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. ^

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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

Your Name. (2016)

aka Kimi no na wa.

2017 #168
Makoto Shinkai | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12 / PG

Your Name

If you’ve not heard about Your Name then… well, where have you been for the past year? It was a colossal hit in its native Japan during the back end of 2016, spending 12 weeks at #1 to become the fourth highest-grossing film of all time there (behind only Spirited Away, Titanic, and Frozen). It’s also the only anime not made by Studio Ghibli to gross over ¥10 billion at the Japanese box office. Critical acclaim has followed as it’s been released around the rest of the world too, hailing writer-director Makoto Shinkai as the new Miyazaki. It’s hard to imagination higher praise for an animator. The film reached UK cinemas last November, but then took a whole year to hit DVD and Blu-ray (I guess thanks to Japanese studios’ usual restrictive licensing agreements), and as of this week is available to stream for Amazon Prime members. So when I finally sat down to watch it this week it had a bit of weight on its shoulders — at this point it runs the risk of being a victim of its own hype.

The film introduces us to Mitsuha, a teenage girl in a sleepy country town — more a village, really (it doesn’t even have a cafe!) — who wishes for a more exciting life in the big city. Her friends tell her she was acting weird the day before, but she can’t remember any of it. Then she wakes up in the body of Taki, a teenage boy living in Tokyo. Assuming it’s a dream — a very long, very realistic dream — she stumbles through his life for a day. To cut to the obvious, Mitsuha and Taki soon realise they’re actually swapping bodies, apparently at random but for a whole day each time. (The literal translation of the film’s Japanese title is What is your name, which kinda makes more sense.) They find ways to deal with it, but a big explanation for why it’s happening is looming…

That feeling when you wake up and realise a boy's been inside you... er, as it were

That comes in the form of a hefty twist about halfway through the movie. I’ve read some very different reactions to that development and what follows it — criticism of it for shifting the film into something generic after a more original first half; praise it for elevating the film into something more original after the generic first half. I guess your mileage will vary. For me, it kind of glossed over some of the body-swap stuff to get to a place where there was still time to deal with what happens next. Conversely, there are plenty of intersex body-swap movies — how much do we need to go over that again? But there are generic elements to the second half too.

That said, the way it uses Japanese folklore to bring all the threads together is a bit different, at least for us Westerners. I don’t know if it’s based on genuine beliefs or if it’s a mythology imagined for the film, but it conveys some effective and affecting ideas. It builds to an emotional climax and, ultimately, a perfectly satisfying ending. Well, unless… At times you feel there were perhaps other, more unusual directions the film could have explored. Fair enough, that clearly wasn’t the story Shinkai wanted to tell; but some viewers may think those less well-trodden paths would’ve made for a better movie. Of course, that would’ve neutered its appeal to others; but then Mark Kermode compared it to Romeo and Juliet in terms of how it might appeal to teenagers, and that certainly doesn’t have a happy ending…

Taki reaching for Mitsuha's boobs, probably. He loves feeling her boobs.

I’m not just talking about the finale, though. For example: while in Taki’s body, Mitsuha displays his “feminine side”, which leads to a date with a girl he’s had a crush on for ages. On the day of the date, Taki is in his own body, which leaves Mitsuha upset because she’d wanted to go on the date. Surely you can see how this is possibly building in a direction where Mitsuha realises something about herself; something she might not have noticed living in a very traditional little town. But that’s not where Your Name is going — and, as I said, fair enough — but it’s not a bad idea for a movie (is it?)

Nonetheless, at times the story is quite complicated, with overlapping dialogue, or a density of information conveyed in images, on-screen text, and dialogue simultaneously. I mention this because watching the English dub might make for a more manageable experience, at least on first viewing. (That said, there’s one gag which only works in Japanese, and the subtitles work at a rate of knots to explain the joke while it’s happening. I watched the English dubbed version of the scene afterwards and it kind of fudges the gag away, because there’s no way to translate it into English.) That said, other bits of the story are just straight up jumbly, but trust that there’s a reason for that — you may get confused about who’s in whose body when, but the film makes enough sense in the end.

Pretty pictures

One thing I have no problem praising unequivocally is the imagery. The film is visually ravishing; the animation thoroughly gorgeous. Its use of colour and light is beautiful; the detail in the art and its movement is almost photo-real, without the uncanny valley effect you often get from rotoscoping. Shinkai also seems to have a live-action-esque feel for shots and editing, particularly in his use of montage, which lends a very filmic feel. At other times it benefits from animation’s freedom to be less literal, particularly in one sequence apparently created with pencils and chalk.

I do think the hype around Your Name ended up as a problem for me. I was expecting to be blown away by its amazingness, the expectation of which got in the way of just appreciating the film for what it is. That said, I definitely liked it a lot. Despite using some building blocks familiar from other movies, it mixes them together with some fresh perspectives to create a film that is thoroughly romantic, in multiple senses of the word.

4 out of 5

As I mentioned, Your Name is now available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

2017 #155
Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

Spot the period-accurate boom mic

The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

3 out of 5

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Kyôto taika-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno

2017 #149
Keishi Ōtomo | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin film was such a success that they followed it with a two-part sequel, filmed back-to-back and originally released six weeks apart over the same summer. This is the first half.

After the events of the first film, former assassin Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with his newfound friends, until he’s summoned by the government to take on a mission. Turns out one of Kenshin’s former assassin colleagues, the vicious Shishio (Battle Royale and Death Note’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), is amassing an army to take down the government that left him for dead. Well, less left him for dead, more killed him after they won the war because he was too nasty to let stick around. Previous efforts to stop Shishio have failed, so now they want Kenshin to sort him out. Our peace-loving hero initially turns the job down, but events conspire to convince him he must act, and so he sets off alone to once again face the demons of his past.

Kyoto Inferno is one of those sequels that benefits from the its predecessor establishing the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it, meaning it can launch off on its own grander scale. Partly we see this in a material sense: it looks even more expensive than the first one, right from a fabulous fire-strewn opening location, and keeps up the visual impressiveness throughout. But it’s also in the scope of the story and the way it stretches the characters, both old and new. It really puts Kenshin through the ringer, testing and questioning his beliefs and principles, and his fighting skills too. As a film it finds power in that — whereas the first movie established his persona and gave it a bit of a work out, here he’s stretched to breaking point.

Sword fights a-go-go

Despite being only the first half of a four-and-a-half-hour epic, when compared to the original film the story here feels more streamlined, focussed, and pointed. It’s not perfect in this respect — at one point Kenshin’s mate Sanosuke sets off to help him, only to disappear from the movie until he suddenly appears during the final battle — but such lapses are few and do little to impact the overall flow. As a villain, Shishio is more of a force and a challenge for our hero, not least because he has an army of henchmen, as well as a literal army, on his side. The fights are even more accomplished, spectacular, and epically staged than in the first movie, not least the huge climax that sees a pair of armies duke it out in the streets of the titular city.

Kyoto Inferno is unquestionably a first half — it ends on a handful of cliffhangers. That kind of thing sometimes irritates me, but it can work when done well, and I think this will turn out to be one of those good two-parters. It feels like a well-shaped movie in its own right, starting and paying off some of its own subplots rather than just leaving everything hanging. Some of these conclude in a way that is both an ending and indicates where the story will go next, which is a most deft bit of structure. The whole affair builds to a significant climax (the aforementioned battle) and a major turning point in the narrative, rather than just pausing events at the halfway point as lesser two-part movies do.

Shishio and his hench-friends

I enjoyed the first Rurouni Kenshin a lot, but this follow-up is even better. It expands the world of the story and deepens the characters, making for a more rounded and exciting movie. As mid-parts of trilogies (and/or first halves of two-parters) go, it’s more of a Dark Knight than a Matrix Reloaded; more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Dead Man’s Chest; more of a Two Towers than a Desolation of Smaug. Hopefully the next film can stick the landing…

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

2017 #143
Keishi Ōtomo | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin

Based on a manga series that was previously adapted into an anime known in the West as Samurai X, this live-action adaptation was first brought to my attention by Total Film’s list of “50 amazing films you’ve probably never seen”, which cited its “stunning action sequences” and “beautifully choreographed sword-scraps”.

Set in the late 19th century, the film is the story of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), who ten years ago went by the name Battosai and was a renowned fighter in the successful rebellion that brought Japan into a modern new age. Disgusted with his actions, he vowed never to kill again, becoming a wanderer (the rurouni part of the title) helping those in need, fighting with a blunted sword. When he arrives back in Tokyo, Kenshin finds that a murderer has adopted the name Battosai, whose killings are likely connected to powerful businessman Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) to protect his illegal activities. Kenshin falls in with Kaoru (Emi Takei), the young owner of a fencing dojo under threat from Kanryu’s plans, and eventually teams up with acquaintances old and new to stop Kanryu and co.

Kenshin and Kaoru

I’ve never read or seen a version of Rurouni Kenshin before, so I don’t know how faithful this is as an adaption, but they’ve certainly crammed plenty of plot into its two hours. Viewers need to be a bit attentive to keep track of who’s who, and who’s working for who, and what their motivations are — for example, characters who initially appear to be villains, both because of their actions and our expectations of the story, are revealed to be good guys in short order. Having two characters called Battosai, one of whom has since changed his name but is primarily known by his old moniker to some characters, doesn’t help matters.

It’s worth the small effort though, because, a few languorous patches aside, Rurouni Kenshin is a very entertaining movie. The heroes are a likeable bunch, even if Satoh looks too fresh-faced to have been a hardened warrior a decade earlier. I guess everywhere likes their pretty-boy leads. He also carries a little too great a sense of naïveté for that persona, but maybe that’s just faithful to the character as written. At least he seems to know his way around a fight scene. On the other hand, the villainous Kanryu is a delightful addition to the proud line of scenery-munching nemeses, his quirks underlined by a jaunty theme from composer Naoki Satō. He employs a couple of physically intimidating henchman too, which naturally serves to fuel the action sequences. As promised, these are excitingly staged, full of quick choreography and slick stunts. Couple their impressiveness with the large cast and varied period locations, and it gives the whole thing a glossy, big-budget feel.

Ready for action

In the years since it appeared on Total Film’s list with the note “worth importing”, Rurouni Kenshin has become much more widely available: in the UK it’s been available to stream and buy on disc for a couple of years now, and it even made it to the US in 2016. It still deserves more attention, I’d say, especially for anyone who likes a good bit of sword-based duelling.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow and Monday: reviews of the two-part sequel.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

2017 #159
Tokuzô Tanaka | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi the Fugitive

His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut in this whole wide world is oil and the bond of lovers.

The fourth film in the Zatoichi series finds the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) with a bounty on his head, which only increases when he kills the first person who tries to claim it. Travelling to a nearby village to apologise to the guy’s mother, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a yakuza scheme to grab territory from a young boss. There’s also the small matter of a ronin (Jutarô Hôjô) and his companion, Ichi’s old love Otane (Masayo Banri).

That’s the straightforward version — much of the plot is an overly complex account of yakuza plotting that, frankly, I sometimes struggled to follow. Especially at the start, there are so many bosses to keep track of, with broadly similar names, all of whom are more often referred to in dialogue than established on screen. I got my head round it eventually, but it took some work. It makes stretches of the film a bit dry and awkward, however.

Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. Otane is back from films one and two, but she’s different to how Ichi remembers her. Rather than just bringing back a familiar face for the sake of it, the film uses her to make a point about how people aren’t always who we think they are — a bit like Ichi himself, in fact. I imagine this would be even more effective if I’d watched The Fugitive closer to when I watched her previous two appearances, but there’s enough information recapped within the film to get the gist. It also continues what seems to be a definite theme of the Zatoichi films (at least so far) about past people and actions coming back to haunt our hero.

The bond of lovers

However, the best part of the film is the final 20 minutes, a tour de force of emotion and action that sees Ichi surrounded and, enraged into action, taking down an army that stands between him and vengeance. Said vengeance comes in the form of a one-on-one sword duel, of course. Obviously we know our hero will triumph, but it’s still a tense scene, especially as it seems to be a rare occasion when Ichi’s been out-fought. This third act elevates the whole movie, its very existence justifying everything that came before.

Reading other reviews, I’ve seen The Fugitive described as both “one of the weaker installments in the series” and “thus far the best [of the series,] a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much.” I think this stems to which you weigh heavier between the first-rate climax (plus a few choice sequences before that) and the occasionally dry plotting earlier in the movie. For me, the way it eventually comes together and concludes makes it all worth it.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

2017 #160
Luc Besson | 137 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | France, China, Belgium, Germany, UAE, USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson returns to the sci-fi genre that he so memorably visited 20 years ago in The Fifth Element for another colourful, crazy, adventure romp. Based on the French comic book series Valerian et Laureline, it sees special agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to protect Alpha, the titular city, from forces that threaten to destroy it.

Valerian got a pasting from critics and was a flop at the US box office, a particular problem when it’s apparently the most expensive independent movie ever made. Fortunately for it, it did alright internationally, to the point where home video sales could still secure a sequel (Besson has already written a second and has moved on to developing a third!) While it’s far from a perfect movie, it deserves to find an audience. It’s probably a bit too barmy — a bit too European, even — for mainstream US tastes, but there’s a lot to like here for those who are so inclined.

The main selling point is the imagery. Simply put, it’s incredible. There’s so much going on, all the time. There’s background detail galore. It whizzes through worlds that could be the entire setting for some other story. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of alien species thrown around. It’s so casually inventive, as if it’s got imagination to spare. And it’s mostly vibrantly colourful too, a real comic book of a movie in the traditional sense. All that depth and detail looks particularly amazing in 3D, it must be said, especially during the action sequences that whoosh though intricate, layered environments at breakneck speed.

Valerian, without Laureline

This visual exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of the plot. The main storyline is pretty straightforward — for example, there’s a third-act twist that’s obvious from the moment the character it concerns first appears on screen — but it keeps getting distracted by total asides, as Besson meanders off course to showcase some other species or environment or set piece he and his army of designers have cooked up. If that kind of shaggy storytelling annoys you then Valerian is set to get up your nose, but if you go along for the ride then Besson’s showing off can be delightful.

Some of the other screenwriting details suffer even more, however. It almost engages in some interesting themes about colonialism and that kind of stuff, but instead more nods its head in their direction than actually says anything about them. More overtly, a lot of the dialogue is atrocious. In fact, it’s so bad that you begin to wonder if it’s deliberately ultra-mannered and you’ve just missed some kind of joke. It doesn’t help that DeHaan feels at least somewhat miscast as the cocky heroic lead. Or possibly that’s the point — that Valerian isn’t as irresistibly attractive and amazingly competent as he thinks he is. Model-turned-actress Delevingne, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.

You’ll notice that Valerian and Laureline are (a) co-leads, and (b) both in the name of the original books, and yet the female half of the duo has been ditched from the film’s title. Unfortunately, that does indicate the film’s sometimes-dated attitude towards gender politics. On the bright side, Delevingne manages to imbue Laureline with a feistiness that allows her to mostly hold her own against the men, and — despite the old-fashioned shape of a romantic subplot — Besson’s screenplay lets her be a capable agent in her own right as well. Still, Laureline vs. the Space Patriarchy would not be a wholly unapt alternative title for the film.

Laureline vs the Space Patriarchy

These less-good aspects of Valerian glare out at one rather, and make me want to declare that much of it is kind of rubbish, really… and yet I rather enjoyed the whole shebang. Perhaps it just takes a rewatch or two to settle into the film’s own particular rhythm? Even if that’s not the case, I’d still rather have the messy ambition of a Valerian than another dozen run-of-the-mill Hollywood CGI extravaganzas. Fingers crossed for those sequels.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released on disc in the UK today.

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

Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.