The Criterion Zatoichi set is insane.
ZATOICHI- I’m about halfway into the Zatoichi film series and man, is it a lot of fun.
After ordering the 25-film set from Criterion when it came out around November, I’ve been picking at it here and there, sometimes watching a couple of films in a row, sometimes going a couple of weeks between films, depending on how busy I am and whether I feel like breaking them up and watching other films inbetween.
I’d say the set is the best blu ray release of 2013 for a number of reasons. First, because of the sheer manpower that went into it. Each of the films has a short essay/description of the film, which is certainly not rare for the company, but what’s really great is that each is accompanied by an art piece inspired by the film by a different illustrator or comic artist. You’ve also got decent transfers for the films, despite being three films to a disc. (Unusual for Criterion, but they also had both versions of Godzilla/Gojira on the same disc.) And, despite my incredulity over the unnecessary size of the set due to the redundant inclusion of all the films on DVD (leading to a mammoth 27-discs), the box itself is gorgeous. Frankly the whole thing has had care lavished upon it. I highly recommend picking it up.
One of many Zatoichi films and one of my personal faves so far.
As for the films themselves, they start out very strong and have a surprising amount of continuity between them in the beginning, especially in the opening trilogy or so. After that, unfortunately, it peters away and only gets brought up as convenient exposition. At the point I am at, having just finished film twelve, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, they’re starting to seem more like a well-made TV series. (In fact, the films would finally give way to a TV series starring the same actor in the role which would run for many episodes.) There are actors showing up in different roles and plots starting to feel recycled. Not to mention some more cliche story elements like the old “main character finds himself saddled with a baby” chestnut. In a way that is a bit hard to avoid though as, while Ichi isn’t a samurai per se, the films share the same DNA and there are a lot of them in the films. If America has the Western then samurai movies are the “Eastern.” The two have a lot in common, down to the samurai or the gunslinger being constantly challenged by rivals determined to prove they’re the best. Each is full of themes that repeat ad nauseum and the quality of the production often outweighs how original they are simply because the tropes loom so large.
And in that sense, the Zatoichi films fare well because they are full of great character moments and fantastic, if sometimes short and spread out, action sequences. Seeing him take down those that try to cheat him due to his blindness really never does get old. He is a classic rogue. He stands up for the rights of others, but he’s no angel. He gambles, he drinks and he loves to stuff his face like a glutton. I can’t wait to get to some of the great sounding chapters to come up, like the one in which he faces Tishiro Mifune’s character from Yojimbo.
Because what the world was waiting for was a tattooed Santa, ready for Coke cans.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS- I remember this film doing reasonably well at the box office, but Dreamworks being very disappointed that it didn’t do better. Part of that may be because it has some things in common with The Avengers, putting together the most well known of children’s myths into a kind of super-team. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and, as a new member, Jack Frost comprise the Guardians. And as such, they have to fight the Boogeyman. It sounds good on paper, but I’ll admit that it just seemed to be missing something. Maybe part of it is that kids love to be scared and the Boogeyman could have been a great personification of Halloween instead of a really generic villain. Part of it may have been the fact that it represents one weird theology.
The Guardians are all creatures that have been created/appointed by the Man in the Moon, who is a stand-in for God, apparently. And he created the Boogeyman for a reason that is unclear. And he let him go off and scare people for a really long time before he changed his mind and had the Guardians take him out somewhere around the Enlightenment. So the Boogeyman is kind of Satan, I guess? Meanwhile, Santa is Russian. This despite the fact that the films says all the Guardians started as regular people, so one would assume that would be St. Nicholas, who was Turkish. And the Easter Bunny is Australian. There’s not really an explanation for that either, but he’s huge and uses boomerangs. Maybe it’s because Sony had already used the Easter Island gag for Hop. (Santa’s elves seem distractingly similar to the Minions from their Despicable Me movies as well.)
These weird ticks aren’t quite as damning as the awkward attempts to inject schmaltz though. Spoiler alert, at one point a kid, who has just spent the last 20 minutes hanging out with all of them asks what happens if he stops believing in the Guardians. Why would he? That’s like not believing in carrots even though you are currently in the middle of eating them. It made me think of that guy in the Stan Freberg Dragnet parody that doesn’t believe in Santa Claus or Columbus. (He hadn’t made up his mind about Toledo.) That’s one hell of a fragile belief system, kid. And this nonsensical moment is no doubt shoehorned into the story to make sure they can throw in an obligatory speech about the importance of “belief.” Not anything specific, mind you. Just believe in believing. Sort of the Unitarian Church of story morals.
Despite all the nitpicking (when did this turn into a Red Letter Media video?), it’s a solid enough effort with some decent visuals and a fun idea behind it. Those with kids should check it out.
Doo is right.
SCOOBY-DOO/SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED- Given my excitement over the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy (and my appreciation for Slither and Super), I decided to give Scooby Doo another chance. What does one have to do with the other you may ask? Well, if you were an IMDB obsessive, you may know that James Gunn, the director (and writer) of those films, wrote the screenplays for the two theatrical, live-action Scooby films.
Direct to video Velma. Jesus, she’s adorable!
To be clear, as far as I know he had nothing to do with the other ones that have been made for the direct-to-video market. You know, the ones where Velma is suddenly Asian? (Which I am actually really OK with for obvious reasons.)
While I can say I didn’t hate Scooby Doo as much as I did back when I saw it after it first came out, I can say it’s still not very good. At all. Sure, a few things work. You’ve got Matthew Lilliard giving the performance of his career as Shaggy. It’s just too bad they give him so little of merit to do. By the time he and Scoob have their big fart-off, it’s obvious that he’s way better than the material here. Yeah, I said it. And then there’s Linda Cardelini from Freaks and Geeks as Velma. She’s also terrific. She manages to present one of the more likable versions of the character. Again, no thanks to Gunn’s script. And by the way, she’s by far the hottest of the group between her and Daphne.
Theatrical Velma in her Rob Liefeld designed outfit.
And don’t get me wrong, I like Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m a fan of Buffy from the way, way back and I had a not unreasonable crush on her at the time. She’s not even necessarily terribly cast in the role had it been written as the character on the original TV show. Sort of like how Arnold Schwartzenegger wasn’t a terrible choice for Mr. Freeze… if they’d treated him as the emotionless block of ice from the cartoon instead of the pun-spewing cinematic shrinkage he was written as in Batman and Robin, trying to ape the 60s show.
But that’s the biggest problem with both of the Scooby films. Neither of them treat the characters as they are in the cartoon. They act as poor sequels to the cartoon with the characters in a state of flux. These aren’t the characters we have seen for the last forty years. They’re completely different. It’s like doing a Little Rascals film in which Spanky and Alfalfa are grown-ups, talking about mortgages in their clubhouse. In the case of the first film, it’s trying far too hard to be both a Doo movie and a parody of the TV show based on countless bad stand-up routines from the 80s about Shaggy smoking weed or Velma being a lesbian. A far, far less clever version of what was cranked out in The Brady Bunch Movie. But while the Brady’s were celebrated, winning out over those that made fun of them for being out of time, the Scooby gang are twisted around into socially retarded dopes and neurotics. Not to mention that it abandons the basic tennents of the series by having the ultimate bad guy (yet another gag that sounds far more clever as an internet joke than a plot point) be supernaturally powered.
I suppose that might be why so many folks were pleasantly surprised by the second film. It carries over many, many problems of the first film, (like the fact that Scooby still looks like he was rendered on a graphics chip for a PS2) but it does manage to succeed in making its spastic tone settle the hell down. It’s far more a straight-up Doo movie without as many of the jokes that were far too blatant to be “wink wink” in the first film. And in the end, when Mystery Inc. gets the bad guy, it feels much more like it should. There may be “real monsters” now, but they were created by someone using the same kind of hackneyed science that allowed movie projectors and glow paint and air-powered jet packs to somehow create convincing ghosts in the first place.
It also has by far the funniest line in either film, delivered by Peter Boyle in reference to those damn bushes.
It’s not a great film. Hell, I’d struggle to call it a good one. But compared to the first it was definitely a step in the right direction. I wonder what would have happened if someone besides Raja Gosnell had directed them. Someone with some more style and an ability to create more atmosphere. That was what I really loved about the original cartoons. The look of the creepy houses. The music. Is it wierd I think about the Nolan Batman films when I think about how it’s been long enough since these came out that someone could take over and restart the franchise? I just think of someone like Guillermo Del Toro taking over and I get a little giddy. Or Alfonso Curon. (Before you give me the middle finger, remember that he did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)
I have to imagine that Gosnell was a large part of why these films failed if only because Gunn has a history of schizophrenic films that juggle ideas and when he has helmed his own projects, he’s been able to balance his crazy better. Then again, most of his other projects were balls-out R-rated meyhem. I guess we’ll just have to see how well he’s able to do with a PG-13 next summer.