The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^

Don’t Breathe (2016)

2017 #21
Fede Alvarez | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Don't Breathe

One of the most talked-about thriller-cum-horror movies of last year, Don’t Breathe (which is available on Sky Cinema as of last Friday) concerns a gang of young house burglars — Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s doing it to help get her little sister away from their good-for-nothing parents; her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), who’s a bit of a dick; and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who’s secretly in love with Rocky, and whose dad runs a security company from which they ‘borrow’ the necessary information to access homes without setting off the alarms. After a big final score, they set their sights on the remote home of a chap (Stephen Lang) whose daughter was killed in a car accident, from which he netted a hefty settlement. Plus he’s blind, so it’ll be easy money. Right? As is no doubt obvious, the blind bloke turns out to have a few secrets up his sleeve… and down his basement…

Despite how it was advertised (doesn’t that poster scream “horror movie”?), really speaking Don’t Breathe is a thriller — it’s about a trio of crooks trying to rob a home and its owner fighting back. Though I suppose it depends what you use to define “a horror movie”, really. I tend to think of them as featuring an enemy who is either supernatural or possibly supernatural, but I suppose the only real prerequisite is that they be scary. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have a supernatural villain (though the blind man’s abilities do stretch credibility), but it’s so gosh-darn suspenseful that the viewing experience is similarly tense to a horror movie, even if outright scares are few. And one memorable scene in particular is certainly classifiable as horrific, most especially for female viewers. So, as a sub-90-minute exercise in mood and thrills it’s a very effective viewing experience; but it’s best not to stop to think about the practicalities if it were real because a lot of the film doesn’t withstand scrutiny. I won’t rehash all of the plot’s logic gaps (there are plenty of articles online that already do that, if you’re interested), but I think it’s best enjoyed as a go-along-with-it experience.

Bad guys gone good?

One point of contention for many seems to be the likeability or otherwise of the characters. The ostensible heroes are a gang of crooks who we first meet robbing the home of an undeserving victim, and being needlessly destructive about it too. You might think this sets the blind man up as some kind of avenging hero, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s an even bigger bad guy… so are we meant to side with the crooks after all? For me, this raises a question I’ve come up against before: does a movie actually need to have any likeable characters? Some people need that, for sure, but I don’t think a film does per se. I’m not sure Don’t Breathe has really thought through its position on this issue, which makes reading online commentary about this point a funny thing. For instance, I saw someone argue that the writers make no effort to make us like the burglars — so, what’s the whole thing with Rocky trying to get her sister out of their shitty life for, then? And then another person stated that they actually found themselves liking two of the “bad guys” — so, if the burglars are the bad guys that makes the blind guy the hero? I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know why holding that opinion is either, a) ridiculous, or b) deeply troubling…

As I said, it’s best not to think about it too much. I think Don’t Breathe is perhaps the movie equivalent of a theme park attraction: designed to thrill you and scare you during its brief duration, not withstand plot and character scrutiny when dissected afterwards. That’s why my rating errs on the lower side, though if you want nothing more than a gripping hour-and-a-half it maybe merits another star.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

aka Innocence / Kôkaku Kidôtai Inosensu

2017 #44
Mamoru Oshii | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Nine years after he made the highly influential sci-fi action/philosophy mash-up anime Ghost in the Shell, writer-director Mamoru Oshii returned to that world to tell an original story (the first film having been an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga) that once again butts action up against philosophising, though with diminishing returns.

Set a couple of years on from the original movie, it follows the first film’s sidekick, Batou (originally voiced by Akio Ôtsuka, and in the English version by the dub’s co-writer and director, Richard Epcar), as he investigates a series of murder-suicides committed by sex robots. It’s just the tip of an iceberg that leads to… some kind of conspiracy.

At the time of its release Innocence gained a lot of praise, as is plastered all over the DVD and Blu-ray covers (at least over here), with some hailing it as a more artistically accomplished film than its predecessor. With time I think that reaction has cooled considerably, and rightfully so. If there’s one criticism to be levelled at the first movie it’s that it sometimes stops dead for characters to have a thoughtful discussion about the existential quandaries that underpins their cyborg existence. Innocence ramps this up to the nth degree, with even more such chats that go on even longer, liberally peppered with quotations from other sources, an idea Oshii cribbed from Jean-Luc Godard. It feels like it.

Ain't she a doll?

While the first film clearly pondered what it means to be human, and where the line might be between an artificial creation and sentience, I can’t really recall what Innocence was driving at. Possibly several things. Possibly too many things. A lengthy sequence in the middle where our heroes find themselves repeating the same events over and over with slight variations is probably meant to be About something, but it just left me thinking of cheap referential jokes (“Locus Solus, I’ve come to bargain!”)

There are action scenes too, some of which are decent and some of which are hysterically overblown. There’s nothing that approaches being as iconic as any of the original’s multiple memorable set pieces. Where the first film broke new ground by combining traditional cel animation with computer-generated 3D, in a way that still holds up today, Innocence takes it too far, and looks dated because of it. The characters are always 2D, but often placed in CG environments, which are now 13 years old and feel it. It’s weird to think this is a film that was once hailed for its visual majesty, because a lot of it feels quite drab now. At times there’s an awful lot of brown.

Computer-generated brown

On its original release Innocence was called simply that, the Ghost in the Shell 2 prefix added to help sell it in international markets. Oshii’s view was that the film stood on its own and wasn’t your standard “Hollywood-style” sequel. I disagree. For one thing, the film makes many references to the events of the first movie, meaning a working knowledge is required to understand what’s going on at times. For another… well, with technical advancements that aren’t necessarily beneficial, grander but less memorable action sequences, and less coherent thematic underpinnings, it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t have the monopoly on sequel-y sequels.

3 out of 5

The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is released in the UK today and the US tomorrow.

Demolition (2015)

2017 #32
Jean-Marc Vallée | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Demolition

Jake Gyllenhaal is a high-flying banker struggling with the grief of his wife’s death by taking his life apart — literally — in this slightly strange drama from the director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild.

It’s more of a comedy-drama, actually, despite the apparently serious subject matter, because a large chunk of the plot revolves around Gyllenhaal making a complaint to a vending machine company, pouring his heart out in the process, and then being kinda stalked by the customer service rep, and… well, that’s just the first half. I said it was strange.

Despite some witty moments, the emotional truth just isn’t there to hold it all together. And the trailer song I once mentioned is barely featured in the film itself, so that was disappointing.

3 out of 5

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

2017 #31
Mel Brooks | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | PG / PG-13

Robin Hood: Men in Tights

Master movie spoofer Mel Brooks’ penultimate work as director was this riff on the Robin Hood legend, in particular the version seen in Prince of Thieves.

Although generally regarded as one of Brooks’ lesser movies, its deeply silly style tickles, and also means you don’t have to have seen Prince of Thieves (or remember it) to get most of the jokes. Cary Elwes is on point as the dashing hero, while Roger Rees successfully spoofs the unspoofable with a version of Alan Rickman’s villain. Instead of Nottingham he’s the Sheriff of Rottingham, a pun that indicates the film’s humour level.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

San Andreas (2015)

2017 #24
Brad Peyton | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

San Andreas

San Andreas is a most amusing movie. It’s not a comedy, just a generic effects-driven disaster movie in exactly the same style Hollywood has been producing for about 20 years.

In its favour it has the surprising likeability of Mr The Rock, Paul Giamatti hamming it up for a paycheque, and the mammarially blessed Alexandra Daddario running around, lazing in a bikini, getting wet, etc. There’s some solid spectacle, including a couple of nice long takes, which is what these movies are all about.

Conversely, it couldn’t be any cheesier if it had been entirely made out of dairy products.

3 out of 5

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

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).