Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

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The Night Comes for Us (2018)

Featured

2018 #215
Timo Tjahjanto | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian, English, Mandarin & French | 18

The Night Comes for Us

Tucked away amongst the raft of original content Netflix decided to release all at once yesterday was this, which caught my attention by dint of one of its stars: Iko Uwais, the action genius best known for starring in The Raid and The Raid 2 (or, alternatively, his cameo in The Force Awakens). Intrigued, I gave it a quick Google, coming across this piece at Birth.Movies.Death., which propelled the film straight to the top of my watchlist. Well, that BMD review majorly oversells it, in my opinion, but the film has its moments.

Joe Taslim (who played Uwais’ boss, the leader of the raid, in The Raid) is the star this time. He plays Ito, a Triad enforcer who suddenly grows a conscience halfway through massacring a village, killing his Triad underlings to rescue a little girl. He turns to his old pre-Triad gang for help, because sure enough the Triad want their revenge. To achieve this they send a whole army of henchmen (naturally — you need plenty of people for our hero and his chums to slaughter, right?), led by Arian (Iko Uwais), another member of Ito’s old gang who joined the Triad at the same. Cue person conflicts and switching allegiances.

The whole storyline is quite perfunctory and rather something-and-nothing (and, considering that, gets a bit too much screen time), but it’s a sideshow because the real star is, of course, the action choreography. That’s as relentless and barmy as you’d expect given the pedigree of the cast and crew (director Timo Tjahanto was also responsible for another Uwais vehicle, Headshot), but it’s not just martial arts acrobatics being splattered across the screen: there’s enough blood and gore on show to rival any horror movie. It’s not just dainty little bullet wounds, knife scratches, or even some blood splatter — limbs are broken and dismembered, faces are graphically smashed in, and at least one person literally spills their guts. Viewers with a weak disposition need not apply.

One of the film's less brutal scenes

Uwais may be the most recognisable name, and Taslim is the main character, and they both get impressive action sequences (including a climactic one against each other), but mention must be made of Julie Estelle (who also starred in The Raid 2 and Headshot) as the mysterious Operative, whose role in all the plotting is never fully explained (or if it was, I missed it) — but she gets perhaps the best fight of all, taking out a couple of waves of henchmen with guns and explosives, before engaging in hand-to-hand and blade-to-blade combat with two fellow female equally-badass assassins.

But, all in all, it’s no The Raid 2. Well, that’s one of the greatest action movies of all time, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. But, personally, I would also put it a step behind something like The Villainess, another underworld actioner with a flair for crazy set pieces. Still, put aside the hyperbole you might encounter elsewhere online and, for viewers after a brutal, skilful action extravaganza, The Night Comes for Us does hit a spot.

4 out of 5

The Night Comes for Us is available on Netflix now.

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

aka Zatôichi no uta ga kikoeru

2018 #199
Tokuzô Tanaka | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Vengeance

Not to be confused with the series’ similarly-titled tenth film, Zatoichi’s Revenge (not a problem with the original Japanese titles, where the former translates as something like Zatoichi’s Two-Stage Sword and this is something along the lines of Zatoichi Hears the Song — I’m just using online translators to guess at these, so those translations may well be too literal), Zatoichi’s Vengeance marks the exact halfway point of the series — both chronologically and, according to Letterboxd users, for quality, too.

After encountering a dying man whose last wish is for Ichi to deliver a moneybag to someone called Taichi, our blind hero bumps into an equally blind priest and accompanies him to the village of Ichinomiya for their “thunder drum” festival. Once a quiet, peaceful place (er, despite all that drumming), that very calm has led a nearby yakuza boss to move in and take advantage, setting up a brothel and demanding protection payments from local businesses. One of the last holdouts is, it turns out, the dying man’s mother, along with her young grandson — Taichi. Naturally, Ichi’s sense of justice compels him to stop the yakuza, but he’s mindful of being a negative influence on the boy’s impressionable young mind.

Vengeance starts out as a quieter, more dramatic Zatoichi film than many, at times marked by Ichi’s deliberate refusal to engage in combat… until he starts cutting everyone down in a flurry of second-half action sequences, anyway. There’s a couple of the requisite scenes of Ichi killing hordes of enemies, the best being an encounter on a bridge where the yakuza employ those thunder drums to frustrate Ichi’s hearing. It’s a beautifully staged sequence, shot in an almost-silhouetted manner.

Silhouette attack

But the action is the lesser element here, with some of it feeling almost perfunctory alongside the interesting ideas presented by the plot. It engages on multiple fronts. Firstly, there’s Taichi and Ichi’s potential influence on him. There’s a good explanation of the effect of this plot thread by Walter Biggins at Quiet Bubble. Biggins writes that “Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is — the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. [Zatoichi] allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. [Taichi’s story] ends the film on an ambiguous note — we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique.” (I’ve chopped that up somewhat from the original because I didn’t want to rip it off by quoting too extensively, but the full piece is even more insightful on this aspect of the film.)

Connected to this is the blind priest, a wise man who seems to see into Ichi’s very soul, and advises him on his interactions with the boy and, well, his lifestyle in general. This is one part of the film I wasn’t wholly convinced by, because I’m not sure how well the film pays it off. For one thing, he advises Ichi to be a good influence on Taichi, which leads Ichi to attempt to reason with the boss and get a beating for his trouble; but rather than pursue that diplomatic tack, it’s only a few minutes before he whips out his sword and gives them a good thrashing — once again setting a bad example. The priest reassures Ichi that sometimes violence is the only way. Um, you what? Well, the priest is presented as wise and insightful — almost too wise, because the film admits this advice seems contradictory, and Ichi can’t quite process that contradiction either. The priest also warns Ichi not to rely so much on his sword of he’ll die, which seems to pay off at the climax: when Ichi enters the yakuza’s lair, they’re all afraid of him, standing back to allow him to enter, take their money, and shut down their operation. But the reason they’re afraid of him is the awesome sword skills he demonstrated earlier, and when they attempt a last-minute stealth attack, he cuts them down.

Uh-oh, Ocho

While both of these characters and their associated views of Ichi’s methods provide food for thought, perhaps my favourite part of the film is the subplot about a prostitute, Ocho, who Ichi encounters at that recently-opened brothel. She’s a kindhearted woman — almost the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold” — who’s revealed to have a tragic backstory when the samurai husband she ran away from arrives. He’s been searching for her for three years, but she doesn’t want him or his help, even as he’s desperate to win her back — so desperate that he agrees to take on Ichi for money, even though he’d had a good relationship with our hero. But the real success here is the beautiful portrayal of Ocho by Mayumi Ogawa, which makes her one of my favourite characters in the series: the way she’s so kind and generous at first, but then her personal tragedies are revealed, and her bleak ending… As the film goes on, Ogawa peels back the layers of who Ocho is and how she’s ended up this way, transcending any fears of a stereotypical character to instead reveal a sympathetic figure with a poignant ending.

Indeed, the whole film comes to a kinda melancholic, kinda bleak conclusion (spoilers here, naturally). Ichi ostensibly wins, of course — the boss is defeated, the town freed from his influence, no one (currently) out to kill him — but there are no real happy endings: Taichi’s father is still dead, the young boy in limbo about where his life will go; Ocho’s life has been ruined beyond repair (we last see her sprawled drunk on the floor, no longer caring that she finally has enough money to free herself from prostitution); and her samurai husband, the man who killed Taichi’s father and was only after Ichi because he was desperate for the money to free his lover, even though she didn’t love him, lies dead by Ichi’s reluctant hand, a fate he both deserved and didn’t. As Paghat the Ratgirl describes it, this is an “important element of Ichi’s most compelling adventures: the tragedy of victoriousness. He has won. He lives. But he has killed someone who was by no means a villain. […] Discovering himself to be a menace even to those he loves, he realizes he is undeserving even of little Taichi’s affection, and avoids the boy in order to flee the village toward his next horrific adventure”.

Ichi gets knocked down, but he'll get up again

My original conclusion to this review described it as a film of mixed success. It has some really nice ideas and spins on the usual Zatoichi formula, but I also felt like it didn’t carry some of them all the way to fruition. I wanted to love it, because I so liked some of what it did, but felt it didn’t all come together well enough. On reflection, and after reading some other reviews, like the ones I’ve quoted, I’m no longer sure it comes up so short. These Zatoichi films may just look like brief action flicks about an almost-supernaturally-gifted swordsman and righter-of-wrongs, but sometimes they leave you with a surprising amount to chew on.

4 out of 5

Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is released in the UK next month.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

aka Jin-Rô

2018 #212
Hiroyuki Okiura | 102 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin-Roh has enough cool costumes and bursts of ultra-violence to cut together a trailer that looks like a kinda-typical anime action-fest, but that’s really hiding a thoughtful, complicated (oh so complicated) drama about an unlikely romance and military conspiracies.

If that sounds like a bizarre mix… well, it is. Jin-Roh is a film that likes to pull tricks on its audience (maybe those action-packed trailers were deliberate rather than marketers just doing their best to sell the thing!), and one of the tricks it plays is to constantly wrongfoot you about what kind of movie it’s meant to be. First it’s a kind of action thriller about terrorists vs. police; then it’s a subtle romance between two damaged individuals; then it’s a conspiracy thriller, and also an espionage drama; and finally it’s some kind of allegorical tragedy. As it moves through those various phases, the characters — and, by extension, us — are subjected to crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses. Good luck keeping up…

Set in an alternate history where Germany occupied Japan after World War 2 (I’m not sure that’s made clear enough in the film, but hey-ho — maybe it’s obvious to Japanese viewers), the film picks things up a couple of decades later, with Japan free from occupation but having to fight antagonistic forces from within. With many guerrilla cells having combined to form terrorist group The Sect, the security services consequently created Kerberos, a controversial police paramilitary unit, to combat them. When Kerberos corporal Kazuki Fuse fails to shoot a bomb-carrying girl and she blows herself up, he’s punished by being sent back to basic training. At the same, he meets the girl’s sister and begins to form a bond with her. Meanwhile, his failure has thrown the future of Kerberos into doubt, setting political machinations whirring every which way.

Little Red Riding Hood... and the Big Bad Wolf?

I’ll admit, I got pretty lost with all the various factions, who was plotting what and when and why, and which side everyone was supposed to be on. Perhaps I was lulled into not paying enough attention because, as I noted above, the film appears to be a tender, understated examination of the relationship between two scarred individuals struggling to cope with the same recent tragedy from different sides, before it abruptly takes a hard turn into an intricate conspiracy thriller. Reading a plot description afterwards, I managed to get my head around it, though it didn’t resolve one quandary I felt at the end of the film itself: that it’s hard to know who we’re meant to be rooting for. Did the good guys win? Did the bad guys win? Were there actually any good guys — was anyone right? Personally, I’m fine with a film where there are no heroes, where everyone’s a bad guy and one of those bad guys wins; my problem is that I was left feeling unclear about whether that was the case or not.

Mixed feelings, then. It’s a well-made film (even watching on a crummy window-boxed DVD), but all those whiplash-inducing turns and confusion-producing twists left me somewhat reeling and bewildered.

3 out of 5

The Korean live-action remake, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, is available on Netflix from today.

(As is Daredevil season 3, Making a Murderer season 2, a brand-new Derren Brown special, and over half-a-dozen other series and films I’ve not heard of — why dump so much on one day, Netflix?!)

Rocky V (1990)

2018 #206
John G. Avildsen | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Rocky V

With his career apparently on the wane, the promise of a payday tempted writer and star Sylvester Stallone to reignite the Rocky franchise for one final round (as it’s turned out, this was far from the end, but more on that another time). After the cartoonish excess of Rocky IV, Stallone tried to shepherd this film back towards the series’ roots as a gritty drama, going so far as to rehire the Oscar-winning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen. It didn’t work: Rocky V was met with poor reviews and poor box office. Stallone himself has admitted its failure in the decades since: when he was asked to rate each of the Rocky films out of ten, he gave this one zero. In spite of all that, I thought it was… fine.

The plot picks up immediately after the end of Rocky IV, with the eponymous pugilist learning that the beating he took from Drago has left him with serious brain damage — one more fight could kill him. At the same time, a bad financial decision by Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) leaves the Balboa family in ruins, forced to move back to their old neighbourhood. Despite lucrative fight offers, Adrian (Talia Shire) insists Rocky remained retired, which leads to him encountering Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a wannabe boxer keen to be trained by the great Rocky. As Rocky begins to live vicariously through the increasingly successful Tommy, his son, Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s own kid, Sage Stallone) is feeling neglected, especially as he’s struggling with bullies at his rough new school.

Rocky Jr

So, you can see how the film is trying to be more grounded — gone are the flag-waving ultra-patriotic theatrics of the last film, replaced with a grim story of financial ruin, inner city hardship, and what life is like after your dreams are over. It’s all a bit much. Indeed, it’s probably too much, because Stallone’s attempt to course-correct the franchise overshoots, sailing past gritty realism and into melodrama territory. There’s a lot of shouting and emotional theatrics, and the subplots are all a bit pat. I mean, Rocky neglecting his son because he’s training a fighter who he treats like a son is a solid enough plot, but it’s kinda obvious and we’ve seen its ilk before, and the way it plays doesn’t offer an original perspective on the material. So while it does work as a story, it’s part of what I mean about it being a melodrama — it’s not realism, it’s a heightened Movie story.

The rest of the film is similarly afflicted — there are plenty of cheesy parts, but it wouldn’t be a Rocky movie if there weren’t — though some behind-the-scenes choices don’t help. For example, Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer, which probably seemed like a clever casting decision, but, given his limited acting ability, was possibly a mistake. That said, while he’s hardly a spectacular actor, I didn’t think he’s as bad as some people say. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is the soundtrack. The film is often scored with rap songs, which don’t fit the character at all. I don’t know whose decision it was, but presumably not Avildsen’s: in 2002 he snuck a workprint version of the film out online, dubbing it the “director’s cut”, and apparently it includes a lot more of Bill Conti’s original score. There were various other changes as well (you can read a review here). I don’t know how easy that version is to find nowadays, or what kind of quality it’s available in — in the 16 years since, it’s not been granted an official release.

Balboa family values

The originally planned ending for the film had Rocky dying after the final fight, but Stallone and/or the studio thought that didn’t really fit the tone and themes of the series. Quite right, too. It also left the door open for the series to eventually continue and redeem itself: there’s the revival movie, Rocky Balboa; the spin-off with Rocky as a trainer, Creed; and the spin-off where Rocky got turned into a squirrel or a moose or something, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can’t wait to see how that came about. (I jest — I know he’s the squirrel.*)

Altogether, I don’t quite see why Rocky V gets so reviled. It’s certainly not the best movie in the series — indeed, it’s probably the lowest point, lacking the realism of the early films, the entertaining ridiculousness of its immediate predecessors, and the feel-good zero-to-hero arc seen in all of those — but it’s a passable-enough drama in its own right.

3 out of 5

* I did not know this — I had to Google it. Never let it be said I don’t commit to a joke. ^

Behind-the-Scenes Comedy Review Roundup

A lot of people seem to enjoy spending October watching and reviewing horror movies all month, just because of one day at the end. Well, fair enough, if that’s your bag. But for now, let’s lighten the mood with a handful of pretty good comedies, all of which are related to the making of film and television… in one way or another…

In today’s roundup:

  • Mindhorn (2016)
  • In & Out (1997)
  • Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)


    Mindhorn
    (2016)

    2018 #34
    Sean Foley | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Mindhorn

    Back in the ’80s, actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) starred in Mindhorn, a successful TV show about a detective on the Isle of Man who has a cybernetic eye that can see the truth — think Bergerac meets The Six Million Dollar Man. When an escaped lunatic insists he will only speak to Mindhorn, a washed-up Thorncroft sees an opportunity to revive his career by solving a real crime.

    Produced by and co-starring Steve Coogan, there’s definitely something a little bit Alan Partridge about Mindhorn — the blustering nobody who thinks he’s a star, rubbing people up the wrong way but carrying on regardless. It’s just one of several things Mindhorn is likely to vaguely remind you of. Even if it feels somewhat derivative, it’s still pretty funny, with some of the best bits coming from throwaway cameos. The whole supporting cast is very good indeed, actually, full of strong British actors having some fun. The film seems to derail a bit when it pretends to wrap the case up after half-an-hour, but it gets funny again once it has the common sense to restart it.

    So, not the greatest Brit-com ever — heck, it’s not even the greatest action-movie-spoofing Brit-com ever (*coughHotFuzzcough*) — but it’s mostly pretty amusing.

    3 out of 5

    In & Out
    (1997)

    2018 #39
    Frank Oz | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    In & Out

    Inspired by Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech at the 1994 Oscars — when, after winning for Philadelphia, he thanked a gay teacher — In & Out is about a teacher whose former pupil wins an Oscar and, during his acceptance speech, outs the teacher as gay. The twist is, the teacher in question (Kevin Kline) didn’t know he was gay, and nor did anyone else — including his fiancée (Joan Cusack). As the media descends on the quiet little old-fashioned town and whips up a frenzy, the whole thing turns into a bit of a farce, albeit with a positive underlying message about sexuality and, ultimately, community. The premise barely sustains even this brief running time, but it’s all quite good-natured and likeable.

    3 out of 5

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno
    (2008)

    2018 #179
    Kevin Smith | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno

    It’s funny how some movies cause a stir on release and then get kinda forgotten. The very concept of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (it’s in the title) was enough to give some people palpitations a decade ago, and the poster that alluded to oral sex (less a visual double entendre, more a single one) did nothing to help. And yet, does anyone really talk about it now? It’s only stuck in my mind because it’s on my 50 Unseen list from 2008, and I’ve not been able to cross it off because for a very long time it was never available to watch anywhere (it finally popped up on Netflix a couple of months ago). Well, I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed it.

    As I said, the pitch is in the title. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are two old friends and housemates struggling to make ends meet, and who (through various plot machinations) decide to make a porn film together. As you do. Despite that risqué theme, the main relationship follows all your typical romcom beats; but those work because they work, and the edgy subject matter covers them up somewhat. Most surprisingly, their romance turns out to be actually quite sweet — even if major turning points hinge on things like them fucking for the first time in front of an audience. Aside from that, the film is full of the rude, crude, gross-out style humour that you’d expect, but I found it very funny nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

    2018 #153
    Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

    Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

    Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

    The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

    But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

    4 out of 5

    The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

    Happy Death Day (2017)

    2018 #43
    Christopher Landon | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Happy Death Day

    How much does pure originality matter? Happy Death Day is a high-concept slasher movie that could be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream via Legally Blonde. Normally those kind of “X meets Y” descriptions give a general sense of tone or some coincidental similarities, but if you could put those three films in a blender, Happy Death Day is almost certainly what would come out. (There’s probably a more apposite sorority comedy than Legally Blonde for the third ingredient, but that’s not my subgenre of expertise.) But while there’s no doubt that Happy Death Day is derivative, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

    The film introduces us to college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who wakes up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room on what turns out to be her birthday. Later that day, she’s murdered… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Later that day, although she takes steps to avoid it, she’s murdered again… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Yes, she’s in a time loop — one which, she theorises, can only be stopped if she finds and stops her killer.

    It’s a clever conceit — yes, borrowed from Groundhog Day, but utilised in a different way. For me, the plot/structural similarity is easy to overlook because, hey, it’s a great idea, why not recycle it with a different kind of story? This variation is enjoyably done, too — not an outright comedy, but with enough wit to make for a fun movie. There’s a very real danger of it being repetitive — repetitiveness is baked into the very concept, obviously — but, like Groundhog Day, it dodges that with amusing variations and intelligent filmmaking. Okay, the logic is sometimes a little askew (for example: no matter how quickly or slowly Tree leaves the dorm room at the start, the same random events happen outside), but that’s storytelling expediency rather than a major problem with the film’s logic, in my opinion.

    Screaming groundhog

    In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is excellent. She fills what could’ve been a pretty standard slasher movie heroine with different levels of reconcilable personality and a surprising amount of heart. She’s a likeable, root-for-able character to spend the day with over and over (and over) again. And when you know how the movie was filmed (i.e. like almost every other movie: not chronologically, but by location, having to shoot scenes from different time loops side by side), the way her performance is accurately nuanced becomes even more impressive.

    In my opening comparison I picked Scream specifically because Happy Death Day has the feel of those late ’90s / early ’00s teen horror movies — the heyday of franchises like Scream, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. Back then this surely would’ve been a huge hit, but I feel like very few people were talking about it when it came out last October. That said, it achieved a respectable Rotten Tomatoes score (70%), grossed $122.6 million (off a budget of just $4.8 million), and this week they made headlines by announcing the sequel’s title, Happy Death Day 2U, which seemed to go down rather well. So maybe I just missed everyone celebrating it first time round.

    I hope it continues to find a wider audience, because I think it’s a lot of fun. It may be built from blocks borrowed from other films, but they’ve been arranged in such a way that I think it still feels fresh, and they’ve been assembled skilfully enough that it’s enjoyable either way.

    4 out of 5

    Happy Death Day 2U is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day 2019.

    Gods of Egypt (2016)

    2018 #198
    Alex Proyas | 127 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

    Gods of Egypt

    If you remember Gods of Egypt, it’s likely because it was excoriated on its release back in 2016.* Many were predisposed to hate it before it even came out thanks to its whitewashed cast: as the title might indicate, it’s set in Ancient Egypt and many of the characters are Egyptian gods, but most of the lead cast are white; and of those that aren’t, none are Egyptian. Even if that didn’t bother you, it was slated for its poor dialogue, flat performances, bland direction, reliance on green screen, and cheap-looking CGI. Oh dear. But every film is for someone and there’s someone for every film, and it turns out I’m one of the few (the very, very few) who actually rather enjoyed Gods of Egypt.

    Based more on legend than any relation to history whatsoever (in one rather stunning sequence, we see that the world is, in fact, flat), it’s set in a time when super-powered gods walked the Earth among humans. Well, less “among”, more “ruling over”. A squabble between the gods sees nasty-piece-of-work Set (Gerard Butler) steal both the throne and eyes of heir-apparent Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), before going on to steal the abilities of other gods to make himself more powerful. Human thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites — between this and Pirates 5, dude must’ve thought he was gonna be a star… ’til they came out) doesn’t care for the gods, but he wants to free the love of his life (Courtney Eaton and her cleavage — I don’t want to be lecherous, but seriously, her costumes are all boobs, boobs, boobs), and the only way to do it involves stealing back one of Horus’ eyes and using it to persuade the god to take on Set.

    Gods and men

    And that’s the part of the plot that’s kinda reasonable. No, really: it gets a whole lot madder as it goes on. In fact, everything about it is so consistently batshit crazy — the concepts, the plot, the visuals — that it wins you over with its utter barminess. Or maybe it won’t win you over. Maybe you’ll think all those things make it utterly awful. As I said at the start, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. But the “you couldn’t make it up (except someone did)” mentalness of it will win over a certain kind of viewer. A viewer like me.

    I’m not really going to deny any of those criticisms I cited in the opening paragraph, because it is kind of a terrible film… but if you embrace it, it’s also campy fun. It’s a film where the men are burly, the women are breasty, and the CGI is blurry, but there’s a certain irreverence that stops it from being stodgy, and a light-hearted tone to the dialogue that occasionally hits home. For all the whizzy video game-ish visuals, it’s an old-fashioned adventure quest at heart, capable of pulling off the occasional thrilling sequence or amusing verbal exchange.

    All of that said, one does have to wonder how director Alex Proyas ended up here. If you don’t recognise the name, he was once known for visionary noir-ish filmmaking in the likes of The Crow and Dark City. At some point he wound up sidelined into less invigorating fare, like Will Smith vehicle I, Robot and Nic Cage vehicle Knowing, but while neither were groundbreaking they had a certain something (and, personally, I quite liked them both). Here, though, the direction is so… uninspired. Anyone competent could’ve made it. And people say filmmaking is collaborative and directors don’t deserve all the credit, but bear this in mind: Gods of Egypt and critically-beloved Oscar winner Mad Max: Fury Road share 295 cast & crew members.

    Robot god... on a budget

    I don’t know who deserves credit for the film’s 3D, but it’s consistently excellent and occasionally spectacular. That’s the benefit of almost all the film being created in a computer, I guess. But still, the colourful visuals and wide-open locales really help with the effect — what looked gaudy and ludicrous in 2D trailers… still pretty much is, let’s be honest. But it’s less bad when it’s doing so much to help create an epic-scaled dimensionality.

    I know I should hate this silly, cheap-looking, over-CGI’d, whitewashed hot mess… but I actually thought it was a lot of daft, campy fun. There are plenty of very good movies that I’ll likely never get round to watching again — probably some great ones, even — but I’d wager Gods of Egypt is going to end up in my Blu-ray collection someday. In 3D, of course.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network premiere of Gods of Egypt is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

    * I was going to say “summer 2016”, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct: weirdly, although it was a February/March release in much of the world, it somehow got given summer status in the UK and Ireland (and, er, Spain…?) ^

    Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

    aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

    2018 #181
    Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

    A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.

    Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, its clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t it he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.

    After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.

    Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

    The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.

    It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.

    Sore loser

    But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.

    4 out of 5

    Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.