Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018)

aka Gojira: Hoshi o Kuu Mono

2019 #3
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | 12

Godzilla: The Planet Eater

Picking up where the previous film left off, this concluding instalment in the anime Godzilla trilogy (which also doubles as the 32nd official Godzilla movie) sees the eponymous kaiju lying dormant while plans swing into action to bring Ghidorah, a being from another dimension who’s worshipped as a god by some, into our dimension, where it will eat Godzilla and then Earth itself.

Yeeeaaah.

But before we get to the headline monster mash, there’s an attempt at a plot. By the end of the last film, the alliance between humans and a couple of alien raced who’d helped us out was looking a bit shaky. What once looked like it might make for a Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5-style conflict has turned out to be nothing so developed, and in this final film it noodles along, driven by minor supporting characters we have zero attachment to; a something-and-nothing plot line that kills time until it’s summarily wiped away. Meanwhile, down on Earth, we’re treated to dozens of scenes in which the trilogy’s equally unmemorable lead characters wander around waffling Religious Studies 101-level stuff about religion as propaganda and a manipulation tool. At one point a character talks about soup as an analogy for, like, society or something, coming to the observation that “unlike the soup, we have free will.” It’s a deep philosophical movie, man. About as deep as a bowl of soup.

All the while, we’re made to wait for the guy we came to see to wake up. Yes, Godzilla literally sleeps through the first half of the movie. Well, I can’t say I blame him.

Godzilla vs Ghidorah

On the bright side, it does eventually get to some good bits (that’s more than I’d say about the preceding instalment). There’s a sequence where the alien death cult religion summons Ghidorah, who initially manifests as some kind of shadow-demon that begins massacring everyone in the room, which is all quite creepy. It’s followed by a large-scale sequence where Ghidorah’s glowing energy snake-dragon form emerges from a space-time singularity and destroys the humans’ spaceship in some kind of temporally-messed-up way, which is also quite striking. You have to appreciate these individual sequences almost in isolation, because the plot they’re part of is a load of muddly claptrap.

Then there’s the climax, in which we get to witness a mountain-sized dinosaur-ish monster with atomic breath (Godzilla) battle an interdimensional three-headed dragon-snake apparently made of glowing yellow light (the trilogy’s take on Ghidorah). It has its moments, but it’s overlong and mixes in a bunch of the cod-scientific wannabe-philosophical gubbins too, which takes the wind out of its sails somewhat.

There have been some interesting ideas tucked away in this trilogy, both in how it reimagined the kaiju and their mythologies, and in the brand-new stuff it attempted to introduce with the alien races and their beliefs. Unfortunately, that promise has been lost under unengaging characters, poorly defined relationships, and the kind of philosophising you might expect from a Sixth Form student. It was bold to try to take the Godzilla franchise in a new direction, but that boldness feels squandered.

2 out of 5

Godzilla: The Planet Eater is available on Netflix now.

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Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

2018 #241
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Cane Sword

The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

Zatoichi and his sword

I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

4 out of 5

Ready Player One (2018)

2018 #183
Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

Watching other people play video games

But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

4 out of 5

Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

2018 #254
Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman | 117 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

When it was announced a couple of years ago that Sony were developing an animated Spider-Man movie, there was, I think, some confusion about what they were playing at. The live-action movies were continuing, so this wasn’t a replacement. Was it connected? If so, why was it animated? If not, why did it exist? What was the point? Besides the obvious, anyway (popular brand + movie = money). Maybe Sony were just ahead of the game: where previously only one actor or series took on the mantle of a character at any one time, we’re increasingly in a world where multiple screen versions can exist simultaneously. Not that this film focuses on the same Spider-Man as the other ones…

Into the Spider-Verse begins by introducing us to… Peter Parker. Well, of course it does — he’s Spider-Man, right? But after a witty do-over of his backstory (second only to Batman’s in terms of the number of times we’ve seen it adapted, I should think), focus shifts to one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager struggling to fit in at his new private boarding school and deal with the pressure put on him by his police officer father. Escaping school one night to hang out with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles gets bitten by a genetically-modified spider and… well, you know the rest, more or less. But Miles has more than just new powers to contend with: evil scientists have created a machine to open a doorway to other dimensions (who they are and why they’re doing it, I’ll leave for the movie to reveal). But the malfunctioning machine is likely to rip the universe apart, and it falls to Miles to stop it. Fortunately, the dimensional instability means a whole host of alternate-universe Spider-People show up to help him.

Spider-People

It’s bold to do a team-up movie with a whole host of characters we’ve never met before — it’s something DC were criticised for with Justice League as soon as it was announced, and we were actually introduced to half of that team before the team-up happened. Well, Spider-Verse isn’t really a team-up movie in the Avengers Assemble sense. This is Miles’ movie; the other heroes are a supporting cast. This is the kind of thing that goes on all the time in comic books — heroes popping up for cameos or supporting roles in other heroes’ books — and, of course, something Marvel have increasingly brought to the screen in the MCU. Spider-Verse handles its big cast smartly, both in terms of how much screen time they get, but also how they’re introduced. Comic books will often have a cameo occur assuming you know who that character is and why they’re significant, and if you’re not an avid fan this can be confusing. Spider-Verse is a bit smarter. Brand-new characters get a solid introduction, but there are others certain others who pop in with the assumption you’ll know who they are — and, considering we’ve had over 15 years of immensely-popular Spider-Man movies, you probably do. This isn’t really a film aimed at total newcomers to Spider-Man’s world, though you’d probably get by if you are.

That’s just one way in which Spider-Verse is perhaps the most comic-book-y comic book movie ever made. Another is the animation style, which works overtime to evoke comic books of old, while still being suitably modern and detailed. To describe the minutiae of all the little visual tricks and treats going on would take paragraphs and, frankly, get a bit dull — they’re interesting to watch, but not so much to read about spelled out in prose. Suffice to say the cumulative effect is certainly unique. Whether it always works… well, there were times I worried I’d actually wandered into a 3D screening and not brought any glasses, let’s put it that way. (I hadn’t.) But while it might take some getting used to, ultimately I really liked it.

King of the swingers

Indeed, that could be said of the film as a whole. Having heard a lot of advance hype from critics and preview screenings, Spider-Verse comes laden with expectation. Some earlier parts of the film play out a broadly standard superhero origin story, and, while it’s by no means bad, it doesn’t necessarily feel exceptional. But as more characters and concepts are introduced, and the film begins to pay off what it’s been setting up, it really comes together. It culminates in a powerful message — underlined by a closing quote from the great Stan Lee himself — that’s especially pertinent in the current climate of media criticism, which seems to see most people pushing for greater diversity of representation and artistic voices, while a vocal minority push back with thin “I’m not a racist but” arguments. Spider-Verse has an inclusivity at its core that is well balanced: if you want to shut out any messages and just enjoy a bunch of super-powered people engaging in hyper-kinetic action sequences, it can scratch that itch; but it demonstrates its core values, only stating them in summation at the end, rather than preaching them.

So it turns out that, yeah, Into the Spider-Verse lives up to the hype, if you give it the time to get there. It’s a movie that will satisfy comic book fans in particular, I think, but also anyone who enjoys animation as an artform. This isn’t your standard Disney/Pixar/Illumination/etc fare, but a thrillingly-realised vision of what animation can do.

5 out of 5

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is officially released in the UK today and the US on Friday.

It placed 9th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

2018 #253
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

Sartana locked up

A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

Greed

Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

2018 #247
Peyton Reed | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 + 1.90:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After the huge (in every respect) Avengers: Infinity War, the comically-minded Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a palate cleanser for the MCU; a bit of light entertainment to help smooth the long gap between the Avengers film’s devastating cliffhanger and 2019’s double whammy of Captain Marvel (trailer today!) and Avengers 4 (trailer Wednesday!) Some people didn’t take too kindly to the ‘abrupt’ tonal swing (they’re completely separate movies, so that’s a pretty daft complaint to have, frankly), but I thought this sequel was a ton of fun.

It actually takes place before Infinity War anyhow: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is finally coming to the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for being involved in the events of Civil War. He’s also been forbidden from contacting the inventor of the Ant-Man suit, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), or his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who are wanted fugitives; but when Scott has a vision of Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), from his trip to the Quantum Realm (see the first Ant-Man), he becomes involved in Hope and Hank’s attempt to travel their and rescue Janet. Along the way they also have to deal with black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to monetise the tech he’s been helping them build, and a mysterious masked figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects and is trying to steal said new tech.

The Wasp and Ant-Man

Got all that? I haven’t even touched on some of the other subplots that get thrown in for good measure. For something that’s clearly been designed as a light romp, Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly has a lot of plot going on. That might be part of what keeps it romp-y, mind: with so much to get through, there’s always something happening, it’s always pushing forward. It arguably gets a bit bogged down having to line everything up in the middle, with some scenes that lean a little heavily on exposition, but it always finds time for a gag or two. Personally, I’ll let quite a lot slide if I’m having fun, and this keeps the fun quotient high throughout.

Entertainment is definitely the name of the game here, and to that end director Peyton Reed and the five credited screenwriters (including star Paul Rudd) set out to tickle various emotional responses. The most obvious one is, as mentioned, the funny — there are laugh-out-loud moments here, as well as a never-ending barrage of one-liners and comedic business. But it also takes time to be emotive and heartfelt. Scott’s relationship with his daughter (a charming and likeable performance by young Abby Ryder Fortson) is a major character point, and a key touchstone for a definite parent/child theme across the movie. What we might actually ‘learn’ about parent/child relationships from all this, I don’t know, but it feeds some surprisingly heartwarming material at times.

But which is the parent and which is the child?

Thirdly, there are thrills in the shape of multiple fantastic action sequences. Hope dons the Wasp suit — all the powers of Ant-Man, plus wings and blasters — shrinking and growing at speed to kick plenty of ass, though Ghost’s ability to just phase through objects presents a unique challenge. There’s a heist sequence, too, recalling the overall theme of the first movie… though as it’s in a primary school and occurs while Scott’s suit is malfunctioning, it’s played more for laughs. Well, so’s almost everything in this movie, but it works. Best of them all is the extended car chase finale, with the good guys’ size-changing vehicles used for some highly inventive antics, plus all sorts of other goings-on in a race with multiple pursuers. I’ve seen some criticise this part for going on too long, but I thought it was just right, and is a strong contender to be remembered as an all-timer chase sequence.

Often when I watch stuff in 3D nowadays I don’t actually mention it in my reviews — I still enjoy the experience more often than not (some stuff underwhelms, naturally), but I know most people don’t have the option and, frankly, it’s rarely essential. Well, the 3D probably isn’t essential here either, but it is superb, really adding to the scale and impact of the big scenes — when things are switching sizes all over the place, that’s no bad thing. Plus it’s clearly effective in just regular moments, too: the film’s opening shot is just of a house, but the dimensionality is still palpable. Top work by whoever did the post-conversion.

Plus, the 3D Blu-ray comes with the benefit of the film’s shifting IMAX ratio, where the frame expands upwards from 2.39:1 to 1.90:1 for certain scenes. This is commonplace for Marvel films nowadays, which means sometimes it seems to occur just for the sake of it, but Reed has put the effort in to make great use of the larger image. Okay, it’s no surprise that it’s used for the action scenes (including opening up for a whole half-hour-or-so at the film’s climax), but he’s mindful of the transitions between ratios and the effect that can have — at least twice the actual moment the film moves from one ratio to another is as effective as the bigger image itself. Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-rays, I know, but I love ’em, and this is a great example of why.

Ant-Man will return... but will anybody else?

In the year of Black Panther and Infinity War, the relatively frothy Ant-Man and the Wasp was always destined to be “the other one”. But just because it’s not Big or Meaningful doesn’t mean it has no merit. Far from it. Whether you want to view it as a palate cleansing instalment of the MCU or as a standalone adventure, I think it’s pitched almost perfectly as a fun, entertaining ride of a movie.

The first Ant-Man is, to date, the only MCU film to make it onto one of my year-end best-of lists. The way things have gone in 2018, I won’t be surprised if this sequel is the fourth.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man and the Wasp is out on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970)

aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana / “Have a nice funeral on me, Amigo” …Sartana

2018 #229
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 12

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay

Gianni Garko’s back in the saddle as the titular roguish hero for the fourth official Sartana movie, which is apparently regarded as the best one — that’s what the guys on Arrow’s commentary track say, anyway, and it’s borne out by viewer ratings on websites like IMDb. I can’t say I felt similarly, though after listening to that audio commentary, their enthusiasm and highlighting of the good stuff did help increase my enjoyment.

The plot this time sees Sartana arrive at a remote shack just after its occupants have been massacred. Turns out one of the victims owned the land, previously thought to be worthless but now revealed to contain a gold mine, and everyone in the nearby town is eager to acquire it. As the deceased landowner’s daughter arrives to claim the property, Sartana sets about investigating who was really behind the slaughter, and possibly get involved in the land purchase himself.

That’s more or less the basis of the story, anyway. The plot has a “made up as it goes along” feel — it’s basically an endless series of “twists” where every character is revealed to be involved somehow, one by one, and there’s always something happening. I mean, at one point a whole gang of outlaws turn up merely to instigate another shoot-out and extend the running time by about five minutes. If you were to stop and unpick the plot, there’s actually quite a neat twist at the end, but it’s easy to miss its significance when there are so many other double-crosses and reversals going on. On the audio commentary they argue that, although people accuse these films of being badly plotted, they actually fit together and abide by their own rules, they just don’t unfold in the way you might normally expect. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

Sartana so cool

The affair is at least enlivened by some inventive and fun moments, which do eventually begin to mount up in such a way that the film seems to improve as it goes on. Highlights include Sartana using playing cards as a weapon, and one of the villains having a trick gun so ingenious even Sartana pauses to admire it.

Another member of the guest cast is a Chinese casino owner, played by Gordon Wang, who’s a bit of a “yellow peril” Orientalist cliché: a scheming gangster who always quotes Confucius and unleashes a barrage of kung fu at the end. Whether you find this offensive or let it slide (or even enjoy it) as being part of the era when the film was made is up to you. I think it could be worse: the guy isn’t a total villain, nor totally stupid (no more so than any of the white characters, certainly), and he does get some solid verbal sparring with Sartana (as well as the more literal sparring of the kung fu climax). At least he’s memorable.

Also memorable is a great Morricone-esque score by Bruno Nicolai (a friend and long-time collaborator of Morricone’s, so that explains that). There’s decent direction from Giuliano Carnimeo, though it’s not as immediately striking as in his two previous Sartana films. There are still a few well put-together sequences, not least the pre-titles massacre. According to Garko (quoted in Arrow’s booklet), cinematographer Stelvio Massi “had a significant weight in the direction of the ensuing Sartana films. It can almost be said that those films were made by two directors, Carnimeo and Massi. Carnimeo had a great sense of humour […] But, as regards the technical part, the camera movements were conceived almost entirely by Stelvio Massi.” One particular example of Massi’s superb camerawork comes in a scene highlighted by the commentary: it’s just a simple three-way dialogue exchange, but Massi lenses it in a single take that uses zooms, pans, and reflections in a mirror to create different close-ups and two shots, all within one take.

Sartana about to pay for more funerals

Maybe Have a Good Funeral is an above-average Sartana film after all. Or maybe the whole series exists within quite a narrow quality range and so it’s swings and roundabouts which you say is better than the others. At least the film’s extravagant title has direct relevance for once: a running gag sees Sartana pay for lavish funerals for everyone he kills — and, naturally, he kills a lot of people. At the other end of the film, the print used for Arrow’s Blu-ray concludes with the word “fine” appearing on screen, which about sums it up.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

aka Zatôichi umi o wataru

2018 #214
Kazuo Ikehiro | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is the ‘lost’ Zatoichi movie: at some point the Weinsteins bought the rights to it because Quentin Tarantino was considering a remake, with the side effect of making it unavailable legally for years — while all the other Zatoichi films appeared on DVD in the US, Pilgrimage remained AWOL.* Its legal release finally came in 2013 as part of Criterion’s Blu-ray box set (which, coincidentally enough, is out in the UK this week). Clearly it was felt to be worth the wait, because it’s a highly-regarded instalment in the series. That might cause a newcomer to wonder if said wait led to some bias — that “hurrah, a new one!” feeling. Well, if it did it was entirely justified, because Pilgrimage is superb.

I’ve often written in my Zatoichi reviews about the inaccuracies of the English-language title “translations”. Pilgrimage is another one… but, for once, the English title seems more apt. The original translates along the lines of Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage, and while the film does begin with Ichi going on a voyage across the ocean, that’s the extent of its relevance — after that, he’s on his pilgrimage. Well, until he kills a guy and is followed by the chap’s horse, who then leads Ichi to the man’s home. Maybe Zatoichi and the Horse would be the most accurate title… but he’s sort of on a metaphorical pilgrimage even after he abandons his official one, so that’s okay. What develops could pithily be described as Seven Samurai meets High Noon: a group of humble farmers need protection from a violent gang, but, despite Ichi’s efforts to recruit them to defend themselves, they cowardly leave him as their sole protector.

Zatoichi and the horse

We’re up to the 14th film in the series now, and in a bid for something different star Shintaro Katsu and director Kazuo Ikehiro tapped Kaneto Shindo (director of Masters of Cinema/Criterion-friendly films Onibaba and Kuroneko) to write a screenplay focused on Ichi doing penance for all his killing, hence the titular pilgrimage. But by this point the Zatoichi series was a reliable money-spinner for studio Daiei, so the head of the studio ensured they didn’t let things stray too far from the formula. They got away with enough, I think. Ichi’s early attempts at atonement set the tone for the piece, and the final many-on-Ichi fight is more of a struggle for our hero than usual.

Indeed, the way Ikehiro and Shindo build up to the finale — Ichi’s late-night heart-to-heart with latest love interest Okichi, then slowly walking out alone as the villagers hide away in their houses — actually creates a bit of tension and suspense before the battle, something rarely felt as we know Ichi’s always going to win. In the fight itself, Ichi actually seems overwhelmed by the onslaught of so many opponents. It’s a (slightly) more realistic take on the character: we’ve seen him take on this many with ease before now, but it wouldn’t really be easy; here we feel his struggle to come out on top, which makes the action more tense and exciting. The series’ other big final fights have marked themselves out with gimmicks or trickery (fire, drums, bird’s-eye camerawork, etc), but with this one it’s just how hard-won it is, how tough it is. Plus, as noted, it also recalls High Noon quite effectively: Ichi stands alone in the middle of the empty village, ready to face the attackers, while Okichi runs from house to house, begging the villagers to help, and we see them cowering inside.

Oh, Okichi

Ah, Okichi. Ichi has had many female admirers before (one per film, more or less), but most of the time their interest in him isn’t reciprocated; or, if it is in Ichi’s heart, he never lets his head get in the way and always leaves. Here, though, this feels genuinely like a romance. A lot of credit for this surely belongs to actress Michiyo Yasuda — as Walter Biggins lays out at Quiet Bubble, she “gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic […] rather than crazed.”

There’s quality throughout Pilgrimage’s supporting cast. Isao Yamagata makes for a top-drawer villain as ‘smelly’ Tohachi, the local boss and horse trader (hence why he smells of horse manure). He gets a lot of good screen time alongside Ichi himself, trading veiled threats as much as physical assaults. His confidence makes for a nice change from the recent bad guys, who generally cower from Ichi’s reputation. Also, his weapon of choice is a bow and arrow, an unusual armament for this sword-focused series, but it leads to a couple of fun demonstrations of Ichi’s skill. Equally great is Masao Mishima as village headman Gonbei, jovially smiling and laughing while he’s threatened, or while discussing the conquering of their village, or while scheming and plotting to let Ichi fight on their behalf but without their backing. The villagers’ hiding is partly cowardice, but also a cunning scheme that, basically, gives them plausible deniability. Sneaky so-and-so.

Tis but a scratch!

The skilfulness extends behind the camera, too. I’ve already discussed screenwriter Shindo, but fans of the Zatoichi series will have good reason to recognise the name of director Kazuo Ikehiro: he previously helmed Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, two of the best-directed Zatoichi films, and Pilgrimage can comfortably join their ranks. The whole film is nicely directed, with beautiful shot choices and framing, but particular standout sequences include an underwater sword fight (it’s only brief, but it’s effective), and a fantastic opening scene where Ichi punishes a brazen purse snatcher (credit to Shindo, again, for setting up some of the film’s themes and mirroring its finale as Ichi steps up from a crowd of do-nothings to bring justice). Some bad news, though: this is Ikehiro’s final contribution to the series, sadly.

At least he goes out on a high. As Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits put it, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is “one of the crown jewels of the series.” It’s little wonder Tarantino was considering a remake.

5 out of 5

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage placed 13th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is available in the UK as of this week.

* If you purchased a UK DVD titled Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage back in the ’00s, it wasn’t this film. For reasons unknown, a company called Artsmagic released the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large, under the wrong title. There’s more information about that here. ^

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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

Incredibles 2

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

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

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

Left holding the baby... literally

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

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

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

Stretchy superheroics

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

4 out of 5

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