Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

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aka Zatôichi hatashijô

2019 #20
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi and the Fugitives

Not to be confused with the earlier Zatoichi the Fugitive (no fear in the original Japanese, where that’s titled something like Zatoichi’s Criminal Journey and this is along the lines of Zatoichi, A Letter of Challenge), the series’ 18th instalment pits our favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman against a gang of six remorselessly violent fugitives. Along the way he shacks up with the venerable Dr. Junan and his caring daughter/assistant Oshizu (Kayo Mikimoto), and once again Ichi hopes he may’ve found a place to settle down, only for events to snatch the dream away.

That doctor is played by the great Takashi Shimura, star of Seven Samurai and Ikiru, amongst many, many other classics of Japanese cinema. He brings an effortless class to the role, which initially seems to be just an honourable and wise gentleman, but later has more to it. You see, in a thoroughly unsurprising twist, it turns out one of the fugitives — namely their leader, Genpachiro (Kyôsuke Machida) — is the doctor’s estranged son. When Genpachiro attempts to visit his father and sister, Oshizu is overjoyed to see his return, but the doctor refuses to even acknowledge his son’s presence.

As the gang’s leader and the one with the connection to Ichi’s new friends, naturally it’s Genpachiro who will prove to by Ichi’s nemesis in this film. Writing for The Digital Bits, Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan reckon he’s “one of Zatoichi’s single greatest enemies,” which is certainly a bold claim. They have something of a point, given his intelligence — an early encounter makes him aware of how skilled Ichi is with a sword, so he keeps stopping his hot-headed underlings from tackling Ichi head on — but I didn’t think he was as memorable an individual as several other foes have been.

Zatoichi and the doctor

The fugitives as a group do provide quite the challenge for Ichi, however, almost defeating him at one point. Naturally, our hero comes out on top in the end: spurred by righteous anger, his final-act slaughter is even more brutally efficient than normal. Having been shot and nearly killed in his first attempt at a climactic showdown, Ichi ain’t messing around the second time. Well, they have it coming. They’re a vicious lot, happily slaughtering innocents on practically anyone’s say-so, at one point even coming this close to murdering a baby. Indeed, this is quite a tonally dark instalment of the series. It’s certainly not the only one by this point — it may not even be the darkest, in fact — but it’s still not very cheery, with little of the humour we’re accustomed to from our hero. Even the final defeat of the villains is tinged with sadness. At one point he gets very introspective, as Oshizu asks him about his blindness: “At first I remembered all the colours — green, red, and so forth. I told myself I had to remember them and tried hard not to forget. But they gradually faded away. All that’s left now is darkness.”

Ichi could just as well be talking about his lifestyle, as once again he struggles with being a gangster. When a bunch of yakuza turn up at the doctor’s to pay their respects to Ichi (his reputation having preceded him once again), the truth of his position is exposed to his new potential-family, much to his shame. Again, it’s a point of conflict for the good doctor: he doesn’t like criminals, as we see with his attitude to his own son, but he’s also seen what a kind-hearted fellow Ichi really is. And if Ichi going on an emotional rollercoaster wasn’t bad enough, he’s put through the ringer physically too — I mean, he gets shot, then digs the bullet out by himself with his sword, lest you were in any doubt of his credentials as a badass. And if that doesn’t convinced you, multiple displays of his skill with a blade should.

Bloody Ichi

One of those demonstrations has led to cuts by the BBFC for the UK release. Yes, Criterion have finally bothered to get the films classified — I’ll write a bit more about that when it comes relevant again on a future film, but for now we’re concerned with the four seconds they’ve cut from Fugitives. At one point a snake drops on Ichi and he slices it in half, after which we see the bisected creature writhing on the ground. I guess they did it with a real snake, or real enough to the BBFC’s eyes, because that shot has been cut for animal cruelty. I know some people object on principle to the BBFC censoring anything, but I can’t say cutting that kind of thing bothers me much (though, as I have the US set, I’ve already seen it).

To quote Hunt and Doogan again, they reckon that “if this series were to be compacted into a trilogy, this would be at the tail-end of part two. In other words, this is Ichi’s Empire Strikes Back. No hyperbole”. Eh, I think there might be a bit of hyperbole there. It’s just coincidence that this instalment falls at the two-thirds point of the series (more or less), and I don’t even think it’s the darkest film there’s been — for what it lacks in humour, it has a lot of kindness in Ichi’s relationship with the doctor and his daughter, and some redemption for one of the gang members. Rather than comparing it to the consensus-greatest film of another series, I’m more inclined to Paghat the Ratgirl’s point of view: “After nineteen [sic] feature films, this story is entirely familiar. But great even so.” Zatoichi and the Fugitives is not one of my favourites in the series, but it is a good mid-tier one.

4 out of 5

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Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particular in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

Deadpool 2: Super Duper $@%!#& Cut (2018)

2019 #39a
David Leitch | 134 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Cantonese | 15

Deadpool 2: Super Duper $@%!#& Cut

What’s an R-rated comedy without an “unrated” extended home ent version, eh? Well, the first Deadpool didn’t have one, but the sequel certainly does. Branded as the “Super Duper Dollar-At-Percent-Exclamation-Hash-Ampersand Cut”, it runs almost 15 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, with some alternate gags and music cues in the mix as well.

The Blu-ray’s scene selection menu offers an indication of which chapters feature new material, and the answer is “most of them” — those 15 minutes are spread relatively thinly throughout almost the entire film. There are a handful of wholly new scenes (as many as ten, depending how you count it), most of them quite short (one is under nine seconds), a couple of extended fight sequences, and then lots of added lines here and there. Plus, as I said, there’s a smattering of gags that have been changed for alternatives. The only thing that’s really missing is a fourth-wall-breaking gag about extended cuts — it’s uncommon for the Deadpool franchise to drop the ball like that.

As ever, Movie-Censorship.com has a thorough list of additions and changes. Their report reckons all the replacement gags are worse than the originals, but it’s certainly a matter of personal taste: there’s nothing so major lost, nor anything so poor gained, that it’s a crying shame. Personally, I think a fair few of the new and additional lines are at least decent. The added action stuff, on the other hand, is all neat, in particular a major extension to the Japanese bath fight that turns it a single-shot masterpiece, and a fun bit between Domino and Juggernaut. I also thought the way this cut incorporates Russell’s backstory earlier and more fully worked well, adding weight to his motives and actions later in the movie.

X-Force... kinda

The net effect of the changes and additions is minimal, however. At the very least, I enjoyed it just as much on a second viewing as I did on the first (which is more than I can say about Deadpool 1). With that in mind, I’d probably pick the Super Duper Cut as my preferred version of the film. I liked most of the additions, and didn’t miss enough of the subtractions for it to bother me, so on balance this version wins. Individual opinions will naturally differ (that Movie Censorship guy obviously wasn’t impressed by the new stuff), but for anyone that enjoyed the theatrical version, this is definitely worth a look. That’s more than most people would say about Once Upon a Deadpool, at least.

4 out of 5

The theatrical cut of Deadpool 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Free Solo (2018)

2019 #36
Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Free Solo

Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

Alex vs El Capitan

That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenging of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

4 out of 5

Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

The Ragtag Review Roundup

My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

    2019 #11
    Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Velvet Buzzsaw

    The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

    Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

    So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seems much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

    Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

    Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — specifically, the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

    It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

    About to connect with the film's horror bits

    And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

    Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

    4 out of 5

    Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

    Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

    aka Zatôichi rôyaburi

    2018 #257
    Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi the Outlaw

    The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.

    It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.

    Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.

    Hot stuff

    It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.

    This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.

    Violent delights have violent ends

    And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.

    There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.

    4 out of 5

    Unsane (2018)

    2018 #219
    Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Unsane

    Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

    It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

    This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

    Hello, Domino's?

    But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

    From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

    Just say no

    The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

    And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, it’s whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

    4 out of 5

    Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

    Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.