Battle at Big Rock (2019)

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2019 #127a
Colin Trevorrow | 9 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English

Battle at Big Rock

Surprised-announced by co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow on Twitter just a week ago (although, reading about it after the fact, it seems dedicated fans were already aware something was coming thanks to that regular modern blockbuster spoiler source: action figures), Battle at Big Rock is a short film entry in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, which premiered on the US FX channel on Sunday night (early Monday morning for us Brits) and is now on YouTube.

Set one year on from the cliffhanger-ish ending to the last film, Fallen Kingdom, this short presents a vignette in the Jurassic world that will help bridge the gap between the previous feature and 2021’s third/sixth instalment. But aside from that large franchise-minded goal, it’s also a chance to see some different characters have a different kind of encounter within the films’ universe.

Well, I say “different” — dinosaurs fight dinosaurs until humans are caught in the crosshairs, then a big toothy dinosaur goes after said humans. The real difference is that this happens to just an ordinary family out on an ordinary camping trip in California, not people who’ve chosen to go to a remote island filled with giant prehistoric lizards. Of course, they’ve decided to go camping in a region where it’s known a bunch of the aforementioned giant prehistoric lizards escaped a year ago and might be roaming about, but whatcha gonna do? When you gotta go camping you gotta go camping, I guess. Also, they’re not white, which is a notable characteristic in this franchise, unfortunately. (That lack of representation across five feature-length movies is hardly rectified by one short, but I’m certain it was part of the intention.)

A family-sized snack

What Battle at Big Rock lacks in originality it makes up for with brevity. This is a concise hit of dino action, cramming many of the franchise’s familiar thrills into a sub-nine-minute package. It also looks great for a short film. Yeah, sure, it still has the backing of Universal Studios — this isn’t exactly an indie production — but it’s not got the full weight of a theatrically-released blockbuster behind it, either. Nonetheless, it manages to include two species of dinosaur, one achieved via a mixture of CGI and a genuine animatronic, and adventure-movie set-piece-level action. It all looks mighty pretty too, although the nighttime fire-lit photography is no doubt partially about hiding the budgetary limitations.

Indeed, the film’s production is possibly its most impressive aspect. It was actually shot back in 2018, so they’ve kept it hush-hush for the best part of a year. And it can’t be easy to keep quiet a film shot on location, and outside of moviemaking’s usual stomping grounds, in Ireland, where apparently there’s a grove of trees that look exactly like a North Californian national park. Presumably the real deal was a no-go because they’d’ve been spotted even more easily there; but, equally, you’d think a big American production team rocking up in Ireland would attract attention — especially when they had a giant animatronic dinosaur in tow. Maybe the locals just presumed it was Game of Thrones

Anyway, the end result is a success, both as a little burst of dinosaur action for those of us who enjoy such hijinks, and as a tease for events we’ll see in the franchise’s next major instalment. Rumour has it the short’s budget spiralled beyond the limits Universal original set, but, considering the ill-will generated by the underwhelming Fallen Kingdom, I’m sure they’ll consider audience’s re-stoked interest (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed repeatedly across social media today) to have been a worthwhile investment.

4 out of 5

Battle at Big Rock is available on YouTube.

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The Predator (2018)

2019 #28
Shane Black | 107 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English & Spanish | 15 / R

The Predator

Some films take me a while to review because I just don’t get round to them. Some take time because I need to coalesce my thoughts. Others, I barely have any thoughts in the first place. The trickiest are the ones where I feel like there are many thoughts, but I have little idea how to express them. The Predator is definitely in that final camp. Why? Well, I thought it was quite a poor film… but I also sort of enjoyed it. Not in a Gods of Egypt way (that was kinda “so bad it’s good”; or maybe “so strange it’s good”), nor in a “I can see what they were going for, they just couldn’t quite get there” way, but in a… well, there’s the rub. The film undoubtedly has its problems, but it also has bits I was okay with; liked, even. What it feels like is a decent, middle-of-the-road-ish sci-fi actioner… that they then, for some unfathomable reason, deliberately dicked around with to make it kinda bad.

The reason I put it that way is the film’s sense of narrative, which is really messy. It feels like someone decided the movie was too long and so got the running time down by just pulling out scenes at random. There’s an extensive IMDb Trivia entry here that broadly explains what was changed in the edit and via reshoots, and that suggests it feels like a lot of stuff was chopped out because, well, it was. Other movies have survived such tinkering, but here it feels cack-handed. The end result doesn’t flow. You can follow it, but it’s oddly disjointed.

Other aspects suggest perhaps there were compromises on things like the age certificate. For example, at one point a female character is spared by the Predator because she’s naked. A vital piece of information for later? Um, no, it doesn’t come up again. So it’s gratuitous nudity? Well, not really, because it’s carefully shot so we don’t see anything. The film ended up going for an R, but perhaps they thought they’d have to make it PG-13? Either way, why is that ultimately pointless scene still in the movie?

“I don't care if you point a gun at me, so long as you don't get your tits out again!”

It’s not just the story and logic that’s mangled, there’s a real mishmash of tones as well. Writer-director Shane Black did such excellent work shepherding mixed moods in the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the perfect Nice Guys, and the best Iron Man film, but here he seems to have lost his handle on how to deliver the required blend of action, horror, and humour. Personally, I quite liked the humour, but sometimes it does just barge in out of nowhere. People who like their alien hunter action movies to be po-faced will not be impressed.

So, it’s an odd case all round. It’s an impossible movie to recommend because it’s certainly not good, but I also didn’t hate it as much as I feel I should’ve. It’s kind of a disaster, but it’s also… fine. Put it this way: one day I expect I’ll rewatch the Predator movies, and while I’ll probably skip AvP Requiem, I’ll include this one. Faint praise, I know.

Nonetheless, I really hope they make another Predator movie… mainly so I can see what they come up with for a title. Okay, sure, it’ll probably just be Predator: Meaningless Subtitle, but I live in hope they’ll continue this trend of adding a little something (pluralisation; the definitive article) and it’ll be called, like, Predatoring or something. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

3 out of 5

The Predator is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Sholay (1975)

2018 #200
Ramesh Sippy | 205 mins | DVD | 4:3 | India / Hindi | PG

Sholay

For many Western readers (and the stats say most of mine are, though India is in 3rd of all countries for 2019 so far), there’s every chance you’ll’ve only heard of Sholay (if you’ve heard of it at all) as “one of those Indian films that’s on the IMDb Top 250 nowadays”. But in Indian culture it’s a much bigger deal, a huge and longstanding success; like Star Wars or something is to us, I guess, only without the reams of sequels and spinoffs and merchandise and theme parks. Instead, it’s enjoyed remarkable success of its own: it topped the Indian box office for 19 years, was the first film in India to celebrate a Silver Jubilee at over 100 cinemas, and eventually set a record of 60 Golden Jubilees across India. From a British perspective, in 2002 it topped the BFI’s “top ten Indian films of all time” poll, and in 2004 it was voted the “Greatest Indian Movie” in a Sky poll of 1 million British Indians. I first heard about it years ago in that context, and my desire to see it was only exacerbated when it made it onto IMDb’s list. All of which is why I chose it to be my second-ever #200.

It’s a tricky film to sum up, because it offers a massive mash-up of tones and genres in a way we’re not accustomed to from Western cinema. There are whole sequences (not just fleeting moments) of broad slapstick humour, epic action, heartfelt romance, brutal violence, colourful musical numbers, intense tragedy, plus backstory that’s filled in via regular, lengthy flashbacks. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say its primary genre was Action, or Comedy, or Musical, or Western — it’s all of those things, by turn; sometimes at the same time. Apparently it’s a defining example of the “masala film”. Masala is, of course, a mix of spices in Indian cuisine, and the films that take that name blend genres together, typically (according to Wikipedia) action, comedy, romance, and melodrama, plus musical numbers.

Who doesn't enjoy a colourful sing-song?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what’s perhaps most remarkable about Sholay is that it pulls them off. Thanks to engaging characters and relationships, powerful and humorous performances, quality filmmaking (there’s some strikingly effective camerawork and editing in the big scenes), it all flows. You can see why it became such a success: there’s something for everyone. And you can see why it struggles to transcend the culture it originates from, because when Western movies ever even vaguely attempt this kind of range of tones, there are trolls aplenty waiting to rip them apart for the perceived fault of being tonally inconsistent.

The heroes are Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), a pair of crooks with hearts of gold, who are recruited by a retired policeman who once arrested them, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a wanted outlaw, Gabbar (Amjad Khan), who’s terrorising Singh’s village, and who he has a personal history with. The way that storyline plays out is highly reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns and the samurai movies that inspired some of them — anyone who’s seen the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West (or any of the other films that have riffed on / ripped from them) is going to see a lot of reflections here. I don’t mean that to be a criticism — after all, Dollars was an unendorsed remake of Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai was remade as classic Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, so there’s strong pedigree among these movies for reworking each other to excellent effect.

I'm not sure that's safe...

Sholay certainly adds its own stuff to the mix. I mean, those other films I’ve mentioned don’t have musical numbers or slapstick comedy (not much of it, anyway). Lest you think this plays as a spoof, Singh eventually unveils a tragic backstory (and a neat twist to his character), and Gabbar is a properly despicable, nasty villain. Plus, like most of the best bad guys, he’s not just evil for evil’s sake — he’s motivated to subjugate this particular village for a reason — but he’s still a properly nasty piece of work, excessively and inventively cruel. Rather than a spoof, then, the different genres come into play via an array of plots and asides. At times it does feel like a selection of unconnected subplots to bulk out the running time (and, as you may’ve noticed, it does have a long running time), but most of them come together in the end. Your tolerance for those that don’t (a lengthy comedic aside in a prison, for example) is another matter.

Musical numbers are another thing that put some people off. There are only five though, and they don’t actually drive the plot that much — I was kind of forced to assess their impact, because for some reason my DVD copy didn’t bother to subtitle the songs, leading me to search out translations online so I could get the gist. Still, when they fill several minutes of screen time each, it is nice to at least have an idea what’s being said sung!

In the West, Sholay has been hard to find at times (personally, it was years ago that I managed to source an out-of-print DVD by a label you’ve never heard of from an Amazon Marketplace seller), but as of this week it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK (either as part of a subscription or to rent and buy individually), and in HD to boot! Based on the running time it’s the shorter widescreen theatrical version; there’s also a longer, open matte 4:3 “director’s cut”, which is what I watched. There’s info on the differences between the two cuts here, but the mostly it’s a couple of bits of violence that were censored. The biggest change, though, is the ending. No spoilers, but I think the original version is better — it included one of my favourite parts of the entire film, in fact. The revised version was at the insistence of India’s censor board, and includes a heavy-handed moral lecture — it’s not just less good in itself, it also feels overtly censor-mandated. Oh well.

Vicious villainy

On the bright side, the 4:3 version isn’t great to watch compositionally. The makers wanted to produce an epic 70mm widescreen kinda movie, but didn’t have the tech to do it properly, so they shot it in full frame 4:3 on 35mm and then had it cropped and blown up in London. Watching in 4:3, it’s obvious that it was always intended to be cropped to widescreen: there’s loads of dead space above everyone’s heads, things like that. That said, every once in a while there’s a shot that seems to be perfectly framed. Maybe they look just as nice cropped, I don’t know. To further muddy the waters about different versions, five years ago Sholay was converted to 3D. Despite the film’s enduring popularity, it didn’t come close to making its money back (the conversion cost US$3.5 million, but the 3D release only grossed US$1.4 million). In the West the studio would seek to recoup more of that with home media, but apparently Blu-ray isn’t popular or successful in India, so the chance of getting a 3D BD is basically nonexistent. But, as I said, it’s on Amazon in HD now, so at least there’s that. (Hopefully it has subtitles for the songs…)

Whichever version you watch, Sholay is best described as “an experience”. Perhaps lots of Bollywood movies are like this (after all, with huge success comes huge influence, and I’m sure many have tried to emulate it), but I’m not familiar with them so this was all new to me. That epic running time makes it feel like an event to watch, and the winding plot and variety of tones it encompasses make it feel like a whole buffet of entertainment, as opposed to the just one meal that most films offer. I guess, like any food that is foreign to an individual, it comes as an acquired taste, but it’s one I enjoyed immensely. It would also be entirely accurate and fair to roll out a somewhat clichéd sentiment: if you only watch one Bollywood film, this is the one to watch.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, Sholay is available on Amazon Prime Video now.

It placed 25th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

  • Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

    aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

    2019 #99
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

    Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

    This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

    After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

    Creating a new one-armed swordsman

    An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

    The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

    The real one-armed swordsman

    Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

    The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

    4 out of 5

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

    2018 #99
    Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest

    I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

    So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

    If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

    Batty, indeed

    Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

    One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

    All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

    3 out of 5

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

    aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

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

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

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

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

    A sweet transvestite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

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

    Zathura

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

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

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

    Play the game

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

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

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

    Holy meteors!

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

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

    3 out of 5