Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Featured

aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

2020 #95
Shintarô Katsu | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi in Desperation

The 24th and penultimate film in the original Zatoichi series is also the first to be directed by star Shintarô Katsu. (He previously wrote the 21st film, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and would later direct 22 episodes of the TV series and write & direct the 1989 revival movie.) Despite such fundamental creative control by the man who arguably knew the character best, Zatoichi in Desperation is widely regarded as one of the series’ worst instalments, and yet you’ll find some people full of praise for it. It’s one of the series’ darkest entries, and I suspect it’s unpopular overall because it’s so grim; but for those who do like it, they love it.

The plot starts with Ichi accidentally causing a polite old woman to fall from a bridge and die — as I said, cheery. The woman was on her way to visit her daughter, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), so Ichi seeks her out. She’s a prostitute, so, as recompense, Ichi sets about raising the funds to free her from prostitution. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Kaede (Kyoko Yoshizawa) is also employed at Nishikigi’s brothel, to earn money to care for her younger brother Shinkichi (Yasuhiro Koume); so when some out-of-town bigwig starts letching over her, well, you can guess what route she’s set to head down. Said bigwig is funding a move by gangsters to crush the local fishermen and set up some kind of modern fishing empire. Just the kind of ordinary folk vs yakuza fight that Ichi would normally find himself embroiled in…

Except he’s busy with Nishikigi, and that doesn’t really change. This is the cornerstone of the film’s moral thesis, which seems to be that the world is a brutal and unjust place. While kind-hearted Ichi is busy helping Nikigiki out of a perhaps-misplaced sense of duty (she doesn’t seem fussed about her mum’s demise, nor with escaping the brothel), he’s missing the people who could really use his help, i.e. Kaede and Shinkichi, or the village’s oppressed fishermen.

Kaede and Shinkichi

And they really could use a hand, because it’s against them that the film’s brutality is fully manifested. The gangsters burn all the villagers’ boats, then murder them for complaining about it; and while Kaede’s busy preparing to have to sell her body at 14, Shinkichi provokes the gangsters and consequently gets brutally beaten to death; and when Kaede finds his body, she commits suicide — and all of that occurs without Ichi even being aware Kaede and Shinkichi exist. Makes you wonder: were events like that playing out just offscreen in every other Ichi movie? Well, not consciously, obviously, but perhaps Katsu is provoking us to wonder about all the people Ichi has failed down the years while he was distracted elsewhere. Maybe our hero is blind in more ways than one.

Aside from the violence, this is also an uncommonly filthy film for the series. First Ichi overhears a whore talking about how taking ten men makes her wet; then he’s hiding in a room while a couple have sex; then later a bunch of yakuza round up a mentally ill kid and start wanking him off until he ejaculates on one of them, for which they give him a beating. Yep, that all happens on screen. (Nearly every review I’ve come across comments on that last scene. Well, no surprise, really — it’s rather striking.)

Hopefully you’re beginning to understand why this movie is so divisive. But if the content wasn’t enough, Katsu seems determined to show off with form, too. His bold directorial style evident from the off, when the old woman’s fall from the bridge is represented via an impressionistic barrage of flash-cut images. This is followed through the rest of the film by weirdly-framed close-ups and various odd angles. It doesn’t always pay off: the requisite gambling scene is a rehash of a trick from an earlier film, shot with a certain kind of dark tension (Ichi feels in genuine peril from those he swindled) that’s in-keeping with the film’s tone, but the trick itself is less entertainingly performed, the scene not as well paced and constructed. There’s also an atypical score by Kunihiko Murai, which some praise as being ’70s funk, but I thought sounded just like cheesy electronic nastiness. Sometimes, his unusual choices emphasise the film’s glum tone, as in the opening credits, which play out in silence over black — not the usual mode for a Zatoichi film, and so it somewhat suggests the goal is to prevent this as a Serious Movie.

Blind in more ways than one

Certainly, many describe this as a more realistic version of Zatoichi than we’ve seen before. It’s removed from the superheroics of the other movies, instead offering a brutal portrait of real violence and how it scars, with innocents suffering unnoticed and even our hero failing to emerge unscathed. Whether that’s realist or just depressive might depend on your view of the world; although, considering the time and place these films are set, I imagine its closer to reality than all of the “Ichi saves everyone” narratives. That either/or extends to the film’s reception: everyone agrees that it’s nastier, darker, and closer to reality than the other Zatoichi films, but whether that’s merited — an interesting diversion — or a case of taking things too far — a low point for the series — is a matter of personal taste.

Personally, then, I appreciate what it was going for, but I wonder if Katsu left it too long to go there. Coming so late in the series means we’re very familiar with the tropes its subverting, which is necessary — it works best as a counterpoint to what we’ve already seen rather than as a standalone piece — but it almost feels too late to go about such subversion — it’s a departure from the groove these films have worn for themselves. Maybe Katsu should’ve entrusted such a departure to a more sure-handed director; maybe it’s the roughness of his directorial voice that makes the film what it is.

3 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XX

    Maybe I should’ve gone out of sequence and numbered this one XXX, given the pornographic content of a couple of these films from January 2019

  • The Stewardesses 3D (1969)
  • Experiments in Love 3D (1977)
  • La jetée (1962)


    The Stewardesses 3D
    (1969)

    2019 #6
    Alf Silliman Jr. | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | X* / R

    The Stewardesses in 3D

    If I asked you to guess the most profitable 3D movie ever made, what would you say? Avatar, probably. And, er, you’d be right (in terms of pure dollars earned, anyway). But what about before Avatar came along? You might opt for Jaws 3-D, or one of those ‘80s horror franchise entries, like Friday the 13th Part III or Amityville 3-D. Or you might try Alfred Hitchcock’s shot at the format, Dial M for Murder; or perhaps the Universal horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Well, all of those answers would be wrong. The correct answer — as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, because you’re not stupid — is The Stewardesses. Why?

    Boooobs.

    And, er, the rest of the female anatomy, quite frankly, because, yes, The Stewardesses is fundamentally a porno. Bow-chicka-wow-wow! Oh, but not, it would seem, one exclusively for the dirty mac brigade, as it had enough of a mainstream claim (it was advertised as being based on a novel. There was no novel) to be booked into regular cinemas as well as onto the grungy grindhouse and drive-in circuits. It ran repeatedly for decades, and was made for a pittance, so its cost-to-profit ratio just kept on going up. To be precise, off a budget of just $100,000 it’s reported to have grossed up to $30 million, a 30,000% return. (For comparison’s sake, Avatar’s return was 1,176%.) It was also technologically innovative: the director helped develop a simple and economical single-camera 3D system (the 3D films of the ’50s had been shot with two cameras and projected with two projectors), which was later used by major movies during the ’80s 3D boom, such as Jaws 3-D.

    But what of the film itself? It’s an odd mashup of porno and arthouse, with gratuitous sex and nudity bumping against mundane drama, sequences that seem more like an observational lifestyle documentary, and occasional experimental scenes. It’s hard to tell how much the film is aiming for realism and how much is just amateurish: there’s dodgy framing, weak performances, and Filmmaking 101 goofs (spot the mic), but something about the editing patterns, shot choices, and day-in-the-life subject matter feels influenced by cinéma vérité. But there are also random showcases of the 3D effect, including a game of pool and a fairground sequence, which includes point-of-view rides on a rollercoaster ride and ghost train.

    Sexy lamp

    The sex stuff is dropped in here and there around this. There’s a bit of fooling around in a cockpit at the start, although this is again played more for the 3D gimmick (some legs-akimbo feet protruding from the screen) and laughs (the old “someone left the mic on and everyone can hear” bit). But then it’s almost quarter-of-an-hour before there’s anything that could be genuinely described as pornographic (full frontal yoga); after that, it’s back to watching some of the girls go to a bar and another go on a dinner date. A surprising amount of time is spent watching girls brush their hair — sometimes topless, which makes sense in a laughably gratuitous way, but other times… not.

    The first truly explicit scene depicts a girl on an acid trip having sex with a lamp shaped like a classical bust, while superimposed inverted images show the body she’s imagining it has. I mean… you couldn’t make that shit up, right? It’s more like an experimental movie than a porno. Later sequences are more straightforward porn, not least a lengthy lesbian scene; but the final sex scene is far from titillating, returning to that odd artiness with shots of vases and statues, closeups of appendages and limbs, unhappy faces, and a disquieting score. It ends by taking an exceptionally dark turn, with a murder-suicide that seems almost entirely unmotivated by anything that’s come before. It’s certainly not how you expect them to wrap up a film aimed at titillation.

    It would seem The Stewardesses was is a film of very mixed ambitions. The end result is objectively terrible, and yet also kind of fascinatingly enjoyable and thought-provoking. It’s certainly not dull, I’ll give it that.

    2 out of 5

    * It hasn’t been rated by the BBFC since a cut version received an X in 1973. ^

    Experiments in Love 3D
    (1977)

    2019 #6a
    Darrell Smith | 28 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / English

    Experiments in Love

    Where The Stewardesses makes you wonder “is it porn or is it a drama with gratuitous sex?”, Experiments in Love prompts no such quandaries: it’s porn. And yet…

    A sci-fi comedy porno short, the plot (yes, there is a plot) sees a pair of “sexy scientists” experimenting with 3D cameras under instruction from a room-sized computer that speaks with a dodgy Japanese accent, so that they can use the cameras for a university project on human sexuality. In practice, it’s a bunch of 3D trick shots performed by a pair of women in very, very little clothing. Eventually, their sexy experiments overheat the system, which attracts the attention of a nearby handyman, and… well, I’m sure you can guess what goes on from there.

    While there’s no doubting the primary purpose of Experiments of Love, it has a knowing irreverence that makes it pretty funny, plus a cornucopia lot of great-looking 3D stunts, that make it worth watching for more than just the relatively explicit softcore sex and nudity. Whatever you want from it (based on reasonable expectations), you’re likely to get.

    3 out of 5

    La jetée
    (1962)

    2019 #6b
    Chris Marker | 28 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | France / French | PG

    La jetée

    And now for something completely different…

    Told via a series of still photos with voiceover narration, this is the story of a man in a post-World War III future who is subjected to a time travel experiment. While others have been unable to withstand the mental strain, scientists believe that the man’s obsession with a childhood memory will work in his favour if they send him back to near that moment. With the experiment a success, the man begins to develop a relationship with a woman in the past; but the scientists want him to find a solution for their post-apocalyptic woes…

    Probably most widely known as the work that inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, La jetée is a seminal piece of science fiction filmmaking in its own right. By limiting the visuals to photographs, writer-director Chris Marker creates an eerie, discomfiting atmosphere, wholly appropriate to a post-apocalyptic future of enforced experimentation. But it also fits thematically: this is a film very much about memory, and what is one of our primary prompters of memory if not photographs? “Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments,” says the narrator at one point. “Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” Genuinely, a pretty profound thought to chew over.

    La jetée is a film I definitely need to revisit: it’s one of those films that is preceded by such a reputation that one struggles to judge it fairly on a first viewing, when expectations are too high. Put another way: although I’m not giving it full marks, that is not to dispute its standing as a classic.

    4 out of 5

  • Blindspot 2021: What do you mean you haven’t seen…?

    Now that all my “looking back at 2020” posts are done, it’s time to start the first full week of 2021 wi— sorry, what? Second week? Where did the first one go?! Alright, well, it’ll have to do. So, dragging myself belatedly into the same year as everyone else, it’s time to present my Blindspot picks for 2021.

    The Blindspot challenge (for the benefit of those still unfamiliar with it) involves choosing 12 films you should have seen but haven’t, then watching one a month throughout the year. I started doing this eight years ago, calling it “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (WDYMYHS for short), but then someone else came up with the same idea independently and gave it a much snappier moniker, and that caught on.

    My 12 films for this year are below in alphabetical order. After that there’s a few stats, and then I’ll explain how and why I chose them.


    Aguirre,
    Wrath of God
    Aguirre, Wrath of God


    The Birth of a Nation
    The Birth of a Nation


    Cinema Paradiso
    Cinema Paradiso


    Come and See
    Come and See


    La Dolce Vita
    La Dolce Vita


    Frankenstein
    Frankenstein


    La Haine
    La Haine


    The Life and Death
    of Colonel Blimp
    The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


    Pather Panchali
    Pather Panchali


    Rain Man
    Rain Man


    Sansho Dayu
    Sansho Dayu


    Sátántangó
    Sátántangó

    Here’s a few stats about this year’s list…

  • The average running time of the films is 2 hours 36 minutes. Yes, that’s the average. While the shortest film, Frankenstein, runs a measly 1 hour 10 minutes, there are only two others below the two-hour mark, and four that run over 2½ hours. And the longest, Sátántangó, is a whopping 7 hours 19 minutes — that’s longer than six Frankensteins.
  • There’s a spread of exactly 80 years between the oldest film (1915’s The Birth of a Nation) and the newest (1995’s La Haine). Of course, that means the most recent film here is over a quarter of a century old…
  • Exactly eight decades are represented, too. The most prolific is, amusingly enough, the ’80s, with three films. The ’50s and ’90s have two each, and there’s one apiece from the 1910s, ’30s, ’40s, ’60s, and ’70s.
  • The films come from nine countries: three from the USA, two from Italy, with the rest being from France, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the UK.
  • There are eight different main languages spoken, plus one silent film. English is the most common with three films, two are in Italian, and the rest encompass Bengali, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Russian.
  • Six of the films are from directors who I’ve never seen a feature from before. They are D.W. Griffith, Werner Herzog, Elem Klimov, Satyajit Ray, Béla Tarr, and Giuseppe Tornatore. (I have seen a short by Griffith before, but this is his first feature for me.)

    I tend to mix up my method for choosing films each year, but for 2021 I’ve retained one thing from last year — itself a legacy of the couple of years where I did two 12-film lists — and that’s to have six films ‘chosen for me’ via a consensus ranking of various “greatest movie” lists, and then to choose the other six myself from my massive unwatched disc pile. Inevitably, the latter seems to get influenced by films that piqued my interest in the former, but, eh, why not? (If you fancy a challenge, feel free to guess which six films belong to which selection process. Answers coming up.)

    The lists that contribute to the “poll of polls” selection can only be varied so much. I mean, there are probably thousands of such lists out there, but there are only a handful that are well known and respected (to one degree or another), and so I tend to use a lot of the same ones every year. You might think that makes which films appear a foregone conclusion — surely they’re the ones that narrowly missed out last year? — but things do change on some of these lists. For example, when I chose last year’s selection, Come and See was ranked 7th on Letterboxd; this year, it’s 2nd. That’s not an insignificant change: when I’m combining multiple lists, a jump like that at the top of a list could be the difference between inclusion and not quite making it. Besides, I do vary my lists and how I count them every year, precisely so as to keep things slightly unknowable.

    This year’s contributing lists were:

  • Letterboxd’s Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films
  • IMDb’s Top Rated Movies (aka the IMDb Top 250)
  • the Reddit Top 250
  • Empire’s The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time (aka the Empire 500)
  • Empire’s The 100 Best Films of World Cinema
  • Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll, using the 250-film version listed on Letterboxd (the official list only goes to 100)

    A notable absentee this year is They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s The 1,000 Greatest Films, itself a “poll of polls” that is therefore one of, if not the, definitive lists of greatest movies. That’s why I normally include it, and that normality is why I didn’t this year: it’s gone just for the sake of a change. In its place (sort of) is the Empire World Cinema list. It’s shorter than the others, so under my scoring system (which I’ll explain in a moment) it contributed somewhat less than the other lists. That means it served to tweak which foreign films got in, rather than acting to wipe out US/UK films — although, as it turns out, no US films made it through that way.

    So, each poll was scored out of 250 (250 points for 1st place, 249 for 2nd, etc), except the Empire World Cinema one, which was out of 100. Any film beyond 251st place on the Empire 500 earnt one point; and there were 10 additional points for each list a film appeared on (i.e. every film got 10 bonus points, because every film had to be on one list; but if it was on two it got 20, etc.) The full chart ended up including 230 films — that’s everything I hadn’t seen from the Letterboxd, IMDb, Reddit, and Empire World Cinema lists, plus those from the top 150 on Sight & Sound and the Empire 500 (by the time I got to those, I figured any films further down that weren’t on another list didn’t stand a chance; of course, I did include their rankings for all films that were on another list). Further to the plain scores, I also applied other rules — “no repeat directors” is the main one. I used to limit myself to films I already own, but not anymore; and I try to ensure variety in the kinds of films included, to get a spread of ages, countries, genres, etc.

    With all that considered, I think this is the first year I’ve simply accepted the films at the top of the chart without having to eliminate any. The only film to appear on all six lists was Come and See, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it came first with 810 points. Mind you, only one film appeared on five lists (Paris, Texas) and that came 17th, so being on fewer lists with higher ranks could beat merely appearing on many lists. In second place was La Dolce Vita with 647 points; third was Cinema Paradiso with 510; fourth was Pather Panchali with 502; fifth was Sátántangó with 461; and in sixth, just behind it with 460, was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Regular readers (or those who’ve clicked and read some of the links in this article) may remember that Come and See and Sátántangó both qualified for the 2020 list, but were removed because new restorations were on the way. Those have now materialised: Come and See on a Criterion disc that I imported, and Sátántangó on very different UK and US discs (it’s also available to rent digitally, which is how I intend to view it).

    As for my ‘free choice’ films, three have a spot on that consensus ranking. They were La Haine (13th, 413 points), Sansho Dayu (16th, 398 points), and Aguirre, Wrath of God (38th, 262 points). You’ll note that none of those films are American, and so my only three picks that are not on the consensus ranking (The Birth of a Nation, Frankenstein, and Rain Man) are also my only three US films. Make of that what you will.

    I’ve spent most of 2021 so far working towards one self-imposed deadline after another, to get all of these end of year/new year posts done, so now I’m looking forward to catching up on other blogs — and actually watching some films!

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVIII

    Here we are, then: the final reviews from December 2018, which are also therefore the final reviews from 2018 (er, aside from that one I’m keeping for another time).

    Also worthy of note: buried in the middle of this selection is the 2,000th feature film review I’ve published on this blog. It was way back in August 2019, 16 months ago, that I reached 2,000 films listed for review, so it’s taken me quite a while to catch up.

    So, reviews number 1999, 2000, and 2001 are…

  • Torment (1944)
  • Music in Darkness (1948)
  • Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)


    Torment
    (1944)

    aka Hets

    2018 #249
    Alf Sjöberg | 97 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 12

    Torment

    Torment won a prize at Cannes and was nominated at Venice, but it’s most noteworthy for being the first film in the career of Ingmar Bergman: he was the screenwriter, and also served as assistant director — in which capacity he directed the film’s very final scene, meaning this film technically contains his first work as a director.

    Initially it seems like just a classroom drama — students vs a demanding teacher — but it takes a very different turn once one of the boys becomes involved with a girl of ill repute. She’s being tormented by a sadistic stalker — guess who that might turn out to be.

    With its realistic location photography and attitudes about schoolboys (disrespectful of schoolmasters; smoking; talking about getting girls pregnant; expressing opinions like “all women are tramps, and if they’re not they want to be”; and a lead female character who demonstrates they might be right), Torment feels more like a film from the ’60s film than the ’40s. But perhaps that’s just because it took Puritan America a while to catch up.

    The film is also critical of the strictures and pressures of the education system, which is still an accurate observation over seven decades later. In particular, a speech by a doctor about how schoolboys are overworked, and so they’re justified in trying to dodge some of that work, could be repeated word for word in a modern setting. There’s another scene where a kindly teacher berates a harsh one about his methods that, hopefully, we’ve moved slightly past, although I imagine every school still has teachers that are thought of as bastard taskmasters.

    Outside of its social views, the film does seem more of its time in its shot choices and production style, though not in a bad way — there’s some very effective stuff, like a bit of misdirection into a dream sequence, or its use of shadows. There’s one moment on a staircase that’s worthy of a horror movie — it’s almost a jump scare — and a chilling sequence follows which, again, feels like it’s from a different genre entirely.

    I liked a lot of Torment, not least the way it went beyond a tragic plot twist to explore the fallout in a fairly realistic manner — the lack of justice, the lack of revenge — but, unfortunately, the ending didn’t quite land for me. There’s a kind of justice for one character, but another ends up seemingly positive and optimistic, getting over events a mite too quickly. That said, it’s a quality production overall. It’s a shame it seems destined to relegation as a minor work (it’s not even in Criterion’s “comprehensive” Bergman box set), because I think it merits a wider rediscovery.

    4 out of 5

    Music in Darkness
    (1948)

    aka Musik i mörker / Night is My Future

    2018 #255
    Ingmar Bergman | 84 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Music in Darkness

    This is an early film by Ingmar Bergman — his fourth as director, from an era when someone’s fourth movie was an early one rather than their second or third studio blockbuster. That said, what Music in Darkness most feels like is a Hollywood romantic drama of the era, albeit with a couple of artistic flourishes and a flash of nudity, just so you know it’s definitely European.

    The film begins when master pianist Bengt Vyldeke suffers an accident that leaves him blind. Not a terrible inciting incident on paper, but on screen it’s so implausible it’s like a spoof: he’s injured while trying to save a puppy on a military shooting range. Where did that puppy come from?! Then there’s a kinda-experimental dream sequence, before we’re finally off to the races with a fairly standard romantic melodrama.

    Bengt may‘ve saved the life of a puppy, but he turns out to be a bit of a git. At first it seems his grumpiness stems from despair at his new situation, but then he begins to soften as he spends time with Ingrid, a maid who’s helping him. Sweet-natured, romantically-minded Ingrid is played by the ‘loose woman’ from Torment, Mai Zetterling; a remarkably different kind of role. So far, all so standard. But maybe Bengt saw Torment before he was blinded, because he starts calling Ingrid a wench and a last-resort marriage prospect behind her back. Yeah, maybe he’s not such a reformed character after all.

    Anyway, more tribulations follow, but eventually they overcome what was separating them to get together — hooray, and all that. But that’s not the end: next, there’s some minor palaver over getting married, the organising of the wedding, etc… but then that’s solved and they leave together, newlyweds… the end. All of which seems thoroughly extraneous — the story ends when they (suddenly, out of nowhere, without either really saying anything to the other) finally get together, not after some faffing about with wedding planning.

    Perhaps this is the European sensibility again, lacking the strict formal awareness of a Hollywood studio production. I don’t make that comparison as a criticism, incidentally. Like many a solid studio programmer, Music in Darkness is perfectly fine for what it is; but little about it truly stands out, either.

    3 out of 5

    Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
    (2009)

    2018 #259
    Lasse Hallström | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English & Japanese | U / G

    Hachi: A Dog's Tale

    Inspired by the true story of Hachikō, a dog in 1920s Japan who every day would wait at the train station for his owner to return — and continued to do so for almost ten years after the owner died. The tale was made into a Japanese film in 1987, which clearly caught the attention of someone in Hollywood, with this remake relocating the action to modern-day USA.

    This is really a film for people who like dogs. Without the pooch, it would be a terribly twee Hallmark TV movie — any scene where Hachi is absent is excruciating. In other words, if you don’t care for dogs, give it a miss. For the rest of us, fortunately, the pup’s is in most of it. The story takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, its impact only emphasised by the fact it’s (fundamentally) a true story. Of course, the dog dies — he wouldn’t have stopped waiting at the train station if he didn’t, would he, because he’s a very good boy.

    Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, this is an unabashed tearjerker for any dog lover.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVII

    Continuing my push to wrap up leftover reviews from 2018, here are three more to finish off that November

  • Danger: Diabolik (1968)
  • Boy (2010)
  • Dad’s Army (2016)


    Danger: Diabolik
    (1968)

    aka Diabolik

    2018 #243
    Mario Bava | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Italy & France / English | 12 / PG-13

    Danger: Diabolik

    This starts off like a normal-looking crime thriller, with cops transporting millions of dollars in fake money while the real cash goes in a decoy… but then the decoy is ambushed by supercriminal Diabolik using multi-coloured smoke, and suddenly everything takes an abrupt turn into trippy ‘60s-ness. After escaping with the loot, Diabolik and his girl risk some nasty paper cuts by rolling around in the cash naked… on a giant rotating circular bed. Ah, the ’60s. And that, really, is the best summation of Danger: Diabolik: it looks and feels just like a Euro-comic of the era. If you made it today, with the benefits of hindsight and every cultural touchstone under the sun, you could barely make it more “60s”. For example, there’s a long-ish sequence in a swinging nightclub for virtually no reason — exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an Austin Powers movie.

    On the downside, the storyline is a bit episodic. It’s also clear that it was cheaply made in places, and yet other parts look great, like Diabolik’s underground lair set. Apparently director Mario Bava had a budget of $3 million but brought it in for just $400,000, which I guess explains that. But that inconsistency extends to the overall imagery and style of the film: some of it is striking and memorable, but even more is just… fine; adequate; could be taken from anything made by anyone.

    Ultimately, I like the idea of Diabolik a lot more than the actual execution, which didn’t seem nearly as wild and idiosyncratic as many of the positive reviews make out. When it works, it’s got a comic-book, campy, Saturday-morning-adventure-serial charm, with a mildly raunchy edge (there are skimpy outfits and some kissing, and a naked woman covered up by banknotes, but that’s your lot), and it certainly operates by its own crazy-fun logic rather than the rules of real life. But, even with that going on, it doesn’t all come together as thrillingly and entertainingly as it could or should. I can well imagine a right-minded kind of director remaking it and transforming it into something that really nailed those influences and made for a much more striking, exciting ride. Well, there’s a new version due in 2021, so we can but hope.

    3 out of 5

    Boy
    (2010)

    2018 #244
    Taika Waititi | 84 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15

    Boy

    The second film directed by Taika Waititi (after Eagle vs Shark) feels somewhat like a semi-autobiographical dry run for his later work. It’s a whimsical comedy that hides depths of very real drama, just like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Jojo Rabbit, but it lacks their polish and refinement — it’s not as funny, and it doesn’t fully tap into what that drama ultimately means. It plays like a strong calling card: indicative of what the writer-director is capable of and intends to shoot for, but clearly not yet at their full potential. Mind you, the heights Waititi later reached are so high that this “not there yet” effort is still very good.

    4 out of 5

    Dad’s Army
    (2016)

    2018 #245
    Oliver Parker | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & German | PG

    Dad's Army

    1960s/70s World War II sitcom Dad’s Army is enduringly popular — repeats on BBC Two (one of the UK’s main TV networks, for those that don’t know) regularly garner viewing figures that eclipse new programming. So it’s no surprise that someone decided it would be a good idea to give it a big-screen reboot… and it’s equally as unsurprising that it was largely a failure. Making a successful sitcom is a large part down to luck. You don’t just need funny scripts, but also to cast it well so that the characters really come alive; and getting the lead bang-on isn’t enough: for a comedy to really work, everyone needs to be great in their own role and to blend perfectly as an ensemble. Capturing that “lightning in a bottle” factor once is hard enough, but to repeat it? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Filmmaker?

    You can see how they tried. The premise is obviously solid gold, so that box is already ticked. Then the new cast is stuffed with names: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson, Daniel Mays… If anything, they’re over-qualified for this kind of project. Indeed, if you stop and think about it, you do wonder: how many of them are comedians, really? And maybe that was the problem. If you were casting a biopic about the making of the show, this would be a top-drawer ensemble; but to recreate its comedic magic? That said, it’s not impossible: when they remade the series’ missing episodes with a new cast, it worked very well.

    So maybe the secret is the script, after all. It’s definitely a weak link here. The humour is so gentle, it’s not even bothering to be very funny. There are lots of double entendres, though to say they have more than one meaning is generous. There are plenty of nods and winks to the original in an attempt to keep fans happy, including trotting out all the familiar catchphrases, but usually they’re shoved in rather than occurring naturally in dialogue. The female characters largely fare better than the men, though perhaps that’s just because they’re more original creations. Some might argue such a shift is a necessary correction to the male-orientated series, but it also isn’t really the point. Worst of all, at times it feels like the film wants to be some kind of thriller. It even ends with a big action sequence shootout! I can’t think of much that’d be less Dad’s Army than that.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVI

    Right: after a bit of a Christmas break, it’s time to get stuck back in to what I said I was going to do — specifically, wrap up my reviews from 2018 before the end of 2020.* So, that means I’ve got nine reviews to cram into the next 3 days, starting with this handful from November 2018

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
  • Redline (2009)


    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    (2018)

    2018 #238
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

    Nowadays, almost everyone who’s anyone has made a movie for Netflix; but, back in November 2018, the latest big-name directors to take the streaming plunge were cinephile favourites the Coen brothers. Their contribution was a Western full of whimsy and violence — Coens gotta Coen, I guess.

    The film is really a collection of shorts, coming in six segments: first, the one that also gives the feature its overall title, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; followed by Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon (based on a story by Jack London), The Gal Who Got Rattled (inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White), and finishing up with The Mortal Remains. The connection between these disparate narratives? Um… And why is the whole collection named after the first one? Err…

    To expand on my ums and errs, in reverse order, I can see no reason at all why Buster Scruggs was chosen as the umbrella title. If anything, it’s misleading: you expect the character to come back somehow later on (he doesn’t). It’s not even that the segment is typical or representative of the other five that follow. Maybe they thought it was the most evocative moniker? Maybe they thought it was the best of the six? Personally, I’d’ve come up with something else.

    As for why these six tales are bundled together, I couldn’t tell you that, either. There’s little discernible connection between them, not even stylistically: the first is almost a musical cartoon, with a hyper-skilled gunslinger prone to warbling a tune and breaking the fourth wall — elements that don’t even vaguely factor into the next two shorts, the first of which is concerned with a kind of cosmic irony, the second with brutal reality (of the entertainment business — you could almost class it as an allegorical satire). The only common thread I could ascertain is that (spoiler alert!) they all end in death. Hardly a remarkable feature in a Western, though, is it?

    Comments that have stood out to me from other reviews include the likes of “Coen Brothers 101”, or “a great introduction to their world for the uninitiated”, and that “each vignette showcases their different different talents” — that’s not bad as a kind of summary. But also, “the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts”, with which I’d agree — I’m not really sure what these six short films gain from being watched together (other than wider distribution and attention than shorts, even by renowned directors, normally achieve).

    4 out of 5

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    (2013)

    aka Kaguyahime no monogatari

    2018 #239
    Isao Takahata | 131 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

    This film from the other Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is perhaps the studio’s biggest breakout success that wasn’t directed by its most famous name (i.e. Hayao Miyazaki). Based on a story from 10th-century Japanese folklore, it tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot, who he takes to raise with his wife. The cutter also finds riches in the same bamboo grove and, as the girl quickly grows into a young lady, he sets about transforming her into a princess.

    The most obvious thing to say about Princess Kaguya is that it has beautiful animation — but it really does; a sketchy-but-precise, watercolour-ish style, quite unlike anything else we’re used to seeing from any kind of animation. But “ooh, isn’t it pretty?” won’t sustain a film with a running time of over two hours; and, indeed, I felt Kaguya was a bit overlong — not excessively slow (though it certainly isn’t a fast-paced tale), but a couple of bits do go round in circles over the same points. It’s clearly a parable, possibly about not controlling others, although I didn’t think the ending really married up to that. It does have a point about happiness in freedom vs the restrictions of class and so-called “good people”, although there’s also an element of romanticising peasant life, which is always an iffy position to take (it’s easy to long for simpler time and ways when you don’t have to actually struggle with them).

    Perhaps I’m just overthinking it. As a gorgeously-realised fairytale, Princess Kaguya is more than equal to the many (many) examples of the same from the Western animation canon.

    4 out of 5

    Redline
    (2009)

    2018 #240
    Takeshi Koike | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15

    Redline

    Redline stands in stark contrast to Kaguya‘s delicate lyricism. It’s a senseless cacophony of unfollowable action — visual diarrhoea.

    It’s billed as a sports movie, but there’s so much other crap going on that the fact it’s a race (or supposedly a race) is barely relevant. It’s not like you can actually follow who’s in the lead or who’s in competition or what tactics anyone’s using or any of the other things you’d expect from a proper sports film. There’s a meaningless flashback-driven romance subplot, just to make things more annoying, and some gratuitous nudity to boot. Well, pretty much everything about the film is gratuitous — the designs, the story, the villains… you name it, it’s OTT and/or uncalled for.

    Apparently it used over 100,000 hand-made drawings and no CGI whatsoever, so at least it looks good… in its own way. I wasn’t a huge fan of the overall style — it looks like an extreme 2000 AD strip brought to life (albeit one crossed with manga, natch) — but 3D CGI in otherwise-2D anime often sticks out like a sore thumb, so it avoids that pitfall, at least.

    2 out of 5

    * There’s actually one 2018 review that’s going to remain hanging, because it’s part of a trilogy I’ll bundle together someday. But if I can get the other nine reviews ticked off, I’ll be happy. ^

  • Some Beasts (2019)

    aka Algunas Bestias

    2020 #225
    Jorge Riquelme Serrano | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Chile / Spanish

    Some Beasts

    Sometimes, one thing can ruin an entire movie. Depending on how harsh a critic you are, I’d say that’s quite rare. Unless it’s threaded throughout the entire film (like, say, a terrible lead performance, or a consistently poor cinematography decision), a small constituent part would have to be truly horrendous to take the entire rest of the movie down with it. Some Beasts is one of those films. The problem arrives in the final 20 minutes, which makes it a massive plot spoiler. Out of some lingering respect for storytellers, I provide this spoiler warning; others would argue content of this nature doesn’t deserve such courtesy.

    Anyway, before I get to that: the film’s first hour-or-so. It’s about a family — mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, and their maternal grandparents — travelling to a small island near Chile that the mum & dad have just bought. They want to turn its ramshackle house into a luxury hotel, and they want her rich parents to stump up some money. They’re a snobby bunch — not horrendously so, but with that creeping sense that their grumpiness isn’t just a bad day, it’s a lifelong sense of entitlement. They’re accompanied by a guide, but after he’s accused of being inappropriate towards the daughter (which he wasn’t) and he’s groped (against his protestations) by the grandmother, the family wake up the next day to find he’s disappeared, stranding them on the island.

    Some Beasts is labelled as a thriller, but there’s not much thrilling about it. By the halfway point, people are literally sat around staring into space… On the surface, it’s just a family on a bad holiday; but there are obvious interpersonal tensions, which combine with some occasionally ominous music and unusual shot choices (like a series of straight-down bird’s eye views that open the film) to lend a mildly unsettling atmosphere. As the film goes on, their behaviour gets worse, but it’s in small increments on a long sliding scale.

    Abusers

    Later, they all play a board game. And we watch. In real time. And we join it halfway through, so you’re not going to know what the game is or how it’s played. Then the tensions explode and everybody’s arguing. The whole of this unfolds in one long static take, which is either an impressive bit of staging and acting or just directorial showing off, depending how you want to take it. I tend towards the latter, given what happens next.

    The final 20 minutes suddenly throw in a very sensitive and emotive subjective, presenting it in a deliberately provocative fashion. To be clear: the grandfather gets into bed with the teenage daughter and rapes her. Like the board game, this is presented in a couple of long static wide shots, meaning we witness more-or-less the whole thing. A raft of questions are posed. Is this the first time? The daughter seems awfully accepting of it. Not that she likes it, but is resigned; she barely protests. If not, when did it start? There’s only been the vaguest hints earlier in the film about the grandfather’s feelings. Who knows about it? Because there are some cutaways that suggest some of the other characters know what’s going on. And the next morning, it seems like they all know — so when did they find out? And what happens next? Because there’s no blazing row; no calm confrontation, either. They all sit around a bit more, looking shocked… then get in a boat and go home. The end. It’s like there’s not enough screen time to deal with the subject in sufficient detail, so the film doesn’t even try. Except, of course, that it’s the filmmaker who decides the running time and the pacing. There’s no “oops, I introduced a serious issue too late in the day and now I don’t have time to examine it properly!”

    Because the film doesn’t actually explore with the topic it’s raised, that means we’re left primarily with the manner of its presentation. That seems consciously designed as an assault on our sensibilities via a brazen depiction of something morally abhorrent. Rather than any meaningful engagement with the multitude of questions and issues it raises, it pokes at us for a reaction, being about as provocative as a child saying a rude word at an inappropriate moment — the scene, and its explicit detail, exists only to say, “look how edgy I am! Look how I’m prepared to show things that shouldn’t be shown!” I’ll be the first to argue that depicting something is not necessarily to endorse it (cf. the endless stupid debates about Scorsese’s oeuvre), but when the Bad Thing goes as unexamined and unpunished as it does here, one starts to wonder about the real intent of the filmmaker.

    Abused

    The first hour or so of Some Beasts is mostly uneventful; the final 20 minutes are offensively ill-judged. I don’t think you get to throw something that serious into your film, and shoot it so provocatively, without also tackling what it means. You can’t take something that so profoundly affects people who’ve suffered it and treat it in such an off-hand manner. Taboo subjects can and should be tackled in films, but you have to engage with them in thoughtful and meaningful ways, not use them as something shocking for the sake of being shocking. The ending is so egregious, it kicks aside what value there was in the earlier portion of the film. It actually made me feel kind of angry, which is not the kind of reaction I normally feel towards a film.

    Some Beasts is well made, in its way, but it’s a bad film.

    1 out of 5

    Some Beasts is screening on AMPLIFY! until Sunday. It featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

    Patrick (2019)

    aka De Patrick

    2020 #221
    Tim Mielants | 96 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium & Netherlands / Flemish, Dutch, French, English & German

    Patrick

    Patrick’s hammer is missing. More accurately, one of Patrick’s hammers is missing — he has seven, of different sizes, arranged in a neat row on a bespoke wall mount, and the middle one is no longer there. Patrick is the handyman at a nudist campsite run by his father, who is old and sick. The head of the residents’ council is a busybody; his wife is secretly sleeping with Patrick, not that Patrick seems to care. A famous musician Patrick has never heard of arrives to stay, followed by his pretty but frustrated girlfriend. Then Patrick’s father dies. But, most importantly, Patrick’s hammer is still missing. Fortunately, a former police officer friend turns up to pay his respects, and gives Patrick advice on how to find his hammer — so Patrick launches his investigation.

    To sum Patrick up as “Agatha Christie meets the Coen brothers in a nudist camp” doesn’t feel too wide of the mark. Okay, there’s no murder, so perhaps mystery-genre fans could think of a better (though, unavoidably, less famous) author than Christie to sub in. But the fact remains that the missing hammer isn’t just a story hook to hang something else on: it’s a solid mystery narrative, with clues and red herrings and twists. Conversely, it’s not just a mystery, which is where the second comparison comes in. The overall quirky, just-left-of-reality, slightly-heightened tone evokes the Coens’ work, without (thank goodness) being a rip-off. It’s very much a comedy-drama, in that it’s not out-and-out seeking to provoke laughs, but it’s frequently absurd to the point of being laughable — although, with What We Do in the Shadows’ Jemaine Clement among the supporting cast, you can be assured of some genuinely humorous moments too.

    One element that isn’t mined for amusement, to the film’s credit, is the nudity. Equally, if you’re the kind of person who hears “set in a nudist camp” and thinks “wah-hey!”, don’t get your hopes up. These are real nudists, not pretty movie ones: middle-aged to older, with lumpy flesh wobbling around all over the place. The one conventionally attractive member of the cast (Hannah Hoekstra as the musician’s girlfriend, Nathalie) remains clothed. Indeed, the positive aspect of how the film treats nudity is that… it doesn’t really treat it at all. It’s doesn’t use the nudity for laughs, nor does it sexualise it, nor does it linger on it, nor does it avoid it. It’s just there; a fact of life. This story takes place in a nudist camp, so people are naked — that’s that. Even if all sorts of bits flopping about strikes you as giggle-worthy at first, before too long you stop even noticing.

    Anyone could have taken it

    What is often visually appealing is Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography. There are some beautiful shots and scenes, from your obvious screen-cap-able pretty lensing (like a funeral where the whole camp are scattered around a smoke-filled forest), but the way the camera moves, with slow pans (like the one when Nathalie first visits Patrick’s workshop), or clever angles (like when Patrick has to climb out of a tipped-over caravan).

    The combination of all of the above made me rather love Patrick. While the limits of a five-star rating system mean I’m only going to give it a 4 for now, it’s sort of a 4+, thanks to a litany of great shots and moments that spike above the overall quality of the film (which, I should make clear, is still high). It’s a movie that appeals to my taste: unmistakably absurd, but without revelling in that absurdity to the point where the wheels of momentum come off and it all falls apart. It satisfies as a mystery; as a pillorying of the politicking that goes on in small organisations; and as a character study of a man who just wants to find his hammer.

    4 out of 5

    Patrick is streaming on AMPLIFY! from today until 17th November. It’s on general UK release from 20th November.

    It placed 16th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Waxworks (1924)

    aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

    2020 #232
    Paul Leni | 82 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent | PG

    Waxworks

    Often billed as the first portmanteau horror movie, Waxworks only fits the bill in the loosest sense: its “three stories” are actually two stories and a dream sequence, the first (and longest) of which is, if anything, a swashbuckling farce.

    But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The film begins with a young writer (William Dieterle, who would later become a Hollywood director, responsible for 1938 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola, amongst others) who is hired to pen backstories for the four statues in a carnival wax museum. Yes, four — the filmmakers ran out of money before they could film the fourth tale. As he begins writing, into each story he injects both himself and the museum’s curator’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) as his love interest.

    The first tale is set in Arabian Nights-style Bagdad (IMDb says this part inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad, but a quick look at their release dates shows Fairbanks’ film came out months before Waxworks), and concerns a lecherous Caliph (Emil Jannings) who sets his sights on wooing a baker’s wife. It’s quite a sexualised segment all round: the baker kneads dough so erotically it sends his wife (and himself) all aquiver (I doubt it’ll do the same for many viewers, but it clearly works for them); later, the disguised Caliph sneaks into the baker’s home and spies the wife lying in bed with her back to him, and his gaze (and, by extension, ours) clearly lingers on her bottom (clothed, lest you think the film is uncommonly explicit). I guess the characters were too busy perving to apply logic to their decision-making: when the baker is too wary to slip a ring off the sleeping Caliph’s finger, he decides to chop his whole arm off instead. Totally reasonable. Meanwhile, why is the all-powerful Caliph worried about being found out by a lowly baker? Indeed, why’s he so worried that his guards will know he sneaks out at night? He’s the boss! On the bright side, there’s some beautiful and striking Expressionist set design; an exciting chase scene, set to dramatic percussive music in the new score by Bernd Schultheis, Olav Lervik, and Jan Kohl; and the wife’s save at the climax is a cunning twist. But, overall, it’s a bit of a daft farce.

    Arabian nights

    The second story stars Conrad Veidt as a Rasputin-esque Ivan the Terrible, who revels in killing prisoners in the Kremlin’s dungeons with an ultra-specifically-timed poison. If that wasn’t clue enough, this segment is thematically much darker. A bride’s father invites Ivan to attend the wedding, then the Czar insists they switch roles to travel there and the dad is killed by mistaken assassins. Then his arrow-pierced corpse is unceremoniously dumped on the front steps of his home while the wedding banquet continues inside; and when daughter sneaks away to grieve over his body, Ivan has some guards snatch her; and when the angry groom tries to attack Ivan, he’s ordered off to the torture chamber. Puts people who complain about rain on their wedding day into perspective, doesn’t it? Veidt is great as the deranged Ivan, although he’s so mentally unstable that it borders on comical. The finale doesn’t make much sense (he lets the girl go… then doesn’t?), but the denouement delivers a neat and fitting fate to Czar Terrible.

    The third and final story begins with just five minutes of screen time left, so you know it’s not going to be wholly-realised tale. (Incidentally, the original German version of the film is lost, leaving us with only the English version, which is about 25 minutes shorter. What’s in those minutes? If anyone knows, they’re not saying online (to the best of my knowledge). Perhaps there was more linking material in the museum? Perhaps the third ‘story’ really was a whole story? Perhaps the first two were once even longer, though it’s hard to imagine how much more there could be to do in either of them — maybe the cuts were for the best…) Anyway, the third segment is the aforementioned dream sequence, in which the waxwork of Jack the Ripper comes to life and pursues the writer and his love (they met earlier that day but already seem pretty committed) through a series of highly impressionist sets, their disjointed oddity exacerbated by differently-aligned multiple exposures. It’s Expressionism to the max, and it’s suitably effective as a chiller. But, of course, it’s all a dream… and that’s suddenly the end!

    Ivan's terrible, but Veidt's great

    Like so many of the portmanteau films that have followed in its wake, Waxworks struggles to be the sum of its parts. It’s ultimately a bit underwhelming, with the first two stories being slower than necessary (and this is the cut version!) before giving way to a rushed finale. Make no mistake, there’s some very nice stuff in here, but it comes in bits and pieces. It’s a welcome watch for fans of silent cinema or early horror (with caveats about its “horror” content duly noted), and there are enough good parts to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a classic in any enduring sense (beyond its obvious influence as a stepping stone to future portmanteau films).

    3 out of 5

    Waxworks is streaming on AMPLIFY! until 22nd November, and is released on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema Series today.

    Also, new on AMPLIFY! today are…

    • what sounds like a German riff on Whiplash, but with violins, in The Audition
    • a documentary about the drawbacks of algorithms, Coded Bias
    • the UK premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling
    • Catalan coming-of-age drama The Innocence
    • and unusual found footage documentary My Mexican Bretzel.

    (If you don’t know, “bretzel” is the German word for “pretzel”.)

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.