Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

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aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

2020 #95
Shintarô Katsu | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi in Desperation

The 24th and penultimate film in the original Zatoichi series is also the first to be directed by star Shintarô Katsu. (He previously wrote the 21st film, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and would later direct 22 episodes of the TV series and write & direct the 1989 revival movie.) Despite such fundamental creative control by the man who arguably knew the character best, Zatoichi in Desperation is widely regarded as one of the series’ worst instalments, and yet you’ll find some people full of praise for it. It’s one of the series’ darkest entries, and I suspect it’s unpopular overall because it’s so grim; but for those who do like it, they love it.

The plot starts with Ichi accidentally causing a polite old woman to fall from a bridge and die — as I said, cheery. The woman was on her way to visit her daughter, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), so Ichi seeks her out. She’s a prostitute, so, as recompense, Ichi sets about raising the funds to free her from prostitution. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Kaede (Kyoko Yoshizawa) is also employed at Nishikigi’s brothel, to earn money to care for her younger brother Shinkichi (Yasuhiro Koume); so when some out-of-town bigwig starts letching over her, well, you can guess what route she’s set to head down. Said bigwig is funding a move by gangsters to crush the local fishermen and set up some kind of modern fishing empire. Just the kind of ordinary folk vs yakuza fight that Ichi would normally find himself embroiled in…

Except he’s busy with Nishikigi, and that doesn’t really change. This is the cornerstone of the film’s moral thesis, which seems to be that the world is a brutal and unjust place. While kind-hearted Ichi is busy helping Nikigiki out of a perhaps-misplaced sense of duty (she doesn’t seem fussed about her mum’s demise, nor with escaping the brothel), he’s missing the people who could really use his help, i.e. Kaede and Shinkichi, or the village’s oppressed fishermen.

Kaede and Shinkichi

And they really could use a hand, because it’s against them that the film’s brutality is fully manifested. The gangsters burn all the villagers’ boats, then murder them for complaining about it; and while Kaede’s busy preparing to have to sell her body at 14, Shinkichi provokes the gangsters and consequently gets brutally beaten to death; and when Kaede finds his body, she commits suicide — and all of that occurs without Ichi even being aware Kaede and Shinkichi exist. Makes you wonder: were events like that playing out just offscreen in every other Ichi movie? Well, not consciously, obviously, but perhaps Katsu is provoking us to wonder about all the people Ichi has failed down the years while he was distracted elsewhere. Maybe our hero is blind in more ways than one.

Aside from the violence, this is also an uncommonly filthy film for the series. First Ichi overhears a whore talking about how taking ten men makes her wet; then he’s hiding in a room while a couple have sex; then later a bunch of yakuza round up a mentally ill kid and start wanking him off until he ejaculates on one of them, for which they give him a beating. Yep, that all happens on screen. (Nearly every review I’ve come across comments on that last scene. Well, no surprise, really — it’s rather striking.)

Hopefully you’re beginning to understand why this movie is so divisive. But if the content wasn’t enough, Katsu seems determined to show off with form, too. His bold directorial style evident from the off, when the old woman’s fall from the bridge is represented via an impressionistic barrage of flash-cut images. This is followed through the rest of the film by weirdly-framed close-ups and various odd angles. It doesn’t always pay off: the requisite gambling scene is a rehash of a trick from an earlier film, shot with a certain kind of dark tension (Ichi feels in genuine peril from those he swindled) that’s in-keeping with the film’s tone, but the trick itself is less entertainingly performed, the scene not as well paced and constructed. There’s also an atypical score by Kunihiko Murai, which some praise as being ’70s funk, but I thought sounded just like cheesy electronic nastiness. Sometimes, his unusual choices emphasise the film’s glum tone, as in the opening credits, which play out in silence over black — not the usual mode for a Zatoichi film, and so it somewhat suggests the goal is to prevent this as a Serious Movie.

Blind in more ways than one

Certainly, many describe this as a more realistic version of Zatoichi than we’ve seen before. It’s removed from the superheroics of the other movies, instead offering a brutal portrait of real violence and how it scars, with innocents suffering unnoticed and even our hero failing to emerge unscathed. Whether that’s realist or just depressive might depend on your view of the world; although, considering the time and place these films are set, I imagine its closer to reality than all of the “Ichi saves everyone” narratives. That either/or extends to the film’s reception: everyone agrees that it’s nastier, darker, and closer to reality than the other Zatoichi films, but whether that’s merited — an interesting diversion — or a case of taking things too far — a low point for the series — is a matter of personal taste.

Personally, then, I appreciate what it was going for, but I wonder if Katsu left it too long to go there. Coming so late in the series means we’re very familiar with the tropes its subverting, which is necessary — it works best as a counterpoint to what we’ve already seen rather than as a standalone piece — but it almost feels too late to go about such subversion — it’s a departure from the groove these films have worn for themselves. Maybe Katsu should’ve entrusted such a departure to a more sure-handed director; maybe it’s the roughness of his directorial voice that makes the film what it is.

3 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIII

    Regular readers will remember that I started 2021 on the back foot with these 100-week roundups, being about a month behind. Well, after some effort the past few weeks, I’m pleased to report I’ve now caught up — which, if you think about it, only means I’ve caught up to being just 100 weeks behind. Hurrah?

    Anyway, as always, this roundup covers films I still hadn’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes the final film from February and the first from March 2019

  • Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
  • Swimming with Men (2018)


    Sherlock Gnomes
    (2018)

    2019 #22
    John Stevenson | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

    Sherlock Gnomes

    As if the idea of making a children’s animated movie based on Romeo & Juliet but starring garden gnomes and the music of Elton John wasn’t barmy enough, here we have a sequel that riffs off another classic of English literature, Sherlock Holmes.

    The plot naturally takes the form of a whodunnit, with Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) recruiting Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, for some reason) and his assistant, Dr Gnome Watson (what creative renaming), to investigate the disappearance of their garden ornament friends. Don’t worry too much about the plot, though: I guessed the twist in the very first scene. (Fortunately, there is another twist beyond that.) Instead, treat it as a bright and breezy kids’ adventure. It’s not particularly clever or funny, but much of it is perfectly fine, with the occasional bit that’s quite good, like a Flushed Away-esque sewer scene or a hound of the Baskervilles gag, plus some creative use of animation to render things like Sherlock’s visions or Romeo’s escape plan.

    The Elton John songs are even more incongruously shoehorned in than they were last time — I know he’s a producer, or it’s made by his company or whatever, but, other than that, they have absolutely no reason to be here. Worst of all is a new number, written by Elton and regular collaborator Bernie Taupin but sung by Mary J. Blige. At least it makes the rest of the John back catalogue on the soundtrack seem less objectionable.

    3 out of 5

    Swimming with Men
    (2018)

    2019 #29
    Oliver Parker | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

    Swimming with Men

    Here’s a sort of aquatic riff on The Full Monty, as a man suffering a midlife crisis (Rob Brydon) joins an all-male amateur synchronised swimming team, mostly made up of other mostly-middle-aged British character actors: Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Adeel Akhtar, and Thomas Turgoose. It seems like your typical Britcom setup, but it’s actually based on a true story — the Swedish team it’s about play themselves in the film — which has been filmed several other times now: in Sweden as The Swimsuit Issue; in France as Sink or Swim; plus a documentary about the real team, Men Who Swim. I haven’t seen any of those to compare, but the British variant holds up pretty well by itself, with enough gentle amusement and heartwarming camaraderie to make for a pleasant watch.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes three more feature films and one short from February 2019

  • Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Leave No Trace (2018)
  • Inception: The Cobol Job (2010)
  • Fences (2016)


    Hacksaw Ridge
    (2016)

    2019 #17
    Mel Gibson | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Hacksaw Ridge

    Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American who believed that World War II was justified — so he joined the army to serve his country — but also that killing was wrong — so he refused to carry a weapon. Serving as a combat medic, Doss ended up at the bloody Battle of Okinawa, where he saved the lives of 75 men without firing a shot, and became the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor.

    It’s an extraordinary true story — the kind of thing that would seem ludicrous if someone made it up — so it earns its place on the screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the best way to tell it was by letting Mel Gibson carve it from a block of cheese. When the film’s not wasting time on clichéd bootcamp stuff, it’s earnestly indulging in its subject matter to an eye-rolling degree. Indulgence is also the name of the game when it comes to the war, too: for a movie about a guy who wouldn’t kill, it certainly revels in its gory depictions of combat. Handled the right way, such grotesquery could have supported the point that Desmond is right, but Gibson seems to be enjoying the slaughter too much.

    And yet for all of Gibson’s amping it up, some of the real-life stories are even more incredible than what’s in the film — there are stories in IMDb’s Trivia section (here and here, for example) that stretch credulity so far it was decided to leave them out because audiences would never believe it. Considering how OTT the stuff left in is, it seems a shame to have left out something that could be backed up as a true account.

    3 out of 5

    Leave No Trace
    (2018)

    2019 #18
    Debra Granik | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG

    Leave No Trace

    Traumatised military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived in isolation for years in a public park outside Portland, Oregon, only occasionally venturing in to the city for food and supplies. But when they’re spotted by a jogger, they’re arrested and put into social services. Tom finally gets a sense of what it might be like to integrate with society, but Will clashes with his new surroundings, and soon they set off on a harrowing journey back to the wild. — adapted from IMDb

    I don’t like summarising too much of a film’s storyline at the start of a review, but Leave No Trace is one of those films where the character work is more important than the shifts of the plot. It’s a double portrait: that of a damaged man who can’t cope with society, and his loving daughter who he’s taken on the same path, for good or ill. Will’s lifestyle and parenting methods are entirely at odds with what’s seen as acceptable by society (hence the arrest and being placed in care), but does that make him wrong? The pair’s life in the woods is a “back to nature” approach, detached from technology and the hum of modernity, which many profess to strive for — he’s just actually gone and lived it. But Tom, as just a young teenager, has had this life thrust upon her — it’s what her dad wants, but she’s never known anything else to have the choice.

    So the film rests on the two lead performances. Ben Foster is reliably superb as a father doing his best for his daughter — and, actually, not doing a bad job — but struggling with his own issues and traumas. But the star is Thomasin McKenzie, in what’s proven (rightly) to be a breakout role (she quickly followed this with another leading role in Jojo Rabbit, and will next be seen in new movies from Edgar Wright, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jane Campion). She was just 17 when the film was shot, but is entirely convincing as a 13-year-old, and yet the character also seems old for her age. It’s a weird dichotomy, that. It never crossed my mind that the actress was any older than the character — it’s not just that she looks young, it’s a quality in the performance — and yet she also conveys that sense of being “wise beyond her years”. As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s emotional crux lies with her, delivered in a single emotional gut-punch of a line that’s liable to make you choke up just remembering it.

    4 out of 5

    Inception: The Cobol Job
    (2010)

    2019 #20a
    Ian Kirby | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Inception: The Cobol Job

    Remember motion comics? They were a brief fad where comic books were adapted into movies/series by simply adding movement and sound to the original artwork. (I say “brief fad”, they may still make them for all I know, but there was a rash of them about ten years ago that seems to have abated.) That’s what this animated prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Inception is: a moving version of the one-shot comic (originally published online, but also included in print with some releases of the movie), written by Jordan Goldberg with art by Long Vo, Joe Ng, and Crystal Reid of Udon.

    As motion comics go, the animation here isn’t bad. It’s still clearly derived from a comic book rather than being born into animated form, but it’s got a decent amount of movement and dynamism. But its main fault is not having any voice actors. There’s music (taken from Hans Zimmer’s score for the feature) and sound effects, which complement the atmosphere and help connect it to the film proper, but having to read speech and thought bubbles really keeps it in “motion comic” rather than “animated short” territory. Were the producers at Warner really so cheap that they couldn’t’ve afforded a couple of voice actors for an afternoon’s work?

    As for the story, it’s a nice little prequel to Inception, more-or-less tonally in-keeping with Nolan’s work. It sets up the backstory behind the film’s opening heist and some of its subplots… though, kinda ironically, The Cobol Job also begins in media res, so you could do a prequel to the prequel to explain how they got there. Stories within stories within stories? How very Inception.

    3 out of 5

    Fences
    (2016)

    2019 #21
    Denzel Washington | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fences

    Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a working-class African-American in 1950s Pittsburgh, doing his best to provide for his family: wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s mentally impaired brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). But this seemingly-happy dynamic is tried when Troy’s secrets are forced to come to light, and his bitterness at the hand life dealt him threatens his family’s dreams. — adapted from IMDb

    Fences is adapted from a 1985 play by August Wilson, which was revived on Broadway in 2010, and many of the lead cast members from that award-winning production transfer to this film version, not least star (and now director, too) Denzel Washington. Perhaps that’s why the end result is so very stagey.

    It’s not just the limited locations or talky screenplay that give that away — there’s no reason you can’t make a film that’s set in limited locations or heavily based around dialogue, so it goes beyond that. The stage roots show through partly in that so much important stuff is kept offscreen and we’re only told about it through dialogue — I don’t think you’d tell this story this way if it originated for the screen, or indeed as a novel. Then there’s the way the actors move around, the way they come and go from the ‘stage’, the way scenes are blocked — it feels like it’s been lifted off a stage set, plonked on an equivalent real location, then filmed. Then there’s the style of the dialogue — it has a certain kind of familiar theatricality, which I can’t quite define but I always know when I hear it.

    All of which serves as a distraction from whatever Fences is meant to be about. And, frankly, it goes on a bit, with many scenes feeling in need of a massive tighten. It’s not that it’s bad, but it feels very worthy; very self consciously important. Perhaps for some people it is.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XX

    Maybe I should’ve gone out of sequence and numbered this one XXX, given the pornographic content of a couple of these films from January 2019

  • The Stewardesses 3D (1969)
  • Experiments in Love 3D (1977)
  • La jetée (1962)


    The Stewardesses 3D
    (1969)

    2019 #6
    Alf Silliman Jr. | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | X* / R

    The Stewardesses in 3D

    If I asked you to guess the most profitable 3D movie ever made, what would you say? Avatar, probably. And, er, you’d be right (in terms of pure dollars earned, anyway). But what about before Avatar came along? You might opt for Jaws 3-D, or one of those ‘80s horror franchise entries, like Friday the 13th Part III or Amityville 3-D. Or you might try Alfred Hitchcock’s shot at the format, Dial M for Murder; or perhaps the Universal horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Well, all of those answers would be wrong. The correct answer — as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, because you’re not stupid — is The Stewardesses. Why?

    Boooobs.

    And, er, the rest of the female anatomy, quite frankly, because, yes, The Stewardesses is fundamentally a porno. Bow-chicka-wow-wow! Oh, but not, it would seem, one exclusively for the dirty mac brigade, as it had enough of a mainstream claim (it was advertised as being based on a novel. There was no novel) to be booked into regular cinemas as well as onto the grungy grindhouse and drive-in circuits. It ran repeatedly for decades, and was made for a pittance, so its cost-to-profit ratio just kept on going up. To be precise, off a budget of just $100,000 it’s reported to have grossed up to $30 million, a 30,000% return. (For comparison’s sake, Avatar’s return was 1,176%.) It was also technologically innovative: the director helped develop a simple and economical single-camera 3D system (the 3D films of the ’50s had been shot with two cameras and projected with two projectors), which was later used by major movies during the ’80s 3D boom, such as Jaws 3-D.

    But what of the film itself? It’s an odd mashup of porno and arthouse, with gratuitous sex and nudity bumping against mundane drama, sequences that seem more like an observational lifestyle documentary, and occasional experimental scenes. It’s hard to tell how much the film is aiming for realism and how much is just amateurish: there’s dodgy framing, weak performances, and Filmmaking 101 goofs (spot the mic), but something about the editing patterns, shot choices, and day-in-the-life subject matter feels influenced by cinéma vérité. But there are also random showcases of the 3D effect, including a game of pool and a fairground sequence, which includes point-of-view rides on a rollercoaster ride and ghost train.

    Sexy lamp

    The sex stuff is dropped in here and there around this. There’s a bit of fooling around in a cockpit at the start, although this is again played more for the 3D gimmick (some legs-akimbo feet protruding from the screen) and laughs (the old “someone left the mic on and everyone can hear” bit). But then it’s almost quarter-of-an-hour before there’s anything that could be genuinely described as pornographic (full frontal yoga); after that, it’s back to watching some of the girls go to a bar and another go on a dinner date. A surprising amount of time is spent watching girls brush their hair — sometimes topless, which makes sense in a laughably gratuitous way, but other times… not.

    The first truly explicit scene depicts a girl on an acid trip having sex with a lamp shaped like a classical bust, while superimposed inverted images show the body she’s imagining it has. I mean… you couldn’t make that shit up, right? It’s more like an experimental movie than a porno. Later sequences are more straightforward porn, not least a lengthy lesbian scene; but the final sex scene is far from titillating, returning to that odd artiness with shots of vases and statues, closeups of appendages and limbs, unhappy faces, and a disquieting score. It ends by taking an exceptionally dark turn, with a murder-suicide that seems almost entirely unmotivated by anything that’s come before. It’s certainly not how you expect them to wrap up a film aimed at titillation.

    It would seem The Stewardesses was is a film of very mixed ambitions. The end result is objectively terrible, and yet also kind of fascinatingly enjoyable and thought-provoking. It’s certainly not dull, I’ll give it that.

    2 out of 5

    * It hasn’t been rated by the BBFC since a cut version received an X in 1973. ^

    Experiments in Love 3D
    (1977)

    2019 #6a
    Darrell Smith | 28 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / English

    Experiments in Love

    Where The Stewardesses makes you wonder “is it porn or is it a drama with gratuitous sex?”, Experiments in Love prompts no such quandaries: it’s porn. And yet…

    A sci-fi comedy porno short, the plot (yes, there is a plot) sees a pair of “sexy scientists” experimenting with 3D cameras under instruction from a room-sized computer that speaks with a dodgy Japanese accent, so that they can use the cameras for a university project on human sexuality. In practice, it’s a bunch of 3D trick shots performed by a pair of women in very, very little clothing. Eventually, their sexy experiments overheat the system, which attracts the attention of a nearby handyman, and… well, I’m sure you can guess what goes on from there.

    While there’s no doubting the primary purpose of Experiments of Love, it has a knowing irreverence that makes it pretty funny, plus a cornucopia lot of great-looking 3D stunts, that make it worth watching for more than just the relatively explicit softcore sex and nudity. Whatever you want from it (based on reasonable expectations), you’re likely to get.

    3 out of 5

    La jetée
    (1962)

    2019 #6b
    Chris Marker | 28 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | France / French | PG

    La jetée

    And now for something completely different…

    Told via a series of still photos with voiceover narration, this is the story of a man in a post-World War III future who is subjected to a time travel experiment. While others have been unable to withstand the mental strain, scientists believe that the man’s obsession with a childhood memory will work in his favour if they send him back to near that moment. With the experiment a success, the man begins to develop a relationship with a woman in the past; but the scientists want him to find a solution for their post-apocalyptic woes…

    Probably most widely known as the work that inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, La jetée is a seminal piece of science fiction filmmaking in its own right. By limiting the visuals to photographs, writer-director Chris Marker creates an eerie, discomfiting atmosphere, wholly appropriate to a post-apocalyptic future of enforced experimentation. But it also fits thematically: this is a film very much about memory, and what is one of our primary prompters of memory if not photographs? “Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments,” says the narrator at one point. “Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” Genuinely, a pretty profound thought to chew over.

    La jetée is a film I definitely need to revisit: it’s one of those films that is preceded by such a reputation that one struggles to judge it fairly on a first viewing, when expectations are too high. Put another way: although I’m not giving it full marks, that is not to dispute its standing as a classic.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XIX

    Although I managed to get caught up on my reviews to the end of 2018 by the end of 2020, these 100-week catch-ups are still behind schedule — after all, 100 weeks is slightly less than two years, so I should be into February 2019 by now. But we are where we are, and so here’s the first batch from January 2019. At least the first one’s more appropriate now than it would’ve been in December…

  • Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  • 1941 (1979)
  • Rambo (2008)


    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
    (2018)

    2019 #1
    Ben Wheatley | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

    Writer-director Ben Wheatley leaves behind the murderous themes that have characterised his feature output to instead portray a family drama that plays like an art house EastEnders. Put another way, it’s about an extended family spending most of their time arguing about things they have or haven’t done to each other, but it’s really slow and frequently abstruse.

    I guess Wheatley has his fans, and I know he has his detractors, but I find every one of his movies a crapshoot: sometimes I think they’re pretty great, sometimes interminable, sometimes floating somewhere in between. Colin Burstead is definitely at the negative end of the spectrum — way down that end, in fact. Unlike other Wheatley films I’ve not liked, this has little to commend it: none of the pretty cinematography or nods to social satire of High-Rise; none of the mood or editing trickery of A Field in England. The visuals are little better than a home movie; the editing is… random. And I mean that literally: sometimes shots from other scenes drop in for no apparent reason, never mind the senseless intercutting that goes on regularly.

    I guess Wheatley was going for some kind of Robert Altman thing, with all the characters and their own storylines and the way they’re intercut and the dialogue overlaps. But there’s no mastery of that form apparent here, and certainly no story worth applying it too. Even at under 90 minutes, it feels like it goes on forever. It’s that most damnable of things: boring.

    1 out of 5

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2018.

    Cool Hand Luke
    (1967)

    2019 #2
    Stuart Rosenberg | 122 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

    Cool Hand Luke

    When petty criminal Luke Jackson is sentenced to two years in a Florida chain gang, he doesn’t play by the rules of either the sadistic warden or the resident heavy, Dragline. As he becomes a rebel hero to his fellow convicts and a thorn in the side of the prison officers, the latter actively work to crush Luke until he finally breaks… — adapted from IMDb

    The thing that most surprised me — or, at least, struck me — about Cool Hand Luke was how similar it felt to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (of course, that film came out eight years after this one, so if there is a chain of influence it flows in the other direction). They’re about different kinds of institution, but the vibe of the piece — a new against-the-grain inmate riling up the others to provoke the oppressive authority figures who control them — is very similar. They also have a similar comedic/dramatic mix of tones for most of the runtime, before both ending with a calamitous finale.

    If Cool Hand Luke feels a bit less dark overall, it’s probably because its leading man is the immensely charming Paul Newman, versus Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest — he’s charming in his own way, but it’s definitely a cockeyed kinda likeability, with an undercurrent that things might go bad at any moment. Not that Cool Hand Luke is lacking in threatening atmosphere, with the abusive ills of the chain gang system ever-present.

    4 out of 5

    Cool Hand Luke was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    1941
    (1979)

    2019 #4
    Steven Spielberg | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Japanese & German | 12 / PG

    1941

    From 1975 until the end of the ’80s, director Steven Spielberg had a truly extraordinary run of movies: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade — every one of them an era-defining box office hit and/or a multi-Oscar-nominee. Except that list overlooks one dud: 1941. That’s how the majority see it, anyway, but it does have something of a cult following (and apparently “the Europeans love it”, or so Spielberg claims in an accompanying documentary).

    Personally, as is so often the case, I fall somewhere between these two stools. Spielberg signals his tonal intention from the off, beginning with an outright spoof of the famous opening to Jaws, the film that had made his name just a few years earlier. After that, 1941 unfolds almost like a sketch show, through a series of comedic vignettes; though it’s more like binge-watching a whole series of a sketch show, because there’s also a series of running plot lines. And just like a sketch show, the quality varies wildly from bit to bit. I felt like it took a long time to really get going, and then it felt like it was going on forever, but I actually warmed to its barminess in the end. Even if it’s weak overall, there are some very good sequences — the dance competition-cum-chase is a particular highlight. There’s a ton of special effects at the climax which look spectacular, too — you can always rely on Spielberg to pull off a good-looking, technically-excellent movie.

    In later years, Spielberg has admitted his hubris and arrogance (coming off the massive double success of Jaws and Close Encounters) hindered the film, which he thinks should’ve been funnier. Nonetheless, he’s still proud of it — indeed, when he was given the chance to restore his original two-and-a-half-hour director’s cut (Columbia and Universal had cut the original release against his wishes, fearing for its commercial potential), he took that opportunity. Some day, I’ll have to give the longer cut a go. I presume it can’t be any more consistent, but maybe there are some extra laughs…

    3 out of 5

    Rambo
    (2008)

    2019 #5
    Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English, Burmese & Thai | 18 / R

    Rambo

    In Thailand, John Rambo joins a group of mercenaries to venture into war-torn Burma and rescue a group of Christian aid workers who were kidnapped by a ruthless local infantry unit.IMDb

    Despite the blunt title, Rambo is not a reboot of the Rambo series. Nor is it quite a Jason Bourne-style “let’s just use his name this time”, because there’s already kinda been a film called Rambo — it was the second one. And, of course, people tend to just call the first one Rambo, despite that not being its title at all. So maybe let’s not get hung up on the naming of Rambo movies (though if anyone ever says “I really enjoyed that one movie, Rambo,” you’re probably going to have to ask for clarification).

    Despite being an OTT action series, Rambo has a habit of getting involved in real-life conflicts: the first one spun out of Vietnam; the second was concerned with an issue from that conflict’s fallout; and the third saw him stick his oar into Afghanistan. Using real-world geopolitics as an excuse for a brutal action movie is the kind of thing some people will always find distasteful, but at least Rambo seems to have its heart more in the right place than First Blood Part II or Rambo III did. In fact, the film was banned by the rulers in Burma, but was widely bootlegged by resistance fighters, who loved it and adopted phrases from it as mantras. So you can say it was distasteful to the real political situation if you like, but the people actually embroiled in it clearly felt differently. And David Morrell, the author of the original First Blood novel (who has proven quite happy to criticise a Rambo movie), was “pleased” with this one: “the level of violence might not be for everyone, but it has a serious intent. This is the first time that the tone of my novel First Blood has been used in any of the movies. It’s spot-on in terms of how I imagined the character — angry, burned-out, and filled with self-disgust because Rambo hates what he is and yet knows it’s the only thing he does well.”

    Big fucking gun

    Oh yes, “the violence may not be for everyone”, because, oh boy, it really is brutal! Blood and body parts explode all over the damn place. But the film invests a lot of effort in making sure you know these bad guys really, really deserve it — mainly by showing them to be brutal bastards themselves, committing nasty war crimes in the film’s first half. At one point during the bloodbath climax, they employ artillery so heavy it takes off heads with a single shot. That’s used to kill every bad guy on a gunboat… and then they blow the boat up with a rocket launcher, for good measure. It’s not quite as ridiculous as that time Rambo used an explosive-tipped arrow to kill one man, but it’s getting there.

    A couple of years after the film’s release, Stallone put together a Director’s Cut that reportedly pulls back on some of the violence and adds more character-centric scenes. I don’t know if that would make the film better — I feel like the balance is pretty good right now. Maybe a little heavy on the brutality, sure, but I can’t see how a movie like this needs much more character stuff than it already has. It’s really well paced as it stands: it manages to not feel in a rush, while also not feeling slow; and once the men are properly on their mission, it’s almost relentless without being breathless. It makes for a very smooth, fast 90 minutes.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVIII

    Here we are, then: the final reviews from December 2018, which are also therefore the final reviews from 2018 (er, aside from that one I’m keeping for another time).

    Also worthy of note: buried in the middle of this selection is the 2,000th feature film review I’ve published on this blog. It was way back in August 2019, 16 months ago, that I reached 2,000 films listed for review, so it’s taken me quite a while to catch up.

    So, reviews number 1999, 2000, and 2001 are…

  • Torment (1944)
  • Music in Darkness (1948)
  • Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)


    Torment
    (1944)

    aka Hets

    2018 #249
    Alf Sjöberg | 97 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 12

    Torment

    Torment won a prize at Cannes and was nominated at Venice, but it’s most noteworthy for being the first film in the career of Ingmar Bergman: he was the screenwriter, and also served as assistant director — in which capacity he directed the film’s very final scene, meaning this film technically contains his first work as a director.

    Initially it seems like just a classroom drama — students vs a demanding teacher — but it takes a very different turn once one of the boys becomes involved with a girl of ill repute. She’s being tormented by a sadistic stalker — guess who that might turn out to be.

    With its realistic location photography and attitudes about schoolboys (disrespectful of schoolmasters; smoking; talking about getting girls pregnant; expressing opinions like “all women are tramps, and if they’re not they want to be”; and a lead female character who demonstrates they might be right), Torment feels more like a film from the ’60s film than the ’40s. But perhaps that’s just because it took Puritan America a while to catch up.

    The film is also critical of the strictures and pressures of the education system, which is still an accurate observation over seven decades later. In particular, a speech by a doctor about how schoolboys are overworked, and so they’re justified in trying to dodge some of that work, could be repeated word for word in a modern setting. There’s another scene where a kindly teacher berates a harsh one about his methods that, hopefully, we’ve moved slightly past, although I imagine every school still has teachers that are thought of as bastard taskmasters.

    Outside of its social views, the film does seem more of its time in its shot choices and production style, though not in a bad way — there’s some very effective stuff, like a bit of misdirection into a dream sequence, or its use of shadows. There’s one moment on a staircase that’s worthy of a horror movie — it’s almost a jump scare — and a chilling sequence follows which, again, feels like it’s from a different genre entirely.

    I liked a lot of Torment, not least the way it went beyond a tragic plot twist to explore the fallout in a fairly realistic manner — the lack of justice, the lack of revenge — but, unfortunately, the ending didn’t quite land for me. There’s a kind of justice for one character, but another ends up seemingly positive and optimistic, getting over events a mite too quickly. That said, it’s a quality production overall. It’s a shame it seems destined to relegation as a minor work (it’s not even in Criterion’s “comprehensive” Bergman box set), because I think it merits a wider rediscovery.

    4 out of 5

    Music in Darkness
    (1948)

    aka Musik i mörker / Night is My Future

    2018 #255
    Ingmar Bergman | 84 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Music in Darkness

    This is an early film by Ingmar Bergman — his fourth as director, from an era when someone’s fourth movie was an early one rather than their second or third studio blockbuster. That said, what Music in Darkness most feels like is a Hollywood romantic drama of the era, albeit with a couple of artistic flourishes and a flash of nudity, just so you know it’s definitely European.

    The film begins when master pianist Bengt Vyldeke suffers an accident that leaves him blind. Not a terrible inciting incident on paper, but on screen it’s so implausible it’s like a spoof: he’s injured while trying to save a puppy on a military shooting range. Where did that puppy come from?! Then there’s a kinda-experimental dream sequence, before we’re finally off to the races with a fairly standard romantic melodrama.

    Bengt may‘ve saved the life of a puppy, but he turns out to be a bit of a git. At first it seems his grumpiness stems from despair at his new situation, but then he begins to soften as he spends time with Ingrid, a maid who’s helping him. Sweet-natured, romantically-minded Ingrid is played by the ‘loose woman’ from Torment, Mai Zetterling; a remarkably different kind of role. So far, all so standard. But maybe Bengt saw Torment before he was blinded, because he starts calling Ingrid a wench and a last-resort marriage prospect behind her back. Yeah, maybe he’s not such a reformed character after all.

    Anyway, more tribulations follow, but eventually they overcome what was separating them to get together — hooray, and all that. But that’s not the end: next, there’s some minor palaver over getting married, the organising of the wedding, etc… but then that’s solved and they leave together, newlyweds… the end. All of which seems thoroughly extraneous — the story ends when they (suddenly, out of nowhere, without either really saying anything to the other) finally get together, not after some faffing about with wedding planning.

    Perhaps this is the European sensibility again, lacking the strict formal awareness of a Hollywood studio production. I don’t make that comparison as a criticism, incidentally. Like many a solid studio programmer, Music in Darkness is perfectly fine for what it is; but little about it truly stands out, either.

    3 out of 5

    Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
    (2009)

    2018 #259
    Lasse Hallström | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English & Japanese | U / G

    Hachi: A Dog's Tale

    Inspired by the true story of Hachikō, a dog in 1920s Japan who every day would wait at the train station for his owner to return — and continued to do so for almost ten years after the owner died. The tale was made into a Japanese film in 1987, which clearly caught the attention of someone in Hollywood, with this remake relocating the action to modern-day USA.

    This is really a film for people who like dogs. Without the pooch, it would be a terribly twee Hallmark TV movie — any scene where Hachi is absent is excruciating. In other words, if you don’t care for dogs, give it a miss. For the rest of us, fortunately, the pup’s is in most of it. The story takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, its impact only emphasised by the fact it’s (fundamentally) a true story. Of course, the dog dies — he wouldn’t have stopped waiting at the train station if he didn’t, would he, because he’s a very good boy.

    Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, this is an unabashed tearjerker for any dog lover.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVII

    Continuing my push to wrap up leftover reviews from 2018, here are three more to finish off that November

  • Danger: Diabolik (1968)
  • Boy (2010)
  • Dad’s Army (2016)


    Danger: Diabolik
    (1968)

    aka Diabolik

    2018 #243
    Mario Bava | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Italy & France / English | 12 / PG-13

    Danger: Diabolik

    This starts off like a normal-looking crime thriller, with cops transporting millions of dollars in fake money while the real cash goes in a decoy… but then the decoy is ambushed by supercriminal Diabolik using multi-coloured smoke, and suddenly everything takes an abrupt turn into trippy ‘60s-ness. After escaping with the loot, Diabolik and his girl risk some nasty paper cuts by rolling around in the cash naked… on a giant rotating circular bed. Ah, the ’60s. And that, really, is the best summation of Danger: Diabolik: it looks and feels just like a Euro-comic of the era. If you made it today, with the benefits of hindsight and every cultural touchstone under the sun, you could barely make it more “60s”. For example, there’s a long-ish sequence in a swinging nightclub for virtually no reason — exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an Austin Powers movie.

    On the downside, the storyline is a bit episodic. It’s also clear that it was cheaply made in places, and yet other parts look great, like Diabolik’s underground lair set. Apparently director Mario Bava had a budget of $3 million but brought it in for just $400,000, which I guess explains that. But that inconsistency extends to the overall imagery and style of the film: some of it is striking and memorable, but even more is just… fine; adequate; could be taken from anything made by anyone.

    Ultimately, I like the idea of Diabolik a lot more than the actual execution, which didn’t seem nearly as wild and idiosyncratic as many of the positive reviews make out. When it works, it’s got a comic-book, campy, Saturday-morning-adventure-serial charm, with a mildly raunchy edge (there are skimpy outfits and some kissing, and a naked woman covered up by banknotes, but that’s your lot), and it certainly operates by its own crazy-fun logic rather than the rules of real life. But, even with that going on, it doesn’t all come together as thrillingly and entertainingly as it could or should. I can well imagine a right-minded kind of director remaking it and transforming it into something that really nailed those influences and made for a much more striking, exciting ride. Well, there’s a new version due in 2021, so we can but hope.

    3 out of 5

    Boy
    (2010)

    2018 #244
    Taika Waititi | 84 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15

    Boy

    The second film directed by Taika Waititi (after Eagle vs Shark) feels somewhat like a semi-autobiographical dry run for his later work. It’s a whimsical comedy that hides depths of very real drama, just like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Jojo Rabbit, but it lacks their polish and refinement — it’s not as funny, and it doesn’t fully tap into what that drama ultimately means. It plays like a strong calling card: indicative of what the writer-director is capable of and intends to shoot for, but clearly not yet at their full potential. Mind you, the heights Waititi later reached are so high that this “not there yet” effort is still very good.

    4 out of 5

    Dad’s Army
    (2016)

    2018 #245
    Oliver Parker | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & German | PG

    Dad's Army

    1960s/70s World War II sitcom Dad’s Army is enduringly popular — repeats on BBC Two (one of the UK’s main TV networks, for those that don’t know) regularly garner viewing figures that eclipse new programming. So it’s no surprise that someone decided it would be a good idea to give it a big-screen reboot… and it’s equally as unsurprising that it was largely a failure. Making a successful sitcom is a large part down to luck. You don’t just need funny scripts, but also to cast it well so that the characters really come alive; and getting the lead bang-on isn’t enough: for a comedy to really work, everyone needs to be great in their own role and to blend perfectly as an ensemble. Capturing that “lightning in a bottle” factor once is hard enough, but to repeat it? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Filmmaker?

    You can see how they tried. The premise is obviously solid gold, so that box is already ticked. Then the new cast is stuffed with names: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson, Daniel Mays… If anything, they’re over-qualified for this kind of project. Indeed, if you stop and think about it, you do wonder: how many of them are comedians, really? And maybe that was the problem. If you were casting a biopic about the making of the show, this would be a top-drawer ensemble; but to recreate its comedic magic? That said, it’s not impossible: when they remade the series’ missing episodes with a new cast, it worked very well.

    So maybe the secret is the script, after all. It’s definitely a weak link here. The humour is so gentle, it’s not even bothering to be very funny. There are lots of double entendres, though to say they have more than one meaning is generous. There are plenty of nods and winks to the original in an attempt to keep fans happy, including trotting out all the familiar catchphrases, but usually they’re shoved in rather than occurring naturally in dialogue. The female characters largely fare better than the men, though perhaps that’s just because they’re more original creations. Some might argue such a shift is a necessary correction to the male-orientated series, but it also isn’t really the point. Worst of all, at times it feels like the film wants to be some kind of thriller. It even ends with a big action sequence shootout! I can’t think of much that’d be less Dad’s Army than that.

    2 out of 5

  • A Christmas 100-Week Roundup

    Breaking the precise order of 100-week reviews, here are a handful of Christmas films I watched back in December 2018. One of them has its UK network TV premiere today, so it seemed like a good time to share them.

  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
  • A Christmas Carol (2018)


    The Christmas Chronicles
    (2018)

    2018 #248
    Clay Kaytis | 104 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Christmas Chronicles

    Netflix’s big-budget Christmas adventure got a sequel this year, which shows this first one must’ve been a hit (by whatever secret metric Netflix use nowadays) — and it’s well deserved, because The Christmas Chronicles is a lot of fun.

    The setup is two home-alone siblings set out to catch Santa on video (thank goodness they didn’t use that inciting incident to launch a found-footage Christmas movie), but things go awry and the pair end up having to help the man in red save Christmas.

    Like many a live-action American kids’ movie, The Christmas Chronicles is a bit cheesy to begin with, but it has an ace up its sleeve: Kurt Russell as Santa. Once he turns up, with a perfectly-pitched performances, the film really takes off — figuratively and literally, thanks to his flying sleigh. From there, the film develops a spot-on streak of irreverence. A chainsaw-wielding elf! Fist-bumping Santa! A jailhouse song performance! Santa snowboarding out of the sky! There are lots of funny little gags too — not big clever “jokes” per se, just well-played moments.

    Sure, there’s an element of comfort and cliché to the “sad kids who need to recapture Christmas spirit” stuff, but Russell’s cool Santa, and the tone he brings with him, enliven proceedings no end. The film manages to dodge the traps of being cloying or overly cheesy, without disappearing into a well of grim cynicism. It works so well that some of the final few minutes might just bring a little tear to the eye.

    Any criticisms (I had a whole paragraph about the kids’ limp family motto and its predictable use) just feel like nitpicking. This is designed to be a frothy, easy Christmas treat, and as that it would be perfectly adequate; but when you add Russell’s superb incarnation of Santa into the mix, it’s elevated to something very good indeed. A great movie? Not particularly. A great movie to watch at Christmas? Oh yes.

    4 out of 5

    (That is the UK poster I’ve used above, despite the fact it’s got the title of Harry Potter 1 wrong.)

    The Man Who Invented Christmas
    (2017)

    2018 #258
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland & Canada / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Invented Christmas

    “Charles Dickens writes A Christmas Carol” is the simplified plot of this film. Well, it’s not even that simplified: it’s the plot. In this telling, various parts of Dickens’s story are inspired by characters and situations he encounters in real life — how convenient. It’s all thoroughly far-fetched, of course, but not without a certain Christmas charm and amusement for those feeling forgiving in the festive season.

    Dickens is played by the dashing Dan Stevens. It’s another thing that seems like artifice — making the author young and handsome so he can be the main character in a movie — until you learn Dickens was actually only 31 when he wrote the book. And he’d already written works including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by this point!

    But don’t dwell on that too much, because it’s liable to make your life feel crushingly inadequate; and this is a lightweight film — a bit of festive froth — designed to brighten your days with a bit of seasonal cheer, not darken them with realisations of your own shortcomings.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of The Man Who Invented Christmas is on Channel 4 today at 4:55pm.

    A Christmas Carol
    (2018)

    2018 #260
    Tom Cairns | 72 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    A Christmas Carol

    Simon Callow has carved out a little niche playing Charles Dickens in various settings — the highest profile is probably in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who, but he was cast in that due to already being renowned for his recreations of Dickens’s public readings. This film is, effectively, one of those: based on Dickens’s own performance adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Callow reads the story and… that’s about it.

    A couple of things make it screen worthy. Director Tom Cairns stages proceedings in inventive and enlivening ways, using different rooms, lighting, props, and practical effects, some almost magical, plus music and sound effects mixed in a suitably evocative way, to lend an appropriate atmosphere to every scene and event. A lot of it is shot in long takes, which underline the impressiveness of both the staging (it’s often modified and varied within a single shot) and Callow’s performance, which is enhanced and complemented by Cairns’s work.

    And it is a performance, not just a reading. Callow inhabits all the characters, thereby bringing a sense of life to take the words beyond mere narration; but he executes it in a subtle-enough way that his turn doesn’t descend into some overripe actorly ‘showcase’. It’s very well judged. Indeed, it feels like the kind of thing that should become a staple of Christmas Eve evenings on the BBC.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XV

    I’ve fallen terribly behind with these 100-Week Roundups — I should be on to films from 2019 by now (because 100 weeks is c.23 months), but I still have 17 reviews from 2018 to go. I considered trying to cram more into each roundup, but that just takes longer to compile, so my aim is to post a more-than-average number of roundups in the next fortnight with the goal of at least completing 2018 before 2020 ends. We’ll see how that goes.

    For now, we’re in November 2018 and looking at…

  • The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
  • Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
  • Paper Moon (1973)
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)


    The Other Side of the Wind
    (2018)

    2018 #226
    Orson Welles | 122 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 | France, Iran & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Other Side of the Wind

    One of my draft intros for The Other Side of the Wind was to talk about how it feels like “a 2018 film” because it’s different; innovative; unique — modern. But then to note that, of course, it was all shot in the 1970s, but never completed for financial and legal reasons. That’s only partially true, though, because while it does feel modern in some ways, it still looks and feels very ’70s; and while it’s no doubt experimental and avant-garde, it’s in a very ’70s way. And the look of the film stock is very ’70s. It’s a strange, undoubtedly compromised movie — but so are many of the films Orson Welles managed to complete while he was alive, thanks to studio interference, so it’s hardly a sore thumb in that regard.

    The film tells the story of the final days of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a film director working on his comeback movie (you’ve gotta think there’s some autobiography in here, then, right?) It’s a portrait of the man’s final hours, supposedly assembled from dozens of sources that were shooting him at the time — Welles prefiguring the ‘found footage’ genre by a decade or two. But this isn’t a horror movie… well, not in the traditional sense: in my notes I described it as “a frantically-cut display of pompous self-declared intellectuals pontificating about something and nothing in a battle of pretentiousness. That perhaps explains why, at a time when Netflix movies routinely ‘break out’, the flash of interest the film’s release provoked has not resulted in any kind of sustained wide admiration.

    Whatever your thoughts on the final film (and it’s clearly one for cineastes and completists rather than general audiences), it seems remarkable that it took so long for anyone to be willing to fund the completion of a film by The Great Orson Welles. But that’s actually a story unto itself, told in the accompanying documentary A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making (which is hidden in the film’s “Trailers & More” section, but is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested). Among the revelations there are that Welles shot almost 100 hours of footage, spread across 1,083 film elements, all of which had to be fully inventoried. Matching it up was a problem that would have been insurmountable even ten years ago; it’s only possible now thanks to digital techniques and algorithms — and, of course, a big chunk of change from Netflix. Welles had only cut together about 45 minutes, with the rest completed based on the style of those parts, his notes and letters, and recordings of some of his direction that was retained on the sound reels.

    Was the effort worth it? It’s certainly a fascinating project to see brought to some kind of fruition. In the end, I’m not sure what it all signified. The story is pretty straightforward, but it’s jumbled in amongst a lot of hyperactive editing, as well as a bizarre film-within-a-film. There are things here which still feel ahead of their time even now, and things that were certainly ahead of their time when shot in the early ’70s (even if other people have done them since), which is always exciting. Combine that with Welles’s status and this is unquestionably a fascinating, must-see movie for cinephiles.

    3 out of 5

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
    (1998)

    2018 #227
    Boyd Kirkland | 67 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

    It’s now so ingrained in Bat-canon that it’s easy to forget, but Batman: The Animated Series actually invented Mr Freeze’s backstory about his dead wife, etc. It was so successful that the episode (Heart of Ice) won an Emmy, the character was brought back to life in the comics (complete with this new backstory), and just a few years later it was used in Batman & Robin (which, considering how much that film was happy to ignore about other characters, e.g. Bane, just goes to show… something).

    So, with The Animated Series responsible for such a major revival of the character, it kinda makes sense they’d choose him to star in their second animated feature — although another version of events is he was chosen to tie-in with Batman & Robin, but then SubZero was pushed back after the live-action film was a critical flop. That makes sense, because while Heart of Ice is fantastic and influential, none of Freeze’s other Animated Series appearances have a great deal to offer. TV episode Deep Freeze is sci-fi B-movie gubbins featuring Freeze as a cog in the plot rather than its driving force; and, after all the effort to humanise him, in Cold Comfort he’s just a villain doing villainous things with incredibly thin motivation.

    SubZero is, at least, a step above those. It doesn’t withstand comparison to its predecessor movie, the genuine classic Mask of the Phantasm — that had entertainment value for kids, but was also a thoughtful, mature story about what drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman. SubZero, on the other hand, is just an action-adventure ride. It’s not bad for what it is (there’s a pretty great car chase halfway through, and the explosive climax aboard an abandoned oil derrick going up in flames is rather good), but no more than that. At least it finally provides a neat end to Freeze’s story… even if it is kinda hurried in a last-minute news report.

    3 out of 5

    Paper Moon
    (1973)

    2018 #235
    Peter Bogdanovich | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Paper Moon

    I do try to avoid this situation arising in a ‘review’, but I watched Paper Moon over two years ago and didn’t make any significant notes on it, so I’m afraid I can’t say much of my own opinion. What I can tell you is that I happened to spot it in the TV schedule and decided to watch it primarily to tick it off the IMDb Top 250, thinking it was a bit of an also-ran on that list (based on iCheckMovies, it’s not very widely regarded outside of IMDb; indeed, it’s not even on the Top 250 anymore). But that was serendipitous, because I wound up really enjoying it.

    Sticking with IMDb, here are some interesting points of trivia:

    “At 1 hour, 6 minutes, 58 seconds, Tatum O’Neal’s performance is the longest to ever win an Academy Award in a supporting acting category.” I guess category fraud isn’t a recent phenomena: O’Neal’s a lead — the lead, even — but I bet that supporting award was an easier win, especially as she was a child. Which also ties to this item: “some Hollywood insiders suspected that O’Neal’s performance was ‘manufactured’ by director Peter Bogdanovich. It was revealed that the director had gone to great lengths, sometimes requiring as many as 50 takes, to capture the ‘effortless’ natural quality for which Tatum was critically praised.” But I’ll add a big “hmm” to that point, because I think it’s very much a point of view thing. Every performance in a movie is “manufactured”, in the sense that multiple takes are done and the director and editor later make selections — is requiring 50 takes for a child actor to nail it any different than Kubrick or Fincher putting adult actors through 100 or more takes until they get what they want?

    On a more positive note, “Orson Welles, a close friend of Bogdanovich, did some uncredited consulting on the cinematography. It was Welles who suggested shooting black and white photography through a red filter, adding higher contrast to the images.” Good idea, Orson, because the film does look rather gorgeous.

    5 out of 5

    Hitchcock/Truffaut
    (2015)

    2018 #236
    Kent Jones | 77 mins | TV | 16:9 | France & USA / English, French & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

    Hitchcock/Truffaut

    In 1962, film directors Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut locked themselves away in Hollywood for a week to excavate the secrets behind the mise-en-scène in cinema. Based on the original recordings of this meeting — used to produce the mythical book Hitchcock/Truffaut — this film illustrates the greatest cinema lesson of all time… Hitchcock’s incredibly modern art is elucidated and explained by today’s leading filmmakers, who discuss how Truffaut’s book influenced their work. — adapted from IMDb

    This film version of Hitchcock/Truffaut is about so much at once. On balance, it’s mostly about analysing Hitchcock’s films; but it’s also about the interview itself; and the importance and impact of the book, both on the general critical perception of Hitchcock and how it influenced specific directors; but it’s also about how Hitchcock’s actual films have influenced those directors; and there’s also insights into directing from those directors; and also some bits on Truffaut’s films, and the differences between him and Hitchcock as filmmakers. Whew!

    It’s a funny film, really: it acknowledges the book’s influence, but doesn’t really dig into it; it analyses some of Hitch’s obsessions and films (most especially Vertigo and Psycho), but not comprehensively. Some have said it feels like a companion piece to the book; I’ve not read the book, but I can believe that — if the book were a movie, this would be a special feature on the DVD. Less kindly, you could call it a feature-length advert — certainly, I really want to get the book now. (I got it as a Christmas present not long after. I’ve not read it yet.)

    That said, here’s an iInteresting counterpoint from a Letterboxd review: “One of the things (just one) that makes the book so essential is that it’s a discussion of the craft of filmmaking from two (very different) filmmakers. In adding commentary from a wide variety of other directors, Jones highlights that element of the book while widening and updating its focus: it isn’t just a conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, but between those two men and David Fincher, and James Gray and Kyoshi Kurosawa and Arnaud Desplechin, etc. Rather than a mere supplement to the book, a video essay adding moving pictures to the book’s conversations, Jones’s film builds something new and on-going upon it.”

    I didn’t think Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) was all it could be; and yet, thanks to the topics discussed and people interviewed, it’s still a must-see for any fan of Hitchcock, or just movies in general.

    4 out of 5