BlacKkKlansman (2018)

2019 #86
Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BlacKkKlansman

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

“A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

Spot the black man

The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

Black power

I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

5 out of 5

BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

aka Zatôichi kenka-daiko

2019 #42
Kenji Misumi | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Samaritan Zatoichi

The 19th Zatoichi movie begins with our hero fulfilling some yakuza responsibilities: on the orders of a boss he’s been staying with, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is part of a group who try to collect overdue debts from a man. When he refuses to come peacefully, Ichi is forced to kill him. Only then does his sister, Osode (Yoshiko Mita), turn up, and Ichi learns what’s really going on: the debt was just a pretext for the boss to acquire Osode, who’s wanted by a local government official for, you know, the kind of thing corrupt officials want pretty young women for. Incensed, Ichi vows to protect Osode, although she’s not so keen on palling around with the guy who just murdered her brother…

As opening acts go, it’s a strong setup. Okay, it’s similar to ones the series has played before (see Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage), but it finds its difference in the character of Osode. Where most characters quickly decide Ichi is the good guy and get on his side with no regrets, Osode struggles with her grief and her feelings towards the blind swordsman, swinging back and forth between acceptance and, well, not: at one point she gives serious consideration to murdering him and then committing suicide. It feels like a bit more psychological realism than we often get, especially from characters Ichi has wronged, and it’s realised on screen with some effectively different visuals. For example, when Ichi engages in a show of skill at a fairground ball game, Osode is initially as gleefully impressed as everyone, before she comes to realise it’s these skills that allowed him to murder her brother, an event she imagines in starkly-coloured purple/green ‘flashbacks’ as she looks at Ichi with new eyes. It’s a particularly striking departure from the series’ usual grounded visual style (one echoed when Osode has red/blue ‘flash forwards’ to killing Ichi), although the whole film is very nicely shot. Of course, Osode’s ambivalence can’t go on forever: eventually she forgives Ichi and falls in love with him, because she’s only a woman and, in the world of Zatoichi, nothing is more attractive than a blind, tubby, slovenly, rice-guzzling, depressed-by-his-own-conscience, roaming mass murderer.

Grief

Lest you think Samaritan Zatoichi is one of the series’ heavy instalments, fear not, because there’s some quite broad slapstick-ish comedy in counterbalance. The first half of that ball game, for instance, is definitely played for laughs. A later sequence sees Ichi wrapped in reeds to be dumped in the river, but fate gives him a chance to get to his feet, whereupon he engages in a fight with his would-be killers, stumbling around still wrapped up — despite which he still comes out victorious, of course. Ichi also ends up with a sidekick for part of the film, Shinsuke, played by Takuya Fujioka, who was a friend of Katsu and consequently pops up in a couple of Zatoichi films. Apparently he was mainly known for comic roles, which he brings a dash of here, but Shinsuke isn’t entirely useless, nor just played for comic relief, which makes a nice change for the sidekick role.

Other memorable sequences in this instalment include one where Ichi commandeers a horse to catch up with the villains, in which he takes to riding about as well as you’d expect for a blind man (i.e. not very); a dice gambling scene where, in an about turn from every other one featured thus far, it’s Ichi who’s doing the cheating; and a final one-on-one duel that is another classic in a series absolutely filled with them (I mean, how many times in these reviews have I referred to the climactic scene as “one of the best”? It must be a pretty long list at this point.) What’s different this time is how much of a challenge it is for our hero. According to IMDb trivia, it’s the longest one-on-one duel of the series, lasting 2 minutes 14 seconds, which feels like an eternity next to the mere seconds it usually takes Ichi to defeat a solo foe. It’s set as dawn breaks on a new year, and the drums at a nearby shrine begin to pound to mark the occasion, so loudly that they impair Ichi’s senses and, therefore, abilities. The film’s original title translates as something like Zatoichi Fighting Drums, and here we see why. Combining a duel that’s more protracted than usual with a thumping score courtesy of those drums, the finale feels like an epic confrontation… even if the fight’s happening for very little motivation.

Ichi struggles

And here we reach what’s wrong with Samaritan Zatoichi: despite an initial clean and clear setup, the plot gets a bit scrappy. Much of it is driven by the yakuza boss desperately pursuing Osode to please the government blokey, but it turns out he’s actually not that bothered about her. The boss doesn’t believe that, so he wastes time continuing to pursue Osode; but no, government blokey meant it, and it winds up with him not awarding a contract to the boss. Despite that, the boss continues to pursue Osode… Just Because, I think? Or maybe we’re supposed to take it he’s really after Ichi at that point? Other contrivances occur just to keep the plot rolling, too (at one point Osode sets off without Ichi — again, Just Because — which leads to a whole heap of trouble), and I wasn’t joking when I said the final ronin has little motivation: he seems to decide to pick a fight with Ichi just for shits and giggles.

But if you don’t worry about logical character behaviour too much, there’s an awful lot to enjoy in Samaritan Zatoichi. Such niggles hold it back from being amongst the series’ very best instalments, but there’s much else to recommend it, including likeable supporting characters, great fight scenes, and various other memorable set pieces.

4 out of 5

Cotton Wool (2017)

2019 #50a
Nicholas Connor | 38 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 12A

Cotton Wool

After single mum Rachel (Leanne Best) suffers a debilitating stroke, it marks a massive change for her two kids, stroppy teenager Jennifer (Katie Quinn) and sweet seven-year-old Sam (Max Vento): with no other family and minimal support from the authorities, it’s suddenly up to the kids to care for their mum.

As a closing title card informs us, there are around 243,000 carers under the age of 19 in England and Wales alone, with 22,000 of those under the age of nine. Writer-director Nicholas Connor’s short film seeks to highlight this issue — it’s quite shocking how many young lives are affected by the need to look after other family members because there’s no one else to do it. But the short is also “inspired by their courage”, and so it strikes an optimistic tone about the power of love and the value of family, rather than spending too much time in condemnation of a system that leaves these youngsters largely unsupported.

If you watch things like the BBC’s annual Children in Need telethon, these kind of facts and situations might be familiar — it’s the kind of thing they cover in short documentaries during the evening. Connor’s film differs thanks to the advantages of fictional storytelling: rather than just informing the viewer of facts and statistics, Cotton Wool connects us to the characters and explores the subject from different angles. The new life thrust unasked upon Rachel, Jennifer, and Sam affects them each differently, and Connor uses that to find generality in specificity: rather than tell us about all 243,000 young carers and the people they look after, here are three individuals who each struggle and cope in different ways.

Simply Leanne Best

In particular, the film presents a clear but not heavy-handed difference between the behaviour of the two kids: Jennifer professes that she help around the house, but is really more concerned with escaping out with her mates, with maintaining her own life; Sam, meanwhile, does all that he can to look after his mum. It’s easy to see that Jennifer is ‘in the wrong’, but, again, the film doesn’t go out of its way to condemn her. She’s not a bad person, just conflicted. Her storyline culminates in a teary scene in bed where she talks about admiring everything her mum did for them, which is the nearest the film got to being too on-the-nose for me. Conversely, Sam’s storyline maintains a degree of understatement. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes when he has a one-to-one chat with a care worker who notices the spare paraphernalia around Sam’s room. Asked if he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, Sam instead says he wants to care for his mum.

However, the best performance of the trio comes from Best (pun not intended!) With Rachel physically debilitated after her stroke, Best is stuck with a limited range of speech and movement, but still conveys a wealth of emotion while not at any point letting the effects of her condition slip. The film has won a variety of awards at film festivals around the world, including several of Best’s performance, and it’s well deserved.

It’s a handsomely mounted production all round. I don’t watch many shorts, really, so can’t make a fair comparison, but it doesn’t look cheap or limited in the way you might expect of a low-budget short. There are some very effectively staged moments, in particular the two strokes — the first a handheld, almost scary event seen from Sam’s eye level; the second a trippy, tense nightmare. Much of the film is shot with a sort of hazy beauty by DP Alan C. McLaughlin, and the wintery Yorkshire countryside locations help emphasise the isolation of the family.

Hazy shade of winter

As a calling card for the young writer-director, it could hardly be better. At the risk of making us all despair at the state of our lives, he made this when he was just 17, but it suggests a maturity of approach beyond that. There’s a certain lightness of touch in the storytelling that doesn’t ram home the hardship of the kids’ situation or the juxtaposition of their behaviour, and he refrains from the polemicising you might expect to find in an issue-driven short by a filmmaker of any age.

I’ve avoided mentioning it thus far, but it’s hard not to make comparisons to another recent British short film about a child coping with disability-related adversity in a chilly Northern setting, The Silent Child. That, of course, won an Oscar, and I’d say Cotton Wool is at least its equal.

4 out of 5

More information about Cotton Wool can be found on the director’s website, here.

The Highwaymen (2019)

2019 #48
John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Highwaymen

There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

Men of the highway

As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidable, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

3 out of 5

The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

Sanjuro (1962)

aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô

2018 #139
Akira Kurosawa | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Sanjuro

Yojimbo was such a box office success that the studio requested a sequel. Director Akira Kurosawa obliged by reworking his next project, an adaptation of an unrelated story (Peaceful Days by Shūgorō Yamamoto), so that it featured Toshiro Mifune’s eponymous scheming samurai, Sanjuro. This follow-up came out just nine months later — and, by genuine coincidence, I happened to watch it nine months after I watched Yojimbo; and now, in a mix of tardiness and planning, I am also reviewing nine months after I reviewed Yojimbo. All of which signifies absolutely bugger all, but it happened so I’m noting it.

This time, Mifune’s anti-hero becomes involved with nine young samurai who suspect corruption among the local authorities. The youngsters are well-meaning but naive to a fault, and so Sanjuro decides to help them. That’s a real boon for them, as it turns out, because they’d all die several times over if it weren’t for him stopping them and guiding them in a better direction. As well as showing us what a smart operator Sanjuro is, it’s often quite humorous, something this film feels more inclined to than its predecessor. For instance, there are several great bits of funny business with an enemy guard they capture and stash in a closet, but who keeps being let out after he sort of converts to their side.

Sanjuro's sword

In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD of the film, Michael Sragow writes that “in the Akira Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” I’d certainly agree. It doesn’t feel as significant as Yojimbo, probably because of the lighter tone (in my review, I described the previous film as “almost mercilessly nihilistic”) and a less fiddly story. But I found it more readily enjoyable than Yojimbo. It’s got a straightforward but clever plot, plenty of funny bits that don’t undermine the rest, and some decent bursts of action. It’s also just as well-made, particularly the cinematography, which is beautifully composed and framed by DPs Fukuzô Koizumi and Takao Saitô.

The making-of documentary that accompanies Sanjuro begins with Kurosawa stating that “a truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” I can think of few better quotes to describe Sanjuro, which is a truly good movie.

5 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

aka Zatôichi hatashijô

2019 #20
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi and the Fugitives

Not to be confused with the earlier Zatoichi the Fugitive (no fear in the original Japanese, where that’s titled something like Zatoichi’s Criminal Journey and this is along the lines of Zatoichi, A Letter of Challenge), the series’ 18th instalment pits our favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman against a gang of six remorselessly violent fugitives. Along the way he shacks up with the venerable Dr. Junan and his caring daughter/assistant Oshizu (Kayo Mikimoto), and once again Ichi hopes he may’ve found a place to settle down, only for events to snatch the dream away.

That doctor is played by the great Takashi Shimura, star of Seven Samurai and Ikiru, amongst many, many other classics of Japanese cinema. He brings an effortless class to the role, which initially seems to be just an honourable and wise gentleman, but later has more to it. You see, in a thoroughly unsurprising twist, it turns out one of the fugitives — namely their leader, Genpachiro (Kyôsuke Machida) — is the doctor’s estranged son. When Genpachiro attempts to visit his father and sister, Oshizu is overjoyed to see his return, but the doctor refuses to even acknowledge his son’s presence.

As the gang’s leader and the one with the connection to Ichi’s new friends, naturally it’s Genpachiro who will prove to by Ichi’s nemesis in this film. Writing for The Digital Bits, Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan reckon he’s “one of Zatoichi’s single greatest enemies,” which is certainly a bold claim. They have something of a point, given his intelligence — an early encounter makes him aware of how skilled Ichi is with a sword, so he keeps stopping his hot-headed underlings from tackling Ichi head on — but I didn’t think he was as memorable an individual as several other foes have been.

Zatoichi and the doctor

The fugitives as a group do provide quite the challenge for Ichi, however, almost defeating him at one point. Naturally, our hero comes out on top in the end: spurred by righteous anger, his final-act slaughter is even more brutally efficient than normal. Having been shot and nearly killed in his first attempt at a climactic showdown, Ichi ain’t messing around the second time. Well, they have it coming. They’re a vicious lot, happily slaughtering innocents on practically anyone’s say-so, at one point even coming this close to murdering a baby. Indeed, this is quite a tonally dark instalment of the series. It’s certainly not the only one by this point — it may not even be the darkest, in fact — but it’s still not very cheery, with little of the humour we’re accustomed to from our hero. Even the final defeat of the villains is tinged with sadness. At one point he gets very introspective, as Oshizu asks him about his blindness: “At first I remembered all the colours — green, red, and so forth. I told myself I had to remember them and tried hard not to forget. But they gradually faded away. All that’s left now is darkness.”

Ichi could just as well be talking about his lifestyle, as once again he struggles with being a gangster. When a bunch of yakuza turn up at the doctor’s to pay their respects to Ichi (his reputation having preceded him once again), the truth of his position is exposed to his new potential-family, much to his shame. Again, it’s a point of conflict for the good doctor: he doesn’t like criminals, as we see with his attitude to his own son, but he’s also seen what a kind-hearted fellow Ichi really is. And if Ichi going on an emotional rollercoaster wasn’t bad enough, he’s put through the ringer physically too — I mean, he gets shot, then digs the bullet out by himself with his sword, lest you were in any doubt of his credentials as a badass. And if that doesn’t convinced you, multiple displays of his skill with a blade should.

Bloody Ichi

One of those demonstrations has led to cuts by the BBFC for the UK release. Yes, Criterion have finally bothered to get the films classified — I’ll write a bit more about that when it comes relevant again on a future film, but for now we’re concerned with the four seconds they’ve cut from Fugitives. At one point a snake drops on Ichi and he slices it in half, after which we see the bisected creature writhing on the ground. I guess they did it with a real snake, or real enough to the BBFC’s eyes, because that shot has been cut for animal cruelty. I know some people object on principle to the BBFC censoring anything, but I can’t say cutting that kind of thing bothers me much (though, as I have the US set, I’ve already seen it).

To quote Hunt and Doogan again, they reckon that “if this series were to be compacted into a trilogy, this would be at the tail-end of part two. In other words, this is Ichi’s Empire Strikes Back. No hyperbole”. Eh, I think there might be a bit of hyperbole there. It’s just coincidence that this instalment falls at the two-thirds point of the series (more or less), and I don’t even think it’s the darkest film there’s been — for what it lacks in humour, it has a lot of kindness in Ichi’s relationship with the doctor and his daughter, and some redemption for one of the gang members. Rather than comparing it to the consensus-greatest film of another series, I’m more inclined to Paghat the Ratgirl’s point of view: “After nineteen [sic] feature films, this story is entirely familiar. But great even so.” Zatoichi and the Fugitives is not one of my favourites in the series, but it is a good mid-tier one.

4 out of 5

Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5