In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Love & Friendship (2016)

2016 #173
Whit Stillman | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | Ireland, France & Netherlands / English | U / PG

Love & Friendship

Adapted from Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, writer-director Whit Stillman’s arch comedy concerns one Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow with a certain reputation in polite society, which she endeavours to hide from while engaging in matchmaking machinations for both herself and her daughter.

That’s the vague version, anyway. The details of the plot are occasionally a mite too intricate to follow, especially as explanations tend to come after the fact, if they do at all. However, for those prepared to go along with it, the reward is a film that is at times hilariously funny.

Stillman’s writing and direction are both a little mannered, which will surely turn off some viewers, but the real stars are, indeed, the stars. Kate Beckinsale is phenomenal — funny, dry, biting, witty, but also conveying that Susan is making it all up as she goes, despite pretending to be in control. The other standout is Tom Bennett as the dimwitted Sir James Martin. His knowledge of the commandments and opinion of peas are particularly delightful.

Kate Beckinsale & Tom Bennett

Love & Friendship may be something of an acquired taste thanks to its stylistic affectations, but couple that with its wry sense of humour and it makes a likeable change from the heritage ambitions of most Austen adaptations. Perhaps, too, that makes it the Jane Austen film for people who don’t normally like Jane Austen films.

4 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

2017 #19a
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

Black and Doof

And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

Furiouser and Furiosa

Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Tale of Tales (2015)

aka Il racconto dei racconti

2016 #148
Matteo Garrone | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Italy, France & UK / English | 15 / R

Tale of Tales

Based on 17th Century Italian fairytales by Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales relates three interlocking stories of dark fantasy. If there’s one thing that really connects them, it’s thematic: essentially, “be careful what you wish for”; or maybe “be grateful for what you’ve got”. There are primary characters in each tale who go to disgustingly extraordinary lengths to achieve what they desire — eating a sea-monster’s heart raw, breeding a giant flea, self-flaying — and it rarely turns out for the best.

If you can stomach the contents, there’s a quality cast, and the locations, production design, and cinematography are simply gorgeous.

4 out of 5

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

2016 #137
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This is a film about a high school student who makes movie parodies for fun, who befriends a dying girl. It won the Audience Award at Sundance. I’m not sure there’s any other knowledge you need to judge if you’ll like this movie or not. Except normally that’d have me thinking “oh God, here we go,” but I liked it enough to put it in my Top 20 of last year.

So, I admit, I went into the film feeling pretty cynical about it. I was expecting to find a movie tailor-made to be an indie cinephile’s dream comedy-drama. There are elements of that about it, but I must also admit I ended up being won round and affected by the film, to the point of feeling quite emotional and often a little teary for, ooh, most of the second half. Was I just manipulated into feeling that way? Well, that question is a fallacy. All film is emotionally manipulative, because it has been constructed to achieve a purpose, and the people who complain about feeling manipulated by sappy dialogue or heavy-handed music or whatever have just seen behind the curtain, as it were. For these reasons it kind of annoys me when critics or ‘film fans’ get annoyed about a film being “manipulative”, but maybe that’s a rant for another time.

Me and Earl and the Criterion Collection

Anyway, as I was saying, I kind of didn’t want to like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because I didn’t want to fall into the obvious trap of “this movie totally gets me because I love Criterion editions too!” But I thought it worked in spite of those pandering affectations. Or maybe I just couldn’t resist them on a subconscious level? In some respects it doesn’t matter how it achieved it: the film wanted to make me feel a certain way, and I did feel that way — success.

Perhaps another reason it worked for me was the positioning of Greg (the titular “Me”) as a high school “Everyman”, not affiliated with any of the school’s multitudinous social groups. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a film before. What movies (and TV) have taught us about American high schools is that they are chocka with rigid cliques, and everyone belongs in one group or another. Is that true? I have no idea — but as far as movies (and TV) are concerned, yes it is. I don’t think it’s the case out in the rest of the world (well, at least not in the UK); not so rigidly and antagonistically as it’s depicted as being in US high schools, anyway. Nonetheless, I could identify with Greg’s status as someone able to drift around groups being generally well-liked but also almost entirely unnoticed, which perhaps helped me buy into him and his emotional journey a little more, thereby explaining the film’s ultra-effective emotional manipulation effect.

The Dying Girl

A lot of what works lies in the performances. As “the dying girl”, Rachel, Olivia Cooke is fantastic. She’s got the showy role, but manages to play it with subtlety. Instead of the usual indie movie Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the lead character / narrator is the Quirky one and she’s a cynical girl who undercuts him, which is kinda fun. Nonetheless, as the film’s “Me”, Greg, Thomas Mann has a less obviously showcasing part, but the way he handles it — especially as the film moves away from the “he’s a Quirky film fan who’s uncomfortable in high school just like you” aspect — is essential to how the film’s relationships and emotions function.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in a two-hander between the pair: achieved in a single static shot that lasts five minutes, they don’t look at each other while they argue and their friendship struggles. It’s a frankly stunning scene from all involved: kudos to Jesse Andrews (who wrote both the original novel and the screenplay) for the plausible and complex dialogue; kudos to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon for the confident blocking of both actors and camera; kudos to both of the actors for their layered, emotive, but not grandiose, performances.

Several supporting cast members are also worthy of note: Jon Bernthal as a cool teacher; Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom; and Nick Offerman for once again perfectly judging the level of funny his character needed to hit to be comic relief but also stay tonally consistent with the rest of the film.

Fake Criterions

A final stray thought before I wrap up this rather bitty review: I’ve read a few comments that make a point of mentioning this is not like all those other “teen death” movies, or that if you’re sick of all those then this one’s still good, and so on. I’m kind of aware these “teen death” movies exist and that there’ve been a few, but I’ve never bothered to watch one (because, frankly, they’ve all sounded rubbish), so I am immune to any overkill other viewers may experience. But if there’s a lesson here (and I’m not saying there is) it would be that you don’t have to watch every high-profile film that comes out (unless you’re a critic and being paid to do it).

4 out of 5

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It Follows (2014)

2017 #17
David Robert Mitchell | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Follows

It’s always fun when you come across a divisive movie — “which camp are you in?” It Follows is one of those (naturally — I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it otherwise). Some say it’s an instant horror classic, others that it’s slow, boring, unscary, and can’t even follow its own rules. I’m not qualified enough as a horror viewer to claim the former, but nor do I hold with the latter.

If you’ve not already seen it, it’s based around an original horror concept — that, at least, has been near-enough universally praised. After teenager Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, he reveals that he’s passed a curse to her. She will be followed by something. It always takes human form, but that form changes — it could be a face in the crowd, someone she knows, whatever it needs to get close to her. Only people who have (or have had) the curse can see it. If it catches her, it will kill her, and then return to hunting the previous target (i.e. the boyfriend). The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on — though, of course, if they get killed then it’s back to you. The one advantage you have is that it only walks, and slowly — but it never, ever stops. Naturally, Jay doesn’t quite believe it… until things start happening to change her mind, and along with her friends she tries to find a way to shake the curse permanently.

Pretty in pink

A deadly force that moves towards you slowly but unceasingly and unstoppably — sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And it literally is, having been inspired by a series of nightmares writer-director David Robert Mitchell had as a child. He has not made those childhood fears into a childish movie, however. Far from it. Even leaving aside a couple of splashes of gore, the creature’s frequently nude form, and all the sex stuff, It Follows is adult in its filmmaking attitude. Much like the creature, it often moves slowly, letting its story and situations breathe. This is not a multiplex movie; not a teen-friendly horror flick for date night. It feels more like an indie drama, with Mitchell creating a slow, methodical pace, which doesn’t linger on things — he trusts we’ll spot them. It’s subtle filmmaking, respectful of the audience and our ability to work stuff out. There’s the subject matter, too, about disaffected youth killing time… until they start being stalked by a murderous force, anyway.

One thing I’d say it excels at is creating that ambiance of teenage life. That sense of endless time to do nothing, to be bored — who gets bored once they’re a grown-up and there’s not enough time to do everything you want to do, never mind have time to kill doing nothing? There are parents, but they’re barely present — they exist, but they also aren’t part of your life. They never really tell Jay’s mother what’s going on, nor get the police involved, beyond an initial, fruitless investigation into the boyfriend. Well, why would they? Like being a teen, adults have no real power in your world (i.e. your friendship circle); you can’t talk about all your ‘problems’ with them. Some of this is literally applicable to the film (seriously, are the police going to believe a teenage girl who says she’s being stalked by an invisible killer?), but it’s also part of the film’s broader metaphor.

Normal teens

They’re also a decent evocation of normal teens, not the Cool Kids you usually see in movies and TV — they don’t talk in pop culture references or be all hip and aware, like the cast of Sceam or Buffy or something. They’re more normal… apart from the fact they’re always watching black-and-white B-movies, anyway. They’re fumbling their way through life, and the situation they’re in forces them to wake up a little — and they fumble their way through that, too. Again, more metaphors for the real experience of adolescence.

Of course, if you don’t want that kind of stuff from your Horror movie, then I guess It Follows would seem slow and disinterested. So what of the scary stuff? As with pretty much all horror movies, your mileage will vary — perusing various reviews and comment threads shows no consistency in that regard. Personally, I found it more than sufficiently creepy. The whole effect is built on being very atmospheric rather than simplistically Scary. It’s not without its jump scares or freaky moments, but it’s the building sense of dread and tension where it most chills; that has you looking in the back of every frame for what’s coming; longing for a reverse shot, because what if it’s coming from the other direction? There are some very edge-of-your-seat sequences where Mitchell establishes there is something there, that something is coming, but then the camera pans slowly around, or it cuts away, and keeps cutting to other stuff, and you’re begging for it to cut back to the original shot, or for the pan to speed up, so that you can see how things are going, how close it’s getting, to LET US KEEP A BLOODY EYE ON IT.

Ahem.

Rules? What rules?

Also from reading others’ comments, it strikes me that the people who are most let down by the film are the ones who are either: a) looking for it to establish and follow a set of rules, or b) reading it as a great big sex metaphor. While it undoubtedly has rules (as a horror movie with a supernatural foe, it requires them) and obviously there’s a sex-related reading (the curse is passed on through sex — how can there not be?), I’m not sure either of these are the film’s main concern; at least, not in the way you’d expect them to be.

People as high and mighty as Quentin Tarantino have criticised the film for its faulty internal logic, for not following its own rules, but I don’t agree. For starters, some of the faults QT calls out are actually explained in the film itself. For seconds, the rules are never established with perfect clarity. We’re given some rules up front, but they come from a scared teenage boy whose only source for this information is his own experience. This isn’t some sage old wise-man or some ancient textbook, this is just some kid who’s been lucky enough to survive a while — who’s to say his observations are 100% accurate? Personally, I don’t think they are. Some people defend the film by saying there are no rules, that it’s operating under dream logic, and that’s fine because the point is to be scary, but I don’t agree with that either. I think the behaviour of “it” does bend the rules we’ve been told, but that’s because the rules we’ve been told are incomplete. I believe it is operating under a set of specific rules, which Mitchell knows but hasn’t fully shared with us. And further, I think that’s not only OK, but actively a good thing. Rules create a safety net — you know what it can and can’t do, and you can work out what to do to defeat it, and, by extension, a way for the characters to win. But if you can’t be certain what it’s going to do next, that’s scarier — and this is a horror movie, not an instruction manual.

Sex

As to the sex stuff, the obvious reading is the good old horror movie cliche of “having sex = getting killed”; or, more specifically, “losing virginity = getting killed”. Except that’s not the case at all. There’s a throwaway reference to the fact Jay isn’t a virgin, never mind the lack of general “it’s my first time” handwringing you’d realistically expect if she were, so if it’s a punishment for sex then it’s a bit late coming. Even more omnipresently, the way to beat the curse (albeit temporarily) is to sleep with more people. If the message was intended to be “sex is bad, mmkay kids” then it’d’ve royally fucked that up.

There’s an awful lot of theories that can be crafted out of It Follows — about what it’s saying about sex, about teenage life, about growing up, about the inevitability of death. I don’t think it’s the kind of horror movie that’s designed to scare you for 90 minutes in a darkened cinema in a comforting fashion (there are no pauses or fake-out scares to elicit reassuring laughter). It’s designed to chill you on a more fundamental level, and perhaps to say something about something too — though what those somethings are, well, we can debate that.

I also think its shortage of hard-and-fast rules should not invite derision, but rather our own theories. Like, what’s going on with water — does it really have an aversion to it? If so, why? Can it stop it? Spoilers: apparently not. More spoilers (just skip to the next paragraph if you’ve not seen it): does it require a chance to manifest as one of your parents before it can kill you? We don’t see how it appears to the girl at the start, though note she’s on the phone apologising to her father just before it does. Jay’s friend who dies identifies it as his mom just before we see it fuck him to death. When it finally catches up with Jay in the pool, it’s her dad. Conversely, when it attacks her on the beach earlier it starts by just grabbing her hair — why not get her then?

Wet

And I haven’t even mentioned the awesome synth score by Disasterpiece, or the era-unspecific production design. Maybe that doesn’t signify anything beyond an aesthetic throwback (the score is very Halloween; there’s some modern tech but they’re not all on their mobiles).

As I said at the start, my experience with the horror genre is too slight to ever go labelling something a genre classic. But this isn’t ‘just’ a horror movie. Like the same year’s The Babadook, there are dramatic elements that stretch out beyond the genre’s usual stomping ground, not to mention an atmosphere of terror that exceeds simplistic attempts to make you jump in your seat every few minutes and call it a day. It’s the kind of film that lingers after the credits roll, as you ponder the gaps it leaves you to ponder, and keep looking over your shoulder, because you never know when something might be following you…

5 out of 5

The UK network premiere of It Follows is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

London Has Fallen (2016)

2017 #14
Babak Najafi | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Bulgaria / English, Italian, French & Japanese | 15 / R

London Has Fallen

The unwanted sequel to the less-good of 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” double bill sets its rip-off sights lower: the entire plot feels rehashed from a weak season of 24. It may as well begin with a gravelly-toned voiceover informing us that “the following takes place between 9AM and 9PM Greenwich Mean Time.” Fortunately, events don’t occur in real time.

Those events take place in the wake of the British Prime Minister’s unexpected death. Granted a state funeral, the American President (Aaron Eckhart) is naturally in attendance, along with 39 other world leaders — most of whom are suddenly wiped out in a series of terrorist attacks. POTUS’s Secret Service chum (Gerard Butler) must get him out of the embattled capital, away from an enemy who seems to have foreseen their every move.

From there, the film is a relentless assault on the notion of good filmmaking. The narrative is so poorly structured that it doesn’t feel like there’s a climax — it’s only apparent with hindsight that what seemed like the back-half of Act 2 is actually meant to be the big finale. The main villain is only dealt with in a tacked-on coda; so too is the obligatory mole, whose presence appears to be solely motivated by a futile attempt to plug plot holes.

Going Underground

The dialogue is horrendous (“You should have let us kill him quickly, because now… we’re going to kill him slowly”) and the CGI is ceaselessly cheap — shots of the various terrorist attacks wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie. A single-take action sequence feels like it should be exciting filmmaking, but is actually more like watching someone else play a video game.

Even with that, London Has Fallen does just about pass muster as a brains-off actioner, in the truest sense of the term: you’ll need to switch your brain off to endure the rampant xenophobia and American flag-waving.

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5