Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

aka Zatôichi sakate-giri

2018 #157
Kazuo Mori | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man

The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series is perhaps the first one that could legitimately be described as bad. It’s not outright terrible, but the plot doesn’t hold together very well, and there are only a couple of redeeming scenes.

The first of these is at the very start, when the film opens on the striking image of Ichi receiving lashes as punishment for an initially-unspecified crime. They seem almost a minor inconvenience to our hero, however, who is more concerned with questions he has for his punisher about this cellmate of the previous night. It turns out he was the eponymous “doomed man”: a fellow who’s been incarcerated on a murder charge, but claims he’s innocent, and urges Ichi to track down the gang bosses who can vouch for him. Uncharacteristically, Ichi resolves not to help, but fate has other plans…

That reliance on fate to marshal Ichi around led me to dub this Zatoichi and the Coincidental Coincidences of Coincidence. He’s constantly stumbling back onto the film’s plot even when he tries to avoid it, or bumping into the people he needs to find, or bumping into people who happen to be connected to other people he happens to know. It’s easily the most poorly-constructed story of the series so far. That’s not limited to its dependence on coincidence, either: half the stuff it sets up doesn’t even pay off or come together in a reasonable fashion. Although the initial “wrong man” setup is enticing, rather than do anything interesting or different with that, it just turns out to be the series’ usual: some bosses have betrayed the chap as part of a scheme to control the area. And to rub salt in the wound, we learn about this in a scene where one conspirator explains what they’ve already done to his co-conspirator. Oh dear.

Shenanigans

It’s a very slight story — not even enough to sustain the brief sub-80-minute running time, it would seem, as we’re ‘treated’ to an array of unrelated shenanigans. The primary one is a young man who starts following Ichi around, then later impersonates the famed blind masseur for financial gain — and, supposedly, for comic effect. He’s played by Kanbi Fujiyama, who (according to Chris D. in his notes accompanying Criterion’s release) “was a noted funnyman in mid-to-late-sixties Japan, appearing in sidekick roles in many of Toei studios’ ninkyo (chivalrous) yakuza films.” Reading other reviews, a lot of people seem to find his schtick hilarious, but I thought he was the most irritating comic relief character the series has yet foisted upon us — and he’s basically the co-lead of this instalment, so we get to see far too much of him. He eventually turns out to have a connection to the main plot too, which is emblematic of the whole movie: the connection is a complete coincidence, dumped on us via random exposition late in the game, and then not paid off in any way. It’s entirely pointless. At one point he disappears from the film entirely. Due to how it was handled, I began to wonder if we were meant to infer he’d died off screen. But then he turns up again in the epilogue, as it merely to confirm that wasn’t the case.

That stands in opposition to the film’s main plot — you know, the titular one about the “doomed man” — which is resolved offscreen while Ichi’s already going on his merry way. It’s just one aspect that feels rushed (despite the short running time and ‘comedy’ distractions), or as if scenes were deleted. This is particularly noticeable as it pertains to the female interest, Oyone (Eiko Taki). Ichi rescues her thanks to a little trick she pulls, but then she seems ungratefully indifferent to him… until she’s suddenly hanging around near the end, hoping (as the women in these films always do) that he won’t run off while her back’s turned. Which is exactly what he does, of course.

Zatoichi with the doomed man

You may remember I said there were some good bits. One is the pre-titles, which I already partly discussed. They’re effective thanks to some strong photography from Hiroshi Imai and the way they flip around with our expectations to create mystery (even if the reason Ichi’s receiving those lashings is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film). The other is the finale. As usual, the movie climaxes with Ichi having to take on an army of goons single-handed, but this one adds some spice with a seaside location, strewn with fishing nets (which get brought into the action) and covered with an early morning sea mist. It’s also beautifully shot, and there’s nicely choreographed combat. It’s easily the highlight of the film.

Other reviewers are not so harsh on The Doomed Man, going so far as to call it a “fine entry” in the series, or “thoughtful [and] hilarious”. And yet, those reviews can’t seem to help spotting the flaws in spite of themselves. Walter Biggins’ review at Quiet Bubble is a series of questions about why the film is so poor, with the last query being the most baffling of all: “why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?” I’ve no idea, mate. Several other reviews make comments along the lines of, “Ichi behaves uncharacteristically here, but there must be a good reason for that” — or it’s just crappy, inconsistent writing. At least Letterboxd users agree with me: it’s ranked 24th out of the main series’ 25 films (the only one lower is the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large — which, incidentally, is by the same director).

“Here's the end of the plot — go give it to someone and get this over with!”

For me, The Doomed Man is by a clear margin the weakest Zatoichi film so far. As nowadays I very much look forward to my regular appointments with Ichi, being so underwhelmed left me feeling disappointed: it wasn’t worth the wait since the last film, nor was it really enough to tide me over until the next one. For those reasons I considered giving it a lowly two stars, but that felt a bit harsh: it certainly isn’t without merit (the climactic fight is a stunner), and it’s always nice to spend time in Ichi’s company, even if he is being inconsistently written. Nonetheless, it only earns that third star by the skin of its teeth. This is a “for completists only” instalment.

3 out of 5

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When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

2018 #77
Rob Reiner | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

When Harry Met Sally...

Written by the queen of the romcom, Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is almost a deconstruction of the genre: its titular protagonists are just friends, but (the film asks) can a man and a woman ever be ‘just friends’? It perhaps feels like a dated question today, when almost 30 more years of gender equality have pushed heavily towards the answer being “yes, of course”, but that doesn’t matter for two very good reasons: first, the film still stands as an insight into the nature of relationships in the ’80s and ’90s; and second, it’s just a really good film.

It begins in 1977, when Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are recent graduates who meet through a mutual friend. They soon go their separate ways, and then the film catches up with them in 1982, and again in 1987 — and that’s just act one. It’s an interesting opening gambit to chart the pair’s backstory. It dodges the usual romcom thing of people who’ve just met falling instantly in love, but also does more than introducing us to two friends and telling us “they’ve always been friends” — it shows that friendship. I don’t think I’ve read anyone else talk about this part of the film, I guess because it really ‘gets going’ in the ’87 segment, but I think it’s an interesting way of beginning things, and gives a different grounding to the relationship drama we then see unfold.

It’s an immaculately constructed film all round, both on a macro and a micro scale. For the latter, there’s a single-take four-way phone call between the two protagonists and their respective best friends that is a thing of beauty (and apparently took 60 takes to get right!) It also manages to make New Years and Auld Lang Syne feel relevant to the plot, rather than just an obvious big occasion on which to set the finale. That’s a neat trick to pull off. Even the seemingly-random interludes showing interviews with long-married couples have a pay-off at the end that, once again, reiterates my point about how put-together this is.

Just friends...?

On that macro scale, it again subverts the usual romcom structure simply by having the characters be hyper-aware of the possibility they could sleep together, and regularly discussing whether they should or will. They’re not just bungling through this relationship, happening to fall into all the usual clichés, like so many romcom characters before and since — instead, they’re actually thinking their way through it, aware of the pitfalls. And yet they fall into some anyway, and the film does sometimes follow predictable structure and does hit some of those clichés — but it always manages to make them ring true.

This truthfulness — about male-female friendships, mainly — is probably the film’s biggest asset. Is it still accurate about those dynamics almost three decades later? Despite what I said earlier, maybe it is. And even if it isn’t, I reckon it was bang on point for the ’80s and ’90s, and isn’t that enough? It tells you about the time it was made, even if it doesn’t tell you about today. It all adds up to mean that, when the inevitable happens at the end, it doesn’t feel like an obvious outcome, but something earned and emotional.

4 out of 5

Killing Gunther (2017)

2018 #83
Taran Killam | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English, German & Spanish | 15 / R

Killing Gunther

Do you ever have that feeling where you want to watch a film but you don’t want it to be anything too demanding or important? I do. I’ve watched (and subsequently reviewed) plenty of films with that underlying motivation. Killing Gunther is the latest that absolutely fits that bill. I had paid it absolutely no heed whatsoever until I happened to see a trailer that looked moderately amusing. Bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote that described it as “a very affectionate take on the [hitman action] genre, so it’s much easier to overlook its shortcomings if that happens to be a genre that you’re a fan of,” I decided it was worth a punt.

Framed as a mockumentary, it’s the story of a hitman (Taran Killam) who sets out to kill the world’s greatest hitman, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and assembles a team of oddball fellow hitman to do so. Unfortunately for them, Gunther is so damn good that he’s always several steps ahead.

As a comedy, I thought it was funny. Not always super original or absolutely hilarious, but ticking enough. As an action movie, some of the single-take assassination scenes are done quite well. It was clearly produced on a low budget, so the action sequences don’t really fulfil on an adrenaline-junkie level, but they work decently in context.

Gunther vs... that other guy

For Arnie fans, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t actually turn up until over an hour into the movie. Put another way, he’s not in 72% of the film. Really, it’s just an extended cameo. It would’ve been a neat surprise if his appearance was a secret, but the whole marketing campaign is based around him (which makes sense, but still).

If you hate mockumentaries, or indie comedies with more ambition than budget, or are coming just to see plenty of Arnie, then Killing Gunther is one to skip. If the concept and style appeals, however, it’s a decent 90 minutes for a lazy evening.

3 out of 5

Review Roundup: 15-Rated Comedies

You don’t have to be an adult to like today’s reviewed movies, but… you do have to be a teenager. Still being a teenager would probably help you enjoy them, too.

In today’s roundup:

  • Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
  • Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
  • Sausage Party (2016)


    Airplane II: The Sequel
    (1982)

    2018 #17
    Ken Finkleman | 81 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    Airplane II: The Sequel

    Comedy sequels are a funny business. Generally the first film’s been a big enough hit that people want to cash in, but can lightning strike twice? Well, the number of comedy trilogies (or more) suggests the answer is “yes”… or at least that enough people liked the first one enough that they went to see the second one and, regardless of what they actually thought of it, that persuaded people there should be a third.

    Airplane is widely regarded as one of the best comedies of all time. There is no Airplane III. Those two facts might suggest something about Airplane II — though it’s a film which even included a gag in its title, so it’s off to a good start.

    Watched now, over 35 years after its release, Airplane II has a certain vein of humour that hasn’t aged well. Ha ha, those two men kissed like they were a couple! Ha ha, that priest was looking at Altar Boy magazine like it was Playboy! Ha ha, everyone has to slap an hysterical woman! At least one of those gags would probably get you fired from a directing job at Disney nowadays… But to focus on those is to pick on the film’s weak points. Another would be that it has a few too many rehashes of jokes from the first one. Well, what comedy sequel doesn’t? That aside, much of the rest is pretty darn funny.

    3 out of 5

    * This was rated PG on its original theatrical release, but that was cut. The uncut version has consistently been rated 15 on video. ^

    Hot Tub Time Machine
    (2010)

    2018 #51
    Steve Pink | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

    Hot Tub Time Machine

    I don’t know why I felt the need to watch Hot Tub Time Machine. Maybe just because it found its way onto my 50 Unseen list back in 2010 (I guess people talked about it at the time. Has it lasted? I don’t think so). Maybe because it’s got “time machine” in the title and so the sci-fi implication draws me in, especially as a Doctor Who fan. I don’t know. Whatever, it’s been vaguely on my radar for the past eight years and, when I wanted something undemanding one Friday night, its time finally came.

    As the title implies, it’s about a hot tub… that’s a time machine. Four dudes get in it and find themselves in the bodies of their ’80s selves. Except for one who wasn’t born at the time, who just finds himself in the past. Yeah, the logic of it is really shaky.

    Nonetheless, it actually has a couple of solid thematic and plot ideas buried away, to do with fate and second chances and stuff, but those are mired in execution that’s both derivative (of both Back to the Future and stuff like The Hangover — and, I swear, I hadn’t seen the quote on the above poster when I wrote that) and often unfunny (unless you really like that lowest-common-denominator gross-out stuff). There are some genuine laughs, but they’re infrequent enough that they might just’ve been accidents. Another part of the problem is that for the eventual pay-offs to work you need to be invested in the characters. The film makes half an attempt to give us reasons to care about the guys, but they didn’t connect for me. Maybe if that worked better, the later stuff would land too.

    I didn’t hate Hot Tub Time Machine — it was passably amusing for a time-filler — but it wasn’t great either. My score errs on the harsh side, because I definitely liked it less than other movies I’ve recently given 3 stars.

    2 out of 5

    * I watched the extended “unrated” version, hence no MPAA certificate. It’s less than two minutes longer (comparison here), with no material that would challenge an R rating. ^

    Sausage Party
    (2016)

    2018 #37
    Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Sausage Party

    A movie about sentient food that parodies the inherent stupidity of religion — I mean, what’s not to like? Well, it’s from the minds of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and co (Jonah Hill as a story co-credit), so if you don’t like their kind of humour…

    Certainly, it’s incredibly rude and crude — even more so than they’d necessarily intended: they were so certain they’d get an NC-17 rating from the MPAA that the version they submitted included some extra extreme material, the hope being that would act as a distraction so that what they actually wanted in the film would pass as an R. However, the MPAA only insisted on one relatively minor change. I imagine that was to the massive, long, graphic orgy scene. There are no words for it. And yet, it only got a 15 over here — you really have to be very extreme to get an 18 these days, huh? Or maybe it’s just because it just involved food…

    For all the eye-watering content, at least the film has the good grace to also be quite witty and clever at times. I guess some of the ‘satire’ is a bit on the nose, but it works for what it is. I mean, no one comes to a film like this expecting subtle social commentary, do they? And if the analogies for religious belief are a bit on the nose, well, maybe that’s what it takes to get through to those people…

    4 out of 5

  • The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)

    2018 #167
    Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher & Bob Logan | 101 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Denmark / English | U / PG

    The LEGO Ninjago Movie

    After the somewhat surprising success of The LEGO Movie, both critically (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially ($469.2 million worldwide), Warner Bros and LEGO realised they were on to a good thing and so did what any movie studio does in such circumstances: plowed ahead not only with a sequel (out next February), but also spin-offs. The first one, The LEGO Batman Movie, continued the trend (90% Tomatometer; $312 million gross); the next one — this one — …didn’t. With a rotten 55% on the Tomatometer and a worldwide box office take of just $123.1 million (less than either previous film’s domestic gross alone), what went wrong? Did they flood the market with LEGO movies too quickly? Was Ninjago just not as attractive or familiar a brand as Batman or LEGO generally? Or is it just not a very good movie? Well, I’ll come to that.

    The film sets its scene in Ninjago City, which is constantly terrorised by villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his armies. Fortunately for the good folk of Ninjago, they have a team of mech-driving colour-coded super-ninjas to protect them. In real life, those ninjas are just high school kids, and not particular popular ones — especially Lloyd (Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, who everyone knows is Garmadon’s son. When Lloyd’s daddy issues lead him to slip up, the ninjas have to save the city — and, in the process, Lloyd and Garmadon have to sort out their differences.

    The Garmadons

    The LEGO Ninjago Movie is quite clear that the focus of its story is the relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon, but it’s perhaps a little too focused on that. There are a bunch of other characters thrown into the mix — Lloyd’s five teammates; their master, Wu (Jackie Chan); Lloyd’s mother (Olivia Munn) — but the film doesn’t afford the screen time to do any of them justice. In fact, the film probably would’ve been a lot better if it had cut back on the number of beats in the Lloyd/Garmadon story and devoted a bit more time to giving everyone a little subplot. If it kept busy doing that it might’ve picked up the pace a bit as well, because although Ninjago is more or less the same length as the two previous LEGO movies, it feels much longer.

    Partly this is because it just doesn’t feel as inspired as the other movies — it lacks the spark of ingenuity that ignited their characters, humour, and stories. At times it feels entirely half-hearted. For example, Lloyd’s big mistake makes his teammates all hate him, but they immediately go on a journey with him anyway; Master Wu says the length of that journey will give them time to come back round to Lloyd, but the film never bothers to suggest that’s happening — as soon as they need to all get along again, they do. Clearly this was meant to have some emotional effect on Lloyd (even the handful of people who used to like him don’t anymore), but that’s never really given the emphasis to be felt either — so what was the point of them falling out with him in the first place?

    Even in LEGO, Jackie Chan kicks ass

    That said, it does muster suitable amusement in places, though not as regularly as the other two films. And if you’re a fan of Eastern genre movies — kung fu, giant monsters/mechs, samurai, etc — the whole shape and style of the film is a broad reference to that kind of cinema, which is fun for those in the know. Unfortunately, it comes up somewhat short in the action stakes — the mech sequences seem to be inspired by the Michael Bay school of throw tonnes of visual information at the screen and whizz through it at lightning speed, making some of it hard to distinguish, even with the separation benefits of 3D.

    Despite all these negatives, I didn’t actively dislike The LEGO Ninjago Movie. It’s good in places, most of it ticking along at a level of passable entertainment — but it ticks along for too long, it’s not funny enough, and it can’t bring it all together in the way the other two films did. It suffers most of all from those comparisons, because it’s simply not a patch on the other two LEGO movies.

    3 out of 5

    The LEGO Ninjago Movie is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Despicable Me 2 (2013)

    2018 #155
    Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud | 98 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    Despicable Me 2

    In this sequel to the popular animated comedy (which I wasn’t that fond of, personally), supervillain turned adoptive dad Gru (Steve Carell) is dragged back into his old world when the Anti-Villain League recruit him in order to track down the villain who stole a dangerous serum. Meanwhile, Gru’s daughters think he needs a girlfriend, and the AVL agent assigned as his partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), seems the perfect fit. Also, his yellow Minions are still around, getting up to all sorts of ker-azy antics.

    That’s the concise version, anyhow. This is a film that rambles around a lot in the telling, presumably out of fear that it might ever become boring to hyperactive youngsters. Unfortunately, it almost had the opposite effect on me. The main plot just felt like a shape on which to hang the romantic and Minion subplots, but those subplots just felt like a constant distraction from the main plot. The end result is a film that’s narratively unsatisfying on all fronts.

    So. Many. Minions.

    Instead, entertainment value comes from individual scenes or moments. Personal preference will dictate just how entertaining those are, however. I didn’t feel there was much consistency, with the humour able to spin on a dime from being pretty amusing to falling flat. It doesn’t help that it feels way too long, overloaded with subplots that don’t go anywhere meaningful and the Minions’ sketch-like shenanigans. And there’s a lot of the Minions, clearly the breakout stars of the first movie (and hence why the series’ next film was entirely centred around them). While they amuse me on occasions, I mostly find them annoying, and am slightly baffled that anyone over the age of about six can find them significantly amusing.

    But it looks pretty great in 3D, at least — turns out Gru’s long pointy nose was made for the format — and it’s quite funny and imaginative in places. Still, a good trim would’ve benefitted it enormously. Unless you do really enjoy the Minions, I guess.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of spin-off Minions is on ITV today at 6:15pm.

    Paddington 2 (2017)

    2018 #58
    Paul King | 103 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

    Paddington 2

    Famous for its untarnished 100% Rotten Tomatoes score after almost 200 reviews (the best critical record of any film ever), Paddington 2 consequently comes with an awful lot of hype attached — perhaps too much for a movie that is, at heart, just a kind-hearted bit of fun about a marmalade-loving bear. But then, in our current climate, such a film is less barely necessary (unlike many sequels) and more a bear necessity.

    Said bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to buy a unique, and consequently expensive, pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. When the book is stolen by failed actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), he manages to frame Paddington, who is consequently sent to prison. His adoptive family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, et al) set out to prove his innocence, while Paddington makes the most of his jail time by making friends and livening the place up.

    The film’s joy lies less in the facts of the storyline and more in the emotions it inspires. The whole thing has clearly been crafted with a lot of love, inventiveness, generosity, and a good-hearted outlook on life, which comes across from all the characters and their actions, making for a resolutely charming and feel-good film that’s beautifully made. Of course, the first one had a lot of those elements too, but they’ve managed that rare thing of striking gold twice. One thing the first movie didn’t have is Hugh Grant, who proves he’s more than just a stuttering romcom lead with a superbly witty turn as the film’s villain. HIs BAFTA nomination wasn’t as silly as it perhaps sounded.

    Friendly criminals

    But while there’s nothing bad about Paddington 2, and an awful lot to like, I feel like my expectations for its absolute perfectness were set too high. I feel like I should be giving it 5 stars just because of how lovely everyone else said it was — and it was lovely, but 5 stars lovely? I’m not sure. I did like it a lot — it’s funny, clever, sweet, and good-natured — but I wasn’t bowled over in the way I’d been led to believe I would be. Maybe I would’ve been if I’d seen it before all the hype? That element of almost-disappoint means I can’t give it full marks, but it’s still a film I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re after something thoroughly nice, or that’s both suitable for and entertaining to the entire family. I look forward to watching it again sometime and refining my opinion. Maybe in a double-bill with the first film, which I’m currently tempted to say was slightly better.

    4 out of 5

    Paddington 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

    “Christmas in July” Review Roundup

    Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • Dudes & Dragons (2015)

    aka Dragon Warriors

    2018 #145
    Maclain Nelson & Stephen Shimek | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Dragon Warriors

    Back in 2014, when it felt like I was contributing to Kickstarters for film projects left, right and centre (including a variety of short films I still haven’t got round to watching and several projects which never amounted to anything, which is why I’ve largely stopped), I helped fund a fantasy comedy called Dragon Warriors. To cut to the quick, it was eventually released as Dudes & Dragons, the title changed presumably to better indicate its comedic tone, and apparently at the end of last week it popped up on Prime Video UK — so, naturally, that made me finally get round to watching my Blu-ray copy.

    In a Dungeons & Dragons-y world, no one can show signs of love lest they be torched by the fearsome dragon Dolvarnög (the pronunciation of which is one of the film’s better recurring jokes). In fact, the dragon is commanded by evil sorcerer Lord Tensley (James Marsters, of Buffy and Angel fame), whose personal experiences with love have left him bitter. The dragon is just one threat to the relationship between human Camilan (Maclain Nelson) and elf Larec (Clare Niederpruem), and so he teams up with his mercenary brother Ramicus (Adam Johnson) — plus Camilan’s stable boy, Samton (Jake Van Wagoner), and Ramicus’ lodger, orc Shokdor (Erik Denton) — to save the world, etc.

    Comedy!

    As I said, and as the title surely implies, Dudes & Dragons is ostensibly a comedy — though not the kind of comedy the re-titling implies, I don’t think. I guess the lead characters are “dudes”, but they’re not, like, “dude” dudes… if you know what I mean. Setting that aside, potential hilarity is undercut by the film being overburdened with plot. My summary didn’t even mention the object of Tensley’s affections, his cousin Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who summons our heroes on their mission; or that Camilan’s parents forbid his marriage to Larec because of some stuff to do with laws of succession or something — this is meant to be a comedy, fellas! Who wrote it, Phantom Menace-era George Lucas? This necessitates rather too many scenes of exposition, especially early on, meaning it’s a while before the gags really begin to flow.

    Well, “flow” is a generous descriptor — the gag rate is alarmingly low. The exposition scenes are balanced on a knife edge where you can’t tell if the actors are playing it tongue-in-cheek because it’s supposed to be humorous, or if it’s because they’re reaching for a florid style that they think is correct for a serious High Fantasy movie. (“High” fantasy is probably what you expect from a movie called Dudes & Dragons, actually, isn’t it?) Put another way: take those joke-less scenes out of context and you might think they were just am-dram Fantasy. James Marsters is probably best equipped to navigate this, giving a sterling go at being both villainous and comic, though the uneven tone means he’s never allowed to be properly menacing nor properly hilarious, a balance we know he can strike thanks to the aforementioned Whedon series. The rest of the cast actually aren’t bad — when the script gives them some decent material, there are laughs to be had. The weakest link is a cameo from Luke Perry, who’s worse than most of the non-famous cast.

    Buffy flashbacks

    Production-wise, this is a very low-budget effort and it shows, but if you give it the benefit of bearing those cheap-and-cheerful roots in mind, it doesn’t look half bad. Well, mostly. I mean, some of the costumes are a bit cosplay, but the creature prosthetics are pretty good; and the CGI monsters are alright considering the next-to-no-budget; and it’s decently shot, especially some sequences that spoof the oeuvre of Zack Snyder, though it’s sometimes distracting that it was all done on green screen — were there no real forests nearby they could’ve popped down to?

    There’s some enjoyment to be had in Dudes & Dragons for the more forgiving viewer. It would’ve been helped immeasurably by a more streamlined plot, a higher preponderance of genuine gags, and probably by being a good 20 or 30 minutes shorter, too. As it is, most people after some fantasy-based laughs are going to want to look elsewhere.

    2 out of 5

    Game Night (2018)

    2018 #111
    John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Game Night

    Despite what the poster suggests, the cute dog is not in fact one of the three leads.

    1 out of 5

    Okay, okay — let’s put the Westie-based bait-and-switch advertising aside and give the film a fair hearing, because it’s actually surprisingly brilliant.

    The other poster stars, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, play hyper-competitive couple Max and Annie, who love nothing more than the weekly game night they host with their best friends, from which they exclude their odd next-door neighbour, Westie-loving cop Gary (Jesse Plemons). One week, Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly shows up and gatecrashes game night, then offers to host an even better one. For that he arranges a real-life mystery game, where he gets kidnapped and the others have to track him down… except then he gets kidnapped for real, and they only have the rest of the night to rescue him.

    If you’ve ever wondered “what if someone reimagined David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy?”, Game Night is probably the answer. Personally, I’ve never wondered that, but I’m up for it. That said, I was all prepared to let it wait until it popped up on Netflix or something, until the film’s home release in the US a couple of months back prompted a wave of praise from critics I follow on Twitter. Now I’m adding my small voice to those urging you to check this movie out.

    Wanna play a game?

    It’s the kind of film where I don’t want to say much more than I already have, because obviously the joy lies in the jokes (and jokes are a lot less funny if you spoil them) and the plot developments. At the risk of just reeling off a list of superlatives, I’ll say that what unfolds is fast, inventive, clever (after you’ve seen the film, check out this spoilersome bit of trivia. I mean, that’s superb!), and, above all, hilariously funny. There are more laughs in its opening montage than many modern comedies manage in a whole film. Jesse Plemons transcends the “budget Matt Damon” jibes (but, c’mon, he really looks like an own-brand Matt Damon) to all but steal the film with his hysterical straight-faced supporting role. I only say “all but” because everyone else is firing on all cylinders too: it’s a cast full of likeable, well-performed characters, not least Max and Annie. McAdams, in particular, gets to give a line delivery that’s an all-timer. If there’s a criticism in this regard it’s that, with so many characters competing for screen time, I’m not sure how well their individuals arcs really work, but that’s a minor distraction.

    One other thing I will criticise — which is nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but bugged me enough that here’s a whole paragraph about it — is the scarcity of extras on the Blu-ray, which total just ten minutes. Seriously? Put some effort in! All the praise from American Twitter led me to acquire the film via Alternative Means, but, being the good honest film consumer I am, I was going to rent it when it came out here as retrospective payment. But then I loved it so much I thought I’d just go ahead and buy the disc. But a full-price new release of a film I’ve already seen with a grand total of ten minutes of special features? You’re having a laugh. Were there no deleted scenes? Could they not stump up for a commentary? Surely they filmed longer interviews than that just for the EPK? But no, all we get is a 6½-minute gag reel and a 3½-minute “featurette” (I’m being kind — at that length it can’t be much more than a trailer). I’m going to buy it eventually, in a sale, because I enjoyed the film enough to add it to my collection, but you cost yourself a day-one purchase there, Warners. I don’t know how much the general film-viewing populace still care about special features, but us aficionados do, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about this particular title. Anyway, rant over.

    Who's stealing the film now, eh?

    For pure enjoyment, I came very close to giving Game Night the full five stars — when it works, it absolutely sings — but there are just a few bits, here and there, that fell a little short. Nonetheless, it’s certainly the kind of film I loved in spite of its flaws. If only the adorable dog had been in it more, maybe this’d be a five anyway…

    4 out of 5

    Game Night is available to own digitally in the UK from today, and on that disappointing DVD & Blu-ray from next week.