Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

Advertisements

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

Benji (2018)

2018 #53
Brandon Camp | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

Benji

Aww, look at the cute lickle doggie! And all the cute tricks and stuff he can do!

“5

Okay, more seriously…

One of Netflix’s latest original movies (they’re releasing 700 this year, so there’ve probably been another 154 since this came out a couple of weeks ago), Benji is a reboot of the ’70s/’80s dog movie franchise, arguably best remembered because its 1987 instalment, Benji the Hunted, earnt a “thumbs up” rating from Roger Ebert the same week he gave Full Metal Jacket a “thumbs down”. I don’t know if I’m going to be giving any classic movies a poor rating this week, but I’m definitely giving the new Benji a big thumbs up.

The film begins as it means to go on: with misery. (Seriously, this is quite a gloomy, peril-filled film alongside all the cute canine antics.) On a dark and stormy night, a dog warden snatches a mother and her three young pups, accidentally leaving one behind. He tries to give chase, but can only look on forlornly as his whole family is carted away. Aww! He sets off along the road, growing up on his travels, and eventually finds himself in New Orleans. There he stumbles into the lives and hearts of two kids, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), who decide to name him Benji. They live with their mom (Kiele Sanchez), who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep her kids happy since the death of their father (see, more misery). Anyway, the kids get kidnapped and Benji’s the only witness to where they’ve gone, but the silly humans can’t follow his hints properly, so Benji sets off to rescue his newfound family by himself.

Benji's on the case

Benji isn’t half bad for a kids’ movie. And while it is undoubtedly a kids’ movie, it can get quite dark and serious at times — well, quite a lot of the time (it’s a PG for a reason) — but there’s a good storyline and some strong themes. It’s not super realistic (I mean, you read my plot description, right?), but it mixes in just enough real-life hardship to sell itself. There are decent performances too, including from the two kids, who I’ve seen other reviews criticise. I mean, they’re not going to be troubling next year’s Oscars, but they’re not bad. Certainly, I’ve seen poorer turns from child actors in proper adult movies, and definitely ones that have been more irritatingly objectionable. The choice to set the film in New Orleans is a nice one as well, offering a different and distinctive flavour to the usual stomping grounds of New York or L.A.

But that’s all gravy to the real reason we’re here: the dogs. My introductory joke was, actually, kinda serious: Benji himself is a clear 5-out-of-5, both super cute and super smart. Yes, I know the film’s edited to make him preternaturally clever (there’s an awesomely daft sequence where he thinks back over everything he’s seen and comes up with a plan), but the tricks he performs without the aid of editing show that he’s a damn well trained doggy. Variety’s review writes about the Kuleshov effect, which is “the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after”, and how Benji uses that to make the dog give a ‘performance’. Director Brandon Camp applies that technique more than once, I’m sure, but Benji’s got enough tricks at his disposal that such artifice isn’t always necessary to build character. Also, blimey can that dog run!

Run, Benji, run!

Okay, if dogs don’t tickle your fancy in any way then there’s nothing for you here; but as a lover of dogs — and particularly little scruffy ones like Benji — this film was a near-constant delight. It’s pretty great entertainment for kids too, though don’t stick it on unless you’re prepared for them to want a Benji of their own afterwards.

4 out of 5

Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

Coincidentally, Full Metal Jacket will be reviewed later this year as one of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” films.

The Silent Child (2017)

2018 #57a
Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

The Silent Child

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

Libby and Joanne

As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

4 out of 5

The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.

The Villainess (2017)

aka Ak-Nyeo

2018 #35
Jung Byung-gil | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18

The Villainess

After taking bloody revenge on the people who killed her father, skilled combatant Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is arrested and then forcibly recruited into a secret government agency who want her murderous skills. In exchange for ten years of her life and abilities, she’ll get a new identity and her freedom. As Sook-hee adapts to her new situation, flashbacks fill us in on her past — and the role it still has to play in her future.

There are obvious similarities to Luc Besson’s Nikita in that setup, but, frankly, I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth comparison than “hey, this is a bit like that!” The Villainess isn’t selling itself on the freshness of its premise, anyway — to most potential viewers, the primary attraction is the freshness of its action sequences. On that, it delivers, and then some.

It starts as it means to go on, opening with an eight-minute tightly-choreographed (fake-)single-take mostly-first-person killing spree. It’s a giddy display of violence that’s sure to entertain those of us who are so inclined. Many more hyper-kinetic, just-as-awesome action sequences follow over the next couple of hours. A motorbike chase that is also a sword fight (!) was a particularly memorable one for me (as I mentioned in last month’s Arbies). That’s also done in a ‘single take’ — if there’s one thing director Jung Byung-gil loves, it’s a fake single-take action sequence. If there’s another, it’s spurting blood — apparently if you strike anyone anywhere you’ll hit an artery and the red stuff will be squirting all over the place.

A sword fight... on bikes!

While the action scenes will be the focus for many viewers, there’s also a surprisingly effective emotional story at the film’s core. It even stops being an action movie for a bit in the middle to become a kind of romantic drama, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. There are plenty of twists and revelations involved in the storyline, so no spoilers here, but I will say it’s ultimately a pretty bleak film — it goes places I don’t think many straight-up action movies would dare. Well, certainly not Hollywood ones, anyway.

And none of that is to say it betrays its action roots — this isn’t one of those films that’s trailed like an action movie but, actually, only has a couple of stunts and is mostly something else. No, this really, really pays off just as a two-hour adrenaline kick; but it’s also, simultaneously, something more complicated. Put both sides together and I think there’s a good chance this will, deservedly, become regarded as a genre classic.

4 out of 5

The Villainess is available on Netflix UK from today.

La La Land (2016)

2018 #10
Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

La La Land

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
14 nominations — 6 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

Watching the best picture...

La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

Finale

Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

5 out of 5

The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

2017 #124
Danny Boyle | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English & Bulgarian | 18 / R

T2 Trainspotting

At one point during T2, a younger character accuses some of the returning characters of living in the past; that it’s all they talk about. It’s true of the characters, and it’s kinda true of the film itself too: this belated sequel to the era-defining original feels try-hard, like it wants to recapture the verve and inventiveness of its predecessor, but everyone’s now too grown up to do it properly.

Set 20 years on, it reunites the first film’s main characters… and, really, that’s the plot. Obviously other things happen, and the details are important, but that seems to be why the film exists: to get the gang back together for another couple of hours. Is that reason enough to make a movie? I guess everyone will have their own answer to that question. For me, it wasn’t reason enough to justify T2.

(Trivia aside that, frankly, I find more interesting then the film itself: reportedly director Danny Boyle wanted to call it simply T2, if James Cameron would let him — they thought they needed that permission because of Terminator 2 being commonly marketed as T2. But then it turned out that Terminator 2 was never officially called T2, so they were free to do as they pleased. But then internet searches for “T2” were found to still mainly turn up the Terminator sequel (unsurprisingly, let’s be honest), so they settled on T2 Trainspotting so people would know what it was. You have to wonder why at that point they didn’t just call it Trainspotting 2…)

Looking as bored as I felt

Anyway, back to this T2. The meandering plot, such as it is, lacks the grit and realism of the first movie. For example, that ended with a simple betrayal — a guy stealing money while his mates were sleeping — while this ends with a knock-down drag-out fight in a construction site like something out of a low-budget thriller. Visually, too, it’s so clean and pristine. There are some properly beautiful shots, especially of the scenery outside Edinburgh, but I’m not sure that’s in-keeping with the Trainspotting aesthetic. Boyle does at points try to reheat the visual tricks of the first movie, but I didn’t feel it worked. The original’s many stylistic flourishes are now much imitated, but they were fresh back in the day and somehow that freshness still comes across when watched now. By trying to ape ape them, T2 just joins the long line of copycats.

Another key element of Trainspotting was the soundtrack. I don’t know what they were thinking with the music here — it isn’t even close to being as memorable or iconic as the original. Maybe that was the point, to not try the same trick again; but there are still plenty of jukeboxed tracks that attempt to draw attention to themselves, but… don’t.

I felt like this, too

Trainspotting had energy, dynamism, exuberance; it pulsed with life and youth. Its sequel is more sedate, more… middle-aged. Well, so are the characters, so that could work; but they don’t behave like they’re middle-aged — they’re too busy trying to recapture their youth, reliving past glories and past conflicts. The film is doing the same. You could perhaps argue that it’s form mirroring content, but the form lacks the wink at the audience to say “this is deliberate.” Like the characters, it seems unaware of the sad state it’s in. Ultimately, it feels like a slightly unfocused, thematically inconclusive, largely unnecessary postscript.

3 out of 5

The Duellists (1977)

2018 #26
Ridley Scott | 96 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

The Duellists

It’s 40 years this month since Ridley Scott’s debut feature appeared in British cinemas, which perhaps makes now the most appropriate time to have awarded him the BAFTA Fellowship (as he was this past weekend, of course).

Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story, The Duellists stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as a pair of soldiers in Napoleon’s army who, for reasons only properly known to one of them, end up fighting a series of duels — or, really, one duel constantly reignited — over the better part of two decades. They become renowned for it (Conrad discovered the story through a newspaper article noting the death (by natural causes) of one of the real-life pair), to the chagrin of Carradine’s reluctant duellist. He dreads every potential encounter, aware of the fight’s futility and danger, but honour keeps drawing him back.

Ultimately, honour and the futility of fighting are what The Duellists is most about, if it’s about anything — if you like, you can enjoy it as merely a series of well-staged combats between two men, each stubborn in their own different way. They also each have slightly different ideas of honour, it would seem, but they’re compatible enough that it keeps drawing them back to the fight. “Acting with honour is all well and good,” the film seems to be saying, “but look where it gets them.” It doesn’t completely ruin their lives, but it does take a serious toll. A bit of common sense goes a long way, and acting with so-called honour, which might seem to be the moral course, doesn’t actually involve a great deal of common sense.

The bad duellist

Scott also intended the pointless, never-ending fight to represent a microcosm of war. Speaking to Empire magazine, Scott described Conrad’s story as “a very nice pocket edition of the Napoleonic Wars” because it “somehow encapsulated the craziness of an argument and how at the end of a 20-year period one of them forgot the reason why they were fighting. Isn’t that familiar?” Fighting for fighting’s sake; not wanting to be the one to back down… it seems it’s human nature, just as much in a conflict between two men as in between two nations. A bit of common sense would go a long way…

The other aspect of the film most worthy of comment is its photography. Reportedly Scott set out to imitate Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released just a couple of years earlier. It’s an appropriate inspiration: both tales are set in the same era, and Lyndon looks incredible. Scott undoubtedly succeeds in his goals — both that of copying Kubirck’s visuals and that of such copying being a good idea: much of The Duellists looks gorgeous, particularly wide scenery shots. Although the cinematography is credited to Frank Tidy, Scott says he operated the camera himself for the entire shoot, so who’s to know where exactly the credit for that achievement lies.

The good duellist

Resemblances to Barry Lyndon extend beyond just the visuals, mind. As noted, it’s set in the same era, so various visual trappings are similar, from costumes to some of the locations — if not direct copies, they certainly evoke Kubrick’s film more than once. There’s also the story itself: a tale focused on just one or two characters but spanning decades, and during a particularly tumultuous and eventful period in history. As Tim Pelan puts it (in this piece at Cinephelia & Beyond), “while Barry Lyndon advances with the forward momentum of one of Napoleon’s columns in its telling of a fool’s misfortune and slow glide towards the destruction of all he worked for and holds dear, The Duellists dashes pell-mell between the very different clashes of the antagonists.” Scott’s film feels like it thinks it is, or wants to be, an epic, just like Lyndon, even though it only lasts a little over 90 minutes.

Comparisons to such a lofty cinematic success would damn a lesser film, but The Duellists is a very fine work in its own right. Despite the similarities I’ve highlighted, it’s really a very different film: Barry Lyndon has a kind of leisurely elegance, whereas The Duellists is more economical and straightforward. It’s certainly not Scott’s greatest film (his next two immediately put paid to that), but it’s perhaps his most under-appreciated one.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

2017 #116
Dexter Fletcher | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Germany & USA / English, German & Norwegian | PG / PG-13

Eddie the Eagle

The unlikely hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics — ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards — gets the Cool Runnings treatment in this comedy-drama. I make the Cool Runnings connection because, firstly, they’re both about unlikely competitors in the Winter Olympics (from the same year, in fact — what was in the water in ’88?!); and, secondly, because in their transition to the big screen they were both heavily fictionalised.

The story, at least as it goes in the film, sees young Eddie (played as an adult by Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton) keen to participate in any Olympic sport, eventually settling on ski jumping because no Brit has participated in it for six decades. Disavowed by the British officials, he heads off to Germany to train himself. Trials and tribulations ensue that are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, but which eventually see him qualify for the 1988 Olympics — that’s not a spoiler, it’s why he’s famous!

Helping Eddie along his way is Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former US ski jumper who begrudgingly becomes Eddie’s coach, transforming the Brit from a no-hoper to someone who’s… not entirely bad. This is probably the film’s biggest whopper, because Peary didn’t even exist. It’s kind of brazen to make your co-lead and major subplot 100% fictional in a ‘true story’ film, isn’t it?

The Eagle has landed

But, hey, this isn’t a documentary — it’s a feel-good underdog story, about having a can-do attitude and dedication to your dreams in the face of adversity. It’s also about how it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, in a very literal sense. That probably makes the film sound more twee than it is, but it’s not a grittily realistic take either — it’s a colourful, light, entertainment-minded film. It’s a good pick for Egerton too, getting to stretch different performance muscles than in Kingsman as our naïvely optimistic hero. Jackman makes for an easygoing co-star, getting to mix his Wolverine loner gruffness with a dash of his chat-show charm.

Eddie the Eagle is a thoroughly charming little film. Even if its tone and overall narrative may be familiar, it navigates them with a light touch and consistent good humour that — much like the eponymous Olympian — wins you over, even if it’s in spite of yourself.

4 out of 5

The 2018 Winter Olympics officially commence tomorrow, though some events have already started — including, appropriately enough, ski jumping.