Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

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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.

Free Love Freeway: A Final Roundup from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon

Free Love Freeway may contain the most memorable gag in the original version of The Office (two of them, actually), but it’s also a surprisingly good song in its own right (catchy, at any rate). And it seemed a very fitting title for this final selection of films from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon, which all deal with end-of-the-’60s cultural movements about love and freedom. Heck, if Easy Rider had actually been called Free Love Freeway, it wouldn’t’ve seemed ill-fitting.

In today’s roundup:

  • Cactus Flower (1969)
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)


    Cactus Flower
    (1969)

    2019 #113
    Gene Saks | 99 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Cactus Flower

    Perhaps most noted for featuring the big-screen debut of Goldie Hawn (sort of), from which she won an Oscar and a career, Cactus Flower has a lot else to commend it. Indeed, it’s easily arguably that her’s isn’t even the film’s best female performance…

    Hawn plays Toni Simmons, a young New Yorker who’s having an affair with an older dentist, Julian Winston (Walter Matthau), under full knowledge that he has a wife and three kids. When they cause him to miss a date with her, she decides to kill herself, only to be saved by her neighbour, wannabe playwright Igor (Rick Lenz). When Julian hears of Ton’s suicide attempt, he realises he actually loves her and wants to marry her. There’s just one small problem: his wife and kids… who aren’t actually real, they’re a lie he told Toni to avoid commitment. Now she’s determined to meet them, to ease her conscience about breaking up a household, so Julian coerces his redoubtable secretary Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) to play his wife. And from there, the lies spiral farcically out of control.

    It’s easy to see why Goldie Hawn, with her pixie haircut and pixie-like demeanour, became a star after this. Toni is a bit kooky and funny, almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, especially as she’s inspiring a change of lifestyle in a man. To reduce her to MPDG status does a disservice to Hawn’s performance, though. She also brings heart and an honesty to the part, giving Toni more of a plausible internal life than you find with true MPDGs. She’s not just some fanciful construct there to direct the male lead to a ‘better’ life — she has her own desires and needs, and a moral compass that, while maybe slightly irregular (she was knowingly having an affair with a married man, after all), still points true and directs the story.

    Walter's women

    But while Toni may be the headline act, what becomes clear over the course of the film is that this is actually Stephanie’s story — she is the titular flower. It starts off as a one-note supporting role: the formidable secretary to the male lead, running not only his practice but also his life because he’s incapable of doing it himself. Asked to be embroiled in his latest love affair, she’s reluctant — that’s one part of his life she’s never been involved in; indeed, it’s an aspect of her life she’s not been involved in for a very long time. But, almost accidentally stumbling her way into it regardless, she begins to come out of her shell and realise what she really wants from life.

    That’s why it’s more Bergman’s film than Hawn’s, or anybody else’s; not only because Stephanie, as it turns out, is the title character, and not only because she goes through the biggest change, but also because Bergman plays it so well. There are obvious bold moments where we see how she’s developing, but Bergman also plots out it with subtle bits of acting along the way, and her comic timing is spot-on too. But whoever you argue is ‘better’, the film really belongs to the two women. Nothing against Matthau and the other men, who aren’t at all bad (you can see how Lenz was once earmarked as a new Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Weston pops in for a comic relief sidekick part). But the story is really about the women, how they behave and develop and change; and dictate the men’s actions, deliberately or otherwise, as pretty much anything any man does in this film is a reaction to one of the women’s actions.

    The film was adapted by I.A.L. Diamond (Billy Wilder’s regular screenwriter) from a Broadway play (by Abe Burrows) that was based on a French play (by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy), it’s difficult to say who exactly is responsible for the sparkling, funny dialogue (well, anyone who’s read the play would know where to attribute credit, I guess); but Diamond opens things up enough that, unusually, the theatrical roots are well hidden.

    4 out of 5

    Easy Rider
    (1969)

    2019 #114
    Dennis Hopper | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Easy Rider

    Perhaps the defining movie of the ’60s counterculture, this bike-based travelogue sees Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper travel across the US in search of… what? Some specific goals are mentioned, but really it seems they’re searching for something to search for; for what life they really want.

    Easy Rider is very much a movie of its time. It’s not just from 1969, it is 1969 — a loose, freewheeling, drug-fuelled (apparently Hopper and Fonda were off their faces for most of the shoot, which was significantly improvised) portrait of a lifestyle and an era. While the filmmaking qualities may have endured such that it’s still an engaging watch today, with a fresh and experimental edge that makes it kinda timeless, there’s no doubting that this is a movie wholly located at the end of the ’60s. Or, as Tarantino put it, “it captures the sixties in a way that’s tangible.”

    Parts of it almost look like a travel documentary, with montages of the scenery and places that the characters pass by. But it’s also like a documentary of attitudes: from a hippy commune, whose residents are even more invested in the radical social notions of the era than our transitory heroes, to the traditional Southern towns, where long-haired bikers are viewed with suspicion. Jack Nicholson pops in for a cameo-ish supporting role where he makes a speech about the American attitude to freedom that sums up what the film has to say quite succinctly: that talking about freedom and being free are two very different things; and those average Americans, who go on about “freedom” as one of the country’s cornerstones, see real freedom and are scared by it. At first glance Nicholson’s speech is just one rambling tangent in a film made up of them (at first I was on board with that, though I confess I ended up getting a little bored by it), but the ending makes its relevance clearer. As Tarantino realises on the spot during filming of his post-film chat, “in a weird way, the ending is actually what makes Easy Rider have a story. I don’t even know if you could say Easy Rider has a story until the ending. The ending makes what’s happened before a story.” He’s got something of a point, although I still wonder: does it actually have a story? Or is it just a hangout movie with some hippies on a road trip that forces an abrupt ending because (a) it has to end sometime, and (b) well, maybe it can kinda make a point in how it concludes.

    Born to be wild

    Still, there’s a lot to be analysed about the film’s ending, not only its retrospective effect on the rest of the movie but also what it itself is saying. Part of its power comes in its shock value, so I don’t want to give away what happens; although Tarantino reckons it’s also part of why the film was such a box office success (in an era when a high-grossing film brought in something like $12 million, Easy Rider netted over $41 million), so audiences likely knew what happened before seeing it. Certainly, “how it ends” is not the only reason to watch the film (if ever the saying “the journey is more important than the destination” was relevant, it’s here); but also, as I say, the finale comes out of the blue and surprise is part of its effect. Well, to offer a spoiler-free commentary I’ll just quote Tarantino again, who says the “nihilistic ending […] kind of promoted a new view amongst young people in America. ‘Well, you can’t win.’ It was a very nihilistic time in America when it came to thinking about the America we had grown up in, the America we had been told what America is, the apple pie image. Easy Rider kind of flies in the face of that.”

    Easy Rider is so embedded in a particular worldview that your opinion of that, and how much you embrace that lifestyle (or the romantic image of it), is liable to influence your opinion of the film itself. If these characters are the kind of people you’d enjoy hanging out with, you’ll likely enjoy hanging out with them for 90 minutes of screen time. If you despise that whole way of thinking, this movie isn’t going to convert you (you’ll be glad of the ending in more ways than one, though). For those of us somewhere in between, well, it’s an interesting experience to try out.

    4 out of 5

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
    (1969)

    2019 #117
    Paul Mazursky | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

    If Easy Rider was the freeway, here’s the free love.

    Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) are a middle-aged, middle-class couple who go on a weekend retreat that changes their perspective on the world — they come back with freer thoughts and a freer attitude. Their friends, couple Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon), are a bit bemused by their new outlook and how it seems to have changed them. And things are really thrown for six when Bob has a one night stand while on a business trip and confesses it to Carol, who not only instantly forgives him but also tells Ted and Alice, who have a more complicated reaction.

    At first glance the film looks like a character study, because it’s so centred around its eponymous quartet and their feelings about a specific set of circumstances (I’ve described almost the entire ‘plot’ above — the rest is to do with how the characters feel about it, and what they do in response). But it’s not so much a study of characters as it is of an issue, with the four characters representing four different perspectives and attitudes. And that issue is sex. Or as Alice puts it at one point, “that’s all that’s on their minds, is sex. Sex, sex, sex, and sex.” Actually, that’s a bit of a simplification, because it’s also about marriage, and what sex means relative to marriage. That’s probably what makes it interesting: it’s not about young hippies demonstrating “free love” by shagging everyone; it’s about affluent adults encountering this philosophy and seeing how it adapts to their own situation.

    Married life (before orgies)

    It’s also another film with an ending that’s open to interpretation —even more so than Easy Rider, perhaps, because it’s more ambiguous. It’s given away by some of the film’s posters: the four friends end up in bed together. “Listen, you tell me why do you think we came up here?” asks Alice. “To have fun,” replies Carol. “And what is more fun than an orgy?” What indeed. Well, possibly going to see Tony Bennett, as it turns out. Or possibly not. It looks like the four friends get to a certain point, then regret it and get dressed and go out to the concert they’d been planning to attend… but then the final sequence is dreamlike, clearly non-literal. So did they actually stop, or did they just get it on off camera? Writer-director Paul Mazursky expressed a definitive opinion later in his autobiography, so we know what he intended, but the film as-is kind of allows you to form your own opinion. Depending what you think should happen — which of the different perspectives you became aligned with — allows you to pick what does happen. Or you can just believe Mazursky and then decide whether you like the ending or not, I guess.

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is as specifically about social attitudes of 1969 as Easy Rider was, but the different here is many of those attitudes have endured. There are certain sectors of society that have moved well past the arguments being had here, but many haven’t, and you can almost imagine this self-same series of debates playing out in a modern setting (although nowadays I’d say Bob and Carol’s radical thinking is less likely to come from a weekend away at a camp and more likely to be something one of them read on the internet). Plus it’s got a quote for every occasion, though if you want one that sums up the overall philosophy of the time, perhaps Carol says it best: “It’s just nice feelings. It’s something that we’ve never done before. It’s physical fun. It’s just sex. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!”

    4 out of 5

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Review Roundup

    To promote his new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, writer-director Quentin Tarantino has curated a selection of movies from the Columbia vault (because Columbia is owned by Sony, and Sony are releasing OUaTiH) that are in various ways connected to said new movie. Some are influences on its style; some are the kinds of movies that the film’s characters would’ve appeared in; some speak to the societal concerns of the era. Along with film writer Kim Morgan, QT has hosted a “movie marathon” of his ten picks on TV, broadcast in the run-up to OUaTiH’s release in various territories (it’s on Sony-owned channels in 60 countries, and has been sold to other broadcasters in 20 more — “check local listings for details” and all that).

    It’s been on this past week in the UK, airing nightly at 11:30pm on Sony Movie Channel, finishing with a double-bill tonight. If you’ve missed it, Movies4Men are repeating the lot next week from 6:30pm. I’m away from home this weekend so will have to catch some of those repeats, but I did watch the films on earlier in the week, and here are some thoughts on the first two…

  • Model Shop (1969)
  • Getting Straight (1970)
  • (If you watched this series elsewhere and are thinking “but those weren’t the first two films,” you’re right: for no apparent reason they’ve juggled the order in the UK.)


    Model Shop
    (1969)

    2019 #106
    Jacques Demy | 97 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA & France / English

    Model Shop

    The English-language debut of French writer-director Jacques Demy, Model Shop shows us a day in the life of George (2001’s Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old whose disillusionment is ruining his life. He’s quit his job at an architect’s because it was too low-level — he wants to design the big stuff, but isn’t interested in putting in the work to get to that tier. Consequently his girlfriend is getting fed up with him, he’s in debt, and his beloved car is about to be repossessed. George manages to talk the repo man into giving him until the end of the day to find the $100 he owes, and so he sets off on a drive around L.A. to find a friend to borrow it from. That’s when he spots a mysterious glamorous woman (Anouk Aimée) and begins to follow her.

    That perhaps makes the film sound more focused than it seems in viewing. There’s a definite European sensibility in play here — a laid-back, wandering feel, as George drifts around L.A. in his car, meeting up with different friends in different situations. The possibility of the draft hangs over their heads, informing their actions. As Morgan and Tarantino discuss in their introduction, some people might view the conversations and speeches in the film as being unnecessarily ‘heavy’, but it’s more than mere existentialism when there’s a genuine life-or-death experience just an unwanted call-up away.

    The atmosphere all that creates can make the film feel aimless, but, as Tarantino puts it, “the more you talk about Model Shop, the more you realise there is more to talk about.” Even while it feels like nothing is happening, stuff is happening. It’s the kind of film where we’re accumulating knowledge about the character and his world, and sometimes it’s only with hindsight we realise its signficance. At first it may not even seem like there’s much of a story — what could pass for the inciting incident (needing to acquire $100) is actually solved relatively quickly — but there is definitely a story, even if it’s a relatively small, somewhat undramatic one. This combination is I think why Tarantino describes the film as “deceptively simple and deceptively complicated.” I suppose it depends how much you want to see; how much you want to engage.

    “Open the pod bay doors, Lola.”

    Personally, I found George to be an immensely, almost painfully relatable character. The way he doesn’t quite know what he wants to do, just what he doesn’t; the way he doesn’t want to put in the long slog, just jump to the more interesting stuff at the end; the way he drifts and kills time rather than doing anything useful; and his big speech after he’s made to consider his own death “for the first time in [his] life”: he’s not a coward, but he doesn’t want to lose his life, because what’s better than life? Only, perhaps, art that reflects it. I’m not saying I am George, exactly, but boy, there were reflections.

    I was less engaged by Anouk Aimée’s character, Lola, who, once she’s properly introduced, takes over somewhat. Turns out she’s a character from Demy’s debut feature, Lola, making this a sort of sequel — only “sort of” because, while Model Shop does continue her story, she’s not at all the focus. Apparently a lot of Demy’s films feature crossover characters and connections in this way, which I guess was also an inspiration to Tarantino.

    I’d not heard of Model Shop before it cropped up in Tarantino’s selection, and it’s not been classified by the BBFC since its original release, so I presume it’s never had a video / DVD / etc release in the UK. While I would hardly say it’s some kind of ‘lost’ masterpiece, it does evoke a place and a time and the kind of lives that may’ve lived there — which is precisely why QT showed it to his Once Upon a Time crew, for the way it depicted L.A. in 1969 (he reckons it’s possibly the best movie ever for showing Los Angeles). Some of it is interesting, but at other times it retains that sense of aimlessness. It’s far from meritless, but I can also see why it’s the kind of film that’s been half forgotten.

    3 out of 5

    Getting Straight
    (1970)

    2019 #107
    Richard Rush | 120 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Getting Straight

    According to Quentin Tarantino (I suppose I could try to independently verify this, but I haven’t), Getting Straight is one of four “campus radical” movies that were all released in 1970 (the other three are Zabriskie Point, R.P.M., and The Strawberry Statement). It stars Elliot Gould as Harry Bailey, a post-grad student at an unnamed Californian university, where he intends to qualify as a teacher, but where he’s also revered by the other students for his history of activism — even as he’s basically trying to join the establishment, they’re trying to lure him back to his old radical ways, beliefs he hasn’t left behind but doesn’t seem to wholly stand by anymore… or does he?

    So Harry is, on the surface, a potentially interesting main character: someone caught between the revolutionary youth and the establishment; who tells the youth why they’re dreaming and deluded, and tells the old men why they need to listen and buck up their ideas; but who is, therefore, conflicted about his own place in it all. But while putting someone in the middle might seem like a fair why to argue for both sides, it’s a bit obvious; allowing the film to have its cake and eat it, to an extent. And while it might seem objectively true that Harry is conflicted, evidenced by his flip-flopping from side to side, he seems pretty sure of himself for most of the film. There’s little done to explore his fence-sitting; to question his status as someone who proclaims to believe certain things yet seems to still find himself sat in the middle. Is he a hypocrite? If he is, I’m not sure the film bothers to interrogate that. So, if he isn’t, is that just because the film doesn’t want to show him as one? Perhaps we’re meant to buy that he’s the only sane person in a mad world, which seems a bit of a cliché.

    At the end Harry does ultimately pick one side, dramatically rejecting the establishment to go join rioting students. Why? He’s goaded into snapping by a professor’s smug, self-satisfied interpretation of The Great Gatsby, but if we’re meant to know why this bugs him so then I missed it. Does he reject the reading? Is it the tone of it, which is like being lectured down to? Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I didn’t really follow that as an arc. Earlier in the film Harry talks about finding a student riot sexy, a turn on, and then the movie ends with him and his girlfriend stripping off to shag literally in the middle of a riot, which does make you wonder if he was just thinking with his dick. I mean, he was for half of the rest of the film.

    Ranting and rioting

    With its focus on Harry, Getting Straight is something of a character study, and if this is anyone’s film it’s Gould’s. At times he gets a chance to expose different sides of this divided person, but he also certainly does a lot of shouting, lecturing, and ranting in the role. So maybe instead it’s about the times, with Harry basically a cipher to explore pertinent issues and different sides. It’s based on a 1967 novel, so was a relatively prompt adaptation, though to remain timely it would’ve had to be. Then again, Leonard Maltin’s movie guide apparently describes it as a “period piece”, and there’s a point there: the film is so much about that specific point in time that it couldn’t be set anytime else. Along with the slightly detached view of its main character, it doesn’t seem to be in or of the moment, like you might expect from a countercultural film made during the actual counterculture. It’s reflecting on it, like a period movie.

    Getting Straight is “one of [Quentin Tarantino’s] favourite movies ever,” or so he says, which unfortunately is a sentiment I can’t get on board with. I’m not even sure I can stretch to giving it a passing grade, because it was a bit too freewheeling and, by the end, in spite of the climactic ranting and rioting, kinda boring.

    2 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, 14th August.

    Live by Night (2016)

    2018 #113
    Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Live by Night

    Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

    I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

    Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

    They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

    Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

    Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

    3 out of 5

    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

    Review Roundup

    Even though my film viewing has slowed to barely a trickle recently (more about that on Thursday), my review backlog is still humongnormous (so I big I had to invent that new world to describe it).

    So, here’s another exceptionally random selection of quick reviews to help clear out a tiny fraction of it. They’re connected merely by being films I watched over a year ago. Three of them score 3 stars, one of them scores 4, and I suspect you won’t guess which that is…

    In today’s roundup:

  • American Assassin (2017)
  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • Yes Man (2008)


    American Assassin
    (2017)

    2018 #79
    Michael Cuesta | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Turkish & Persian | 18 / R

    American Assassin

    Based on the Mitch Rapp series of novels by Vince Flynn (and, since Flynn’s death, Kyle Mills), American Assassin is an action-thriller about a CIA operative that’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a film starring Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or anything else along those lines. Indeed, it particularly reminded me of the last-but-one Jack Ryan reboot, crossed with something altogether murderier — you’ll notice this has an uncommonly high 18 certificate. I guess that was for some torture that goes on; although it also features a very intense opening scene, depicting an attack by terrorist gunmen on tourists at a beach resort. Considering this is no more than a dumb action-thriller, one might consider it a bit much to include such a viscerally-real-feeling sequence, inspired by relatively recent real-life attack(s), just to kickstart the hero’s journey…

    The film was made for just $33 million, which is chump change in modern Hollywood, and they’ve not done badly off it. The shooting locations do seem a little limited (the main sequence in Istanbul looks more like it was shot in a London shopping precinct (which, as I found out when I checked after, it was), and the bit in Poland is moderately familiar as London too (it’s Somerset House, recognisable to UK cinephiles as where Film4 host their outdoor summer screenings); but I’ve seen worse CGI in bigger-budgeted films, and the fisticuffs are decently staged.

    Altogether, it makes for quite an entertaining action thriller, with some decent scenes, but the story is wholly familiar — Mitch Rapp: Sum of All Shadow Recruits, if you will. Fans of the genre will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they’ve not seen some of the other films it feels so similar to (though if you’re a fan of the genre I don’t see how you wouldn’t’ve), but others need not apply.

    3 out of 5

    Captain Underpants:
    The First Epic Movie

    (2017)

    2018 #91
    David Soren | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada, France, UK & India / English | U / PG

    Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Somehow I was vaguely aware of the existence of a series of books called Captain Underpants, but I’d paid them no heed because they’re for young kids, and also because they looked stupid. I thought the same thing of this movie adaptation, but then I started hearing good things about it and, well, here we are.

    It’s about two young boys who love nothing more than pranking teachers and creating superheroes. When their headteacher separates them because of the former, they manage to hypnotise him and convince him he’s the latter — the eponymous Captain Underpants. Initially that just makes their school life more fun, but then a supervillain turns up, so he’s handy for that too.

    Obviously it’s all thoroughly daft and primarily aimed at younger children — there are Messages without it being preachy, and it’s suitably irreverent and base at times. It’s the movie equivalent of mixing veg into, like, a burger, or something (I dunno, I’m not a parent. What food do you hide veg in?) But it also contains some good gags for the adults (satire!) and some clever bits of animation and stuff as well — it’s more inventive than you might expect in that regard.

    Indeed, I feel like it’s all-round better than you’d expect, given the title and overall style (the kiddie design and tone; the toilet humour)… but not so much better that it warrants 4 stars, so…

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries
    (1957)

    aka Smultronstället

    2018 #90
    Ingmar Bergman | 87 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Wild Strawberries

    “Wondrously warm, one of Bergman’s very finest achievements, and a landmark in the history of cinema,” says Geoff Andrew in the notes that accompany the UK DVD release of Wild Strawberries, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed movies from a career filled with them. However, speaking for myself, I’m still struggle to get a handle on the director’s output.

    It’s about a grumpy old professor (Victor Sjöström) who sets out on a road trip to collect an honorary doctorate. Along the way he has various encounters with other travellers, which prompt daydreams and memories that cause him to reassess his life and its worth.

    Put like that, what it’s “about” seems obvious, though in my notes I wrote “I’m not sure I have any idea what it was about. Something to do with old age and looking back and maybe death,” so how effectively its themes come across on a first viewing is, perhaps, debatable. That said, I’m fully prepared to accept I was looking in all the wrong places, maybe focusing too much on the literal road-trip storyline and not the figurative exploration-of-self the trip was provoking.

    On the bright side, there’s some effective imagery in the dream sequences, and I found it less crushingly dull or obtuse than Persona, which is something. Maybe Bergman’s just not for me? Or not for me yet? Well, I didn’t dislike it, but at the same time I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe some day I will.

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    Yes Man
    (2008)

    2018 #86
    Peyton Reed | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English & Korean | 12 / PG-13

    Yes Man

    Loosely based on Danny Wallace’s memoir of the same name, Yes Man stars Jim Carrey as a negative chap who attends a motivational seminar that encourages him to start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way.

    On the first night, he says yes to a homeless guy who wants a lift across town, then yes to letting the guy use his phone, then yes to giving him all his cash. But it turns out the drive used all his fuel, the call used all his battery, so he can’t phone for help, and he has to trek miles in the dark to buy fuel… not that he has any cash. So much for saying “yes” to everything. But at the petrol station he meets Zooey Deschanel and they hit it off. So, yeah, point made with perhaps the most outsized karmic reward ever.

    I suppose everything about Yes Man is broadly familiar — the romcom story arc; the kooky supporting characters; Jim Carrey’s schtick (it feels very much in same vein as the high-concept ’90s comedies that made his name; although there’s no fantastic element this time, and the worst excesses of his ‘act’ are thankfully limited to one or two scenes) — but it carries it off with reasonable charm. I mean, if you have no time for Carrey’s comedies, and aren’t attracted to Deschanel being a MPDG again, then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you round. For fans of such shenanigans, however, this is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It’s a 3.5-out-of-5-er, but I had a nice time with it, so my score leans on the side of generosity.

    4 out of 5

  • The Karate Kid (2010)

    2018 #72
    Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

    The Karate Kid

    For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

    This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

    So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

    Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

    From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

    Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

    As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Witness (1985)

    2018 #74
    Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Witness

    Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

    It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

    With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

    Witness protection

    Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

    The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

    Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

    4 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