Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

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aka Zatôichi nidan-giri

2018 #135
Akira Inoue | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Revenge

In the series’ tenth instalment, our favourite blind masseur-cum-master swordsman, Zatoichi, arrives back at the village where he was trained as a masseur, and decides to pop in to see his old sensei, Hikonoichi. Much to his dismay, Ichi discovers that Hikonoichi was slain by an unknown murderer some months ago, and his daughter has been sold into prostitution to repay his debts. She’s not the only one, though: the local gang boss has basically tricked everyone he can into giving their daughters to his brothel, mainly so the corrupt magistrate has a supply of virgins to deflower. It’ll come as a surprise to no one that they had a hand in Hikonoichi’s murder too. Naturally, Ichi is not impressed by any of this, and his revenge is twofold: for his old master they callously murdered, and for what they’ve tried to do to his daughter since.

Said revenge is more than the series’ usual slashathon, though that does come in the end. First, though, Ichi methodically and coldly humiliates the cowardly villains, which is no less than they deserve. When they manage to give Ichi the slip and put their army of goons in front of him, he kills as many as he must to get back to the bosses. Then, he escorts the villainous pair in front of their victims… before wordlessly cutting them down. Revenge indeed.

Caged girl

As all the above should make clear, it’s a very dark film thematically. There’s some of the usual comedy sprinkled in now and then, almost as a respite from the seriousness of the main plot. Ichi gets up to some of his other regular antics as well, such as exposing a cheating dice game. This one’s a bit different, however, as he’s already befriended the dice roller, Denroku “the Weasel”. It’s a nice twist on the usual format to have Ichi being chummy with the guy he’d usually expose, and Denroku has a bigger role to play than just that, almost becoming Ichi’s sidekick at times. He’s just one of a strong supporting cast, another standout of which is Denroku’s cheery young daughter, Otsuru, one of the few people who gets one over on Ichi (however briefly).

Director Akira Inoue makes his series debut (it’s the only one he did, though he later helmed six episodes of the TV series), and he makes a mark. It’s a classily directed instalment, but with some visual exuberance (overexposed-looking flashbacks; wild handheld camerawork when a good inspector searches the bad magistrate’s office), as well as some other scenes that are more simply but nicely staged (like when Ichi and Otsuru are suddenly attacked from behind and Ichi cuts down the assailant without even looking).

A dicey situation

Revenge isn’t perfect: there’s a “seen it all before” aspect to Ichi being surrounded by dozens of faceless goons who he proceeds to slaughter while trying to get to his real target, not to mention the series’ other repeated scenes and plot points. This aspect hasn’t gone unnoticed by other reviewers: J. Doyle Willis at DVD Talk accuses it of having “dips where the formula is a bit too tired and predictable”, though notes that “the obviousness of similarity/repetition strikes you more if, like me, you were watching the films back to back.” Paghat the Ratgirl puts it thus: “we have to decide if on the given day it all seems like the same Ichi film we’ve already seen time & again, or if every variation of the same story isn’t as satisfying as any other sort of ritual event.” Ritual event is quite a good way of describing it, I think. Remember, these films were made in an era before home video, so you couldn’t just watch the previous ones again on DVD. Therefore I would guess it’s probably quite deliberate that it repeats some of the same tropes and scenes — it’s a conscious “you know what you’re getting” device. Other series, like Bond, do the same thing. It’s part of the joy for fans to tick off the expected elements.

(Incidentally, for some reason this particular film seems to have inspired some particularly good writing about the series as a whole (perhaps because it’s the tenth movie). The pieces from Weird Wild Realm and Quiet Bubble are worth a read for their general view of the whole series as much as for their opinions on this particular instalment.)

A dish best served cold

Repetitious or not, there’s a lot of really great stuff in Zatoichi’s Revenge to mark it out as another superb entry in the series. I feel like I say something along those lines in almost every review, but the series is on a real winning streak at this point — by example: I’ve placed the last five films from #2 to #6 on my running ranking (with the first film seemingly unassailable as the series’ best). Long may it continue… though if Letterboxd users’ rankings are anything to go by, the next film is where the bubble bursts.

4 out of 5

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Rocky III (1982)

2018 #138
Sylvester Stallone | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky III

It’s the
eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watchin’ us all with the eeeeyyyyeeee…

of the tiger.

Sorry, got swept up in the moment there!

Yes, this is the Rocky movie where that song, so associated with the franchise, finally makes its appearance. It’s also where the sequels are believed to start going down hill (assuming you rate Rocky II, anyway), though Stallone himself was once asked to score the films and gave this 9 out of 10. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I liked it.

Picking up on Rocky II’s cue, this film also begins where the last one left off — in this case, that’s with Rocky just about beating Apollo Creed in their rematch. We’re then led through the next few years of Rocky’s life via an excellent five-minute montage, which shows his continued success and massive fame, and, simultaneously, the rise of Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T) through the boxing ranks, with one goal: beating Balboa. All of that’s conveyed with just images soundtracked to Eye of the Tiger. It’s a great bit of filmmaking — conveying story economically and clearly through pure imagery — a level of artistry and accomplishment you don’t expect to encounter in the third movie in a boxing franchise.

Rocky and Apollo training

So, after all that success, Rocky is set to retire, until Lang goads him into one more bout. What Rocky doesn’t know is that his trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has been protecting him, only arranging soft fights he thinks Rocky can win; but Lang is a real force, one Mickey doesn’t think Rocky is up to fighting. Determined to prove his worth in the ring, Rocky goes ahead anyway, but, with distractions from his personal life weighing down, he loses badly. A rematch seems off the cards, until an offer of help comes from an unlikely source: Rocky’s erstwhile nemesis, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Rocky III is much more action orientated than the first two films. Those were almost social dramas that happen to be about someone who boxes, while this is a sports movie through and through. Stallone once confessed he’d run out of ideas after the first two films, which is why this and Rocky IV focus so much on the fights and training. It’s odd he should say that, because there’s definitely something here about how fame has changed Rocky’s life. It’s more something that’s alluded to rather than being examined by the story — used as background and ‘dressing’ rather than being central to the narrative — but it suggests that, if Stallone had really wanted to add a different dimension to the film, there was a storyline staring him in the face.

It feels appropriate that this was the first Rocky released in the ’80s: our down-and-out coulda-been-a-contender hero is now rich, dressing smart, living in a big house with a nice lifestyle. The whole thing feels like it’s left behind gritty realism for slick aspirational success. But it’s not a completely empty experience, generating emotional attachment from Rocky’s relationships — not only with his wife and young son, but also Mickey and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Apollo Creed. Plus the action and montages are slick and exciting, making this perhaps the most adrenally satisfying of the series to date.

Taking a Clubbering

It’s also quite smart to reposition Rocky as an underdog, make him need his hunger again — there’s not much satisfaction in watching the story of how the best in the world beats someone who isn’t the best! Our hero needs to be challenged, and the film definitely gives him that. That’s the same as the preceding movies, but what’s different here is that it’s a purely sporting challenge, rather than a life one. There are developments in Rocky’s personal life that have a big effect on him, sure, but they’re intrinsically tied to the sporting aspect.

If the first two films are a mirror image of each other, this is something different. It lacks the grit or depth of those two, but still entertains, albeit in a somewhat more superficial way. Giving it a title-mirroring three stars feels a bit harsh, because I did rather enjoy it, but its straightforward focus on the action in the ring means it’s not on the same level as the first two. That said, I’d wager it’s the most effortlessly rewatchable Rocky so far.

3 out of 5

“Christmas in July” Review Roundup

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

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

In today’s roundup:

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


    Elf
    (2003)

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

    Elf

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

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

    Scrooged

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

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

    It's a Wonderful Life

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

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

  • Manchester by the Sea (2016)

    2017 #134
    Kenneth Lonergan | 137 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Manchester by the Sea

    One of the frontrunners of the 2016-17 awards season, Manchester by the Sea centres around Lee (Casey Affleck), a taciturn sort who’s called back to the eponymous hometown (which he’d left behind for reasons that are initially kept a mystery to us viewers) when his brother dies, naming Lee as the guardian of his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). As Lee attempts to figure out his new role, he’s plagued by the memories and emotions from why he left Manchester in the first place.

    Manchester by the Sea is not a plot-driven movie. Even the mystery I alluded to above doesn’t play by ‘the rules’, with the answers being revealed about halfway through rather than near the end. There’s still a story, obviously (see above), but it’s more of a character study about people coping with grief — not in the wailing, all-consuming way you might typically associate with grief being depicted on screen, but in a more subdued, naturalistic manner. In harmony with that, there’s an element to it which is, not irreverent, but certainly mundane — like making calls to funeral directors over breakfast, for instance — and scattered with darkly comic realities, like paramedics struggling to get a bed into an ambulance. Indeed, for a film about such grim subjects, it’s surprisingly funny. But, as I’ve said in many reviews before, that’s life: the world is still funny, and we often still laugh, even when tragedy is all around.

    Funereal

    Given all that, it’s not surprising it was Casey Affleck’s performance that attracted most attention and won most of the awards. That’s not undeserved — he’s the core of the film, and it’s a powerful but understated performance — but Lucas Hedges is also brilliant in a part that could’ve been given short shrift. In fairness, if we’re talking about awards, he got plenty of nominations too. So too Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. She’s not bad, but her awards recognition is all really for that one scene — you know, the one they always played as the film’s clip, and that’s alluded to on the poster. Indeed, it’s interesting how prominent she is in the marketing — her role is central to the state Lee’s in, but the actress herself isn’t on screen very much. Her absence is more felt than her presence, even.

    It’s understandable that one scene became such a focus — it’s a powerful moment of great importance to the characters (and, more cynically, is virtually the only major sequence with the two name lead actors). In some respects, however, I think the film’s most powerful moment comes at the other end of the film’s timeline: when we learn about what happened in the past, it ends with ‘the morning after’, when Lee faces what he has done and looks for the punishment he feels he deserves; instead he finds only understanding, so he attempts to punish himself. (This scene also got a fair bit of awards play, but lacked context. Or perhaps that was just me? I didn’t really get what was going on until i saw it in the film proper.) That’s a key part of what’s going on with his character, I think: he hasn’t just been trying to escape what happened, he’s also punishing himself. Other people aren’t always so understanding — some do judge him; one person quietly refuses to employ him, presumably because of what happened — but no one judges him as harshly as he judges himself.

    The Scene

    An aspect I don’t recall being remarked upon much was the cinematography, but I thought it was a surprisingly good-looking film. DP Jody Lee Lipes’ work here isn’t flashy, maintaining the understated and naturalistic tone of the entire movie, but it’s very crisp, befitting both the freezing cold weather and raw emotions. On the other hand, if I had one criticism to level it might be that the film’s too long. Its events and emotions unfold at a measured pace, which is fine, but some of what we see is less necessary than the film seems to think it is (for one example, the opening sequence, where we watch Lee as he does various day-to-day janitorial jobs, feels like it goes on for ages and contributes little).

    But I’m nitpicking at this point, really. Manchester by the Sea derives itself from such everyday moments, accumulating them into a subtle, realistic, quietly powerful character portrait.

    5 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name (2017)

    2018 #80
    Luca Guadagnino | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy, France, Brazil & USA / English, Italian, French, German & Hebrew | 15 / R

    Call Me by Your Name

    Call Me by Your Name was the lowest grossing film among 2017’s Oscar Best Picture nominees, but it felt like it was one of the most talked about films on the ballot — though, being part of a list that also includes Get Out and “the fish sex movie”, obviously there’s stiff competition.

    Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, it centres around 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a pair of well-to-do intellectuals (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who spends his days lazing around their countryside villa — reading books, noodling about on the piano, and flirting with the local girls — and his evenings chasing skirt. He’s smart and talented, but still young and developing. Into his life comes Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student who’s to be his professor father’s annual research assistant. Initially Elio is standoffish around the free-spirited Oliver, and yet seems fascinated by him. As they begin to spend more time together, a mutual attraction tentatively develops into a passionate love affair, a new experience for them both.

    Sorry to rush you through the plot like that, but the gay romance between Elio and Oliver is what the film’s, y’know, about. It’s an effective and truthful depiction of young love — falteringly, unassured, but driven by powerful emotions and burning lust. Although Oliver initially seems hyper-confident, as he opens up to Elio it becomes clear that this is new for him too, and of course Elio’s only young, inexperienced even with girls at the film’s start, so of course love is a new thing to him. So, in some respects it doesn’t matter that the film’s about a gay relationship — the feeling it conjures of young love is universal. Of course, there are many reasons why it matters immensely that it’s about a gay relationship, but those concerns are largely external to the film itself. They intrude only in the sense that Elio and Oliver keep their affair a secret, though given Elio’s bohemian-ish family, he eventually finds more support than he might’ve expected.

    Flesh

    It’s not all sweetness and uncertainty, mind. I used the word “lust” for a reason: there’s some fairly sexually explicit stuff, so be warned if you’re of a sensitive disposition, or are particularly fond of peaches. Well, I say that — if you’re really fond of peaches, this will be your new favourite film. It’s not Stranger by the Lake graphic, despite what screenwriter James Ivory had in mind (i.e. there’s no explicit male nudity; Elio’s girlfriend gets her kit off though, which could spark a whole other debate about gender equality), but there’s still no doubting what the young couple get up to.

    Talking of which, there was apparently some controversy about Elio and Oliver’s ages in regards to their relationship — Elio, as I said, is 17, and Oliver is 24. Some Americans seem to have a monomaniacal obsession with the age of consent being 18, which they then apply universally. I mean, it’s not even close to universal in the US (it’s 16 in 31 states and 18 in only 11), never mind worldwide. So, some people apparently have a major problem with that age difference between Elio and Oliver, whereas others won’t even think about it. For what it’s worth, the age of consent in Italy is 14 — imagine the reaction if they’d made Elio that young! For another perspective, in the UK in 1983 the age of consent for heterosexual couples was 16, but for gay people it was 21 — so, what, if this was set in the UK and Elio was female it would be okay, but because he’s male we’d have to be appalled? I guess my point is: think this shit through, and stop being “outraged” that people under the legal age of consent have romantic and sexual feelings.

    Pining

    But I guess there are fans of the film who’d know all about that, considering pretty young Timothée Chalamet has apparently become a favourite of the Tumblr crowd (who I’m basically assuming are all kids, which I’m sure is unfair). He’s not just young and beautiful though, but an extraordinarily competent actor too, all unearned confidence undercut by youthful vulnerability. His Oscar nomination was deserved. Armie Hammer went overlooked, but he gives a more nuanced performance than you might expect. From the supporting cast, the reliably excellent Michael Stuhlbarg stands out. Initially just an amiable dad, the film gradually peels back the layers to reveal what a fantastic father he is, including one heart-to-heart scene that alone (and even more than Hammer) should’ve seen him scooping awards.

    The film was also overlooked in the cinematography category, which is a shame too. Shot on 35mm with a single lens by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, it ably recreates the hazy feel of a long-ago summer. That sensation extends across Guadagnino’s direction, the gentle pacing reminiscent of a time when six weeks was forever, when the world was full of possibilities and there was time enough to explore them all and still have some left over.

    Call Me by Your Name manages to resolve a striking array of contrasts — it’s both universal and specific, nostalgic and timely, powerful and gentle. The sum is a beautiful film in most every respect.

    5 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

    Perfect Sense (2011)

    2017 #131
    David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

    Perfect Sense

    It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

    Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

    Life goes on...

    It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

    Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

    ...until it doesn't.

    So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

    As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

    4 out of 5

    * Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

    Rocky II (1979)

    2018 #131
    Sylvester Stallone | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Rocky II

    This first sequel could fairly have been titled Rocky Part II: picking up where the first film left off (literally — the first six minutes are just a replay of Rocky’s final fight), it goes on to detail what happens next for both Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and his world-champion opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). For the former, his childlike naïveté and heart of gold sees him carelessly burn through his newfound wealth as he tries to give the love of his life (Talia Shire) everything he thinks she wants. For the latter, it means an ongoing niggle that he didn’t really win the fight, so he tries to goad Rocky into a rematch.

    Like the first movie, a lot of Rocky II is more of a character-based drama than a sport-driven movie, this time about someone who had a taste of the big time struggling to re-adapt to normal life. It’s not that Rocky’s ego has outgrown his means — he doesn’t seem to mind going back to working menial jobs when the money runs out — but his overestimation of his success means that he does indeed find himself in that position. It’s not bad a bad film as a dramatic work — it’s got the same writer as the first movie, after all, here also stepping up to direct (and did you know he wrote a novelisation too?) — but we know where it’s all headed, and so the second half is better than the first.

    Run, Rocky, run!

    Again, Stallone doesn’t lose sight of keeping events moderately grounded: Rocky struggles to focus on his training regime, and it begins to look like Creed may be right that his success in their first bout was all fluke. Of course, this is as much an underdog fairytale as the first movie was, and so events transpire to finally give Rocky his motivation, culminating in a triumphant revisit to the first film’s famous running-up-the-steps bit. The finale is, naturally, the big boxing rematch, where Stallone really shows off his directing chops: it’s a tense, drag-out duel that easily exceeds the first film’s for visceral impact.

    On the whole, I wouldn’t say Rocky II is better than its predecessor — indeed, maybe it’s not quite as good — but I enjoyed it about the same; maybe even slightly more by the end. The Rocky sequels have a collectively poor rep, but I think this is a worthy follow-up.

    4 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of the latest Rocky sequel, Creed, is on ITV tonight at 9:30pm.

    Victoria & Abdul (2017)

    2018 #52
    Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

    Victoria & Abdul

    Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

    Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

    Turns out we are very much amused

    Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

    I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

    3 out of 5

    Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Yojimbo (1961)

    aka Yôjinbô

    2017 #126
    Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

    Yojimbo

    Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

    In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

    Observing the conflict

    Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

    Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

    5 out of 5

    Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Almost Oscar-Worthy Review Roundup

    Each of these films was nominated for multiple Oscars… but failed to win a single one.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Big (1988) — nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Screenplay.
  • Frost/Nixon (2008) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.
  • Lion (2016) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.


    Big
    (1988)

    2017 #91
    Penny Marshall | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Big

    Big is one of those strange gaps in my viewing — the kind of film I feel I should’ve seen when I was a kid in the early ’90s but didn’t.

    Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s the one where a 12-year-old boy makes a wish and ends up as an adult, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than solve this problem in a day or two, he ends up moving to the city, getting a job, an apartment, a relationship, and all that grown-up stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t expect that level of scale from a movie like this. Generally there’s some hijinks around “kid in an adult’s body” and it’s all solved in a day or two, but the length of time the kid’s predicament rolls on for allows the movie to tap into more than that. I mean, it’s still a funny movie, but it’s got a message about how it’s important to remember the childlike spirit, but also that it’s OK to be at whatever stage in life you’re at — don’t rush it.

    Plus the whole thing has a kind of sweet innocence that you rarely see in movies nowadays. We’re all too cynical, too concerned with realism (even in fantasy movies). If you made it today, it’d ether have to be sexed/toughened up for a PG-13, or kiddified (and likely animated) for a G. That said, that the 12-year-old boy in a man’s body is happy to sleep with the hot woman, apparently without it bothering his conscience one iota, is by far the most realistic thing about this movie.

    4 out of 5

    * The UK PG version is cut by two seconds to remove an F word. The cut is really obvious, too — was there not a TV version with an ADR’d non-swear? Anyway, it was classified uncut as a 12 in 2008, though that’s not the version they show on TV, clearly. ^

    Frost/Nixon
    (2008)

    2017 #136
    Ron Howard | 117 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Frost/Nixon

    Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play about the famous interviews between David Frost and President Richard Nixon (the ones where he said “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) transfers to the big screen with its two lead cast members intact (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) and Ron Howard at the helm.

    As a film, it almost embodies every pro and con that’s ever been aimed at Howard’s directing: it’s classy and thoughtful, in the way you’d expect from a director who’s helmed eleven Oscar-nominated movies* and won two himself; but it also, for example, employs an odd framing device of having the supporting cast be interviewed as if for a documentary, which exists solely as an on-the-nose way of integrating direct-to-audience narration from the original play — my point being, it’s a bit straightforward and workmanlike.

    Still, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Sheen and Langella giving first-rate performances (the latter got an Oscar nomination, the former didn’t, I reckon only because Americans aren’t as familiar with David Frost as us Brits are — his embodiment of the man is spot-on), and doing so in a story that’s inherently compelling (even if somewhat embellished from reality — but hey, that’s the movies!), what more do you need?

    4 out of 5

    * Many of those only in technical categories, but hey, an Oscar nom is an Oscar nom. ^

    Lion
    (2016)

    2017 #103
    Garth Davis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Australia & USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | PG / PG-13

    Lion

    Slumdog Millionaire meets Google product placement in this film, which is remarkably based on a true story — or based on a remarkable true story, if you want to be kinder. It’s the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his family, ends up in an orphanage, and is adopted by Australian parents. As an adult (played by Dev Patel), he resolves to find his birthplace and family — using Google Earth.

    If it was fiction then it’d be too fantastic to believe, but because it’s true it packs a strong emotional weight, not least Saroo’s relationship with is adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The star of the show, however, is Dev Patel. You may remember there was controversy about him being put up for Supporting Actor awards, deemed “category fraud” by some because Saroo is the lead role. Conversely, he shares it with young Sunny Pawar, and Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film. Well, the “category fraud” people are more on the money, and it’s testament to Patel’s performance that it doesn’t feel like he’s only in half the film. Pawar is great — both plausible and sweetly likeable — but while watching I didn’t realise the movie had a near 50/50 split between young and adult Saroo. Maybe this means the first half is pacier, but its not that the second part feels slow, more that Patel has to carry greater emotional weight.

    Mother and son

    Rooney Mara is also in the film, as adult Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character is in fact based on multiple real-life girlfriends, but it makes sense to consolidate them into one character for the sake of an emotional throughline. However, her storyline ultimately goes nowhere — it ends with Saroo asking her to “wait for me”. Did she? Did he go back to her? It’s not the point of the film — that’s about him finding his family, and after that emotional climax you don’t really want an epilogue about whether he gets back with his girlfriend or not — but it still feels like it’s left hanging. I suppose it isn’t — I guess we’re meant to presume she does wait for him and they get together when he returns and live happily ever after — but it doesn’t feel resolved. It shouldn’t matter — as I say, it’s not the point — but, because of that, it does.

    So it’s not a perfect movie, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to make up for it.

    4 out of 5