Incredibles 2 (2018)

2018 #233
Brad Bird | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Incredibles 2

Brad Bird — the director behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and not letting them release the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blu-ray (I will never be over that) — returns to the movie that made his name with what must be Pixar’s most-requested (probably “only requested”, actually) sequel, Incredibles 2.

It’s been 14 years for us viewers since the last Parr family adventure, but in-universe it’s been no time at all — literally, as Incredibles 2 picks up by recapping the closing moments of The Incredibles, which saw the eponymous family of superheroes about to face off against villain The Underminer. That confrontation goes disastrously awry, landing the family in a whole heap of trouble; but it also attracts the attention of media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes superheroes should be made legal again. Recruiting parents Bob and Helen Parr — aka Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to his cause, the first step in Deavor’s public relations plan revolves around public crimefighting appearances by Elastigirl… alone. This leaves Bob holding the baby, literally, as he’s stuck at home with the kids while his wife gets to have all the fun.

At its most basic, Incredibles 2 is a gender-reversed do-over of the first movie… to a fault, in fact. The closing moments of the first film suggest a “family of superheroes” future for the Parrs, with them battling crime together. The sequel immediately works to put everything back in its place: the kids aren’t allowed to use their powers (until they must for the climax, natch); one of the parents gets to go off and be a superhero, while the other has to stay at home. The difference is it’s the man staying at home, and where Helen was consummate at looking after the kids, Bob finds it a challenge — because Men, amirite?

Left holding the baby... literally

Part of what made The Incredibles so successful as a movie was it mixed a plausible family dynamic in with the superhero capers, but here that home life aspect is what holds the film back, because Bob’s struggles with the kids are 66.6% cliché. His son struggles with homework, and Bob doesn’t know how to do it either! His daughter has boyfriend problems! The 33.3% that works comes courtesy of baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop powers — plural. As the middle of the film drags on, becoming a bit “we get the point!” with Bob’s familial woes, the bright spot is continually Jack-Jack’s humorous madcap antics.

Mind you, the actual storyline in the superhero section isn’t much better. It revolves around the hunt for a mysterious villain, which naturally ends in a twist reveal… but as their true identity is pretty obvious as soon as they first appear earlier on, that reveal is a long time coming. Depending how critical you want to be, this part of the movie also has a lot of thematic points that seem to peter out or had nowhere to go in the first place. Is the film trying to say something about our addiction to screens and media? About the merits of vigilantism over bureaucracy? The dangers of being reliant on ‘higher powers’ to look after us? It touches on these things, and more, but they’re only given passing reference. Okay, yes, when you boil it down this is “just” a kids’ action-adventure movie and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much depth of thought… but Pixar are always hailed as being much more than that. Is it too much to expect that, if they’re going to introduce a topic or perspective, they’ll also at least close it out somehow?

Yet for all these story woes, Incredibles 2 does indeed work as a colourful action-adventure movie; gloriously so. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling, beautifully choreographed and constructed. They’re even better in 3D, too — Elastigirl’s stretchy powers seem to have been made for the format. And while the middle of the film may refuse to pay off the “family of superheroes” thing, the opening sequence and climax let them all in on the action, and it’s all the better for it.

Stretchy superheroics

What made The Incredibles one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best films in the whole superhero genre, was the way it combined the action and adventure with family dynamics and concerns, seamlessly marrying the two. The sequel lacks the clarity and connectedness that first movie boasted, working very well as a fun superhero action movie but struggling as a family comedy-drama. It’s still an entertaining time (the sometimes-slow mid-section aside), but it’s not the genre and studio standout that the first film was.

4 out of 5

Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-ray (2D & 3D, but no 4K) in the UK this week.

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Outlaw King (2018)

2018 #232
David Mackenzie | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Outlaw King

If Netflix’s latest original movie is known for one thing, it’s for featuring a shot of Chris Pine’s penis. It’s no slight on the chap to say its appearance has generated more column inches than he possesses, though admittedly it’s hard to be certain when (penis spoilers!) it only appears for a split second in a long shot as he rises from a lake — who knows how far beneath the surface it may continue?

If the film is known for two things, the second would probably be the muted reception its premiere screening received at TIFF back in September. Director David Mackenzie scurried back to the edit suite, motivated as much by personal displeasure with how the film was playing as by the critics’ reaction, and chopped out around 20 minutes ahead of its wide Netflix debut. By the account of people who’ve seen both cuts, this has definitely improved the film’s pacing.

If the film’s known for three things, the next might actually be what it’s about. Picking up more or less where Braveheart left off, it’s the story of Scotland’s (possible) rightful king, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) — or, as the English king seems to keep calling him, Robert da Bruce (yo!) — and his attempt to unite the Scots and take back their land from the English (what else is new, eh?) Robert’s new English wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), must decide whose side she’s on as King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his petulant son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), employ any means necessary (with preference to brutally violent ones) to keep Scotland English.

Penis King. Er, I mean, Pine is King.

Outlaw King kicks off in style, with a superb eight-minute single-take that moves in and out of a candle-lit tent during daytime (a feat of camera operating to seamlessly handle the changing exposures required… assuming it wasn’t faked), during which we take in important scene-setting political discussions, a playful (but not really) sword fight, and the siege of a distant castle by a gigantic trebuchet. As opening salvos go, this is first rate. The whole movie is gorgeously shot by Barry Ackroyd, in particular some stunning aerial shots of wide-open scenery — all of it genuinely Scottish, too. In terms of individual sequences though, the opener is not challenged until the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, a bloody, muddy, sometimes confusing (deliberately, I think) scrap between the small Scottish forces and the huge English army. How can the Scots possibly win? Tactics. I love a good medieval-style battle with proper tactics (rather than just a free-for-all of troops running at each other), and I’d say this delivers.

In between these bookends, the film is almost a Robin Hood movie: after Robert has himself crowned King of the Scots, he’s declared an outlaw, and ends up on the run with a small band of followers, which leads them to use guerrilla tactics against occupied castles. There’s also a subplot about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth, his second wife, forced upon him by the conquering English king at the start of the film. Apparently this is one thing that’s suffered from Mackenzie’s new cut, with less time given to seeing their relationship blossom early on. It didn’t feel fatally underdeveloped to me, but it might not’ve hurt to add an extra scene (one would probably do) to help connect the dots between their initial wariness and later trusting devotion.

The overall effect doesn’t feel rousing and celebratory in the way classical historic war epics (like, of course, Braveheart) normally do, but I also don’t think that’s Mackenzie’s goal. He’s talked about endeavouring to make it reasonably historically accurate, and real-life is seldom as clear-cut and triumphant as those movies would have us believe. That said, there’s no doubting who the heroes and villains are here, with the honourable Robert trying to regain his homeland and keep his people safe, while the ineffectual Prince of Wales flounders around, all bluster and no success, slaughtering people for kicks. Boo, nasty English!

Muddy; bloody

As that Robert, I thought Chris Pine made a more convincing Scotsman than Mel Gibson. I did praise the latter’s performance in my review of Braveheart, but nonetheless I never quite forgot that William Wallace was being played by American Movie Star Mel Gibson, whereas here Pine — and his (to my non-Scottish ears) perfectly passable accent — blends seamlessly with the rest of the cast. With supporting roles filled with quality performers like James Cosmo and Tony Curran, you can be assured there are no small parts. Stephan Dillane doesn’t grandstand as the villain, making him more genuinely threatening thanks to an air of calm menace, whereas Billy Howle as his son is a bit more outré, desperate to show his worthiness as heir to the throne, and failing.

Most memorable, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. Even when the other Scottish nobles are being allowed to surrender and have their lands returned, Edward remains so disgusted by Douglas’ father’s traitorousness that he refuses to grant him the same. That makes him keen to sign up to Robert’s cause, where he’s a screamingly effective fighter. Taylor-Johnson, caked in mud and blood, wild eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs as he slaughters the English, is a sight to behold. “What’s ma fuckin’ name?” he bellows. No one’s going to forget.

Finally, a lot of praise has been reserved by others for Florence Pugh. She’s certainly a rising star, having attracted great notices in Lady Macbeth last year and currently leading the cast of the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl, but something felt off here. I don’t think it’s her fault, though. This Elizabeth feels dropped in from another time, with a very modern confidence and headstrong attitude. If Pugh was playing a woman from a few hundred years later, I’d buy it entirely, but in this setting, I’m not sure. But this is perhaps less her fault and more that of the five(!) credited screenwriters.

“What’s ma fuckin’ name?”

Another thing those scribes haven’t really included are gags. Some have criticised the film for being too serious, lacking in levity, which… I mean, have you not noticed what it’s about? I’m the first person to argue that a film about serious things doesn’t have to be 100% serious — that it’s always okay to include a variety of tones, just like real life — but it’s also okay to, well, not; to create a different experience. I don’t think Outlaw King is shooting for portentousness, which I guess is what those critics mean, but it does aim for a certain kind of intensity. After all, it’s about a small band of men trying to stand up to the greatest army in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And if Pine referring to someone as “ye cheeky wee shite” doesn’t raise a smile, well, you don’t know the Scottish well enough.

Even in its new tightened form, Outlaw King is not the outright-success Oscar-hopeful Netflix once touted it as. It’s unlikely to attain the crowd-pleasing success of Braveheart, a film that remains an obvious point of comparison but not an unreasonable one, though on balance I’d struggle to say which of the two I preferred. What this lacks in its spiritual predecessor’s grandstanding, it makes up with grit and guts (literally), making an historical war movie that frequently thrills.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

2018 #225
J.A. Bayona | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It’s three years after the events of Jurassic World and the dinosaurs who overran Isla Nublar have basically been left alone while the rest of the world goes about its business. But now there’s a problem: the island’s previously inactive volcano is about to erupt, wiping out the dinosaurs… again. Former director of the park Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) now works for a charity struggling to convince people to save the dinos, where she’s contacted by Mills (Rafe Spall), a representative of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the one-time business partner of park founder Hammond who helped initiate the whole bringing-dinosaurs-back-from-the-dead palaver. They’re sending people to the island to rescue as many dinosaurs as they can, but they need Claire’s help. Naturally she agrees, and so along with ex-velociraptor-wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) and a motley crew of supporting cast members, they head back to the island… but it soon turns out Mills & co may have a nasty ulterior motive for wanting to save the dinosaurs…

Although there are shades of the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, in this setup, I think Fallen Kingdom does enough different that any similarities aren’t excessively problematic. Indeed, it’s got its own array of flaws for us to contend with first. It’s like someone assembled all the ingredients specified by a recipe, but instead of following the instructions they just bunged everything together haphazardly, and so the resulting dish seems like it should be right but is somehow just… wrong.

Letting sleeping T-rexes lie

To be less metaphorical, I think Fallen Kingdom is built on decent ideas and concepts, and it’s executed with some stylish direction by franchise newcomer J.A. Bayona (including a couple of particularly good sequences, like a tense oner in a sinking gyrosphere), but it’s all let down by a terrible screenplay from Jurassic World co-writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The story is poorly constructed — not in the sense that it’s unfollowable, but in that it’s wonkily put-together, frequently showcasing scenes that are nothing but exposition, with a pace and emphasis that feels unbalanced. Not unrelatedly, the quality of the dialogue is very weak, lacking in character or plausibility, or, failing the latter, memorableness. Sure, there’s the odd line the talented cast can make work (Howard gets a mini-monologue about the first time you saw a dinosaur that’s almost really good), but most of what comes out of their mouth is perfunctory. If they’d bothered to hire some solid writers, instead of just People Who Have Ideas, then maybe those ideas could’ve been turned into a cohesive whole that’d be a worthy sequel. Heck, even getting someone in to polish up this draft could’ve helped a lot. Instead, Fallen Kingdom is a bunch of decent concepts for plots, subplots, themes, and visuals, haphazardly bunged together with half-arsed execution.

In terms of particularly egregious examples, the standout for me is the subplot with Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie. No spoilers, but her storyline is no more than a (too clearly telegraphed) twist and a thematic resolution, which is in need of an actual story to give it meaning and work it up to being an actual theme of the movie in the way they clearly want it to be. What could be a meaningful finale for her character is rendered moot by the fact it has no genuine build-up, not to mention they had to throw another lead character’s moral development under a bus in order to get there (for a more spoilersome discussion of this point, check out Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes).

Clawesome

It’s not just subplots that falter: the inciting incident (volcano is going to wipe out dinos; do we have a responsibility to save what we created, or is this nature course-correcting?) is a very rich premise with potential for debate; but other than stating those two positions, the film does nothing with it. It’s just there, an excuse to go back to the island and get the dinosaurs out, ready for the next part of the plot. This is probably why many viewers seem to find the first half perfunctory, but the second half — where the film takes a sharp turn into a Gothic-ish ‘haunted’ house movie — to be something fresh. Like so many of the film’s other ideas, I think it’s a good concept bungled in execution. It coasts by on imagery alone, Bayona achieving the look he’s after, but without Connolly and Trevorrow backing it up by making the situation work as a story, or for the characters. One example from this section: the scene of Maisie hiding in bed as the the dinosaur inches closer, which was featured so widely in the trailers. It’s a great visual, combining childhood fears and notions of protection (“if I’m under the covers nothing can get me”) with genuine threat and terror… but the film has to jump through hoops to make it happen — it’s only there because someone had an idea for the visual and they shoehorned it in, not because it makes any sense in context.

On a similar level is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as fan-favourite character Dr Ian Malcolm. He’s ostensibly contributing to that save-or-not debate I mentioned, but as that goes nowhere his appearance is equally pointless; no more than fan service — it feels like a tease; an excuse to put him in the trailer. A short featurette included on the Blu-ray gives some indication of what the filmmakers were actually trying for here (some of Malcolm’s dialogue is lifted from the writing of Michael Crichton, the goal being to link back to the franchise’s originator and reiterate his “science gone wrong” theme), but it doesn’t come off. Worst of all, I didn’t feel like Goldblum was actually playing Malcolm — it’s the same actor, obviously, but not the same character. Was he phoning it in? He was only on set for one day, after all. Or maybe it was just terribly written. I mean, on the evidence of the rest of the film…

It's getting hot in there

Fallen Kingdom is not the outright disaster some have painted it as, but it could’ve been much better. There are so many things it almost gets right — for another example, it’s very much planned as Part 2 of a trilogy, but it feels like real effort has been made to make it a film that works on its own; that isn’t merely a two-hour exercise in getting us from where Part 1 ends to how they want Part 3 to begin. That’s admirable (not everyone seems to bother), but undermined by how much the film feels in need of major structural work at a screenplay level. Ultimately, I think your tolerance for “good ideas but poor execution” will dictate exactly how you feel about the finished movie.

3 out of 5

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Batman Ninja (2018)

2018 #146
Junpei Mizusaki | 85 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Batman Ninja

“This is madness,” exclaims Batman at one point relatively early on in this anime interpretation of the DC superhero. He could be speaking on behalf of us viewers… although, at that point, he — and we — don’t even know the half of it…

The story begins when a scientific experiment gone wrong hurtles Batman, most of the Bat-family, and Arkham Asylum’s inmates back in time to feudal Japan. Due to a quirk of the machine, the Dark Knight himself arrives years after everyone else, which has given the villains a chance to take control, each establishing their own fiefdom. Batman and his allies must find a way to send everyone back to the present day, before history is irreparably altered.

That’s just the start of the bonkers stuff that goes down in this film — never has the term “bat-shit crazy” been more appropriate. I mean, as if the basic setup wasn’t inherently barmy enough, by the time it gets to (spoilers!) a climax where the villains’ mansions morph into giant robots that then combine into a Joker-headed super-giant robot that fights against a giant monkey-samurai made up of hundreds of flute-controlled little monkeys, you’ll be wondering just how strong the filmmakers’ drugs were. And that’s not even the end of it. I don’t think there’s any rational way to assess the quality of the plot here — either you go with it and revel in the madness, or you just give up because it’s too much.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Ninja!

The sense of possibly-drug-induced unreality is only heightened by the chosen animation style. The film’s clearly been produced with 3D computer animation, but rendered in a style designed to emulate 2D cel animation. It has the frenetic hyper-real movement made possible by the former, while otherwise trying as hard as possible to look like the latter, which makes for a weird disconnect. When you marry that up to the over-detailed, sometimes grotesque character and location designs, plus an overabundance of eye-popping colour, it becomes a surreal sensory overload. Oh, and at one point it changes style completely, just because it does, into some kind of sketchy watercolour thing, but only for a little while.

Batman Ninja is a strange movie all around. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was certainly an experience. Would our collective culture be better off if such madness was reined in, or is the world a better place for having this kind of battiness? You may have to judge for yourself, though I think only the bold or the foolish need apply.

3 out of 5

Batman Ninja is now available on Netflix UK.

The Purge (2013)

2018 #5
James DeMonaco | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

The Purge

When The Purge first came out, I ignored it because its premise was inherently daft. Then they made some sequels, which I ignored because the premise was still inherently daft. Then two things happened: one, some people who I think are worth listening to said some decent things about it; and two, Trump came to power, and suddenly that daft premise doesn’t feel so far outside the confines of what’s possible.

The aforementioned premise (for those that don’t know) is that, for one 12-hour period each year, all crime is legal. There’s some gumpf about how this was a policy designed to alleviate crime the rest of the year, blah, blah, blah, but really it’s just an excuse for a horror movie — a kind of home invasion action-thriller, essentially, but with twists and some effective moments. Although it has plenty of lump-headed, convenient-for-the-plot moments too, but I shan’t delve into spoiler territory here. Let’s just say some of the bigger twists are achingly predictable.

I think writer-director James DeMonaco was hoping to land some kind of political commentary, possibly even satire — I mean, it’s inherent in the concept, right? And the film leans into it, mostly in a race-related way, with a black guy on the run and antagonistic prep school kids. But it’s maybe not as clever as it’d like to be, and I’m not sure it’s actually got anything to say — again, it’s a violent thrill-ride with some window-dressing.

They're coming to get you, Ethan

The other thing about the premise is… they’ve made four of these movies now, plus a TV series, and from what I can ascertain they’ve all focused on “murder and violence is allowed” — but if all crime is legal, well, wouldn’t people be stealing company secrets, breaking NDAs, filing their tax returns…? Crimes against the government aren’t allowed or something, so I guess that’d probably cover the last one. But still, I feel like there’s potential to produce more variety than just “12-hour murder spree!” again and again.

Anyway, it is what it is. I generally liked it enough while watching it, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to post-viewing intellectual scrutiny.

3 out of 5

The Night Comes for Us (2018)

2018 #215
Timo Tjahjanto | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian, English, Mandarin & French | 18

The Night Comes for Us

Tucked away amongst the raft of original content Netflix decided to release all at once yesterday was this, which caught my attention by dint of one of its stars: Iko Uwais, the action genius best known for starring in The Raid and The Raid 2 (or, alternatively, his cameo in The Force Awakens). Intrigued, I gave it a quick Google, coming across this piece at Birth.Movies.Death., which propelled the film straight to the top of my watchlist. Well, that BMD review majorly oversells it, in my opinion, but the film has its moments.

Joe Taslim (who played Uwais’ boss, the leader of the raid, in The Raid) is the star this time. He plays Ito, a Triad enforcer who suddenly grows a conscience halfway through massacring a village, killing his Triad underlings to rescue a little girl. He turns to his old pre-Triad gang for help, because sure enough the Triad want their revenge. To achieve this they send a whole army of henchmen (naturally — you need plenty of people for our hero and his chums to slaughter, right?), led by Arian (Iko Uwais), another member of Ito’s old gang who joined the Triad at the same. Cue person conflicts and switching allegiances.

The whole storyline is quite perfunctory and rather something-and-nothing (and, considering that, gets a bit too much screen time), but it’s a sideshow because the real star is, of course, the action choreography. That’s as relentless and barmy as you’d expect given the pedigree of the cast and crew (director Timo Tjahanto was also responsible for another Uwais vehicle, Headshot), but it’s not just martial arts acrobatics being splattered across the screen: there’s enough blood and gore on show to rival any horror movie. It’s not just dainty little bullet wounds, knife scratches, or even some blood splatter — limbs are broken and dismembered, faces are graphically smashed in, and at least one person literally spills their guts. Viewers with a weak disposition need not apply.

One of the film's less brutal scenes

Uwais may be the most recognisable name, and Taslim is the main character, and they both get impressive action sequences (including a climactic one against each other), but mention must be made of Julie Estelle (who also starred in The Raid 2 and Headshot) as the mysterious Operative, whose role in all the plotting is never fully explained (or if it was, I missed it) — but she gets perhaps the best fight of all, taking out a couple of waves of henchmen with guns and explosives, before engaging in hand-to-hand and blade-to-blade combat with two fellow female equally-badass assassins.

But, all in all, it’s no The Raid 2. Well, that’s one of the greatest action movies of all time, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. But, personally, I would also put it a step behind something like The Villainess, another underworld actioner with a flair for crazy set pieces. Still, put aside the hyperbole you might encounter elsewhere online and, for viewers after a brutal, skilful action extravaganza, The Night Comes for Us does hit a spot.

4 out of 5

The Night Comes for Us is available on Netflix now.

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

aka Zatôichi no uta ga kikoeru

2018 #199
Tokuzô Tanaka | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Vengeance

Not to be confused with the series’ similarly-titled tenth film, Zatoichi’s Revenge (not a problem with the original Japanese titles, where the former translates as something like Zatoichi’s Two-Stage Sword and this is something along the lines of Zatoichi Hears the Song — I’m just using online translators to guess at these, so those translations may well be too literal), Zatoichi’s Vengeance marks the exact halfway point of the series — both chronologically and, according to Letterboxd users, for quality, too.

After encountering a dying man whose last wish is for Ichi to deliver a moneybag to someone called Taichi, our blind hero bumps into an equally blind priest and accompanies him to the village of Ichinomiya for their “thunder drum” festival. Once a quiet, peaceful place (er, despite all that drumming), that very calm has led a nearby yakuza boss to move in and take advantage, setting up a brothel and demanding protection payments from local businesses. One of the last holdouts is, it turns out, the dying man’s mother, along with her young grandson — Taichi. Naturally, Ichi’s sense of justice compels him to stop the yakuza, but he’s mindful of being a negative influence on the boy’s impressionable young mind.

Vengeance starts out as a quieter, more dramatic Zatoichi film than many, at times marked by Ichi’s deliberate refusal to engage in combat… until he starts cutting everyone down in a flurry of second-half action sequences, anyway. There’s a couple of the requisite scenes of Ichi killing hordes of enemies, the best being an encounter on a bridge where the yakuza employ those thunder drums to frustrate Ichi’s hearing. It’s a beautifully staged sequence, shot in an almost-silhouetted manner.

Silhouette attack

But the action is the lesser element here, with some of it feeling almost perfunctory alongside the interesting ideas presented by the plot. It engages on multiple fronts. Firstly, there’s Taichi and Ichi’s potential influence on him. There’s a good explanation of the effect of this plot thread by Walter Biggins at Quiet Bubble. Biggins writes that “Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is — the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. [Zatoichi] allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. [Taichi’s story] ends the film on an ambiguous note — we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique.” (I’ve chopped that up somewhat from the original because I didn’t want to rip it off by quoting too extensively, but the full piece is even more insightful on this aspect of the film.)

Connected to this is the blind priest, a wise man who seems to see into Ichi’s very soul, and advises him on his interactions with the boy and, well, his lifestyle in general. This is one part of the film I wasn’t wholly convinced by, because I’m not sure how well the film pays it off. For one thing, he advises Ichi to be a good influence on Taichi, which leads Ichi to attempt to reason with the boss and get a beating for his trouble; but rather than pursue that diplomatic tack, it’s only a few minutes before he whips out his sword and gives them a good thrashing — once again setting a bad example. The priest reassures Ichi that sometimes violence is the only way. Um, you what? Well, the priest is presented as wise and insightful — almost too wise, because the film admits this advice seems contradictory, and Ichi can’t quite process that contradiction either. The priest also warns Ichi not to rely so much on his sword of he’ll die, which seems to pay off at the climax: when Ichi enters the yakuza’s lair, they’re all afraid of him, standing back to allow him to enter, take their money, and shut down their operation. But the reason they’re afraid of him is the awesome sword skills he demonstrated earlier, and when they attempt a last-minute stealth attack, he cuts them down.

Uh-oh, Ocho

While both of these characters and their associated views of Ichi’s methods provide food for thought, perhaps my favourite part of the film is the subplot about a prostitute, Ocho, who Ichi encounters at that recently-opened brothel. She’s a kindhearted woman — almost the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold” — who’s revealed to have a tragic backstory when the samurai husband she ran away from arrives. He’s been searching for her for three years, but she doesn’t want him or his help, even as he’s desperate to win her back — so desperate that he agrees to take on Ichi for money, even though he’d had a good relationship with our hero. But the real success here is the beautiful portrayal of Ocho by Mayumi Ogawa, which makes her one of my favourite characters in the series: the way she’s so kind and generous at first, but then her personal tragedies are revealed, and her bleak ending… As the film goes on, Ogawa peels back the layers of who Ocho is and how she’s ended up this way, transcending any fears of a stereotypical character to instead reveal a sympathetic figure with a poignant ending.

Indeed, the whole film comes to a kinda melancholic, kinda bleak conclusion (spoilers here, naturally). Ichi ostensibly wins, of course — the boss is defeated, the town freed from his influence, no one (currently) out to kill him — but there are no real happy endings: Taichi’s father is still dead, the young boy in limbo about where his life will go; Ocho’s life has been ruined beyond repair (we last see her sprawled drunk on the floor, no longer caring that she finally has enough money to free herself from prostitution); and her samurai husband, the man who killed Taichi’s father and was only after Ichi because he was desperate for the money to free his lover, even though she didn’t love him, lies dead by Ichi’s reluctant hand, a fate he both deserved and didn’t. As Paghat the Ratgirl describes it, this is an “important element of Ichi’s most compelling adventures: the tragedy of victoriousness. He has won. He lives. But he has killed someone who was by no means a villain. […] Discovering himself to be a menace even to those he loves, he realizes he is undeserving even of little Taichi’s affection, and avoids the boy in order to flee the village toward his next horrific adventure”.

Ichi gets knocked down, but he'll get up again

My original conclusion to this review described it as a film of mixed success. It has some really nice ideas and spins on the usual Zatoichi formula, but I also felt like it didn’t carry some of them all the way to fruition. I wanted to love it, because I so liked some of what it did, but felt it didn’t all come together well enough. On reflection, and after reading some other reviews, like the ones I’ve quoted, I’m no longer sure it comes up so short. These Zatoichi films may just look like brief action flicks about an almost-supernaturally-gifted swordsman and righter-of-wrongs, but sometimes they leave you with a surprising amount to chew on.

4 out of 5

Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is released in the UK next month.

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. ^

Gods of Egypt (2016)

2018 #198
Alex Proyas | 127 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Gods of Egypt

If you remember Gods of Egypt, it’s likely because it was excoriated on its release back in 2016.* Many were predisposed to hate it before it even came out thanks to its whitewashed cast: as the title might indicate, it’s set in Ancient Egypt and many of the characters are Egyptian gods, but most of the lead cast are white; and of those that aren’t, none are Egyptian. Even if that didn’t bother you, it was slated for its poor dialogue, flat performances, bland direction, reliance on green screen, and cheap-looking CGI. Oh dear. But every film is for someone and there’s someone for every film, and it turns out I’m one of the few (the very, very few) who actually rather enjoyed Gods of Egypt.

Based more on legend than any relation to history whatsoever (in one rather stunning sequence, we see that the world is, in fact, flat), it’s set in a time when super-powered gods walked the Earth among humans. Well, less “among”, more “ruling over”. A squabble between the gods sees nasty-piece-of-work Set (Gerard Butler) steal both the throne and eyes of heir-apparent Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), before going on to steal the abilities of other gods to make himself more powerful. Human thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites — between this and Pirates 5, dude must’ve thought he was gonna be a star… ’til they came out) doesn’t care for the gods, but he wants to free the love of his life (Courtney Eaton and her cleavage — I don’t want to be lecherous, but seriously, her costumes are all boobs, boobs, boobs), and the only way to do it involves stealing back one of Horus’ eyes and using it to persuade the god to take on Set.

Gods and men

And that’s the part of the plot that’s kinda reasonable. No, really: it gets a whole lot madder as it goes on. In fact, everything about it is so consistently batshit crazy — the concepts, the plot, the visuals — that it wins you over with its utter barminess. Or maybe it won’t win you over. Maybe you’ll think all those things make it utterly awful. As I said at the start, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. But the “you couldn’t make it up (except someone did)” mentalness of it will win over a certain kind of viewer. A viewer like me.

I’m not really going to deny any of those criticisms I cited in the opening paragraph, because it is kind of a terrible film… but if you embrace it, it’s also campy fun. It’s a film where the men are burly, the women are breasty, and the CGI is blurry, but there’s a certain irreverence that stops it from being stodgy, and a light-hearted tone to the dialogue that occasionally hits home. For all the whizzy video game-ish visuals, it’s an old-fashioned adventure quest at heart, capable of pulling off the occasional thrilling sequence or amusing verbal exchange.

All of that said, one does have to wonder how director Alex Proyas ended up here. If you don’t recognise the name, he was once known for visionary noir-ish filmmaking in the likes of The Crow and Dark City. At some point he wound up sidelined into less invigorating fare, like Will Smith vehicle I, Robot and Nic Cage vehicle Knowing, but while neither were groundbreaking they had a certain something (and, personally, I quite liked them both). Here, though, the direction is so… uninspired. Anyone competent could’ve made it. And people say filmmaking is collaborative and directors don’t deserve all the credit, but bear this in mind: Gods of Egypt and critically-beloved Oscar winner Mad Max: Fury Road share 295 cast & crew members.

Robot god... on a budget

I don’t know who deserves credit for the film’s 3D, but it’s consistently excellent and occasionally spectacular. That’s the benefit of almost all the film being created in a computer, I guess. But still, the colourful visuals and wide-open locales really help with the effect — what looked gaudy and ludicrous in 2D trailers… still pretty much is, let’s be honest. But it’s less bad when it’s doing so much to help create an epic-scaled dimensionality.

I know I should hate this silly, cheap-looking, over-CGI’d, whitewashed hot mess… but I actually thought it was a lot of daft, campy fun. There are plenty of very good movies that I’ll likely never get round to watching again — probably some great ones, even — but I’d wager Gods of Egypt is going to end up in my Blu-ray collection someday. In 3D, of course.

3 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Gods of Egypt is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* I was going to say “summer 2016”, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct: weirdly, although it was a February/March release in much of the world, it somehow got given summer status in the UK and Ireland (and, er, Spain…?) ^

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

2018 #181
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.

Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, its clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t it he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.

After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.

Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.

It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.

Sore loser

But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.

4 out of 5

Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.