Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

2018 #241
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Cane Sword

The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

Zatoichi and his sword

I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

4 out of 5

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Christine (2016)

2018 #114
Antonio Campos | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Christine

The true, tragic story of newswoman Christine Chubbuck is told in this affecting drama. For those that don’t know, it’s the ending that is why her story is famous: Christine was the first person to commit suicide live on television. The film attempts to help us understand Christine’s life and mental state, and what led her to that moment.

The overwhelming impression I got was of Christine’s existence being quietly sad. She’s shown to have the kind of life that isn’t loudly and forcefully horrible, but just… disappointing. So terribly and thoroughly disappointing that “why bother?” becomes a legitimate question for the person having to live it. That made it a somewhat uncomfortable film to watch, but that could be a personal thing — I can relate to Christine’s social awkwardness, and could see some of the pitfalls she was headed towards. (That said, not everything goes exactly as one might expect, specifically her infatuation with Michael C. Hall’s handsome anchorman.) I’ve known people like Christine, too, who do all the right things and try to put good out in the world, but somehow the world spits it all back, like it doesn’t matter.

Performance anxiety

In part because of this psychological realism, the film feels respectful, but without being either neutered or over-explanatory. By the former I mean that it doesn’t present Christine as some perfect soul — she can be bolshy and trying even for people who like her. By the latter, that it doesn’t hype up how bad her life was to make sure you ‘get’ why she’d do it. For example, everyone around her cares so much. You’d expect a terrible home life, bullying or teasing colleagues, some kind of gross betrayal, but no: they’re mostly nice; they like her; they try to be her friends. And you feel like she sees that, too, even as she… doesn’t. I suppose it must be mostly speculative in what it reveals about her psychologically, but you feel like it understands the responsibility of taking that approach — that it must try to be truthful, rather than histrionic; but that it’s important it attempts to find that truth, not just be enigmatic and vague.

Rebecca Hall gives a fantastic performance in the title role, completely immersed in what must be a difficult part to play: the viewer has to understand, identify, and empathise with Christine, even as she’s a bit standoffish, awkward, and maybe doesn’t even understand herself all that well. Between Hall’s masterly performance and Antonio Campos’ understated direction, they’ve created a film that dodges the pitfall of being melodramatic, and managed to make you sympathise with Christine and why she would do what she did, even as you empathise with her enough to wish she wouldn’t.

4 out of 5

Christine is available on Netflix UK from today.

Ready Player One (2018)

2018 #183
Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

Watching other people play video games

But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

4 out of 5

Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Shrek Forever After (2010)

2018 #132
Mike Mitchell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Shrek Forever After

Shrek the Third suggested that DreamWorks’ golden-goose animated franchise was running out of fairytales to subvert, so this fourth — and final (for the time being) — movie turns its attention on the series itself.

Shrek is becoming disgruntled with life as a family man, so signs a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have just one day as a “real ogre” again — but Rumpelstiltskin is a tricksy so-and-so, using the small print to land Shrek in an alternate timeline where he was never born. If Shrek can’t sort it out by midnight, he’ll be erased forever and the new timeline will stick. The filmmakers take this storyline as an opportunity to give us a look at how characters might’ve turned out in a Shrek-less world: Fiona is a warrior leading an ogre resistance, disillusioned by life after no prince came to rescue her; Puss in Boots is a fat, pampered kitty; and Donkey is working as a cart-donkey… but is otherwise pretty much the same. I guess some personalities never change.

Sundry of the series’ many supporting characters get the same treatment, and it’s in this upending of familiarity that Forever After finds its greatest entertainment value. The result therefore favours dedicated viewers, while newcomers would be advised to seek out the franchise’s first two instalments. While this conclusion might not be quite as good, or iconic, as that pair, it does have a lot going for it, making it a more fitting finale than its mediocre predecessor.

4 out of 5

Shrek Forever After is on BBC One today at 3:10pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

A Monster Calls (2016)

2018 #129
J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Monster Calls

Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

All the feels

The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

4 out of 5

A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

February Review Roundup

As 2018 races towards its finish line, I’m sat on a pile of nearly 130 unwritten reviews. Oof. And to think, I started that page when I first got 10 behind.

Anyway, as my (likely in vain) attempts to reduce that number continue, today’s roundup includes three reviews of films I watched all the way back in February:

  • WarGames (1983)
  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • I Origins (2014)


    WarGames
    (1983)

    2018 #22
    John Badham | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    WarGames

    It’s Ferris Bueller’s Third World War as Matthew Broderick plays a precociously talented high schooler who unwittingly hacks into a government war planning supercomputer and instigates a countdown to nuclear annihilation.

    It’s a funny old mashup of genres that I’m not sure you’d get away with today. It starts out as a Cold War thriller, feeling almost like a Tom Clancy adaptation; then suddenly it’s a John Hughes high school comedy; then the two have to awkwardly mesh, before it turns fully into a young adult techno-thriller. Young Adult fiction is almost synonymous with dystopian future adventures nowadays, but WarGames reminded me nonspecifically of the kind of thing YA books used to be about when I was the right age for them — and, considering that would’ve been in the mid ’90s, those books were quite possibly inspired by this film.

    So, it’s inescapably of its era, but no worse off for that… though how The Youth Of Today would take to it, God only knows. If you stop to think too much (or at all) about the ins and outs of the plot then it becomes thoroughly implausible in so many different ways, but if you let those things slide and go along with the film on its own terms then it’s a cracking adventure yarn.

    4 out of 5

    Being John Malkovich
    (1999)

    2018 #28
    Spike Jonze | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Being John Malkovich

    The film that introduced the world to the kooky imagination of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (almost 20 years ago now!), Being John Malkovich is about a failing puppeteer (John Cusack) who starts a new job in a bizarre office, where he develops an unreciprocated infatuation with a coworker (Catherine Keener) and discovers a hidden portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich).

    Even with that mad premise, Being John Malkovich wasn’t the film I thought it was going to be. Well, I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, especially as it’s a Kaufman film so I knew to expect “weird”. But I guess I anticipated that it would focus on people inhabiting Malkovich and doing kerazy things as him, or something, rather than it being a four-way love triangle (in an Escher-esque way rather than an “uh, I think you mean love quadrilateral” sense) in which the whole “inhabiting Malkovich’s body” thing is more a means to an end rather than the film’s raison d’être.

    Said end is an exploration of identity and relationships — indeed, the screenplay reportedly started life as “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife” and the kooky body-swap antics came later. I’ve read reviews that frame it in the context of films like Mulholland Drive and Persona as a “comedic meditation on identity”; though what it actually says about identity, I’m not sure (but then, I wasn’t really sure what Mulholland Drive and Persona were saying either, so maybe this is just me). But I wonder: does it just tip its hat in that direction while playing around with the situation to see what happens? Are the filmmakers “yeah, whatever”ing the broader psychological implications (as one of the characters does) while playing out the full bizarreness of the premise to its logical extreme? I’m not sure “logical” is quite the right word for what goes on in this movie, but what I mean is it works through the fullness of the idea, extrapolating it through various events and to a conclusion. Can you even consider the true psychological implications with something so out-there and not-real?

    Well, maybe. Indeed, the film kinda does, through its relationships. One character falls in love with another, but only when the latter is in Malkovich’s body; but then they’re tricked into falling for someone else in Malkovich’s body; but that doesn’t work out in the long run, and the first pair end up together in real life — so the physical body is the initial attraction, but it’s ultimately irrelevant to the actual person inside. Basically, is this just a kooky, crazy, bizarre film whose message is the age-old “beauty isn’t just skin deep”?

    4 out of 5

    I Origins
    (2014)

    2018 #36
    Mike Cahill | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    I Origins

    The second film from Another Earth writer-director Mike Cahill, I Origins is another science-fiction drama with the emphasis on “drama” more than “sci-fi”. It’s about a scientist, Ian (Michael Pitt), who’s mapping the evolution of the human eye with his lab partner (Brit Marling), hoping it will help discredit the superstitious religious ideas that he despises. At a party, Ian is drawn to a masked woman (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) by her eyes, and they end up dating — but developments in their relationship send his research in surprising directions…

    I Origins is a consistently engaging, intriguing film; the kind of story that continues to develop and evolve its premise throughout its whole running time, so that I’ve had to be a bit vague to avoid just giving away the entire plot. My only real query is that I don’t know what it all signified in the end. Something to do with there being room for spirituality even in dyed-in-the-wool scientists? Or maybe it’s just about the personal journey of its lead character? Or maybe, as it was developed as a prequel to an unmade script, the really significant stuff lies there, and this is just backstory? (Cahill sold the rights to that screenplay in 2011, but it’s still not been produced.)

    It feels a bit disingenuous to praise a film where I don’t really know for sure what the point was, but I liked it quite a lot all the same.

    4 out of 5

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

    2018 #247
    Peyton Reed | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 + 1.90:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ant-Man and the Wasp

    After the huge (in every respect) Avengers: Infinity War, the comically-minded Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a palate cleanser for the MCU; a bit of light entertainment to help smooth the long gap between the Avengers film’s devastating cliffhanger and 2019’s double whammy of Captain Marvel (trailer today!) and Avengers 4 (trailer Wednesday!) Some people didn’t take too kindly to the ‘abrupt’ tonal swing (they’re completely separate movies, so that’s a pretty daft complaint to have, frankly), but I thought this sequel was a ton of fun.

    It actually takes place before Infinity War anyhow: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is finally coming to the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for being involved in the events of Civil War. He’s also been forbidden from contacting the inventor of the Ant-Man suit, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), or his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who are wanted fugitives; but when Scott has a vision of Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), from his trip to the Quantum Realm (see the first Ant-Man), he becomes involved in Hope and Hank’s attempt to travel their and rescue Janet. Along the way they also have to deal with black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to monetise the tech he’s been helping them build, and a mysterious masked figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects and is trying to steal said new tech.

    The Wasp and Ant-Man

    Got all that? I haven’t even touched on some of the other subplots that get thrown in for good measure. For something that’s clearly been designed as a light romp, Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly has a lot of plot going on. That might be part of what keeps it romp-y, mind: with so much to get through, there’s always something happening, it’s always pushing forward. It arguably gets a bit bogged down having to line everything up in the middle, with some scenes that lean a little heavily on exposition, but it always finds time for a gag or two. Personally, I’ll let quite a lot slide if I’m having fun, and this keeps the fun quotient high throughout.

    Entertainment is definitely the name of the game here, and to that end director Peyton Reed and the five credited screenwriters (including star Paul Rudd) set out to tickle various emotional responses. The most obvious one is, as mentioned, the funny — there are laugh-out-loud moments here, as well as a never-ending barrage of one-liners and comedic business. But it also takes time to be emotive and heartfelt. Scott’s relationship with his daughter (a charming and likeable performance by young Abby Ryder Fortson) is a major character point, and a key touchstone for a definite parent/child theme across the movie. What we might actually ‘learn’ about parent/child relationships from all this, I don’t know, but it feeds some surprisingly heartwarming material at times.

    But which is the parent and which is the child?

    Thirdly, there are thrills in the shape of multiple fantastic action sequences. Hope dons the Wasp suit — all the powers of Ant-Man, plus wings and blasters — shrinking and growing at speed to kick plenty of ass, though Ghost’s ability to just phase through objects presents a unique challenge. There’s a heist sequence, too, recalling the overall theme of the first movie… though as it’s in a primary school and occurs while Scott’s suit is malfunctioning, it’s played more for laughs. Well, so’s almost everything in this movie, but it works. Best of them all is the extended car chase finale, with the good guys’ size-changing vehicles used for some highly inventive antics, plus all sorts of other goings-on in a race with multiple pursuers. I’ve seen some criticise this part for going on too long, but I thought it was just right, and is a strong contender to be remembered as an all-timer chase sequence.

    Often when I watch stuff in 3D nowadays I don’t actually mention it in my reviews — I still enjoy the experience more often than not (some stuff underwhelms, naturally), but I know most people don’t have the option and, frankly, it’s rarely essential. Well, the 3D probably isn’t essential here either, but it is superb, really adding to the scale and impact of the big scenes — when things are switching sizes all over the place, that’s no bad thing. Plus it’s clearly effective in just regular moments, too: the film’s opening shot is just of a house, but the dimensionality is still palpable. Top work by whoever did the post-conversion.

    Plus, the 3D Blu-ray comes with the benefit of the film’s shifting IMAX ratio, where the frame expands upwards from 2.39:1 to 1.90:1 for certain scenes. This is commonplace for Marvel films nowadays, which means sometimes it seems to occur just for the sake of it, but Reed has put the effort in to make great use of the larger image. Okay, it’s no surprise that it’s used for the action scenes (including opening up for a whole half-hour-or-so at the film’s climax), but he’s mindful of the transitions between ratios and the effect that can have — at least twice the actual moment the film moves from one ratio to another is as effective as the bigger image itself. Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-rays, I know, but I love ’em, and this is a great example of why.

    Ant-Man will return... but will anybody else?

    In the year of Black Panther and Infinity War, the relatively frothy Ant-Man and the Wasp was always destined to be “the other one”. But just because it’s not Big or Meaningful doesn’t mean it has no merit. Far from it. Whether you want to view it as a palate cleansing instalment of the MCU or as a standalone adventure, I think it’s pitched almost perfectly as a fun, entertaining ride of a movie.

    The first Ant-Man is, to date, the only MCU film to make it onto one of my year-end best-of lists. The way things have gone in 2018, I won’t be surprised if this sequel is the fourth.

    4 out of 5

    Ant-Man and the Wasp is out on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

    Rocky Balboa (2006)

    2018 #217
    Sylvester Stallone | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Rocky Balboa

    Writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone returns to his boxing saga to give it the ending he fluffed 16 years earlier. Even as someone who didn’t dislike Rocky V, I don’t think it’s a great send-off for the character. Stallone felt the same, which is why he conceived this as a proper capstone for the series.

    Naturally, time has passed in the world of Rocky (Stallone) too. His beloved wife Adrian has died, and he spends half his time mourning her, to the distaste of his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). He spends the rest of his days running a little restaurant, regaling customers with tales of former boxing triumphs, and trying to connect with the grown-up son who barely wants to see him (now played by Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia, because Stallone was worried that if he cast his real son (as he had in Rocky V) viewers would be distracted wondering if their real-life relationship was like that). But when a computer-generated fight between Rocky and current champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) hands the victory to Rocky, he wonders if he might have more fight left in him yet; and Dixon, eager to prove his worth to a press who doubts his ability, agrees to fight the fight for real.

    Technically Rocky Balboa is a sports movie — because, y’know, it’s Rocky — but most of it is really a drama, with the sporting side only really coming in the second half. It barely matters that Rocky used to be a sportsman, it’s a portrait of any guy who used to be successful at something and now mopes around missing the good old days. It’s only when there’s a training montage and then then climactic fight that the film really enters the Sport genre. In that respect, it’s really taken Rocky back to its roots, because the same description of its structure and emphasis could be applied to the first and second films. Stallone tried to get there with the fifth, too, but ended up making it a bit melodramatic and clichéd. Here, he’s hit the nail on the head, with a story that packs as much punch outside the ring as inside it.

    Not-so-little Marie

    One subplot that gets a lot of screen time and works particularly nicely is when Rocky bumps into ‘Little’ Marie, the girl who Rocky walked home and advised against hanging out with boys back in the first movie. Marie was originally to appear in Rocky V, given a miserable storyline as a homeless prostitute, but it got cut. Thank goodness for that — that film’s bleak enough as it is, and it allowed Stallone to do something better with the character here. Now, Marie doesn’t exactly have a super life, but she’s got a house (albeit a crummy one), a job (albeit a crummy one), and a kid (who’s alright). Her appearance could’ve just been ultra-referential fan service — it’s bringing back a tiny character from the first, most popular film, after all — but it actually works really well as a subplot. A lot of that is thanks to Geraldine Hughes’ subtly developed, genuine performance. Her and Rocky have an interesting relationship: kind of fatherly, kind of romantic, but also explicitly not that. Rocky has always looked to help the “damsel in distress”, and he’s at it again — it’s his chivalrous nature. It’s also tied to him floundering around post-Adrian, looking for some kind of meaning to life, stuck in his grief — which is also what really leads to his return to the ring, thereby making the film thematically of a piece.

    The absence of Adrian is a major factor in the film, and deciding to ‘kill her off’ seems to have been the key to unlocking the screenplay for Stallone: she was alive in the first few drafts, but they lacked emotional impact. Stallone and actress Talia Shire mutually agreed Adrian should be left out, giving Rocky an “emotional chasm” to overcome. It was a smart move, I think. The Rocky/Adrian relationship is so central to the series (his post-fight cry of “Adrian!” in the first film is one of the series’ most iconic moments, even to people who’ve never seen it), and showing the end of that taps into a genuine and tangible sense of grief, both for the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the flashes we see of Adrian and Mickey, Rocky’s beloved coach (also deceased), during the final fight confirm something that’s quite apparent in various other bits of the film: this isn’t just using the Rocky name to do something different and new, like other belated sequels or soft reboots do, but is a true sixth entry in the series. It’s not completely wedded to the continuity of the other movies — you could probably watch this by itself and still get the main points of just about everything — but the full weight and impact of it is felt by being familiar with the entire Rocky saga.

    We're gonna need a montage

    On the other hand, it’s equally fortunate they didn’t go overboard on the fan service: cameos for Clubber Lang (the opponent in Rocky III) and Ivan Drago (from Rocky IV) were cut at the script stage. They do sound quite fun though, as fan service (you can read about them here), so it’s perhaps a shame they weren’t filmed and included in an extended cut or something. In his audio commentary on the Blu-ray, Stallone does talk about a director’s cut, and little wonder: his first cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but the studio insisted he lop out 45 minutes. It’s strange that the extended version has never materialised: in the commentary Stallone is clearly keen on it, the film was a success, and studios usually love a way to make even more money. I’ve no idea why it never happened.

    As for the sports aspect of the film… well, there’s a training montage set to the classic theme that ends with Rocky running up those steps… accompanied by his new pet dog. That’s a 6 out of 5 rating right there from me. But more seriously, Stallone had some interesting ideas about how to handle the climactic fight, and I’m basically going to paraphrase from his commentary a lot now because he’d clearly thought about this a fair bit and his decisions come across on screen. (Which is interesting, actually, because there are some editing decisions earlier on that I’d describe as odd and perhaps even thoughtless, like the way it intercuts Rocky reminiscing about Adrian and meeting Marie with Mason Dixon despairing about his career, to no particular effect.) On the commentary, Stallone talks about how the other Rocky films had cinematically-shot final fights, which made them more fictional, whereas for this film he chose to shoot on hi-def video and cut it together pretty much how HBO do it for real, with on-screen graphics and everything. His intention was to blur the line between reality and a cinematic fight. Well, that’s only ever going to work up to a point (we know it’s a movie, after all), but, as someone who’s never watched a boxing match on HBO (or at all) the veracity of the presentation comes across.

    It ain't over 'til it's over

    Interestingly, it doesn’t stop there. The fight’s first round is shown entirely in the ring, with no cutaways to other characters, again to evoke real fights; but you can’t do a whole fight that way in a movie (it would get monotonous, Stallone says), so with round two it begins to cut away, “layering in the emotion”. Eventually it becomes a montage, with black & white shots and flashbacks as well as the fight. Here, Stallone’s move completely away from the realism and into depicting Rocky’s subjective experience, as he works out his emotions over Adrian while accomplishing something he never thought he could. So, across the entire fight, the film basically swings from one extreme of objectivity to the other of subjectivity, but executes it seamlessly, making one of the best climaxes of the series.

    It’s bolstered further by the plausibility of Rocky’s opponent. He may not be as memorable as Clubber or Drago, but Dixon is more believable as a human being. Or, as Stallone puts it, Clubber and Drago were Villains, while he tried to write Dixon as a character — someone on his own journey, which Rocky comes into. That’s part of why Dixon breaks his hand during the fight: it’s his “trial by fire”, his chance to prove himself after he takes the kind of beating he’s never had before. Of course, it also gives Rocky an in, because the old man never would’ve stood a chance otherwise. How much of a chance does he have? That’d be telling. In fact, they went as far as shooting four different endings, with every possible outcome for the fight, so as not to spoil the ending for the watching crowd. (For some reason, only one of these alternates is included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.) But really the strict winner of the fight doesn’t matter, which is something Stallone also realised. He originally had Rocky stay in the ring for the final decision, but Stallone realised Rocky doesn’t care about that — by holding his own he’s proved himself to himself, and he’s ready to move on with his family. And, much like in the first movie, the crowd know who the real winner is, whatever the judges say.

    There's only one Rocky

    Once upon a time the Rocky films were held up as a more-or-less perfect example of the law of diminishing returns for movie sequels. I’m not sure that’s wholly true anyway (I quite enjoyed all of them), but Rocky Balboa certainly bucks any downward trend. With it, Stallone managed to create another crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sell out its roots in the previous films; if anything, it’s enhanced by them, and takes the series back to where it all began in an appropriate manner. As he’d intended, it’s a perfect button on the series. Though, as it turned out, Rocky’s story isn’t quite done yet…

    4 out of 5

    The latest Rocky movie, Creed II, is out in the US this week and in the UK next Friday.

    Bao (2018)

    2018 #233a
    Domee Shi | 8 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | PG / G

    Bao

    This short film from Pixar played before Incredibles 2 in cinemas, so naturally it accompanies it on Blu-ray too. In it, a Chinese-Canadian woman is steaming dumplings (the titular bao) when one comes to life and grows into a little dough boy, who she begins to raise as a son.

    As with many of the best short films, Bao takes a simple theme (though to say what the real core of the short is would give away some of the ending) and executes it succinctly. As is often the case with Pixar’s work, it aims at packing an emotional wallop, using it’s fantastical story to elucidate a real-life situation. It also doesn’t stint visually, with an overall animation quality that wouldn’t be out of place in a feature.

    Bao is perhaps most notable as the first Pixar short to be directed by a woman. It only took 35 years and 35 shorts to get there. Considering some of the recent stories about the company, and the reputation it was gaining as a “boy’s club”, I guess this couldn’t come at a better time, though perhaps it’s to their credit that they didn’t seem to harp on about this aspect (I stumbled across the fact on Wikipedia). Given the quality and clarity of work on display, perhaps writer-director Domee Shi will get to be Pixar’s first female feature director too.

    4 out of 5

    Incredibles 2 (2018)

    2018 #233
    Brad Bird | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Incredibles 2

    Brad Bird — the director behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and not letting them release the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blu-ray (I will never be over that) — returns to the movie that made his name with what must be Pixar’s most-requested (probably “only requested”, actually) sequel, Incredibles 2.

    It’s been 14 years for us viewers since the last Parr family adventure, but in-universe it’s been no time at all — literally, as Incredibles 2 picks up by recapping the closing moments of The Incredibles, which saw the eponymous family of superheroes about to face off against villain The Underminer. That confrontation goes disastrously awry, landing the family in a whole heap of trouble; but it also attracts the attention of media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes superheroes should be made legal again. Recruiting parents Bob and Helen Parr — aka Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to his cause, the first step in Deavor’s public relations plan revolves around public crimefighting appearances by Elastigirl… alone. This leaves Bob holding the baby, literally, as he’s stuck at home with the kids while his wife gets to have all the fun.

    At its most basic, Incredibles 2 is a gender-reversed do-over of the first movie… to a fault, in fact. The closing moments of the first film suggest a “family of superheroes” future for the Parrs, with them battling crime together. The sequel immediately works to put everything back in its place: the kids aren’t allowed to use their powers (until they must for the climax, natch); one of the parents gets to go off and be a superhero, while the other has to stay at home. The difference is it’s the man staying at home, and where Helen was consummate at looking after the kids, Bob finds it a challenge — because Men, amirite?

    Left holding the baby... literally

    Part of what made The Incredibles so successful as a movie was it mixed a plausible family dynamic in with the superhero capers, but here that home life aspect is what holds the film back, because Bob’s struggles with the kids are 66.6% cliché. His son struggles with homework, and Bob doesn’t know how to do it either! His daughter has boyfriend problems! The 33.3% that works comes courtesy of baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop powers — plural. As the middle of the film drags on, becoming a bit “we get the point!” with Bob’s familial woes, the bright spot is continually Jack-Jack’s humorous madcap antics.

    Mind you, the actual storyline in the superhero section isn’t much better. It revolves around the hunt for a mysterious villain, which naturally ends in a twist reveal… but as their true identity is pretty obvious as soon as they first appear earlier on, that reveal is a long time coming. Depending how critical you want to be, this part of the movie also has a lot of thematic points that seem to peter out or had nowhere to go in the first place. Is the film trying to say something about our addiction to screens and media? About the merits of vigilantism over bureaucracy? The dangers of being reliant on ‘higher powers’ to look after us? It touches on these things, and more, but they’re only given passing reference. Okay, yes, when you boil it down this is “just” a kids’ action-adventure movie and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much depth of thought… but Pixar are always hailed as being much more than that. Is it too much to expect that, if they’re going to introduce a topic or perspective, they’ll also at least close it out somehow?

    Yet for all these story woes, Incredibles 2 does indeed work as a colourful action-adventure movie; gloriously so. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling, beautifully choreographed and constructed. They’re even better in 3D, too — Elastigirl’s stretchy powers seem to have been made for the format. And while the middle of the film may refuse to pay off the “family of superheroes” thing, the opening sequence and climax let them all in on the action, and it’s all the better for it.

    Stretchy superheroics

    What made The Incredibles one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best films in the whole superhero genre, was the way it combined the action and adventure with family dynamics and concerns, seamlessly marrying the two. The sequel lacks the clarity and connectedness that first movie boasted, working very well as a fun superhero action movie but struggling as a family comedy-drama. It’s still an entertaining time (the sometimes-slow mid-section aside), but it’s not the genre and studio standout that the first film was.

    4 out of 5

    Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-ray (2D & 3D, but no 4K) in the UK this week.