Anon (2018)

2018 #95
Andrew Niccol | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 + 1.78:1 | Germany / English | 15

Anon

Sky Cinema’s latest acquisition in their attempt to establish a “Netflix original”-style brand is, ironically, also a Netflix ‘original’… just not in the UK (in the US, it was released on Netflix last week). It’s also probably their most promising grab yet… although when its forerunners are Monster Family and The Hurricane Heist, that’s not saying much. But this is a new sci-fi/thriller from the writer-director of Gattaca, so that’s gotta be worth a look… even if he has spent most of the intervening two decades making some, shall we say, less-well-regarded movies.

It’s set in a near future where everyone has ocular implants that feed a constant stream of data, like non-stop augmented reality, identifying people and places, putting digital adverts on the side of buildings, and so on. These devices are connected up to a central network that allows what everyone sees to be monitored and played back when needed — for example, if a crime is committed. It’s the ultimate eyewitness, literally. When someone’s murdered, the police can just play back the last few moments of the victim’s life to see the killer. But when bodies start turning up whose final moments have been tampered with, detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) finds himself on the trail of an off-the-grid hacker (Amanda Seyfried) with the ability to alter records — and when the entire system is based on the notion that what’s recorded is unequivocal truth, her skills are a massive potential threat.

Mad skillz

Many a lazy review has described Anon as “like a Black Mirror episode”, which is not wholly inaccurate but is getting to be a stale descriptor — Charlie Brooker didn’t invent high-concept dystopian sci-fi about the dangers of future technology, so why wheel out the comparison every time anyone else dares venture into the same ballpark nowadays? Nonetheless, that is the ballpark Anon is playing in, but mixing speculative sci-fi with an equal dose of hardboiled noir to keep things spicy.

That’s not my only problem with other reviews, though, many of which have put forth low scores and negative reactions. I saw some of them in advance of my viewing, so while watching I kept thinking, “it must go badly wrong later, because so far it’s great.” Well, that moment never came. I wouldn’t say the film is perfect — some parts, especially later on, are a tad hurried, meaning more clarity of motive would be nice — but, for me, the whole worked. There are some interesting sci-fi ideas (all the stuff about being able to trust what you see, including a standout extended sequence where the hacker messes with Sal’s head), plus it feeds some ever-relevant commentary on privacy and surveillance, with the added texture of a noir-shaped plot and atmosphere for good measure.

In fairness, there’s clichéd stuff too, though I’m not sure how much it should bother us. For one example, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Sal has a “dead kid” backstory, something which is a bit overdone at this point, but your mileage will vary on how much that stuff bothers you — while some of us just think it’s a tired trope, for others it seems to completely ruin the film. Conversely, I read someone criticise it for using “noir clichés” and just thought “that’s called genre, kid”. I also saw a review which decided the film was worth 1-out-of-10 just because there was a scene where they were smoking indoors, so there’s no accounting for what different people will consider important in their assessment of artistic quality.

Gunning for other reviewers

In my opinion, Niccol and co have offered up a well-realised near-future world — not necessarily fully imagined (it’s never explained how we got to a point where everyone has these implants, seemingly enforced by law, but that doesn’t really matter), but the way the tech is depicted and how it affects everyday life is very believable. We’re thrown into the deep-end of this environment, with just enough exposition to keep up, before the film quickly moves onto the intriguing mystery that challenges the rules of this world — and considering we’ve only just learnt the rules, being able to get straight to how they’re being circumvented is impressively economical storytelling. It’s also a neat setup for having to go back to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger-type detective work in a modern setting — this future is so high-tech, the only way to stop the criminal from detecting the operation against her is to put Sal undercover using no-tech communication.

It’s a really well made film, too. The locations are suitably evocative — the police buildings are defined by huge brutalist concrete slabs — which have been attentively framed and shot, without show-off-y camerawork. Then there’s the on-screen graphics during the point-of-view shots, which are detailed and thorough in their content, design, and execution. Their plausibility lends an automatic verisimilitude to the whole situation. And the POV shots had another nice surprise in store…

Brutal

Regular readers may recall that I’m a fan of a good variable aspect ratio, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Anon features that technique — it’s unusual to see it outside of huge-budget films that have been shot/formatted for IMAX, and even then there’s no guarantee the multi-ratio version will be widely available (cf. Marvel only including them on 3D Blu-rays; Brad Bird not allowing Ghost Protocol to be released with it at all). In Anon, the ‘drama’ scenes are presented in your movie-standard 2.35:1, but it expands to a screen-filling 16:9 every time we see through someone’s eyes. These changes are very effective. The film employs the technique early and then often, so it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that some IMAX films achieve even when viewed at home, but it’s suitably immersive. Indeed, this would probably play really well on a vision-filling IMAX screen. The fact I wouldn’t have a chance to see it even if it did get IMAX showings means I’m not too sad it’s a direct-to-streaming release.

That said, it’s kind of a shame Sky snapped it up over here. This is anecdotal evidence I know, but I know far more people with Netflix (like, pretty much everyone nowadays) than with Sky Cinema (I’m not sure I know anyone but me, actually, and I only subscribe occasionally), and I’d like to be able to recommend this to people, especially so as to go against the grain of the criticisms that I feel have been unwarrantedly negative. Well, obviously I can still recommend it, but how useful is that if people aren’t going to get the chance to see it on the basis of that recommendation?

Who's that girl?

Nonetheless, recommend it I shall. Perhaps Anon can’t equal other works at the top-tier of its genre, but I feel some have been unfair in writing it off. Any familiarities in the shape of its plot are in aid of creating that noir atmosphere, while the sci-fi concepts are reasonably considered and executed. For fans of the genres involved, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Anon is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), the give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales, without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

The Villainess (2017)

aka Ak-Nyeo

2018 #35
Jung Byung-gil | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18

The Villainess

After taking bloody revenge on the people who killed her father, skilled combatant Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is arrested and then forcibly recruited into a secret government agency who want her murderous skills. In exchange for ten years of her life and abilities, she’ll get a new identity and her freedom. As Sook-hee adapts to her new situation, flashbacks fill us in on her past — and the role it still has to play in her future.

There are obvious similarities to Luc Besson’s Nikita in that setup, but, frankly, I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth comparison than “hey, this is a bit like that!” The Villainess isn’t selling itself on the freshness of its premise, anyway — to most potential viewers, the primary attraction is the freshness of its action sequences. On that, it delivers, and then some.

It starts as it means to go on, opening with an eight-minute tightly-choreographed (fake-)single-take mostly-first-person killing spree. It’s a giddy display of violence that’s sure to entertain those of us who are so inclined. Many more hyper-kinetic, just-as-awesome action sequences follow over the next couple of hours. A motorbike chase that is also a sword fight (!) was a particularly memorable one for me (as I mentioned in last month’s Arbies). That’s also done in a ‘single take’ — if there’s one thing director Jung Byung-gil loves, it’s a fake single-take action sequence. If there’s another, it’s spurting blood — apparently if you strike anyone anywhere you’ll hit an artery and the red stuff will be squirting all over the place.

A sword fight... on bikes!

While the action scenes will be the focus for many viewers, there’s also a surprisingly effective emotional story at the film’s core. It even stops being an action movie for a bit in the middle to become a kind of romantic drama, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. There are plenty of twists and revelations involved in the storyline, so no spoilers here, but I will say it’s ultimately a pretty bleak film — it goes places I don’t think many straight-up action movies would dare. Well, certainly not Hollywood ones, anyway.

And none of that is to say it betrays its action roots — this isn’t one of those films that’s trailed like an action movie but, actually, only has a couple of stunts and is mostly something else. No, this really, really pays off just as a two-hour adrenaline kick; but it’s also, simultaneously, something more complicated. Put both sides together and I think there’s a good chance this will, deservedly, become regarded as a genre classic.

4 out of 5

The Villainess is available on Netflix UK from today.

Long Way North (2015)

aka Tout en haut du monde

2017 #33
Rémi Chayé | 78 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & Denmark / French | PG / PG

Long Way North

I can’t remember what brought this French-Danish animation to my attention, but I’m glad something did because it’s a beautiful little film that deserves to be better known. Set in the late 19th century, it’s about a young Russian girl, Sasha, who embarks on an adventure to the North Pole, following in the footsteps of her missing grandfather.

Regular readers may recall I ranked it among the top movies I saw last year, when I cited the “understated beauty in its deceptively simple visual style”. Indeed, the animation initially seems so plain that it feels like watching a draft animatic, but that conceals its ability to reveal subtleties when needed. In the end, the distinctive look is part of the film’s considerable charm.

I also mentioned its “equally subtle but strong feminist streak”, another positive aspect. Sasha is strong-willed and capable, but not without her faults, which makes her an engaging heroine. The film doesn’t overplay its “girls can too” side, which only makes it more successful, I think.

There’s none of the epic action sequences or broad humour that most English-language animation assumes kids need to keep them engaged, but instead Long Way North offers good characters on a proper old-fashioned exploration adventure. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5

Long Way North placed 13th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Big Game (2014)

2017 #45
Jalmari Helander | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Finland, Germany & UK / English & Finnish | 15*

Big Game

Air Force One Has Fallen meets Hunt for the Wilderpresident in this deliberately daft action movie, which sees terrorists down Air Force One in remote Finnish forests, forcing the President (Samuel L. Jackson) to rely on the help of a local teenager (Onni Tommila) as they’re hunted by the bad guys.

I’ve read some complaints that, given the daft premise, Big Game is not a comedy. I don’t know what movie they were watching, but I thought it was pretty fun. It’s not an out-and-out parody, but surely no one involved thought they were making a serious action flick? Or maybe I’m wrong, I dunno — but whether it was me or them, one of us has misread the intended tone.

That said, as well as the OTT ’80s-throwback action antics, there’s some solid drama to be found. Primarily that’s between the kid and his father — how the state of their relationship is revealed and changes throughout the film is neatly done, which is all the more impressive considering the dad’s only in it for a few minutes. There’s also some almost touching stuff between the kid and the President. Is this material too ‘serious’ for a movie that is otherwise pretty lightweight? Perhaps the action side should take itself more seriously to buoy up the characters’ relationship further? Or maybe the characters’ relationship should be less life-lesson-y to allow for the silly spectacle of the action?

If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise...

Maybe either way would work, but Big Game choosing to straddle the middle ground is what leads to those complaints. Personally, I enjoyed both facets, however at odds they may seem. Indeed, it’s the kind of movie I might once have given 4 stars, because I certainly enjoyed it; but I guess that the more of these lightweight-but-fun action movies you see, the more you feel like they are good fun but 3 stars is fine.

3 out of 5

* In the US there’s a PG-13 theatrical cut (running 87 minutes) and an unrated extended cut (91 minutes), i.e. this one. The BBFC classified it 12A for cinemas and 15 for home, with the former merely having a “partially obscured” use of a rude word to get the lower certificate. ^

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

2018 #13
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Two of Japan’s most successful cultural exports meet for the first time here as the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, gets the anime treatment. Originally conceived as a TV series, the box office success of Shin Godzilla prompted studio Toho to restructure the project as a trilogy of movies and release them theatrically (in Japan, anyway — the rest of the world gets them via Netflix). Part 2 is due later in 2018 and Part 3 in early 2019.

The standard plot of a Godzilla movie, as I understand it, is a giant monster (aka kaiju) turns up, stomps all over some cities, then we find a way to destroy it; or, if it’s one of the ones where Godzilla is a good guy, he fights it and, presumably, wins. Planet of the Monsters uses its animated form to do something new with the concept. The opening credits montage informs us that, in the final years of the 20th century, kaiju suddenly sprung up all over the planet and mankind were unable to defeat them. Fortunately some aliens rocked up and offered to help by evacuating what was left of humanity. Twenty years later this mission to the stars is proving a failure, with minimal chance of finding a habitable planet and the survivors decimated by diminishing supplies. The best course of action is deemed to be a return to Earth — it’s estimated thousands of years will have passed there (thanks to relativity) and the hope is the monsters will have died; and if not, hotshot young captain Haruo Sakai has come up with a new plan to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

Good God

If that reads like a lot of setup, it’s because Planet of the Monsters contains a lot of setup. It takes about half the movie before they’re back on Earth and… well, technically this is a spoiler, but if you’re intending to watch the movie it might help you manage expectations: Godzilla doesn’t properly show up until the final half-hour. This has led some reviewers to accuse the movie of being slow and light on what we came to see, i.e. giant monster action. They have something of a point. However, contrary to most opinions I’ve read, I actually enjoyed the early space-bound stages of the movie better.

It feels like the makers had a ton of interesting ideas about the politics and social situation aboard the evacuation ship, especially with multiple races and some kind of alien religion involved too, but there’s no time to really explore or develop those facets. Maybe they planned to get into that in the series. Either way, I find it funny that others have criticised that part for being slow and talky while I felt it had to race past a lot of potentially-interesting stuff to keep the plot moving. I guess I just ought to go watch Battlestar Galactica again, because it’s broadly similar territory.

Back to Earth

But, as I said before, there’s a rub: this setup provokes interest as a Galactica-style sci-fi, but as a Godzilla movie? There’s far too little of the big guy. And when he does turn up for the big climactic action sequence, that was the bit I found kinda dull. There’s a lot of whizzing around on hoverbike-things and blowing up forests and whatnot — plenty of sound and fury, but signifying what? And then… well, still avoiding spoilers, but there’s a twist in the final few minutes that renders this whole film prologue. Perhaps that should leave us hopeful for the next two? Perhaps this is all effective world-building for where things will go in the sequels? Conversely, it could be revealed as unnecessary background info once all the monster smashing starts. Only time (and the next two films) will tell…

3 out of 5