Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

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2019 #68
Alexander Witt | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Canada, UK, Germany, France & USA / English | 15 / R

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

2002’s film adaptation of popular horror video game series Resident Evil may not have been particularly game-accurate (from what I can gather — I’ve never played them), but it was sufficiently entertaining as an action/horror movie in its own right, and consequently it spawned a sequel (and, eventually, four more). Picking up where the first movie left off — with the zombie outbreak, er, breaking out, expanding from one facility into a whole city — Resident Evil: Apocalypse widens the scope of the movie series’ action. It also begins to introduce more characters and plot points drawn from the games, presumably in a deliberate attempt to court fans who were disappointed first time round. Unfortunately, it’s all in aid of a film that just isn’t very good.

Where the first film was a riff on something like Assault on Precinct 13, Apocalypse turns its attention to another John Carpenter classic, clearly trying to be a version of Escape from New York. Set in a semi-abandoned, zombie-overrun city where it’s perpetually nighttime, Alice (Milla Jovovich) and the ragtag group of survivors she encounters must make it out before a nuclear bomb is dropped on it.

It’s a perfectly serviceable storyline, and I have no problem with movies broadly borrowing storylines and whatnot in homage to other flicks. The problem is, Apocalypse is an awfully written and produced film. The first film’s writer-director, Paul W.S. Anderson, sits out the latter role this time, but returns as sole screenwriter. His dialogue is bad, devoid of realism or logic. One example: they’re trapped in a walled-off city, remember, and when one character informs the others that tomorrow morning it’s going to be hit with a tactical nuke, the first response is: “what yield?” Like it fucking matters! They’re dropping a nuke designed to wipe out the city you’re in — doesn’t matter what precise yield it is, you’re all dead. Unsurprisingly, his characterisation isn’t any better, and the cast don’t have the chops to save it, even though there are some decent-to-excellent supporting players here, like Oded Fehr, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jared Harris.

Make my day, zombie

His narrative structure isn’t great, either. Take the ending. The closing moments of the first film could be interpreted as a cliffhanger or sequel tease, I guess, but the final shot also work in its own right as a fatalistic reveal: that despite the efforts and sacrifices of our heroes to contain the virus, it got out and the world has gone full zombie apocalypse. Here, though, the last ten minutes or so of the film are an almost total sidestep from the story we’ve had thus far, their only purpose being to suggest some onward direction for the next movie. I suppose that’s par for the course nowadays, in the era of cinematic universes, but I still don’t think it’s good form. There are ways to have hints and teases for the future without turning a significant chunk of your current movie into an extended trailer for the next one.

The paucity of quality in the screenplay could perhaps be allowed to slide if Apocalypse delivered on its main goals. It’s an action/adventure/horror flick, after all — the boxes it’s looking to tick are not “character drama” and “narrative coherence”, necessarily. Sadly, it doesn’t tick the other boxes either, more scribbles vaguely around them. The action is terribly directed, a blur of meaningless visual noise. Taking Anderson’s place in the director’s chair is Alexander Witt, who had previously been a second unit director on some very good movies, like The Hunt for Red October, Gladiator, The Bourne Identity, and Pirates of the Caribbean. I can only presume his unit wasn’t responsible for any of the action sequences in those films. Apocalypse remains his only primary directing credit: he’s gone back to second unit, working on some more very good movies, like Casino Royale, X-Men: First Class, Skyfall, and Avengers: Infinity War. For whatever reason, I guess that’s a better fit for him.

One of the advantages to coming to a film series years after the fact is you can benefit from the perspective of others. To wit, I’ve seen people say this is the worst of the series. I pray they’re right, because I’ve kinda committed to watching them all now and I’m not sure I can take another four films this poor or, God forbid, worse. I had it down as a 2 for my 2019 stats, but I can’t recall a single redeeming feature now, so:

1 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup XXXII

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

This week’s pair are the final films from May 2019

  • The Saint (2017)
  • Hairspray (1988)


    The Saint
    (2017)

    2019 #92
    Ernie Barbarash | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    The Saint

    Leslie Charteris’s “modern-day Robin Hood” Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was adapted into a successful film series in the ’30s and ’40s, and an enduringly popular TV series in the ’60s, so it makes sense that, every now and then, someone tries to revive the property. This latest effort began life as a TV pilot in 2013, which was rejected. Reshoots to extend it into a feature were shot in 2015, but it was only released in 2017, as a ‘tribute’ to Roger Moore (star of the ’60s series, of course, and who makes a cameo here) shortly after his death. I guess that was the only way it could find distribution. You might think the fact it failed on its own merits, twice over, before having to rely on a beloved star’s death to get any kind of release, augurs badly for the film’s quality… and you’d be right.

    Adam Rayner plays the newest incarnation of the eponymous antihero, here tasked with recovering both stolen Nigerian aid money and the thief’s teenage daughter, who was kidnapped as leverage by a mysterious crime organisation. Cue lots of tech-based heist hijinks (gotta make sure we know this is a modern adaptation) and made-on-a-budget action sequences. The overall impression is of something that would’ve been a minor success as a syndicated TV series in about 1995, which obviously means it seem badly dated by today’s standards. The content of the reshoots is a little too obvious: a tacked-on prologue and epilogue, which come in the form of long scenes in limited locations with a small cast. That said, the whole production is so cheap that these additions don’t stick out too much. That’s not a compliment.

    It’s been a very long time now since we’ve had a decent version of The Saint (I rewatched the ’90s Val Kilmer film recently and it’s not some forgotten gem). As such a storied franchise, I’m sure someone will try again — indeed, we might not have to wait long at all, as it’s been reported that Dexter Fletcher is working on a new film that will star Chris Pine. I live in hope.

    2 out of 5

    The Saint featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Hairspray
    (1988)

    2019 #94
    John Waters | 88 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hairspray

    John Waters is not the kind of filmmaker whose movies you’d expect to see being adapted as a big Broadway musical. But then, Hairspray is not your typical John Waters movie, leaving behind the transgressive, gross-out elements that make films such as Pink Flamingos infamous and unpalatable to this day, replacing them with the sweet story of an overweight high-schooler who wants to be a dancer on her local TV dance show, with a self helping of racial equality — it’s set in 1962 and the show’s black dancers are still segregated.

    Although the end result is resolutely PG material, the film still feels a world away from the slick big-budget studio production values of the stage-musical-based remake — a bit of the grungy, independent, low-budget roots of Waters’s other films has survived into the vibe of this film. In a way, the nice thing about that is that the two screen versions cater to different demographics. So many remakes are aimed at fundamentally the same audience, but in shiny new packaging to attract the imbeciles who refuse to watch any films made before whatever year they’ve arbitrarily selected. Conversely, the two Hairsprays are distinctly different interpretations of the same base material, with a shared socially-conscious vision, but different aesthetic and artistic goals. Both are valid; both are good. My personal preference errs towards the remake, but I appreciate the qualities of the original, too.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIX

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

    I’m cheating slightly in this roundup, because these are the final reviews from April 2019, a period that means I should also be reviewing Captain Marvel and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The former I don’t have many notes on, so I’d like to make time for a rewatch and do it properly. The latter, well, as I’m in the middle of watching the whole RE series, I’ll either round it up with some of the other sequels or give it a standalone post. It wouldn’t have been the first time I included a mid-franchise instalment in a roundup, but it always feels a bit ‘ugly’ to do that.

    Anyway, enough about what isn’t here — here’s what is…

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
  • Click (2006)
  • Mortal Engines (2018)
  • The Help (2011)


    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
    (2010)

    2019 #63
    Edgar Wright | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

    Well, this is embarrassing: a film I ranked in my top five of the year, but I don’t have any notes to write up a full review — just like Heathers back in Roundup XI. Oh dear, again.

    In Scott Pilgrim’s case, it’s just about to be re-released in a restored/jazzed-up version (first in Dolby Cinemas, then on 4K disc), so I’ll surely rewatch it that way and hopefully try this again properly, maybe later this year. For now, in the spirit of these roundups (i.e. to clear old unreviewed films), here’s the paragraph I wrote when it ranked 4th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

    If I’m honest, I was prepared to dislike Scott Pilgrim — I mean, there’s a reason it took me almost a decade to get round to it. It always looked Too Cool; kind of too hipster-ish, though I guess in a geeky way. (Well, “hipster” and “geek” have been more closely linked than ever this decade, haven’t they?) I remember distinctly when it went down a storm at Comic-Con and so everyone believed it was The Next Big Thing, only for it to flop hard at the box office (providing a much-needed course correction on everyone’s view of the power of Comic-Con).

    But here’s the thing: it’s directed by Edgar Wright, and I should have trusted that. And so the film is everything you’d expect from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver — deep-cut references (this time to video games), piles of humour, but also a dose of genuine emotion. Best of all is how it’s ceaselessly, fearlessly, creatively inventive with its cinematic tricks. No other film on this list is so overtly Directed, but in a good way.

    5 out of 5

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Click
    (2006)

    2019 #64
    Frank Coraci | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Click

    I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, an Adam Sandler aficionado. Besides this, the only films of his I’ve seen are Murder Mystery (which I watched in spite of him because I like murder mysteries), and Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, neither of which are “Adam Sandler films” in the widely-understood sense (and I didn’t much like either of them anyway). Indeed, the only reason I watched Click is because it’s on “most-watched movies ever”-type lists and I wanted to check it off.

    Sandler plays a workaholic family man, who’s missing out on time with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids while he strives for a promotion at work. But then he comes across a magic remote control that works on the world: he can mute arguments, rewind to the good bits, fast-forward to when he gets his promotion… He thinks it’s great — until, of course, it isn’t.

    From the very start, it’s clear Click isn’t running high on originality, with “gags” about having lots of remote controls and about a dog humping a soft toy. The former was surely already old-hat observational comedy by 2006, while the latter has always been on about the same level as fart gags. As Sandler watches the dog’s actions, he comments that it’s something his young kids shouldn’t “know about” for 10 years for the boy and 30 years for the girl. Within the first few minutes, Click has managed to be overfamiliar, underdeveloped, crude, and socially regressive, all at the same time. And then it throws some racism in for good measure, with a foreign prince whose name the characters mispronounce as things like “Ha-booby” and “Hubba-bubba”. This is all before the ten-minute mark. Never mind a magic remote control — you might be contented reaching for the real one.

    The film’s a Fantasy because it’s about a magic remote control, but the wish fulfilment definitely extends beyond that. I mean, Kate Beckinsale as Adam Sandler’s wife? Pull the other one. Plus, all the young attractive women in his office seem to fancy him, too. Someone’s ego was getting stroked here.

    The comedy continues in its thoroughly predictable vein until things inevitably start to go wrong, at which point they really pile on the tortuous misery. It’s such a sharp and drastic change in the second half that it’s liable to give you tonal whiplash. Plus, the film already felt like it was running too long, and this new avenue just piles on the minutes. They should’ve cut at least quarter-of-an-hour out of the whole thing. When it eventually drags itself to the end, that’s a terrible cliché too.

    Click does have its moments, although not too many of them, and they’re of the “this is adequate to lounge in front of” variety rather than anything fresh or invigorating. Fortunately, you don’t need a magic life-control to skip it.

    2 out of 5

    Mortal Engines
    (2018)

    2019 #69
    Christian Rivers | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

    Mortal Engines

    Based on the first book in a series of beloved young adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic future where towns and cities have been transformed into gigantic vehicles that roam the world consuming each other for scarce resources. On London, a young fugitive out for revenge, Hester (Hera Hilmar), ends up thrown in with an outcast (Robert Sheehan) as they uncover a world-changing conspiracy.

    Billed as being “from the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings”, Mortal Engines is one of many would-be PG-13 fantasy franchises that have sprung up in the couple of decades since Rings and Harry Potter’s dual-pronged success at the end of 2001. And, like so many of them, it failed to find a theatrical audience and so stalled out after just one film. Fortunately, when Reeve wrote the original novel it wasn’t intended as a series, so while there was clearly opportunity for sequels, this nonetheless tells a contained story.

    In practice, “from the makers of Lord of the Rings” means it was adapted by that trilogy’s screenwriting team (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson), was filmed in New Zealand with Weta on design and effects work, and is the feature directorial debut of Christian Rivers, who previously served various art, effects, and second-unit roles on Jackson’s films as far back as Braindead. All of which means you can be assured the film looks fantastic — the production design, and the epic visuals that show it off, are consistently magnificent. Equally, the story has some bold and original ideas that are equally as exciting. So it’s a massive shame about the sometimes awkward dialogue and narrative choices, as well as the variable quality of the acting, and at least one subplot that was obviously butchered in post (what we see on screen is jumpy and clearly incomplete). By falling short in such fundamentals, it lets down the imagination on display elsewhere.

    Nonetheless, there’s enough to appreciate it in Mortal Engines that I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps it’s a shame we won’t get to see the other books adapted, but at least the fact it works as a standalone movie means that, unlike some other failed franchises, it can still be watched and enjoyed as is. Maybe it’ll find an audience belatedly and, like other aborted film adaptations before it (A Series of Unfortunate Events; His Dark Materials), we’ll be treated to a TV do-over later this decade.

    4 out of 5

    The Help
    (2011)

    2019 #70
    Tate Taylor | 137 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA, India & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Help

    Jackson, Mississippi, the 1960s: society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college determined to become a writer, so she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of southern white families, to capture their view of the hardships they go through on a daily basis, starting with her best friend’s housekeeper (Viola Davis). Initially controversial in both white and black communities, as more maids come forward to tell their stories, everyone in town finds themselves unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in the changing times. — adapted from IMDb

    For some reason I thought The Help was based on a true story, but it’s actually just adapted from a novel. That makes accusations of it being a “white saviour” narrative worse, because it loses any defence of “well, this is what really happened” — it’s a creative choice. Instead, what if the maids had decided they needed to tell their own story, but had to use a sympathetic white woman as a front to get it published? Same general point, but it gives more agency to the black women in controlling their own story.

    Anyway, while there is plenty wrong here (too much focus on the white characters; aimless subplots, like a romantic one; the overt air of Worthiness), it’s still watchable and engaging, there are some very good performances, and it’s not as if the message isn’t an important one — and, sadly, still relevant.

    4 out of 5

  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

    2020 #38
    Michael Dougherty | 132 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Japan, Canada & Mexico / English | 12 / PG-13

    Godzilla: King of the Monsters

    Five years on from the events of Godzilla, the world is very much aware of the existence of Titans, gigantic prehistoric creatures — or, if you prefer, monsters. These creatures are studied and, where possible, contained by the secretive organisation known as Monarch, and one of their scientists, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), has developed a device capable of attracting Titans and altering their behaviour. When Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by a group of terrorists, Madison’s father and former Monarch employee Mark (Kyle Chandler) is re-recruited by Monarch to help track them, before the terrorists can unleash the Titans to wreak havoc on mankind.

    As well as a direct followup to the 2014 reboot of the Godzilla franchise, King of the Monsters is the third film in Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”. The in-between entry was 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, whose 1970s setting kinda leaves it adrift and standalone from the rest of the present-day-set films in this shared universe (although, following the Marvel template, Kong did have a post-credit scene designed to vaguely tee-up King of the Monsters). That said, it does have a role to play tonally. Whereas Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was a fairly strait-laced, serious take on the concept of a giant lizard attacking mankind, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island took a more pulpy approach to the movie, playing like a monster B-movie with a modern spectacular effects budget.

    Here, Michael Dougherty’s offering feels like a combination of those two previous MonsterVerse films. As a direct sequel to Godzilla, it brings in plot threads and a couple of supporting characters from that movie (namely Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of Monarch scientists, given more prominent roles here). It also adopts the dark visual style of Edwards’ movie, eschewing the colourfulness that was part of Vogt-Roberts’ contribution. But what Dougherty does retain is that pulpiness in the storyline. I mean, Godzilla showed us a world where the real-life (more or less) military had to scramble to find a way to respond to a giant lizard suddenly appearing.

    Puny humans

    Conversely, in King of the Monsters we find a government organisation that maintains multiple huge facilities around the world to research and contain a variety of giant beasties (one of whom is an alien, by-the-way), and a terrorist organisation that’s well organised and financed enough to break into several of those facilities and set about freeing the Titans. And that’s without mentioning a side quest into a vast sunken kingdom. If you wanted more of the real world Edwards gave us in the first film, sorry, you’re shit out of luck; but if you’re into some of the craziness that other kaiju movies have doled out down the decades, here we go!

    And, in some respects, that makes this the first MonsterVerse movie that truly feels like it’s in a shared universe of monsters. Sure, the previous films had monster antagonists — MUTOs in Godzilla, Scullcrawlers in Kong — but, frankly, they were kinda generic nasties to give our hero-monsters something to fight. In King of the Monsters, we finally get to see some of the big-name stars from Godzilla’s rogue gallery; namely: inventively-named giant moth Mothra, pterodactyl-like Rodan, and the baddest of them all, three-headed dragon Ghidorah. Okay, we haven’t been introduced to these creatures in previous movies, so it’s not technically a team-up / versus movie in that sense, but you can still feel these are headline-bout-worthy characters in a way the franchise’s previous villains just weren’t. Obviously there’s still no doubt about who the ultimate victor of these monster punch-ups is going to be (clue’s in the title), but the brawls are meatier and more impactful.

    I imagine that’s even more true for long-time kaiju fans, who’ll have a much greater familiarity with the ‘supporting’ monsters. Indeed, there’s a sense in which King of the Monsters has been made expressly for those fans, because it’s absolutely loaded with nods and references to the older films. I’ve not seen many classic Godzilla movies, so my knowledge of what was being referenced was second-hand at best — though one I’ll make room to highlight is composer Bear McCreary’s new realisation of Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme. It’s epic and awesome; a real hair-raiser when it kicks in.

    There can be only one

    Unfortunately, the parade of callbacks seems to have been a major problem for some viewers. Fans who got the references regard them as either hollow fan service or a pointless remix of past glories, while normal folk found it all a bit confusing and weird — because God forbid any blockbuster try to do stuff from outside your normal well-worn expectations. Clearly, these monster flicks aren’t for everyone. Even among those who like them, you don’t have to read many viewer’s rankings before you’ll have seen every possible iteration of which film is better than which, often accompanied by bafflement that anyone could hold an opposing view. It’s like an inadvertent case study for the fact that different people want different things. So it seems none of these movies please everyone, although personally I like the idea that each film is its own thing to some degree; that you might not love every film in the MonsterVerse, but hopefully one of them will hit the sweet spot for you. The MCU cookie-cutter format may be reassuring, but there’s delight in variety too.

    There’s certainly plenty of variety here. The MonsterVerse could’ve gone down the route of wheeling out these storied foes one by one, eking the franchise out across Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Rodan, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah… Instead, we get them in one Titan-sized hit. If you’re in the mood for gigantic creatures thwacking each other, there’s something wholly satisfying about that.

    4 out of 5

    The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

    2019 #57
    James DeMonaco | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    The Purge: Anarchy

    For those unfamiliar with the Purge franchise, they’re set in a near-future America where the law is suspended for one night a year — Purge Night — allowing the citizens to ‘purge’ their criminal impulses by committing any crime they like. Because this is America, said crimes invariably involve violence and murder. As a premise, it used to seem a little ridiculous and implausible — the kind of thing you might dream up only to think through and realise it would never work — but we live in a world where Donald Trump can be elected president, get nothing done while constantly and obviously lying about things, escape charges for crimes he blatantly committed, and still be worshipped by his followers as the only thing that can make America “great” again. So, yeah, maybe the Purge could come to pass nowadays, why the fuck not?

    The first film was a contained horror/thriller about one well-to-do family whose home comes under assault from a gang of Purge participants on the night in question. This first sequel ditches most of the Horror genre trappings to instead emulate ’70s B-actioners, in the vein of stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 or The Warriors, and it’s all the better for it.

    This time, the narrative opens up to a wider world. We’re introduced to a trio of storylines, spread around a city, which quite quickly stumble into each other and result in their protagonists teaming up, fighting their way across a hostile city (like The Warriors), trying to survive the night (like Precinct 13 — see, my comparisons aren’t just random). It reminded me a little of the early episodes of a season of 24, when it cuts around multiple disconnected characters who inevitably come into contact. (It strikes me that the best way to do a Purge TV show would be to nick 24’s real-time conceit to cover the entirety of Purge Night. I’ve no idea if the actual Purge TV show attempted anything like that.)

    Gonna get purged

    It can’t be understated how good it is that Anarchy does something different with the franchise’s basic premise. Sure, it has the same problem with the underlying concept as the first film (all crime is legal, but for some reason the only crime anyone commits is murder), but the story it tells, the environs it’s in, are completely different. Even the satirical, allegorical, political stuff (hardly the films’ forte) is more potent this time. It’s still only tangentially touched upon, but more effectively and meaningfully handled than in the first film.

    There’s also the sense that they’re trying to build a franchise now. In the first film, the whole Purge backstory was really just a backdrop/excuse for the low-budget home invasion action of the plot, but here there are more hints at what’s going on in the wider world politically. That includes the introduction of an anti-Purge movement, although it’s factored in as barely even a subplot, to the extent you feel it had to be intended as setup for future movies. In this respect it reminds me of what the Saw films used to do: tell a standalone story, but always provide a little piece of the puzzle to an ongoing narrative that was designed to run and run. When it works, as it does in Anarchy, you leave the film satisfied that you’ve had a whole story, but also ready for the next jigsaw piece (Saw-related pun very much intended). It’s quite a TV-esque way of building an ongoing narrative, the way they used to do it before everything became “an eight-hour movie”, but, hey, the media boundaries are thoroughly blurred in both directions now; and it’s better than a blatant cliffhanger that leaves the story unresolved if a sequel never happens.

    In this instance, a sequel did happen; several of them, in fact, with a final instalment due later this year. I quite liked the original Purge (not to be confused with The First Purge, which is the fourth film), but I enjoyed Anarchy a lot, so they’ve got me on the hook now, even if (based on what I’ve seen online) the quality of future sequels tails off.

    4 out of 5

    The series’ third film, The Purge: Election Year, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:10am.

    Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

    aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

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

    Zatoichi in Desperation

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

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

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

    Kaede and Shinkichi

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

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

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

    Blind in more ways than one

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

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

    3 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup XXV

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

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

    This week’s selection rattles through five more March 2019

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


    The Italian Job
    (1969)

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

    The Italian Job

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Downsizing
    (2017)

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

    Downsizing

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

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

    Brigsby Bear
    (2017)

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

    Brigsby Bear

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Starship Troopers
    (1997)

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

    Starship Troopers

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Starship Troopers was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Escape from New York
    (1981)

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

    Escape from New York

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XIX

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

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


    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
    (2018)

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

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

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

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

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

    1 out of 5

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

    Cool Hand Luke
    (1967)

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

    Cool Hand Luke

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    1941
    (1979)

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

    1941

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Rambo
    (2008)

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

    Rambo

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

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

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

    Big fucking gun

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVII

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

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


    Danger: Diabolik
    (1968)

    aka Diabolik

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

    Danger: Diabolik

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Boy
    (2010)

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

    Boy

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

    4 out of 5

    Dad’s Army
    (2016)

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

    Dad's Army

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVI

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

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


    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    (2018)

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

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    (2013)

    aka Kaguyahime no monogatari

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

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Redline
    (2009)

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

    Redline

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

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