Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô

2019 #10
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi Challenged

The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.

The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.

Zatoichi and son... just not his son

There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.

Snow fight

The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.

Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

3 out of 5

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Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

aka Zatôichi rôyaburi

2018 #257
Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi the Outlaw

The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.

It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.

Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.

Hot stuff

It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.

This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.

Violent delights have violent ends

And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.

There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.

4 out of 5

Glass (2019)

2019 #7
M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Glass

About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

…but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

Confounded?

Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

Is Dr Staple stable?

As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

(Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

Mastermind

Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

4 out of 5

Glass is in cinemas now.

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.

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. ^