Godzilla (1954)

aka Gojira

2019 #71
Ishirô Honda | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla

Before its current re-fashioning as a major US-produced blockbuster franchise, the rep of the Godzilla movies was more-or-less cheesy B-movie SF with cheap-n-cheerful “man in a suit” special effects. (I expect die-hard fans would disagree, but to outsiders looking in, I feel that’s fairly accurate.) But that certainly wasn’t how things started with the first movie. Indeed, this first movie was nominated for Best Picture at Japan’s answer to the Oscars, only losing to Seven Samurai. There’s no shame for any film in losing to Seven Samurai. It was also a pricey affair: the most expensive Japanese film ever made up to that point, costing almost a million dollars — ten times the average budget for a Japanese feature at the time.

But, more than just the blockbuster entertainment of its day, Godzilla is a serious-minded work. A giant monster stomping on cities — or, if you prefer, a man in a rubber suit stomping on models — may have soon become fodder for the kind of movie fans who enjoy pulp entertainment, but, in its original incarnation, it’s an analogy for the terror of the nuclear bomb. Released just nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s one of the first films to deal with that scar on the Japanese national psyche. And lest you think this is something pretentious critics have projected onto the film after the fact, the movie itself draws the connection, with one character — a young woman, no less, as if to remind us of the recency of those events — commenting that she only narrowly escaped the bombings. A big part of why Godzilla still works as a film today, almost 70 years later, is because everyone involved is playing it straight, and the clear messages about the folly of mankind interfering with nature, and the futility of weapons, are powerful.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Subplots get in the way, like a love triangle that manages to waste screen time while not really having any significant impact on the viewer. (Reportedly, a flashback scene that would have helped explain the connection between two of the participants was deleted because it slowed down the film. The romance is slow enough as it is, but you never know, maybe that extra clarity would have helped.) Conversely, some of the moral conundrums raised by the story are barely touched on. One of the main characters is a scientist who thinks mankind should study Godzilla rather than try to kill it, but other than him stating that fact and consistently looking miserable, the film doesn’t really do anything more to engage with his argument.

Good God

As for the stomping monster action, viewed with a modern eye the effects are of course a mixed bag (the miniature vehicles look like something you’d find in a toy shop, for example), but make some allowances and they’re still pretty darn effective. An underwater sequence that mixes footage of real divers with “dry for wet” shots of Godzilla and lead characters remains mostly convincing. Godzilla may have lost Best Picture to Seven Samurai, but it did win the award for special effects, and that’s one thing it does have over Kurosawa’s film, at least. I don’t know if those same awards had one for music, but if so I guess Akira Ifukube’s score wasn’t even nominated. It would’ve deserved it for the main theme alone, though, which has since become iconic for good reason.

The Godzilla franchise has come a long way and changed a good deal across the seven decades since this film’s release. It’s not a series, nor a genre, that’s to everyone’s taste (just look at the wide spread of reactions to the recent US movies, including the fact even people who broadly like them can’t vaguely agree on which order to rank them in). But this original, at least, stands tall as an example of how a movie that some might seek to dismiss as facile genre fare can actually be about a whole lot more.

4 out of 5


For 50 years, you couldn’t actually see Godzilla in the West — not exactly. Instead, you’d watch…

Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
(1956)

2019 #82
Terry Morse & Ishiro Honda | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan & USA / English | PG

Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

In an era where the original cut is king (to the extent that, say, a major studio might hand a director $70 million to complete his cut of a not-particularly-successful movie just so they can release it on a streaming service), it seems wild to remember that, until 2004 — a full five decades after Godzilla‘s premiere release — this re-edited, bastardised version was the only one available to Western audiences.

With a runtime 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese cut, you might think King of the Monsters was just an abridgement. But they went at it more thoroughly than that back in the ’50s; in fact, almost 40 minutes of footage was cut, and the disparity is covered by newly-filmed scenes starring Raymond Burr as Steve, an American journalist. These new scenes don’t just place Burr’s character around the existing action, but work to make him the (human) star of the movie.

The end result is actually fairly close to the original story-wise, just now there’s an American journalist hanging around the fringes. At first he’s often to be found at the back of a crowd or the edge of a room, observing events, but they get bolder as the film goes on, integrating him with some of the main characters, either by repurposing and rearranging original footage or shooting Burr with doubles whose faces we never see. It’s not a perfect match, but for a quickly-produced low-budget effort in the 1950s, it’s surprisingly well achieved. This is partly thanks to the choice of director for the new scenes. Terry Morse had 30 years of experience as an editor and director of low-budget films, and it was felt someone with that kind of background would be well-placed to maintain the continuity needed to make it seem like Burr was part of the original production.

Raymond Burr, sir

Morse also makes some interesting decisions about how to adapt the existing footage. Although all of the ‘Japanese’ characters speak perfect English with American accents in the new bits, a lot of the Japanese dialogue in Ishiro Honda’s scenes is left undubbed, and it’s never subtitled either. Instead, the film trusts us to infer what’s happening, or informs us via someone translating for Steve, or his voiceover narration. It feels like quite a mature way to handle a multi-lingual production. Unfortunately, any such maturity doesn’t extend across the board: when abridging the original, they removed or neutered much of its commentary about mankind’s destructive nature, thereby turning a powerful allegory into a simple monster movie.

To my surprise, Godzilla, King of the Monsters is not a complete disaster. There’s a fair bit of the original movie left, and the American inserts aren’t unremittingly terrible, which they certainly could have been. If this was the only version of the film available, I’d probably give it a solid 3 stars. But it isn’t the only version anymore, so the question becomes: why watch it nowadays? It neuters some of what was great about the Japanese cut, and it’s inherently a bastardisation — so, other than curiosity value (or, for older fans, nostalgia), there’s no reason to bother with this. Stick to the real one.

2 out of 5

The Man Who Reviewed Some Films

There are a lot of films about a man who did something — already on this blog I’ve written about men who invented Christmas, sued God, and, um, laughed. But I noticed I have many other reviews pending about such apparently-noteworthy fellas, so I’ve rounded most of them up into this one handy location.

Some of these men knew stuff; some shot somebody; one just had a nap… but they’re all men who had a movie named after them. They are:

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • The Man Who Sleeps (1974)


    The Man Who Knew Infinity
    (2015)

    2019 #65
    Matthew Brown | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Man Who Knew Infinity

    Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a man of boundless intelligence that even the poverty of his home in India cannot crush. His skill for mathematics attracts the attention of noted British professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to develop his computations at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan finds that his largely-intuitive mathematical theories clash with stringent academic requirements, just as his cultural values are challenged by the prejudices of 1910s Britain. With Ramanujan’s health in decline, the two men join in a mutual struggle that would define him as one of India’s greatest scholars. — adapted from IMDb

    Writer-director Matthew Brown takes this interesting true story and turns it into an ironically by-the-numbers biopic. Even with reliable actors like Patel and Irons headlining, there are some surprisingly stuff performances, and the film struggles to truly convey the genius or importance of the maths involved. Instead, it’s just lots of characters saying “OMG look at this stuff he thought up” and other characters saying “nah mate, it’s wrong” (except in the vernacular of 1910s Cambridge, of course). Alongside that, it doesn’t have many places to go with the story or characters, so it comes to feel repetitive as it goes round and round over the same points. Even the start of World War I has no genuine impact on events, factoring into the film only because that’s when these events actually happened, so Brown seems to feel it must be mentioned. Indeed, a lot of the film feels beholden to fact in this way, though I’m sure it must be doing the usual biopic thing of bending the truth.

    3 out of 5

    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (1956)

    2019 #84
    Alfred Hitchcock | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Knew Too Much

    Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day), and their eight-year-old son Hank are on vacation in Morocco when they witness the public murder of a mysterious man who, before he dies, manages to reveal to Ben details of an assassination about to take place in London. The plotters kidnap Hank to keep the McKennas silent, so Ben and Jo return to London to take matters into their own hands. — adapted from IMDb

    Famously, this is the time Hitchcock remade himself: he’d previously filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 while he was still working in Britain. Later, he’d compare the two by calling the original “the work of a talented amateur” while the remake “was made by a professional”, although he reportedly preferred the earlier version precisely because it wasn’t so polished.

    Undoubtedly, the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is not top-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean it’s without joys. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are perfectly cast as an ‘everyman’ American couple who accidentally get embroiled in international espionage, and Hitch could make such thrills work with his eyes closed. He’s also on top form during a sequence in the Albert Hall, a stunning set piece that lasts 12 minutes without a single word of dialogue, in which Hitch has the balls to just keep going through an entire piece of music, allowing the tension to almost build itself as he cuts around the room; even when Stewart finally turns up, we still don’t need exposition — we know exactly what’s happening.

    Although a key part of the film’s conclusion, it’s not the actual finale, which is a shame because the following plan to rescue Hank is a bit daft. And, when you think about it, the villains’ plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s stuff like that which gets in the way of The Man Who Knew Too Much being among Hitch’s very best work, but it remains a fine suspense thriller.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (1962)

    2020 #66
    John Ford | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    When US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a young reporter persuades him to tell the story of why he’s there. Flashback to a quarter-century-or-so earlier, when Ransom, a newly-qualified lawyer (still played, unconvincingly, by 53-year-old Stewart), arrived in Shinbone with a plan to bring law to the West. After Ransom receives a beating from local heavy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he recuperates at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he takes a job in their kitchen to repay their kindness. He develops an affection for their daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles), who’s also being wooed by young rancher Doniphon (still Wayne, also in his early 50s — it seems there was a good deal of movie star vanity in this casting). With local law enforcement refusing to do anything about Valance’s violent oppressive tactics, Ransom eventually takes it upon himself to face the villain down…

    Despite the violent promise of the title, Liberty Valance is very much a dramatic western rather than an action-packed one. Just shooting Valance isn’t the characters’ first recourse; indeed, the film on the whole is interested in the clash between the moral values of the old West and incoming modernity, and how the old ways can persist even as new ones come into force. That older Ransom is a senator is not incidental: a major part of the plot concerns Shinbone (or, rather, wherever it is) applying for statehood, and Ransom and Valance both standing to be a representative.

    All of which is fine, but unfortunately the dramatic focus seems to have resulted in the film being rather slow-going at times. The main plot is fine, but the telling could’ve been tighter — there’s a lot of stuff about Ransom washing dishes and teaching everyone to read and write. It establishes his place in town, sure, but it takes forever getting there. At the other end, Valance is actually shot a full 25 minutes before the end. There’s story to wrap up and twists to reveal, but it takes its sweet time doing it. None of which is distracting as the age-related issue I already referred to. I was genuinely puzzled why everyone kept talking about how young Ransom was, when Stewart patently isn’t, until I realised it was an example of good ol’ Hollywood vanity, where someone thought a star in his 50s could get away with playing a guy in his 20s.

    Despite that, however, Stewart and Wayne remain powerful screen presences, and the commentary on the changing face of the West — indeed, of the country as a whole — is indicative of a direction the genre continues to explore to this day (it’s what the whole of Deadwood is about, at its core).

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps
    (1974)

    aka Un homme qui dort

    2020 #203
    Bernard Queysanne | 78 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | France & Tunisia / French

    The Man Who Sleeps

    When I watched this, it was ranked as one of the greatest films of all time by Letterboxd users. I did not feel the same — rather than Un homme qui dort, I found it more like Un homme qui t’endort. (That’s a joke I’m so pleased with, I’ve now used it four times.)

    At first it plays like a stereotype of French art house cinema: shot in black & white, it’s about a disaffected student, told with introspective voiceover narration, which philosophises at the level of a pretentious undergraduate, and nothing actually happens. But then I began to feel that, actually, it does a pretty good job of capturing how I’ve felt often in my life; especially back when I too was a pretentious undergraduate. But that feeling didn’t last much more than quarter-of-an-hour — and as the film is an hour and a quarter, that became a problem. As I slogged on through it, the interminable narration became repetitive; the musings less relatable. Just because warped minds exist doesn’t mean it’s worth our while to spend 78 minutes in their thoughts.

    The Man Who Sleeps is the kind of film that thinks it’s profound, but is actually pretentious. That may gel with the worldview of its undergrad subject, but, just as you wouldn’t want to listen to a real-life undergrad’s philosophising for over an hour, I don’t want to endure the same from a fictional one either. I guess it’s apt that a film titled “the man who sleeps” would be a good cure for insomnia.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

    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 a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    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, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

    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