The Karate Kid (2010)

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

The Karate Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5

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Witness (1985)

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

Witness

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

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

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

Witness protection

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

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

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

4 out of 5

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

2019 #80
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

No, this isn’t a film about a samurai at a ‘luxury’ music festival (and that’s the extent of Fyre references you’ll get here, because I’ve not watched either documentary and don’t really know much about it). Rather, this 21st entry in the long-running Zatoichi series (once released on UK DVD as Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, and also known by sundry other variations of those words) sees the eponymous blind masseur-cum-swordsman clash with evil underworld boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori). This boss is as blind as Ichi, which he initially uses to claim a kinship with our hero, but then Yamikubo engages in a series of schemes to kill our hero. Meanwhile, a nameless ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) stalks Ichi too, intending to kill him for an imagined slight.

More or less business as usual for a Zatoichi adventure, then. The blindness of the villain should really add an extra frisson of something — it’s a clear parallel with our hero, after all — but I’m not sure it does, in actuality. More striking is that Fire Festival is pretty sex obsessed. Sex has been a factor of Zatoichi films before, but I’m not sure any other is as consumed by it as this one. It starts with a mistress auction and teases of nudity; the mystery ronin’s quest is to kill everyone who slept with his wife, which he thinks includes Ichi; the major set-piece is a fight in a bathhouse between Ichi and an army of assassins, all of whom are stark naked; Ichi spends an evening with five prostitutes; the villains decide the best way to kill our hero is with a honey trap (who winds up genuinely falling for Ichi, of course); there’s the roadhouse owners we randomly come across, who are casually perverse… and that’s all before the one-hour mark. Though if you’re expecting to see flashes of flesh, the nude scenes feature almost Austin Powers-level endeavours to make sure nothing explicit is shown.

A sweet transvestite?

There’s also an androgynous fellow called Umeji, who’s played be Peter, aka Pītā, aka Shinnosuke Ikehata — to quote his Wikipedia page, “one of Japan’s most famous gay entertainers, Peter’s androgynous appearance has enabled him to often play transvestite characters and he often appears on stage in women’s clothing.” He first gained attention the year before, as the lead in Funeral Parade of Roses, and later would have a supporting role in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Here he’s the pimp of those aforementioned five prostitutes, part of an attempt to prove he’s a “real man”. That doesn’t really work out, so his next attempt is to try seducing Ichi. It’s a startling, unexpected sequence in a genre film of this era, especially as he seems to get quite far — I mean, they end up under a bedsheet where we can’t see exactly what’s going on… until a knife slips out, anyway, with which Umeji was trying to kill Ichi. Naturally Ichi’s not impressed by that murder attempt, although he has nothing to say about the apparent homosexuality.

Peter isn’t the only noteworthy face here. Easily missed by Western audiences are Utae and Reiji Shoji as that roadhouse couple I mentioned — apparently they came from family of famous comedians, which perhaps explains all the screen time they’re given. More recognisable is Nakadai, who would also later star in Ran, and also appeared in Yojimbo and The Human Condition trilogy, amongst many more. One of those others is another samurai movie, The Sword of Doom, in which he reportedly plays a very similar character to his role here — I’ve not seen it so can’t vouch for that myself, but many other reviews cite the comparison. Depending which of those you listen to, he’s either “comically bad” (DVD Talk) or “puts in a stellar performance” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises). His character is a bit of an odd one — his motivation is thin and decisions border on nonsensical — but Nakadai brings immense presence to the role nonetheless.

Is that a katana or are you just happy to see me?

Mind, most of the rest of the film’s plot is similarly confounding. It starts with a title sequence in which Ichi tries to run away from a little barking dog, ends with an out-of-nowhere scene where Ichi turns down a horse ride, and in between is almost as odd and randomly constructed as those two extremes. And yet it does tick most of the regular Zatoichi boxes, especially in terms of the action scenes. They’re as slickly choreographed and staged as ever, continuing to come up with fresh ideas even after all these movies. The nude bathhouse fight is the obvious standout, but there’s also a finale where Ichi faces down an army and a cunning foe with a hostage, but has a trick up his sleeve… literally! (Ho ho ho.)

If you’re wondering where the titular festival has got to in all this, well, it never really turns up. The climax does begin with Ichi stranded in the middle of a lake that’s then set alight, but that’s not really a “fire festival”, is it? But it is a visually arresting sequence, just one of several throughout the film. This is the last contribution to the Zatoichi films from director Kenji Misumi, who directed the first and would end up tied for the title of the series’ most prolific director; and also for cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot six of the films for various directors; and they both go out on a visual high with their work here. (I don’t like to over-clutter my reviews with pictures, so here are just a few additional memorable shots I grabbed. And this is really in a class of its own for images that evoke a sense of smell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The film’s story, as I said, is less commendable. Altogether, it makes for a movie that I wouldn’t rank among the Zatoichi series’ finest achievements, but nonetheless has its share of entertainment value for fans.

4 out of 5

Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

2019 #60
Kihachi Okamoto | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Having released anything up to four films a year for seven years, the Zatoichi series took 1969 off (apparently producer/star Shintaro Katsu had some other projects to focus on). But when it returned in 1970 it was with a big gun: as the title indicates, the main guest star for this film is the lead character from Akira Kurosawa’s films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, played by the great Toshiro Mifune. I don’t know if that was a deliberate move to mark the series’ 20th movie or if they weren’t even conscious of the milestone, but it certainly feels like it was meant to be a special occasion. “Meant to be” being the operative part of that sentence, because the result is sadly one of the least enjoyable entries in the series so far.

The film sees Ichi (Katsu) return to his hometown, which has rather gone to the dogs thanks to a local yakuza gang. Never one to just stand back or move along, Ichi ends up embroiled in the arguments between a powerful merchant (Osamu Takizawa) and his two wayward sons, one a yakuza boss (Masakane Yonekura), the other an employee of the government mint (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), who’s up to some kind of shenanigans with the gold that drives the plot… I think. Mifune’s character factors into all this as a ronin who’s been hired by the yakuza son to protect him, or kill his father, or something along those lines.

As you may have gathered, the plot here is by turns confusing and dull — one of those that loses you so thoroughly you just want to give up on trying to work it out. It has something to do with the people who make gold coins making them less well, and a hidden bar of gold that has something to do with that somehow, and a bunch of spies and stuff who are all looking for the gold bar, and some kind of feud or rivalry or disagreement between the local yakuza and Takizawa’s businessman, which may or may not have nothing to do with all the gold stuff… I think. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film with an underwhelming or unintelligible plot, but it tells it with so little verve, and with so few entertaining distractions (there’s not much action, and even less humour), that there’s nothing to make up for it.

Katsu vs Mifune

And to add insult to injury, the titular concept of the movie is a bait and switch: Mifune is not actually playing the character from Kurosawa’s films. “Yojimbo” means “bodyguard”, so it’s not like, say, casting Sean Connery in a film and calling it Meets James Bond only to have him play some unrelated character, but the promise of the title is clear and unfulfilled. It’s not like Mifune is playing an off-brand knock-off, either: he happens to be fulfilling the same job as bodyguard so that everyone can keep calling him yojimbo, but his actual name is Taisaku Sasa (not Sanjuro, as in Kurosawa’s films) and his character is nothing like his role in Kurosawa’s films (he doesn’t even look the same!) Seeing Zatoichi go head-to-head with the ‘real’ Yojimbo, with all his cunning scheming, could’ve been great. Instead, while Sasa is still a skilled swordsman, he’s a bit pathetic — lovelorn and, it would seem, not actually very good at his real job (which, as it turns out, is spying). Some of the scenes between Katsu and Mifune are good, at least. Not all of them, but some is better than none, I suppose. Ultimately, however, it’s one of the biggest disappointments in a film filled with them.

There’s plenty to be filled, too, because this is by far the longest of the original Zatoichi films: the others average 87 minutes apiece, making Meets Yojimbo a full half-hour longer than normal, and almost 20 minutes longer than even the next longest. There’s quite an extensive supporting cast, bringing with them all the varied subplots that having so many characters entails. Whether that’s what produced the extended running time, or whether an extended running time was desired so they shoved all those extra people in, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, because either way the result is a jumble that I don’t think was a good idea. Few of them have an opportunity to leave a mark — there’s too much going on, and we’re all here for Mifune and Katsu anyway.

Something I could have learned...

Eventually the story comes down to a simple, familiar message: “greed is bad”. The much-desired gold bar turns out to be hidden as gold dust, which ends up blowing away in the wind. It’s almost fitting and symbolic… except it only happens once most of the cast are dead or past it anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily symbolise much. I mean, there’s hardly anyone left to notice it happen. And it’s followed by a final scene that, like most of the rest of the plot, left me slightly confused. The town blacksmith tells yojimbo that Ichi isn’t motivated by gold… then we see Ichi realise his pouch of gold dust has been cut and emptied, so he scrabbles around in the dirt searching for the rest (which has blown away), when Mifune joins him. “You too?” “Just like you,” they say. And then they go their separate ways. So… they are motivated by gold? Or… they’re not, because it’s gone and they… aren’t? I don’t know if I’m being dim, or if the film bungled its own message, or if it just doesn’t have anything to say. It could be no deeper than a straight-up samurai adventure movie, of course. It would be better if it were.

This is the only Zatoichi film for director Kihachi Okamoto, who apparently was a prestige hire. I don’t think he did a particularly good job, to be honest. There’s the muddled plot, as discussed, which unfurls at a slow pace. The action scenes, often such a highlight, aren’t particularly well shot. It’s visually a very dark film, which kinda matches the grim tone, but is arguably taken too far. As Walter Biggins puts it at Quiet Bubble, “murk dominates. People wears blacks and browns. Eyes are cold, haunted, even in daytime[…] Even supposedly well-lit interiors look like homages to Rembrandt. This is a world half-glimpsed, that we squint at”. It was shot by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who worked on numerous Japanese classics and several other Zatoichi movies — I praised his work on Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, for example. It’s not that what he’s done here is bad per se — there are certainly some nice individual shots, particularly around the climax — but, well, there were clearly some choices made about lighting and the colour palette.

Windswept

I knew going in that Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a particularly well regarded film, but I held out hope it was one of those occasions where I’d find the consensus wrong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s arguably the worst film in the series. It’s not just that it’s a poor Zatoichi film (which it is), it’s that it should’ve been a great one, showcasing the meeting of two top samurai heroes and the charismatic actors who play them. There may be outright lesser films in the Zatoichi series than this, but none could equal the crushing disappointment it engenders.

2 out of 5

For what it’s worth, Katsu and Mifune co-starred in another samurai movie the same year, Machibuse, aka Incident at Blood Pass. I’ve heard it’s a lot better, so I’ll endeavour to review it at a later date.

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.

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.