself embroiled in…

Except he’s busy with Nishikigi, and that doesn’t really change. This is the cornerstone of the film’s moral thesis, which seems to be that the world is a brutal and unjust place. While kind-hearted Ichi is busy helping Nikigiki out of a perhaps-misplaced sense of duty (she doesn’t seem fussed about her mum’s demise, nor with escaping the brothel), he’s missing the people who could really use his help, i.e. Kaede and Shinkichi, or the village’s oppressed fishermen.

Kaede and Shinkichi

And they really could use a hand, because it’s against them that the film’s brutality is fully manifested. The gangsters burn all the villagers’ boats, then murder them for complaining about it; and while Kaede’s busy preparing to have to sell her body at 14, Shinkichi provokes the gangsters and consequently gets brutally beaten to death; and when Kaede finds his body, she commits suicide — and all of that occurs without Ichi even being aware Kaede and Shinkichi exist. Makes you wonder: were events like that playing out just offscreen in every other Ichi movie? Well, not consciously, obviously, but perhaps Katsu is provoking us to wonder about all the people Ichi has failed down the years while he was distracted elsewhere. Maybe our hero is blind in more ways than one.

Aside from the violence, this is also an uncommonly filthy film for the series. First Ichi overhears a whore talking about how taking ten men makes her wet; then he’s hiding in a room while a couple have sex; then later a bunch of yakuza round up a mentally ill kid and start wanking him off until he ejaculates on one of them, for which they give him a beating. Yep, that all happens on screen. (Nearly every review I’ve come across comments on that last scene. Well, no surprise, really — it’s rather striking.)

Hopefully you’re beginning to understand why this movie is so divisive. But if the content wasn’t enough, Katsu seems determined to show off with form, too. His bold directorial style evident from the off, when the old woman’s fall from the bridge is represented via an impressionistic barrage of flash-cut images. This is followed through the rest of the film by weirdly-framed close-ups and various odd angles. It doesn’t always pay off: the requisite gambling scene is a rehash of a trick from an earlier film, shot with a certain kind of dark tension (Ichi feels in genuine peril from those he swindled) that’s in-keeping with the film’s tone, but the trick itself is less entertainingly performed, the scene not as well paced and constructed. There’s also an atypical score by Kunihiko Murai, which some praise as being ’70s funk, but I thought sounded just like cheesy electronic nastiness. Sometimes, his unusual choices emphasise the film’s glum tone, as in the opening credits, which play out in silence over black — not the usual mode for a Zatoichi film, and so it somewhat suggests the goal is to prevent this as a Serious Movie.

Blind in more ways than one

Certainly, many describe this as a more realistic version of Zatoichi than we’ve seen before. It’s removed from the superheroics of the other movies, instead offering a brutal portrait of real violence and how it scars, with innocents suffering unnoticed and even our hero failing to emerge unscathed. Whether that’s realist or just depressive might depend on your view of the world; although, considering the time and place these films are set, I imagine its closer to reality than all of the “Ichi saves everyone” narratives. That either/or extends to the film’s reception: everyone agrees that it’s nastier, darker, and closer to reality than the other Zatoichi films, but whether that’s merited — an interesting diversion — or a case of taking things too far — a low point for the series — is a matter of personal taste.

Personally, then, I appreciate what it was going for, but I wonder if Katsu left it too long to go there. Coming so late in the series means we’re very familiar with the tropes its subverting, which is necessary — it works best as a counterpoint to what we’ve already seen rather than as a standalone piece — but it almost feels too late to go about such subversion — it’s a departure from the groove these films have worn for themselves. Maybe Katsu should’ve entrusted such a departure to a more sure-handed director; maybe it’s the roughness of his directorial voice that makes the film what it is.

3 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup XXV

Another week goes by, and once again I’ve only managed to put together one of these belated roundups. Hopefully new-new reviews will re-emerge sometime soon…

In the meantime, The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s selection rattles through five more March 2019

  • The Italian Job (1969)
  • Downsizing (2017)
  • Brigsby Bear (2017)
  • Starship Troopers (1997)
  • Escape from New York (1981)


    The Italian Job
    (1969)

    2019 #40
    Peter Collinson | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & Italian | PG / G

    The Italian Job

    The Italian Job is one of those things that I think is in the consciousness of every Brit. Tricolour Minis racing around city streets, up and down stairs and through sewer tunnels… the literal cliffhanger ending… “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”… Cultural osmosis imparts these things to all us Brits, whether we’ve seen the film or not — and, at the grand old age of 32, I had not. But it was 50 back in 2019, so when better than then? Which is why I watched it then; and, because I’m tardy, am reviewing it now.

    The awareness of the film I’d acquired down the years doesn’t quite prepare you for the actual thing, mind — the first half-hour is as much a frisky, cheeky sex romp as it is heist caper. Although, as you can infer from the classifications above, it doesn’t get too risqué. Of course, the real fun comes later, when Michael Caine and his crew of crooks execute an audacious gold robbery in Turin, causing a city-wide traffic jam that they can nip around in their Minis. This climactic chase doesn’t make much sense logically (they drive onto a roof only to drive back off it? They hide by parking in a car lot where there were precisely three spaces among similar-looking cars?), but it’s a lot of anarchic entertainment nonetheless. A bit like the whole movie, really: genuine crime isn’t like this, but this is a lot more fun.

    4 out of 5

    Downsizing
    (2017)

    2019 #41
    Alexander Payne | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Norway / English, Norwegian & Spanish | 15 / R

    Downsizing

    In the future, searching for a way to solve overpopulation and global warming, a scientist invents “downsizing”, a process to shrink people to a height of five inches. People start to voluntarily be ‘downsized’, in part because being small has economic benefits. Financially-struggling couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to trade their ordinary lives for the extravagant lifestyle promised by New Mexico’s impeccable downsized community, Leisureland. But not all problems are so easily fixed, and a chance encounter with a shady entrepreneur (Christoph Waltz) and a famous Vietnamese political activist (Hong Chau) sets Paul on a path where he must choose between a sheltered life or making an impact in his own small way. — adapted from IMDb

    There are promising ideas and concepts at the heart of Downsizing — under an appropriately-minded director, this concept should’ve been a goldmine. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne doesn’t seem to be the right person for the job. It feels like he’s playing at being more of a Spike Jonze type, and not succeeding.

    The problems begin at a screenplay level. It feels like a very “and then this” narrative: things keep happening, one after another, with little to tie it all together. The final act eventually links back round to the prologue, to give a sense of the film all being a whole, but the real meat of the story — what happens to Paul in the middle — is just a series of events. Sometimes, it entirely abandons important stuff from earlier on so as to strike out on new tangents.

    That contributes to a feeling of tonal and thematic whiplash. The film ping-pongs around various themes and threads, seemingly indecisive about what it wants to comment on. Consequently, it offers nothing but the most superficial observations on topic. On top of that, it swings from broad comedy to introspective drama at whim.

    On the bright side, the visuals are pretty effective, managing to plausibly make the small world feel small even within itself. It’s just a shame the core of the movie can’t match up to the effects.

    2 out of 5

    Brigsby Bear
    (2017)

    2019 #43
    Dave McCary | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

    Brigsby Bear

    Room meets Be Kind Rewind in this quirky comedy-drama. James (Kyle Mooney) is a young man who has lived all his life in an underground bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams)… except they’re not really his parents: he was kidnapped as a baby and has been held captive for decades. After being freed, James learns that the TV show he was obsessed with in the bunker, Brigsby Bear Adventures, isn’t real either — it was made by his captors just for him. Unable to let Brigsby go, James sets out to finish the story by making a Brigsby Bear movie himself.

    There’s a sense in which some of Brigsby Bear is stuff we’ve seen before — the “group of friends set out to make an overambitious (home) movie” conceit has been trotted out by indie movies like Son of Rambow and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the aforementioned Be Kind Rewind. Director Dave McCary and screenwriters Kyle Mooney & Kevin Costello give that basic material a quirky new sheen, but the real joy lies in the film’s insistent good-heartedness. It’s refreshing (if arguably unrealistic), and the joy its characters find in the shared creative experience is suitably infectious. Indeed, it reaches a point where the ending is surprisingly emotional. The raft of comparisons may suggest this isn’t the most original confection, but I loved it nonetheless.

    5 out of 5

    Brigsby Bear placed 15th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.

    Starship Troopers
    (1997)

    2019 #46
    Paul Verhoeven | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Starship Troopers

    Dismissed by many critics on its original release as cheesy sci-fi, Starship Troopers has been somewhat reclaimed in the decades since, both turned into a surprisingly enduring franchise (multiple sequels, animated series, etc) and praised as an anti-fascist satire. As I understand it, the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein is straight-up right-wing claptrap, but director Paul Verhoeven — who grew up under Nazi occupation — saw its inherent ridiculousness, and so intended to reshape it as a deconstruction of, well, itself.

    In that regard, for me, it’s a mixed success. The satire itself is a little thin. War is bad? Yep. The people in power use propaganda to keep you on their side? No shit. Put anyone in a Nazi-like uniform and we can infer they’re actually bad? Obvs. So why did many critics seem to miss it on the film’s original release? Perhaps because everything that surrounds it is cheesy third-rate stuff. When the character drama has all the depth and quality of a daytime soap, it’s easy to presume the similarly-daft in-universe commercials are also meant to be taken straight; that any humorousness was unintentional.

    And so, somewhat ironically, I thought Starship Troopers worked best as a straightforward sci-fi action/war movie. It’s a bit Full Metal Starship: first half is all pre-war/boot camp stuff, then the second half takes the characters out into the actual conflict. All the combat sequences are pretty thrilling on a visceral level, and the special effects mostly hold up to this day. Plus, it’s all bolstered by a great militaristic score from composer Basil Poledouris.

    After a couple of decades hearing “Starship Troopers is good, actually”, I found myself almost hewing closer to the original critical assessment. Perhaps it raises that old question of authorial intent: if it was meant to be satire, should we treat it as satire, even if it doesn’t actually look like satire?

    4 out of 5

    Starship Troopers was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Escape from New York
    (1981)

    2019 #47
    John Carpenter | 99 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Escape from New York

    It’s a wonder that Escape from New York never wound up on my Blindspot list — it’s exactly the kind of film I always expected would be on there. Well, I guess the way I choose those films often errs towards “cinephile classics” rather than the kind of films I read discussed as classics in the kind of genre magazines I grew up reading. I’m sure it would have made it in eventually, if I hadn’t just straight up watched it first.

    I mention that upfront because it indicates something about how much I expected Escape from New York to be My Kind of Thing; and so there is every possibility my expectations for it were set too high. Frankly, it wasn’t as much pulpy fun as I expected it to be. It’s surprisingly slow, and very nihilistic — this isn’t a fun ride through a cool dystopia, more a glum portrait of everything having gone to shit, but in the body of an action movie.

    That said, I’m by no means arguing this is a bad movie. There is stuff here that’s good and that works, and is cool in the way it should be (it’s a pulpy premise that gets a pulpy treatment — I think “cool” is a perfectly valid thing for it to aim for). Kurt Russell does his best Clint Eastwood impression (literally) as anti-hero Snake Plissken, which is quite fun, and there’s some great music on the soundtrack, especially the main theme. Considering the lowly budget, the ruined streets of future New York are well realised too, supplemented by a tiny amount of location footage (the first film to be shot on Liberty Island!) and a stunning model of the blacked-out city.

    Despite all of that, overall it doesn’t come together and achieve the heights I expected of it. In some respects, my score below is generous — it’s a downgrade from the 5 I hoped I’d be giving the film, rather than an upgrade from a neutral 3, if that makes sense. Definitely one I need to revisit with realigned expectations.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XIX

    Although I managed to get caught up on my reviews to the end of 2018 by the end of 2020, these 100-week catch-ups are still behind schedule — after all, 100 weeks is slightly less than two years, so I should be into February 2019 by now. But we are where we are, and so here’s the first batch from January 2019. At least the first one’s more appropriate now than it would’ve been in December…

  • Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  • 1941 (1979)
  • Rambo (2008)


    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
    (2018)

    2019 #1
    Ben Wheatley | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

    Writer-director Ben Wheatley leaves behind the murderous themes that have characterised his feature output to instead portray a family drama that plays like an art house EastEnders. Put another way, it’s about an extended family spending most of their time arguing about things they have or haven’t done to each other, but it’s really slow and frequently abstruse.

    I guess Wheatley has his fans, and I know he has his detractors, but I find every one of his movies a crapshoot: sometimes I think they’re pretty great, sometimes interminable, sometimes floating somewhere in between. Colin Burstead is definitely at the negative end of the spectrum — way down that end, in fact. Unlike other Wheatley films I’ve not liked, this has little to commend it: none of the pretty cinematography or nods to social satire of High-Rise; none of the mood or editing trickery of A Field in England. The visuals are little better than a home movie; the editing is… random. And I mean that literally: sometimes shots from other scenes drop in for no apparent reason, never mind the senseless intercutting that goes on regularly.

    I guess Wheatley was going for some kind of Robert Altman thing, with all the characters and their own storylines and the way they’re intercut and the dialogue overlaps. But there’s no mastery of that form apparent here, and certainly no story worth applying it too. Even at under 90 minutes, it feels like it goes on forever. It’s that most damnable of things: boring.

    1 out of 5

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2018.

    Cool Hand Luke
    (1967)

    2019 #2
    Stuart Rosenberg | 122 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

    Cool Hand Luke

    When petty criminal Luke Jackson is sentenced to two years in a Florida chain gang, he doesn’t play by the rules of either the sadistic warden or the resident heavy, Dragline. As he becomes a rebel hero to his fellow convicts and a thorn in the side of the prison officers, the latter actively work to crush Luke until he finally breaks… — adapted from IMDb

    The thing that most surprised me — or, at least, struck me — about Cool Hand Luke was how similar it felt to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (of course, that film came out eight years after this one, so if there is a chain of influence it flows in the other direction). They’re about different kinds of institution, but the vibe of the piece — a new against-the-grain inmate riling up the others to provoke the oppressive authority figures who control them — is very similar. They also have a similar comedic/dramatic mix of tones for most of the runtime, before both ending with a calamitous finale.

    If Cool Hand Luke feels a bit less dark overall, it’s probably because its leading man is the immensely charming Paul Newman, versus Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest — he’s charming in his own way, but it’s definitely a cockeyed kinda likeability, with an undercurrent that things might go bad at any moment. Not that Cool Hand Luke is lacking in threatening atmosphere, with the abusive ills of the chain gang system ever-present.

    4 out of 5

    Cool Hand Luke was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    1941
    (1979)

    2019 #4
    Steven Spielberg | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Japanese & German | 12 / PG

    1941

    From 1975 until the end of the ’80s, director Steven Spielberg had a truly extraordinary run of movies: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade — every one of them an era-defining box office hit and/or a multi-Oscar-nominee. Except that list overlooks one dud: 1941. That’s how the majority see it, anyway, but it does have something of a cult following (and apparently “the Europeans love it”, or so Spielberg claims in an accompanying documentary).

    Personally, as is so often the case, I fall somewhere between these two stools. Spielberg signals his tonal intention from the off, beginning with an outright spoof of the famous opening to Jaws, the film that had made his name just a few years earlier. After that, 1941 unfolds almost like a sketch show, through a series of comedic vignettes; though it’s more like binge-watching a whole series of a sketch show, because there’s also a series of running plot lines. And just like a sketch show, the quality varies wildly from bit to bit. I felt like it took a long time to really get going, and then it felt like it was going on forever, but I actually warmed to its barminess in the end. Even if it’s weak overall, there are some very good sequences — the dance competition-cum-chase is a particular highlight. There’s a ton of special effects at the climax which look spectacular, too — you can always rely on Spielberg to pull off a good-looking, technically-excellent movie.

    In later years, Spielberg has admitted his hubris and arrogance (coming off the massive double success of Jaws and Close Encounters) hindered the film, which he thinks should’ve been funnier. Nonetheless, he’s still proud of it — indeed, when he was given the chance to restore his original two-and-a-half-hour director’s cut (Columbia and Universal had cut the original release against his wishes, fearing for its commercial potential), he took that opportunity. Some day, I’ll have to give the longer cut a go. I presume it can’t be any more consistent, but maybe there are some extra laughs…

    3 out of 5

    Rambo
    (2008)

    2019 #5
    Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English, Burmese & Thai | 18 / R

    Rambo

    In Thailand, John Rambo joins a group of mercenaries to venture into war-torn Burma and rescue a group of Christian aid workers who were kidnapped by a ruthless local infantry unit.IMDb

    Despite the blunt title, Rambo is not a reboot of the Rambo series. Nor is it quite a Jason Bourne-style “let’s just use his name this time”, because there’s already kinda been a film called Rambo — it was the second one. And, of course, people tend to just call the first one Rambo, despite that not being its title at all. So maybe let’s not get hung up on the naming of Rambo movies (though if anyone ever says “I really enjoyed that one movie, Rambo,” you’re probably going to have to ask for clarification).

    Despite being an OTT action series, Rambo has a habit of getting involved in real-life conflicts: the first one spun out of Vietnam; the second was concerned with an issue from that conflict’s fallout; and the third saw him stick his oar into Afghanistan. Using real-world geopolitics as an excuse for a brutal action movie is the kind of thing some people will always find distasteful, but at least Rambo seems to have its heart more in the right place than First Blood Part II or Rambo III did. In fact, the film was banned by the rulers in Burma, but was widely bootlegged by resistance fighters, who loved it and adopted phrases from it as mantras. So you can say it was distasteful to the real political situation if you like, but the people actually embroiled in it clearly felt differently. And David Morrell, the author of the original First Blood novel (who has proven quite happy to criticise a Rambo movie), was “pleased” with this one: “the level of violence might not be for everyone, but it has a serious intent. This is the first time that the tone of my novel First Blood has been used in any of the movies. It’s spot-on in terms of how I imagined the character — angry, burned-out, and filled with self-disgust because Rambo hates what he is and yet knows it’s the only thing he does well.”

    Big fucking gun

    Oh yes, “the violence may not be for everyone”, because, oh boy, it really is brutal! Blood and body parts explode all over the damn place. But the film invests a lot of effort in making sure you know these bad guys really, really deserve it — mainly by showing them to be brutal bastards themselves, committing nasty war crimes in the film’s first half. At one point during the bloodbath climax, they employ artillery so heavy it takes off heads with a single shot. That’s used to kill every bad guy on a gunboat… and then they blow the boat up with a rocket launcher, for good measure. It’s not quite as ridiculous as that time Rambo used an explosive-tipped arrow to kill one man, but it’s getting there.

    A couple of years after the film’s release, Stallone put together a Director’s Cut that reportedly pulls back on some of the violence and adds more character-centric scenes. I don’t know if that would make the film better — I feel like the balance is pretty good right now. Maybe a little heavy on the brutality, sure, but I can’t see how a movie like this needs much more character stuff than it already has. It’s really well paced as it stands: it manages to not feel in a rush, while also not feeling slow; and once the men are properly on their mission, it’s almost relentless without being breathless. It makes for a very smooth, fast 90 minutes.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVII

    Continuing my push to wrap up leftover reviews from 2018, here are three more to finish off that November

  • Danger: Diabolik (1968)
  • Boy (2010)
  • Dad’s Army (2016)


    Danger: Diabolik
    (1968)

    aka Diabolik

    2018 #243
    Mario Bava | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Italy & France / English | 12 / PG-13

    Danger: Diabolik

    This starts off like a normal-looking crime thriller, with cops transporting millions of dollars in fake money while the real cash goes in a decoy… but then the decoy is ambushed by supercriminal Diabolik using multi-coloured smoke, and suddenly everything takes an abrupt turn into trippy ‘60s-ness. After escaping with the loot, Diabolik and his girl risk some nasty paper cuts by rolling around in the cash naked… on a giant rotating circular bed. Ah, the ’60s. And that, really, is the best summation of Danger: Diabolik: it looks and feels just like a Euro-comic of the era. If you made it today, with the benefits of hindsight and every cultural touchstone under the sun, you could barely make it more “60s”. For example, there’s a long-ish sequence in a swinging nightclub for virtually no reason — exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an Austin Powers movie.

    On the downside, the storyline is a bit episodic. It’s also clear that it was cheaply made in places, and yet other parts look great, like Diabolik’s underground lair set. Apparently director Mario Bava had a budget of $3 million but brought it in for just $400,000, which I guess explains that. But that inconsistency extends to the overall imagery and style of the film: some of it is striking and memorable, but even more is just… fine; adequate; could be taken from anything made by anyone.

    Ultimately, I like the idea of Diabolik a lot more than the actual execution, which didn’t seem nearly as wild and idiosyncratic as many of the positive reviews make out. When it works, it’s got a comic-book, campy, Saturday-morning-adventure-serial charm, with a mildly raunchy edge (there are skimpy outfits and some kissing, and a naked woman covered up by banknotes, but that’s your lot), and it certainly operates by its own crazy-fun logic rather than the rules of real life. But, even with that going on, it doesn’t all come together as thrillingly and entertainingly as it could or should. I can well imagine a right-minded kind of director remaking it and transforming it into something that really nailed those influences and made for a much more striking, exciting ride. Well, there’s a new version due in 2021, so we can but hope.

    3 out of 5

    Boy
    (2010)

    2018 #244
    Taika Waititi | 84 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15

    Boy

    The second film directed by Taika Waititi (after Eagle vs Shark) feels somewhat like a semi-autobiographical dry run for his later work. It’s a whimsical comedy that hides depths of very real drama, just like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Jojo Rabbit, but it lacks their polish and refinement — it’s not as funny, and it doesn’t fully tap into what that drama ultimately means. It plays like a strong calling card: indicative of what the writer-director is capable of and intends to shoot for, but clearly not yet at their full potential. Mind you, the heights Waititi later reached are so high that this “not there yet” effort is still very good.

    4 out of 5

    Dad’s Army
    (2016)

    2018 #245
    Oliver Parker | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & German | PG

    Dad's Army

    1960s/70s World War II sitcom Dad’s Army is enduringly popular — repeats on BBC Two (one of the UK’s main TV networks, for those that don’t know) regularly garner viewing figures that eclipse new programming. So it’s no surprise that someone decided it would be a good idea to give it a big-screen reboot… and it’s equally as unsurprising that it was largely a failure. Making a successful sitcom is a large part down to luck. You don’t just need funny scripts, but also to cast it well so that the characters really come alive; and getting the lead bang-on isn’t enough: for a comedy to really work, everyone needs to be great in their own role and to blend perfectly as an ensemble. Capturing that “lightning in a bottle” factor once is hard enough, but to repeat it? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Filmmaker?

    You can see how they tried. The premise is obviously solid gold, so that box is already ticked. Then the new cast is stuffed with names: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson, Daniel Mays… If anything, they’re over-qualified for this kind of project. Indeed, if you stop and think about it, you do wonder: how many of them are comedians, really? And maybe that was the problem. If you were casting a biopic about the making of the show, this would be a top-drawer ensemble; but to recreate its comedic magic? That said, it’s not impossible: when they remade the series’ missing episodes with a new cast, it worked very well.

    So maybe the secret is the script, after all. It’s definitely a weak link here. The humour is so gentle, it’s not even bothering to be very funny. There are lots of double entendres, though to say they have more than one meaning is generous. There are plenty of nods and winks to the original in an attempt to keep fans happy, including trotting out all the familiar catchphrases, but usually they’re shoved in rather than occurring naturally in dialogue. The female characters largely fare better than the men, though perhaps that’s just because they’re more original creations. Some might argue such a shift is a necessary correction to the male-orientated series, but it also isn’t really the point. Worst of all, at times it feels like the film wants to be some kind of thriller. It even ends with a big action sequence shootout! I can’t think of much that’d be less Dad’s Army than that.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVI

    Right: after a bit of a Christmas break, it’s time to get stuck back in to what I said I was going to do — specifically, wrap up my reviews from 2018 before the end of 2020.* So, that means I’ve got nine reviews to cram into the next 3 days, starting with this handful from November 2018

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
  • Redline (2009)


    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    (2018)

    2018 #238
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

    Nowadays, almost everyone who’s anyone has made a movie for Netflix; but, back in November 2018, the latest big-name directors to take the streaming plunge were cinephile favourites the Coen brothers. Their contribution was a Western full of whimsy and violence — Coens gotta Coen, I guess.

    The film is really a collection of shorts, coming in six segments: first, the one that also gives the feature its overall title, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; followed by Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon (based on a story by Jack London), The Gal Who Got Rattled (inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White), and finishing up with The Mortal Remains. The connection between these disparate narratives? Um… And why is the whole collection named after the first one? Err…

    To expand on my ums and errs, in reverse order, I can see no reason at all why Buster Scruggs was chosen as the umbrella title. If anything, it’s misleading: you expect the character to come back somehow later on (he doesn’t). It’s not even that the segment is typical or representative of the other five that follow. Maybe they thought it was the most evocative moniker? Maybe they thought it was the best of the six? Personally, I’d’ve come up with something else.

    As for why these six tales are bundled together, I couldn’t tell you that, either. There’s little discernible connection between them, not even stylistically: the first is almost a musical cartoon, with a hyper-skilled gunslinger prone to warbling a tune and breaking the fourth wall — elements that don’t even vaguely factor into the next two shorts, the first of which is concerned with a kind of cosmic irony, the second with brutal reality (of the entertainment business — you could almost class it as an allegorical satire). The only common thread I could ascertain is that (spoiler alert!) they all end in death. Hardly a remarkable feature in a Western, though, is it?

    Comments that have stood out to me from other reviews include the likes of “Coen Brothers 101”, or “a great introduction to their world for the uninitiated”, and that “each vignette showcases their different different talents” — that’s not bad as a kind of summary. But also, “the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts”, with which I’d agree — I’m not really sure what these six short films gain from being watched together (other than wider distribution and attention than shorts, even by renowned directors, normally achieve).

    4 out of 5

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    (2013)

    aka Kaguyahime no monogatari

    2018 #239
    Isao Takahata | 131 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

    This film from the other Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is perhaps the studio’s biggest breakout success that wasn’t directed by its most famous name (i.e. Hayao Miyazaki). Based on a story from 10th-century Japanese folklore, it tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot, who he takes to raise with his wife. The cutter also finds riches in the same bamboo grove and, as the girl quickly grows into a young lady, he sets about transforming her into a princess.

    The most obvious thing to say about Princess Kaguya is that it has beautiful animation — but it really does; a sketchy-but-precise, watercolour-ish style, quite unlike anything else we’re used to seeing from any kind of animation. But “ooh, isn’t it pretty?” won’t sustain a film with a running time of over two hours; and, indeed, I felt Kaguya was a bit overlong — not excessively slow (though it certainly isn’t a fast-paced tale), but a couple of bits do go round in circles over the same points. It’s clearly a parable, possibly about not controlling others, although I didn’t think the ending really married up to that. It does have a point about happiness in freedom vs the restrictions of class and so-called “good people”, although there’s also an element of romanticising peasant life, which is always an iffy position to take (it’s easy to long for simpler time and ways when you don’t have to actually struggle with them).

    Perhaps I’m just overthinking it. As a gorgeously-realised fairytale, Princess Kaguya is more than equal to the many (many) examples of the same from the Western animation canon.

    4 out of 5

    Redline
    (2009)

    2018 #240
    Takeshi Koike | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15

    Redline

    Redline stands in stark contrast to Kaguya‘s delicate lyricism. It’s a senseless cacophony of unfollowable action — visual diarrhoea.

    It’s billed as a sports movie, but there’s so much other crap going on that the fact it’s a race (or supposedly a race) is barely relevant. It’s not like you can actually follow who’s in the lead or who’s in competition or what tactics anyone’s using or any of the other things you’d expect from a proper sports film. There’s a meaningless flashback-driven romance subplot, just to make things more annoying, and some gratuitous nudity to boot. Well, pretty much everything about the film is gratuitous — the designs, the story, the villains… you name it, it’s OTT and/or uncalled for.

    Apparently it used over 100,000 hand-made drawings and no CGI whatsoever, so at least it looks good… in its own way. I wasn’t a huge fan of the overall style — it looks like an extreme 2000 AD strip brought to life (albeit one crossed with manga, natch) — but 3D CGI in otherwise-2D anime often sticks out like a sore thumb, so it avoids that pitfall, at least.

    2 out of 5

    * There’s actually one 2018 review that’s going to remain hanging, because it’s part of a trilogy I’ll bundle together someday. But if I can get the other nine reviews ticked off, I’ll be happy. ^

  • The 100-Week Roundup XV

    I’ve fallen terribly behind with these 100-Week Roundups — I should be on to films from 2019 by now (because 100 weeks is c.23 months), but I still have 17 reviews from 2018 to go. I considered trying to cram more into each roundup, but that just takes longer to compile, so my aim is to post a more-than-average number of roundups in the next fortnight with the goal of at least completing 2018 before 2020 ends. We’ll see how that goes.

    For now, we’re in November 2018 and looking at…

  • The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
  • Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
  • Paper Moon (1973)
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)


    The Other Side of the Wind
    (2018)

    2018 #226
    Orson Welles | 122 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 | France, Iran & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Other Side of the Wind

    One of my draft intros for The Other Side of the Wind was to talk about how it feels like “a 2018 film” because it’s different; innovative; unique — modern. But then to note that, of course, it was all shot in the 1970s, but never completed for financial and legal reasons. That’s only partially true, though, because while it does feel modern in some ways, it still looks and feels very ’70s; and while it’s no doubt experimental and avant-garde, it’s in a very ’70s way. And the look of the film stock is very ’70s. It’s a strange, undoubtedly compromised movie — but so are many of the films Orson Welles managed to complete while he was alive, thanks to studio interference, so it’s hardly a sore thumb in that regard.

    The film tells the story of the final days of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a film director working on his comeback movie (you’ve gotta think there’s some autobiography in here, then, right?) It’s a portrait of the man’s final hours, supposedly assembled from dozens of sources that were shooting him at the time — Welles prefiguring the ‘found footage’ genre by a decade or two. But this isn’t a horror movie… well, not in the traditional sense: in my notes I described it as “a frantically-cut display of pompous self-declared intellectuals pontificating about something and nothing in a battle of pretentiousness. That perhaps explains why, at a time when Netflix movies routinely ‘break out’, the flash of interest the film’s release provoked has not resulted in any kind of sustained wide admiration.

    Whatever your thoughts on the final film (and it’s clearly one for cineastes and completists rather than general audiences), it seems remarkable that it took so long for anyone to be willing to fund the completion of a film by The Great Orson Welles. But that’s actually a story unto itself, told in the accompanying documentary A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making (which is hidden in the film’s “Trailers & More” section, but is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested). Among the revelations there are that Welles shot almost 100 hours of footage, spread across 1,083 film elements, all of which had to be fully inventoried. Matching it up was a problem that would have been insurmountable even ten years ago; it’s only possible now thanks to digital techniques and algorithms — and, of course, a big chunk of change from Netflix. Welles had only cut together about 45 minutes, with the rest completed based on the style of those parts, his notes and letters, and recordings of some of his direction that was retained on the sound reels.

    Was the effort worth it? It’s certainly a fascinating project to see brought to some kind of fruition. In the end, I’m not sure what it all signified. The story is pretty straightforward, but it’s jumbled in amongst a lot of hyperactive editing, as well as a bizarre film-within-a-film. There are things here which still feel ahead of their time even now, and things that were certainly ahead of their time when shot in the early ’70s (even if other people have done them since), which is always exciting. Combine that with Welles’s status and this is unquestionably a fascinating, must-see movie for cinephiles.

    3 out of 5

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
    (1998)

    2018 #227
    Boyd Kirkland | 67 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

    It’s now so ingrained in Bat-canon that it’s easy to forget, but Batman: The Animated Series actually invented Mr Freeze’s backstory about his dead wife, etc. It was so successful that the episode (Heart of Ice) won an Emmy, the character was brought back to life in the comics (complete with this new backstory), and just a few years later it was used in Batman & Robin (which, considering how much that film was happy to ignore about other characters, e.g. Bane, just goes to show… something).

    So, with The Animated Series responsible for such a major revival of the character, it kinda makes sense they’d choose him to star in their second animated feature — although another version of events is he was chosen to tie-in with Batman & Robin, but then SubZero was pushed back after the live-action film was a critical flop. That makes sense, because while Heart of Ice is fantastic and influential, none of Freeze’s other Animated Series appearances have a great deal to offer. TV episode Deep Freeze is sci-fi B-movie gubbins featuring Freeze as a cog in the plot rather than its driving force; and, after all the effort to humanise him, in Cold Comfort he’s just a villain doing villainous things with incredibly thin motivation.

    SubZero is, at least, a step above those. It doesn’t withstand comparison to its predecessor movie, the genuine classic Mask of the Phantasm — that had entertainment value for kids, but was also a thoughtful, mature story about what drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman. SubZero, on the other hand, is just an action-adventure ride. It’s not bad for what it is (there’s a pretty great car chase halfway through, and the explosive climax aboard an abandoned oil derrick going up in flames is rather good), but no more than that. At least it finally provides a neat end to Freeze’s story… even if it is kinda hurried in a last-minute news report.

    3 out of 5

    Paper Moon
    (1973)

    2018 #235
    Peter Bogdanovich | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Paper Moon

    I do try to avoid this situation arising in a ‘review’, but I watched Paper Moon over two years ago and didn’t make any significant notes on it, so I’m afraid I can’t say much of my own opinion. What I can tell you is that I happened to spot it in the TV schedule and decided to watch it primarily to tick it off the IMDb Top 250, thinking it was a bit of an also-ran on that list (based on iCheckMovies, it’s not very widely regarded outside of IMDb; indeed, it’s not even on the Top 250 anymore). But that was serendipitous, because I wound up really enjoying it.

    Sticking with IMDb, here are some interesting points of trivia:

    “At 1 hour, 6 minutes, 58 seconds, Tatum O’Neal’s performance is the longest to ever win an Academy Award in a supporting acting category.” I guess category fraud isn’t a recent phenomena: O’Neal’s a lead — the lead, even — but I bet that supporting award was an easier win, especially as she was a child. Which also ties to this item: “some Hollywood insiders suspected that O’Neal’s performance was ‘manufactured’ by director Peter Bogdanovich. It was revealed that the director had gone to great lengths, sometimes requiring as many as 50 takes, to capture the ‘effortless’ natural quality for which Tatum was critically praised.” But I’ll add a big “hmm” to that point, because I think it’s very much a point of view thing. Every performance in a movie is “manufactured”, in the sense that multiple takes are done and the director and editor later make selections — is requiring 50 takes for a child actor to nail it any different than Kubrick or Fincher putting adult actors through 100 or more takes until they get what they want?

    On a more positive note, “Orson Welles, a close friend of Bogdanovich, did some uncredited consulting on the cinematography. It was Welles who suggested shooting black and white photography through a red filter, adding higher contrast to the images.” Good idea, Orson, because the film does look rather gorgeous.

    5 out of 5

    Hitchcock/Truffaut
    (2015)

    2018 #236
    Kent Jones | 77 mins | TV | 16:9 | France & USA / English, French & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

    Hitchcock/Truffaut

    In 1962, film directors Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut locked themselves away in Hollywood for a week to excavate the secrets behind the mise-en-scène in cinema. Based on the original recordings of this meeting — used to produce the mythical book Hitchcock/Truffaut — this film illustrates the greatest cinema lesson of all time… Hitchcock’s incredibly modern art is elucidated and explained by today’s leading filmmakers, who discuss how Truffaut’s book influenced their work. — adapted from IMDb

    This film version of Hitchcock/Truffaut is about so much at once. On balance, it’s mostly about analysing Hitchcock’s films; but it’s also about the interview itself; and the importance and impact of the book, both on the general critical perception of Hitchcock and how it influenced specific directors; but it’s also about how Hitchcock’s actual films have influenced those directors; and there’s also insights into directing from those directors; and also some bits on Truffaut’s films, and the differences between him and Hitchcock as filmmakers. Whew!

    It’s a funny film, really: it acknowledges the book’s influence, but doesn’t really dig into it; it analyses some of Hitch’s obsessions and films (most especially Vertigo and Psycho), but not comprehensively. Some have said it feels like a companion piece to the book; I’ve not read the book, but I can believe that — if the book were a movie, this would be a special feature on the DVD. Less kindly, you could call it a feature-length advert — certainly, I really want to get the book now. (I got it as a Christmas present not long after. I’ve not read it yet.)

    That said, here’s an iInteresting counterpoint from a Letterboxd review: “One of the things (just one) that makes the book so essential is that it’s a discussion of the craft of filmmaking from two (very different) filmmakers. In adding commentary from a wide variety of other directors, Jones highlights that element of the book while widening and updating its focus: it isn’t just a conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, but between those two men and David Fincher, and James Gray and Kyoshi Kurosawa and Arnaud Desplechin, etc. Rather than a mere supplement to the book, a video essay adding moving pictures to the book’s conversations, Jones’s film builds something new and on-going upon it.”

    I didn’t think Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) was all it could be; and yet, thanks to the topics discussed and people interviewed, it’s still a must-see for any fan of Hitchcock, or just movies in general.

    4 out of 5

  • Bloodshot (2020)

    2020 #178
    David S.F. Wilson | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English |
    12 / PG-13

    Bloodshot

    If you only know about comic books from the movie universes they spawn, you’d be forgiven for thinking Marvel and DC are the be-all and end-all of that medium. Not so, of course. One of the other publishers with their own stable of superheroes just waiting to make the leap to the screen is Valiant, and (if you hadn’t already guessed) Bloodshot is one of theirs. Indeed, at one point it was intended that it would be an Iron Man-style jumping off point for another cinematic universe, but I can’t imagine that’s still on the cards.

    Anyway, in this screen incarnation, Bloodshot stars Vin Diesel as Ray Garrison, a US Marine who is kidnapped and killed along with his wife… but then he wakes up, albeit with amnesia. An experimental scientific programme has seen nanite tech injected into his bloodstream, giving him increased strength and healing abilities. Increased strength? Speed healing? Amnesia? I guess he’s Cyber-Wolverine, only without the cool claws. Anyway, Ray begins to have flashbacks, and he heads off to kill the terrorists who killed him and his wife. But all is not as it seems…

    I don’t know why I’m holding back — the trailer spoiled more of the plot than that. And I’m not trying to spare you so you can enjoy the story as the movie unfolds, because Bloodshot is not a film I particularly recommend; and what is enjoyable about it has nothing to do with its storyline. That said, the twist I’ve implied exists would’ve been quite good — certainly one of the film’s higher points — if they hadn’t blown it in the trailer. The only other thrills come from its action sequences, which are passable, albeit constructed with a prominent degree of sloppiness that indicates the filmmakers either weren’t skilled enough or weren’t attentive enough to truly get it right. For example, they didn’t even bother to put British number plates on any of the cars during a chase that supposedly takes place in London; not to mention that the streets they’re darting around look nothing like the UK.

    Kind of a superhero

    Poor location scouting aside, there’s copious amounts of the computer-generated bombast that’s par for the course in a modern blockbuster. But underneath that digital set dressing, Bloodshot feels like a throwback to the comic book adaptations of 20 years ago; one of those superhero-movies-they’d-rather-weren’t-superhero-movies we got in the late ’90s or early ’00s, before X-Men and Spider-Man finally straightened everyone out. It even has the kind of plasticky CGI stunt doubles you haven’t seen in at least 15 years (Marvel & co use CGI stunt doubles all the time, of course, but they’re better done than these ones).

    Like those half-arsed efforts of old, Bloodshot is, when taken as a brain-off sci-fi actioner, mostly adequate. That’s about the best that can be said for it. I was going to say that it’s probably bland enough to scrape a passing grade, but, the further I get from it, the more it lessens in my memory. My score sides with that hindsight.

    2 out of 5

    Bloodshot is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

    2020 #29
    Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    Terminator: Dark Fate

    “I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

    As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

    Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

    She be back

    Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

    All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

    He be back

    Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

    Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

    3 out of 5

    Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

    The 100-Week Roundup X

    These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

    This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

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

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

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

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • Venom (2018)

    2020 #181
    Ruben Fleischer | 112 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

    Venom

    The fad for shared universes, provoked by the success of the MCU, seems to be dying off: the Dark Universe, the DC Extended Universe, Fox’s X-Men films, the MonsterVerse, sundry others most of us can’t even remember — they all either died a quick, brutal death, or circumstances have wiped them out. Even those that are ongoing have either abandoned close interconnectedness (like the DCEU) or don’t have long-term plans (the MonsterVerse, which has nothing announced beyond Godzilla vs. Kong). The MCU still seems to be going strong (although we haven’t actually had a new MCU movie in over a year now, so who knows what the future will hold?), but other than that? Everyone seems to have realised the formula is impossible (or too much hard work) to replicate.

    The exception lies in Sony’s desire to launch a superhero universe out of the one character whose rights they own: Spider-Man. It started when they abandoned Spider-Man 4 to go the reboot route with The Amazing Spider-Man, the sequel to which teased all sorts of stuff to come, some of which was announced. Those movies’ failure to live up to their titles (i.e. they were not amazing, in any respect) saw such plans cancelled, but it seems Sony don’t give up so easily — even after they loaned out Spider-Man himself to the MCU, moves to form their own universe have continued.

    Which is what brings us to Venom. For those not in the know, he started life as a Spider-Man villain (if you’re not a comic book reader, you’re most likely to know him from his appearance in Spider-Man 3, a move forced by the studio that contributed to the film’s relative failure), but he later became an anti-hero in his own right, which positions him quite nicely for Sony’s first actually-filmed-and-released foray into a shared Spidey universe. (A lot of the other Spider-Man characters they own the rights to are villains, though after the success of Joker I guess they’ll feel emboldened to attempt villain-centred films.) And, to the surprise of some, Venom earnt over $850 million at the global box office, making it the 7th highest grossing film of 2018. Sony’s Spider-Man-universe-without-Spider-Man is definitely underway (there’s a sequel due next year, alongside other Spidey-related films both ready for release and in active development).

    Venomous

    But enough about future plans, because perhaps one reason Venom has been such a success at launching a new universe is that it didn’t try too hard. Unlike The Mummy or Batman v Superman, this isn’t a film bogged down with characters and references designed to tee-up future spin-offs. It’s an entirely standalone adventure, in which struggling journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) bonds with an alien symbiote that can take over his body and do powerful things. The alien is one of several brought to Earth by the explorations of Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In the mould of many an overconfident movie scientist before him, Drake hasn’t bargained on the aliens having their own agenda — to invade Earth and eat the populace, i.e. us. But for some reason Brock’s alien, Venom, takes a liking to the planet and vows to protect it.

    It takes the movie quite a while to get to that point, mind. Sorry if you were wary of spoilers, but, I mean, it’s hardly a surprise that (a) a race of aliens that look like Venom are going to turn out to have vicious motives, and (b) the titular character is going to turn out to be a good guy who wants to save us. There’s certainly a place for slow-burn movies that take their time to get to the point or to reveal the monster, but I’m not sure a summer superhero blockbuster is one of them. While Venom isn’t exactly boring until Venom turns up, it does feel like we’re going through motions until we get to what we’ve come for, i.e. a crazy powerful alien kicking ass and biting off heads.

    It feels further unbalanced because Venom is actually quite short. You might’ve clocked the 112 minute (aka 1 hour 52 minutes) running time and thought that sounded pretty reasonable (even if nowadays most blockbusters are well over 2 hours), but the actual content of the movie runs only a little over an hour-and-a-half, topped up by a long credits scroll and a lengthy post-credit promo clip for Into the Spider-Verse. (I can see why they included that in cinemas, but leaving it in the home release feels unnecessary. Apparently it’s cut from some digital versions.) According to IMDb, Hardy has said that half-an-hour or so was cut from the film, including his favourite sequences. Why those cuts were made and what exactly went, I don’t know, but even in the released version it feels like they could’ve slimmed down the first 50 minutes and put in more of Venom himself.

    Note the lack of Venom

    Partly this is the plot suffering from having to be an origin story, with all the usual issues that brings: a lot of time spent on setup; a villain who’s sidelined for the bigger point of Eddie and Venom finally coming together. Once it reaches that point, it’s allowed to indulge in the barminess of the character and the situation a little. All while playing safely within a PG-13 box, of course. Venom is kind of a ’90s teenager’s idea of what it means to be edgy and dark, and by staying faithful to that the film version consequently feels quite like an early-’00s superhero movie. There’s even an Eminem theme song. It reminds you how far superhero movies have come, though. I mean, they were hardly held in the highest esteem back then (aside from breakout examples, like the first couple of X-Men and Spider-Man movies), and it’s not just time that has changed attitudes but also developments in how they present themselves. But now, that it’s a bit of a throwback is part of Venom‘s charm — or another reason to dismiss it, if there’s no nostalgia in that for you.

    Certainly, the cast are all better than this. Sometimes that elevates it — Hardy is having a ball talking to himself and doing random shit like climbing in lobster tanks — but other times it feels like people are here for a payday. Riz Ahmed’s character arc is gradually whittled down to nothing, replaced by a CGI monster. And what made four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams decide this was a part worth her time? (Turns out the answer is “the chance to work with Tom Hardy.” But I’m sure the cheque didn’t hurt either.) Hardy has spoken a few times about how he wanted to make a movie his son could actually see. A superhero movie seems a good shout for that but I don’t know that Venom was the right pick. The film is clearly aiming for a PG-13 (there’s only one “fuck”; it’s not particularly gory), but the horror sequences and violence were enough to push it up to a 15 over here. And that’s probably fair — there are twisted and broken bodies (even if they then fix themselves), and several instances of biting off heads (it’s not shown in graphic detail, but we’re fully aware that’s what’s happening).

    Real mature

    All things considered, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Venom. It’s kind of fun, in a juvenile way (juvenile like teenagers who think violence and edgy dialogue is “grown up”). But it’s also kind of rubbish in places, in part because it can be so juvenile (juvenile like… yeah, same again). There’s a chance it’ll tee-up a superior sequel — with the origin stuff out of the way, hopefully we can expect a more original storyline; and, as it was such a hit, maybe that’ll allow the filmmakers leeway to go even barmier. For one thing, a brief sequel tease suggests Woody Harrelson is all ready to Woody Harrelson it up. Until then, I guess this’ll do as a crazy placeholder.

    3 out of 5

    Venom is available on Netflix in the UK from today.