The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Karate Kid (2010)

2018 #72
Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

The Karate Kid

For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2019)

2019 #98
Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shaft (2019)

I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

Still a sex machine to all the chicks

This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

Shaft cubed

So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

3 out of 5

Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

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

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

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

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

A sweet transvestite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5

Shaft (2000)

2019 #37
John Singleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 18 / R

Shaft (2000)

With there now being another ‘reboot’ for the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks (released a couple of weeks ago in the US, and available on Netflix today in the rest of the world), I thought it was about time I got round to the first ‘reboot’ (I saw the original yonks ago, long before this blog existed). I’ve put ‘reboot’ in inverted commas both times there because, despite the unadorned titles of both the 2000 and 2019 films, both are actually continuations of the ’70s original: Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft II, the nephew of the original Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who pops by for a cameo here. Jackson and Roundtree reprise their roles again in Shaft 2019-flavour, alongside Jessie Usher as John Shaft III.

(Would it’ve been cool if they’d actually called this Shaft 2000? I feel like it would’ve. Maybe by the year 2000 the idea of sticking 2000 on a title to make it cool/futuristic was over, I dunno, but I feel like it would’ve worked. And because they didn’t, we’ve now got three movies called simply Shaft that all exist in the same continuity. Madness.)

Anyway, back to the first time they rebooted-but-didn’t Shaft. Jackson’s character isn’t actually a private dick, but a proper copper… that is until sleazy rich-kid Walter Wade Jr (a hot-off-American Psycho Christian Bale) literally gets away with murder, prompting Shaft Jr to go freelance to catch his man.

A black cop frisking a rich white guy? What is this, a sci-fi movie?

This Shaft is almost 20 years old now (obviously), and yet all the white privilege bullshit that drives its story makes it feel like it could’ve been made yesterday. (Why are you so enable to evolve societally, America?) Other than that apparently-eternal timeliness, it’s a pretty standard kinda thriller, with most of its charm coming via an array of likeable performances. As well as the reliably cool Jackson and reliably psychopathic Bale, there are memorable early-career turns from Jeffrey Wright and Toni Collette, plus Vanessa Williams as Shaft’s cop colleague who lends a hand even after he leaves the force.

The original Shaft spawned two big-screen sequels and seven more TV movies, but there was no such future for the new incarnation: Jackson’s disappointment with the film, plus a box office performance that was regarded as mediocre (although it opened at #1 and returned over $100 million off its $46 million budget), was enough to scupper a planned follow-up… at least until this year’s reboot-that-isn’t. Reportedly that’s not so great either (with a 31% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6th place opening in the US, and of course going directly to Netflix everywhere else), but, given the series’ history, I wouldn’t write Shaft off just yet. After the 29-year gap between Shaft Mk.I and Shaft Mk.II, and then 19 years between Shaft Mk.II and Shaft Mk.III, maybe in 2028 we’ll be treated to a film about child detective John Shaft IV. Naturally, the film itself will just be called Shaft.

3 out of 5

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

Murder Mystery (2019)

2019 #96
Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

Detectives or suspects?

The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

3 out of 5

Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

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

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

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

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

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

Katsu vs Mifune

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

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

Something I could have learned...

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

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

Windswept

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

2 out of 5

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

Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • Upgrade (2018)

    2019 #44
    Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

    Upgrade

    Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

    On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

    Change can be painful

    On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

    Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

    4 out of 5

    Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.