Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

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  • Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

    aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

    2018 #241
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Cane Sword

    The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

    Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

    Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

    Zatoichi and his sword

    I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

    Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

    4 out of 5

    Christine (2016)

    2018 #114
    Antonio Campos | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Christine

    The true, tragic story of newswoman Christine Chubbuck is told in this affecting drama. For those that don’t know, it’s the ending that is why her story is famous: Christine was the first person to commit suicide live on television. The film attempts to help us understand Christine’s life and mental state, and what led her to that moment.

    The overwhelming impression I got was of Christine’s existence being quietly sad. She’s shown to have the kind of life that isn’t loudly and forcefully horrible, but just… disappointing. So terribly and thoroughly disappointing that “why bother?” becomes a legitimate question for the person having to live it. That made it a somewhat uncomfortable film to watch, but that could be a personal thing — I can relate to Christine’s social awkwardness, and could see some of the pitfalls she was headed towards. (That said, not everything goes exactly as one might expect, specifically her infatuation with Michael C. Hall’s handsome anchorman.) I’ve known people like Christine, too, who do all the right things and try to put good out in the world, but somehow the world spits it all back, like it doesn’t matter.

    Performance anxiety

    In part because of this psychological realism, the film feels respectful, but without being either neutered or over-explanatory. By the former I mean that it doesn’t present Christine as some perfect soul — she can be bolshy and trying even for people who like her. By the latter, that it doesn’t hype up how bad her life was to make sure you ‘get’ why she’d do it. For example, everyone around her cares so much. You’d expect a terrible home life, bullying or teasing colleagues, some kind of gross betrayal, but no: they’re mostly nice; they like her; they try to be her friends. And you feel like she sees that, too, even as she… doesn’t. I suppose it must be mostly speculative in what it reveals about her psychologically, but you feel like it understands the responsibility of taking that approach — that it must try to be truthful, rather than histrionic; but that it’s important it attempts to find that truth, not just be enigmatic and vague.

    Rebecca Hall gives a fantastic performance in the title role, completely immersed in what must be a difficult part to play: the viewer has to understand, identify, and empathise with Christine, even as she’s a bit standoffish, awkward, and maybe doesn’t even understand herself all that well. Between Hall’s masterly performance and Antonio Campos’ understated direction, they’ve created a film that dodges the pitfall of being melodramatic, and managed to make you sympathise with Christine and why she would do what she did, even as you empathise with her enough to wish she wouldn’t.

    4 out of 5

    Christine is available on Netflix UK from today.

    The Shape of Water (2017)

    2018 #256
    Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

    The Shape of Water

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    13 nominations — 4 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

    I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

    In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

    Dreaming

    Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

    I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

    Toxic masculinity

    So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

    That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

    Something fishy goin' on

    But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

    5 out of 5

    The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    A Monster Calls (2016)

    2018 #129
    J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    A Monster Calls

    Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

    The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

    All the feels

    The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

    Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

    4 out of 5

    A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

    February Review Roundup

    As 2018 races towards its finish line, I’m sat on a pile of nearly 130 unwritten reviews. Oof. And to think, I started that page when I first got 10 behind.

    Anyway, as my (likely in vain) attempts to reduce that number continue, today’s roundup includes three reviews of films I watched all the way back in February:

  • WarGames (1983)
  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • I Origins (2014)


    WarGames
    (1983)

    2018 #22
    John Badham | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    WarGames

    It’s Ferris Bueller’s Third World War as Matthew Broderick plays a precociously talented high schooler who unwittingly hacks into a government war planning supercomputer and instigates a countdown to nuclear annihilation.

    It’s a funny old mashup of genres that I’m not sure you’d get away with today. It starts out as a Cold War thriller, feeling almost like a Tom Clancy adaptation; then suddenly it’s a John Hughes high school comedy; then the two have to awkwardly mesh, before it turns fully into a young adult techno-thriller. Young Adult fiction is almost synonymous with dystopian future adventures nowadays, but WarGames reminded me nonspecifically of the kind of thing YA books used to be about when I was the right age for them — and, considering that would’ve been in the mid ’90s, those books were quite possibly inspired by this film.

    So, it’s inescapably of its era, but no worse off for that… though how The Youth Of Today would take to it, God only knows. If you stop to think too much (or at all) about the ins and outs of the plot then it becomes thoroughly implausible in so many different ways, but if you let those things slide and go along with the film on its own terms then it’s a cracking adventure yarn.

    4 out of 5

    Being John Malkovich
    (1999)

    2018 #28
    Spike Jonze | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Being John Malkovich

    The film that introduced the world to the kooky imagination of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (almost 20 years ago now!), Being John Malkovich is about a failing puppeteer (John Cusack) who starts a new job in a bizarre office, where he develops an unreciprocated infatuation with a coworker (Catherine Keener) and discovers a hidden portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich).

    Even with that mad premise, Being John Malkovich wasn’t the film I thought it was going to be. Well, I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, especially as it’s a Kaufman film so I knew to expect “weird”. But I guess I anticipated that it would focus on people inhabiting Malkovich and doing kerazy things as him, or something, rather than it being a four-way love triangle (in an Escher-esque way rather than an “uh, I think you mean love quadrilateral” sense) in which the whole “inhabiting Malkovich’s body” thing is more a means to an end rather than the film’s raison d’être.

    Said end is an exploration of identity and relationships — indeed, the screenplay reportedly started life as “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife” and the kooky body-swap antics came later. I’ve read reviews that frame it in the context of films like Mulholland Drive and Persona as a “comedic meditation on identity”; though what it actually says about identity, I’m not sure (but then, I wasn’t really sure what Mulholland Drive and Persona were saying either, so maybe this is just me). But I wonder: does it just tip its hat in that direction while playing around with the situation to see what happens? Are the filmmakers “yeah, whatever”ing the broader psychological implications (as one of the characters does) while playing out the full bizarreness of the premise to its logical extreme? I’m not sure “logical” is quite the right word for what goes on in this movie, but what I mean is it works through the fullness of the idea, extrapolating it through various events and to a conclusion. Can you even consider the true psychological implications with something so out-there and not-real?

    Well, maybe. Indeed, the film kinda does, through its relationships. One character falls in love with another, but only when the latter is in Malkovich’s body; but then they’re tricked into falling for someone else in Malkovich’s body; but that doesn’t work out in the long run, and the first pair end up together in real life — so the physical body is the initial attraction, but it’s ultimately irrelevant to the actual person inside. Basically, is this just a kooky, crazy, bizarre film whose message is the age-old “beauty isn’t just skin deep”?

    4 out of 5

    I Origins
    (2014)

    2018 #36
    Mike Cahill | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    I Origins

    The second film from Another Earth writer-director Mike Cahill, I Origins is another science-fiction drama with the emphasis on “drama” more than “sci-fi”. It’s about a scientist, Ian (Michael Pitt), who’s mapping the evolution of the human eye with his lab partner (Brit Marling), hoping it will help discredit the superstitious religious ideas that he despises. At a party, Ian is drawn to a masked woman (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) by her eyes, and they end up dating — but developments in their relationship send his research in surprising directions…

    I Origins is a consistently engaging, intriguing film; the kind of story that continues to develop and evolve its premise throughout its whole running time, so that I’ve had to be a bit vague to avoid just giving away the entire plot. My only real query is that I don’t know what it all signified in the end. Something to do with there being room for spirituality even in dyed-in-the-wool scientists? Or maybe it’s just about the personal journey of its lead character? Or maybe, as it was developed as a prequel to an unmade script, the really significant stuff lies there, and this is just backstory? (Cahill sold the rights to that screenplay in 2011, but it’s still not been produced.)

    It feels a bit disingenuous to praise a film where I don’t really know for sure what the point was, but I liked it quite a lot all the same.

    4 out of 5

  • Creed (2015)

    2018 #242
    Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Creed

    Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

    The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

    Creed and Balboa

    Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

    That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

    As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

    Adonis and Bianca

    In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

    Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

    Training hard

    Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

    The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

    Gonna fly now

    And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

    5 out of 5

    Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

    Rocky Balboa (2006)

    2018 #217
    Sylvester Stallone | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Rocky Balboa

    Writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone returns to his boxing saga to give it the ending he fluffed 16 years earlier. Even as someone who didn’t dislike Rocky V, I don’t think it’s a great send-off for the character. Stallone felt the same, which is why he conceived this as a proper capstone for the series.

    Naturally, time has passed in the world of Rocky (Stallone) too. His beloved wife Adrian has died, and he spends half his time mourning her, to the distaste of his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). He spends the rest of his days running a little restaurant, regaling customers with tales of former boxing triumphs, and trying to connect with the grown-up son who barely wants to see him (now played by Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia, because Stallone was worried that if he cast his real son (as he had in Rocky V) viewers would be distracted wondering if their real-life relationship was like that). But when a computer-generated fight between Rocky and current champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) hands the victory to Rocky, he wonders if he might have more fight left in him yet; and Dixon, eager to prove his worth to a press who doubts his ability, agrees to fight the fight for real.

    Technically Rocky Balboa is a sports movie — because, y’know, it’s Rocky — but most of it is really a drama, with the sporting side only really coming in the second half. It barely matters that Rocky used to be a sportsman, it’s a portrait of any guy who used to be successful at something and now mopes around missing the good old days. It’s only when there’s a training montage and then then climactic fight that the film really enters the Sport genre. In that respect, it’s really taken Rocky back to its roots, because the same description of its structure and emphasis could be applied to the first and second films. Stallone tried to get there with the fifth, too, but ended up making it a bit melodramatic and clichéd. Here, he’s hit the nail on the head, with a story that packs as much punch outside the ring as inside it.

    Not-so-little Marie

    One subplot that gets a lot of screen time and works particularly nicely is when Rocky bumps into ‘Little’ Marie, the girl who Rocky walked home and advised against hanging out with boys back in the first movie. Marie was originally to appear in Rocky V, given a miserable storyline as a homeless prostitute, but it got cut. Thank goodness for that — that film’s bleak enough as it is, and it allowed Stallone to do something better with the character here. Now, Marie doesn’t exactly have a super life, but she’s got a house (albeit a crummy one), a job (albeit a crummy one), and a kid (who’s alright). Her appearance could’ve just been ultra-referential fan service — it’s bringing back a tiny character from the first, most popular film, after all — but it actually works really well as a subplot. A lot of that is thanks to Geraldine Hughes’ subtly developed, genuine performance. Her and Rocky have an interesting relationship: kind of fatherly, kind of romantic, but also explicitly not that. Rocky has always looked to help the “damsel in distress”, and he’s at it again — it’s his chivalrous nature. It’s also tied to him floundering around post-Adrian, looking for some kind of meaning to life, stuck in his grief — which is also what really leads to his return to the ring, thereby making the film thematically of a piece.

    The absence of Adrian is a major factor in the film, and deciding to ‘kill her off’ seems to have been the key to unlocking the screenplay for Stallone: she was alive in the first few drafts, but they lacked emotional impact. Stallone and actress Talia Shire mutually agreed Adrian should be left out, giving Rocky an “emotional chasm” to overcome. It was a smart move, I think. The Rocky/Adrian relationship is so central to the series (his post-fight cry of “Adrian!” in the first film is one of the series’ most iconic moments, even to people who’ve never seen it), and showing the end of that taps into a genuine and tangible sense of grief, both for the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the flashes we see of Adrian and Mickey, Rocky’s beloved coach (also deceased), during the final fight confirm something that’s quite apparent in various other bits of the film: this isn’t just using the Rocky name to do something different and new, like other belated sequels or soft reboots do, but is a true sixth entry in the series. It’s not completely wedded to the continuity of the other movies — you could probably watch this by itself and still get the main points of just about everything — but the full weight and impact of it is felt by being familiar with the entire Rocky saga.

    We're gonna need a montage

    On the other hand, it’s equally fortunate they didn’t go overboard on the fan service: cameos for Clubber Lang (the opponent in Rocky III) and Ivan Drago (from Rocky IV) were cut at the script stage. They do sound quite fun though, as fan service (you can read about them here), so it’s perhaps a shame they weren’t filmed and included in an extended cut or something. In his audio commentary on the Blu-ray, Stallone does talk about a director’s cut, and little wonder: his first cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but the studio insisted he lop out 45 minutes. It’s strange that the extended version has never materialised: in the commentary Stallone is clearly keen on it, the film was a success, and studios usually love a way to make even more money. I’ve no idea why it never happened.

    As for the sports aspect of the film… well, there’s a training montage set to the classic theme that ends with Rocky running up those steps… accompanied by his new pet dog. That’s a 6 out of 5 rating right there from me. But more seriously, Stallone had some interesting ideas about how to handle the climactic fight, and I’m basically going to paraphrase from his commentary a lot now because he’d clearly thought about this a fair bit and his decisions come across on screen. (Which is interesting, actually, because there are some editing decisions earlier on that I’d describe as odd and perhaps even thoughtless, like the way it intercuts Rocky reminiscing about Adrian and meeting Marie with Mason Dixon despairing about his career, to no particular effect.) On the commentary, Stallone talks about how the other Rocky films had cinematically-shot final fights, which made them more fictional, whereas for this film he chose to shoot on hi-def video and cut it together pretty much how HBO do it for real, with on-screen graphics and everything. His intention was to blur the line between reality and a cinematic fight. Well, that’s only ever going to work up to a point (we know it’s a movie, after all), but, as someone who’s never watched a boxing match on HBO (or at all) the veracity of the presentation comes across.

    It ain't over 'til it's over

    Interestingly, it doesn’t stop there. The fight’s first round is shown entirely in the ring, with no cutaways to other characters, again to evoke real fights; but you can’t do a whole fight that way in a movie (it would get monotonous, Stallone says), so with round two it begins to cut away, “layering in the emotion”. Eventually it becomes a montage, with black & white shots and flashbacks as well as the fight. Here, Stallone’s move completely away from the realism and into depicting Rocky’s subjective experience, as he works out his emotions over Adrian while accomplishing something he never thought he could. So, across the entire fight, the film basically swings from one extreme of objectivity to the other of subjectivity, but executes it seamlessly, making one of the best climaxes of the series.

    It’s bolstered further by the plausibility of Rocky’s opponent. He may not be as memorable as Clubber or Drago, but Dixon is more believable as a human being. Or, as Stallone puts it, Clubber and Drago were Villains, while he tried to write Dixon as a character — someone on his own journey, which Rocky comes into. That’s part of why Dixon breaks his hand during the fight: it’s his “trial by fire”, his chance to prove himself after he takes the kind of beating he’s never had before. Of course, it also gives Rocky an in, because the old man never would’ve stood a chance otherwise. How much of a chance does he have? That’d be telling. In fact, they went as far as shooting four different endings, with every possible outcome for the fight, so as not to spoil the ending for the watching crowd. (For some reason, only one of these alternates is included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.) But really the strict winner of the fight doesn’t matter, which is something Stallone also realised. He originally had Rocky stay in the ring for the final decision, but Stallone realised Rocky doesn’t care about that — by holding his own he’s proved himself to himself, and he’s ready to move on with his family. And, much like in the first movie, the crowd know who the real winner is, whatever the judges say.

    There's only one Rocky

    Once upon a time the Rocky films were held up as a more-or-less perfect example of the law of diminishing returns for movie sequels. I’m not sure that’s wholly true anyway (I quite enjoyed all of them), but Rocky Balboa certainly bucks any downward trend. With it, Stallone managed to create another crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sell out its roots in the previous films; if anything, it’s enhanced by them, and takes the series back to where it all began in an appropriate manner. As he’d intended, it’s a perfect button on the series. Though, as it turned out, Rocky’s story isn’t quite done yet…

    4 out of 5

    The latest Rocky movie, Creed II, is out in the US this week and in the UK next Friday.

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

    aka Zatôichi umi o wataru

    2018 #214
    Kazuo Ikehiro | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Pilgrimage

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is the ‘lost’ Zatoichi movie: at some point the Weinsteins bought the rights to it because Quentin Tarantino was considering a remake, with the side effect of making it unavailable legally for years — while all the other Zatoichi films appeared on DVD in the US, Pilgrimage remained AWOL.* Its legal release finally came in 2013 as part of Criterion’s Blu-ray box set (which, coincidentally enough, is out in the UK this week). Clearly it was felt to be worth the wait, because it’s a highly-regarded instalment in the series. That might cause a newcomer to wonder if said wait led to some bias — that “hurrah, a new one!” feeling. Well, if it did it was entirely justified, because Pilgrimage is superb.

    I’ve often written in my Zatoichi reviews about the inaccuracies of the English-language title “translations”. Pilgrimage is another one… but, for once, the English title seems more apt. The original translates along the lines of Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage, and while the film does begin with Ichi going on a voyage across the ocean, that’s the extent of its relevance — after that, he’s on his pilgrimage. Well, until he kills a guy and is followed by the chap’s horse, who then leads Ichi to the man’s home. Maybe Zatoichi and the Horse would be the most accurate title… but he’s sort of on a metaphorical pilgrimage even after he abandons his official one, so that’s okay. What develops could pithily be described as Seven Samurai meets High Noon: a group of humble farmers need protection from a violent gang, but, despite Ichi’s efforts to recruit them to defend themselves, they cowardly leave him as their sole protector.

    Zatoichi and the horse

    We’re up to the 14th film in the series now, and in a bid for something different star Shintaro Katsu and director Kazuo Ikehiro tapped Kaneto Shindo (director of Masters of Cinema/Criterion-friendly films Onibaba and Kuroneko) to write a screenplay focused on Ichi doing penance for all his killing, hence the titular pilgrimage. But by this point the Zatoichi series was a reliable money-spinner for studio Daiei, so the head of the studio ensured they didn’t let things stray too far from the formula. They got away with enough, I think. Ichi’s early attempts at atonement set the tone for the piece, and the final many-on-Ichi fight is more of a struggle for our hero than usual.

    Indeed, the way Ikehiro and Shindo build up to the finale — Ichi’s late-night heart-to-heart with latest love interest Okichi, then slowly walking out alone as the villagers hide away in their houses — actually creates a bit of tension and suspense before the battle, something rarely felt as we know Ichi’s always going to win. In the fight itself, Ichi actually seems overwhelmed by the onslaught of so many opponents. It’s a (slightly) more realistic take on the character: we’ve seen him take on this many with ease before now, but it wouldn’t really be easy; here we feel his struggle to come out on top, which makes the action more tense and exciting. The series’ other big final fights have marked themselves out with gimmicks or trickery (fire, drums, bird’s-eye camerawork, etc), but with this one it’s just how hard-won it is, how tough it is. Plus, as noted, it also recalls High Noon quite effectively: Ichi stands alone in the middle of the empty village, ready to face the attackers, while Okichi runs from house to house, begging the villagers to help, and we see them cowering inside.

    Oh, Okichi

    Ah, Okichi. Ichi has had many female admirers before (one per film, more or less), but most of the time their interest in him isn’t reciprocated; or, if it is in Ichi’s heart, he never lets his head get in the way and always leaves. Here, though, this feels genuinely like a romance. A lot of credit for this surely belongs to actress Michiyo Yasuda — as Walter Biggins lays out at Quiet Bubble, she “gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic […] rather than crazed.”

    There’s quality throughout Pilgrimage’s supporting cast. Isao Yamagata makes for a top-drawer villain as ‘smelly’ Tohachi, the local boss and horse trader (hence why he smells of horse manure). He gets a lot of good screen time alongside Ichi himself, trading veiled threats as much as physical assaults. His confidence makes for a nice change from the recent bad guys, who generally cower from Ichi’s reputation. Also, his weapon of choice is a bow and arrow, an unusual armament for this sword-focused series, but it leads to a couple of fun demonstrations of Ichi’s skill. Equally great is Masao Mishima as village headman Gonbei, jovially smiling and laughing while he’s threatened, or while discussing the conquering of their village, or while scheming and plotting to let Ichi fight on their behalf but without their backing. The villagers’ hiding is partly cowardice, but also a cunning scheme that, basically, gives them plausible deniability. Sneaky so-and-so.

    Tis but a scratch!

    The skilfulness extends behind the camera, too. I’ve already discussed screenwriter Shindo, but fans of the Zatoichi series will have good reason to recognise the name of director Kazuo Ikehiro: he previously helmed Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, two of the best-directed Zatoichi films, and Pilgrimage can comfortably join their ranks. The whole film is nicely directed, with beautiful shot choices and framing, but particular standout sequences include an underwater sword fight (it’s only brief, but it’s effective), and a fantastic opening scene where Ichi punishes a brazen purse snatcher (credit to Shindo, again, for setting up some of the film’s themes and mirroring its finale as Ichi steps up from a crowd of do-nothings to bring justice). Some bad news, though: this is Ikehiro’s final contribution to the series, sadly.

    At least he goes out on a high. As Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits put it, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is “one of the crown jewels of the series.” It’s little wonder Tarantino was considering a remake.

    5 out of 5

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage placed 13th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is available in the UK as of this week.

    * If you purchased a UK DVD titled Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage back in the ’00s, it wasn’t this film. For reasons unknown, a company called Artsmagic released the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large, under the wrong title. There’s more information about that here. ^

    The Hunt (2012)

    aka Jagten

    2018 #195
    Thomas Vinterberg | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark & Sweden / Danish, English & Polish | 15 / R

    The Hunt

    Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a preschool teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing a child in his class, in this hard-hitting drama directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, one of the co-founders of Dogme 95. That filmmaking movement is pretty firmly relegated to the past at this point, but its goals — to focus on story, acting, and theme — live on somewhat in powerful films like this.

    In this case, primarily, one of the film’s great strengths is how plausibly the matter is handled. There are no screaming histrionics and no raging against the world from Mikkelsen, as slowly the entire town turns against him based on a few misguided and poorly-understood words from a confused child. Instead, he mainly conveys a lot of quiet desperation — a man who knows he’s innocent but can’t work out how to prove it, and is increasingly hurt as people he called friends almost all turn against him. And that, I suspect, is how a real-life version of this would go down, despite what some of the film’s few critics would prefer to think: most people would hunker down and hope the law would come through to prove innocence, not go on some screaming rampage.

    Nonetheless, it’s quite a damning film in its view of society. Most of what happens is due to adults getting carried away, misspeaking, and jumping to assumptions. It begins with a lie told by a child, but the intent is not truly malicious, but then things spiral out of her control. It’s also, naturally, even more pertinent now than it would’ve been when it came out, with allegations and denials of sexual abuse ever more often in the news. Fortunately, The Hunt is a mature and considered film, with something to say for audiences to consider, rather than hysterically coming down on one ‘side’ of an argument.

    With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    That said, I’m not sure some viewers are mature enough to take the film in. I’ve come across more than a couple of reviews that didn’t like it just because it was a difficult film full of unlikeable people. Sorry, but that’s life — there are annoying, stupid people out there just like the ones depicted here. Yeah, it’d be better if these morons didn’t exist, but they do, and that’s how shit like this happens in real life. Just because dickheads are real, and many of the characters in this film are inspired by those dickheads, doesn’t make this a badly-made film for depicting them.

    Obviously this is in the writing, by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, and the way the former has translated it to the screen, but also the performances. Mikkelsen is fantastic, of course, offering a restrained and unassuming performance characterised by inner desperation that only occasionally leaks out, which makes the injustices against him feel all the more hurtful — it is, in the most literal way, not his fault. Even more incredible, however, is Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl who first accuses Lucas. I mean, with a child that young it’s as much the skill of the direction as the actress, but they’ve given real depth and nuance to her character. You can actually see and feel the conflicting emotions she’s struggling with written across her face, most of all in an extended scene where she’s first interviewed about her accusations, as she’s visibly torn between wanting to back out of the lie but also not wanting to be thought a liar.

    It's okay, that's his son

    It all comes together to make a movie that is plausible, powerful, and pertinent — and kinda depressing for it, to be frank. I don’t want to spoil the ending (though I will say: dog lovers beware), but however it turns out legally for Lucas, the film suggests the reality of such situations: that some people will always follow the maxim “there’s no smoke without fire”. Once accusations have been made, is there ever really any going back?

    5 out of 5

    The Hunt is on BBC Two tonight at 12:25am, and will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards.

    It was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.