Closure: M. Night Shyamalan

No director has quite put me through the ups and downs that M. Night Shyamalan has.  This guy emerged on the film scene at the absolute perfect time for me, pretty much hitting right when I first became conscious of the cinema and started forming real opinions about it.  I saw The Sixth Sense in its opening weekend at the age of eleven and like most people thought it was amazing, certainly for its twist ending but also just for how well constructed and acted it was.  Shyamalan gave that movie a sort of relaxed, but not too slow, pace that felt like a breath of fresh air in a mainstream film in a cinema environment that was increasingly being defined by people like Michael Bay.  I was also a big fan and ardent defender through Unbreakable and Signs… but then he made The Village, not a terrible movie but not a great one either and that put a bit of a dent in his armor.  I thought he’d just bounce, but instead he made a pair of indefensibly terrible movies in Lady in the Water and The Happening and from there I pretty much gave up on him. I still stand by my opinion on his first three movies but I wasn’t going to show up to crap like The Last Airbender out of director loyalty anymore and nothing I was hearing made me regret that.  But, the guy hasn’t gone away and he’s actually making something of a comeback.  I saw his last three movies (Split, Glass, and Old) and they certainly haven’t won me back with them (I think they’re middling to poor at best) but there were some traces of the old Shyamalan there and they made enough money that it seems clear he’s going to continue working in Hollywood for a long time.  With that in mind I thought it might be time to go back and check out those movies he made between 2008 and 2016, and also to go further back and watch those two pre-The Sixth Sense movies that no one ever talks about so that I can fully understand this sometimes rather strange voice in mainstream cinema.

Praying With Anger (1992)
We start with the most “for completists only” entry in Shyamalan’s filmography, a film that was made in 1992 when Shyamalan was only about 21 years old and still an NYU film student.  It played at a couple of film festivals back in the 90s but did not to my knowledge receive commercial release of any kind in theaters and is not to my knowledge available in any official capacity on physical media or streaming today, so this can safely be called a Shyamalan deep cut.  That said, I don’t think this can technically be called a “student film” however as it’s a fully feature length film that I believe he financed it separately from his education and it did seem to have at least some grander ambitions than to simply be a learning experience.  Rather this seems to be informed by the independent film movement of the era when gen x filmmakers were encouraged to make personal films often starring themselves and see if they could make the next She’s Gotta Have It.  So with this I’m in the odd position of debating to treat this either as a somewhat impressive student work or as a very not impressive real movie.

The film is extremely autobiographical, chronicling the experience of a young Indian-American teenager as he spends a year abroad in Southern India in order to reconnect with his roots.  Shyamalan of course plays this young student and his acting is… not great, and it doesn’t help that he hasn’t exactly given himself the best dialogue in the world, and I wouldn’t say the rest of his cast does a whole lot better.  The film’s title suggested to me that the film might offer some clues into some of the odd spiritual themes that Shyamalan’s movies often get mired in, but I’m not really sure it does.  Hinduism is certainly a theme of the movie and he has some discussions with some holy men but it’s kind of a background theme, the actual story much more heavily concerns this student’s high school drama while studying in this foreign country as he has to fight off bullies and as he figures out what he’s going to do about a crush he has on a local girl.  Oh and at the end he saves a Muslim guy from a lynch mob, in a moment that does not feel particularly well earned.

I should note from the offset that I watched this via a very dodgy Youtube upload that appeared to be sourced from a VHS or something and was in non-anamorphic widescreen and generally kind of looked like shit.  Despite that terrible presentation I could still tell that the most impressive thing about the film was its visual style.  For a movie made on a shoestring by a college student the film’s basic blocking and cinematography mostly look reasonably professional with Shyamalan giving the film a sort of orange hue and capturing its Indian locations pretty well.  Whatever the film’s other merits I can see how this could have served well enough as a resume to help him get more work because the film does show that he does possess the technical skills to be a professional filmmaker pretty clearly.  Shyamalan is not, however, yet in much of a position to take on many of the film’s other challenges like directing non-actors and he also just generally seems too young to really have much in the way of perspective on his own adolescence or to make sense of all the spiritual and cultural ideas he is trying to bring to the table.  So, yeah, I’m not surprised that this never made it past the festival stage of release and were it not for Shyamalan’s future fame this would have fallen into deserved obscurity but I don’t want to be too negative about it.  It almost certainly did take a lot of moxy to makes something this ambitious at this age and I’ve seen much worse “obscure first films” from directors who went on to be highly respected so in that context (and that context only) this could be viewed as a success.
** out of Five

Wide Awake (1998)
Praying With Anger wasn’t good, but on some level it was impressive that M. Night Shyamalan was able to make any feature length film at that age and with those resources, such excuses do not necessarily exist for his second film Wide Awake, which was produced by Miramax in 1995 but then sat on a shelf for three years before being unceremoniously dumped into theaters where it proceeded to make all of $282,175, so not a very ceremonious start to a filmmaker who would one year later make a film that would become the highest grossing non-Star Wars film of 1999.  It does not surprise me that this coming of age film didn’t get wide commercial distribution, in fact I’m kind of surprised it got made at all.  It’s sort of a family movie in tone and content, but it would almost certainly bore any kids brought to it, and it barters in religious searching that’s alienating enough to seem strange to secular audiences but unspecific enough to really be affirming to any existing religious audience.  In many ways it’s a film for nobody but there is at least one person who almost certainly relates to its Shyamalan himself as this is plainly a film that’s just as personal to him as the more overtly autobiographical Praying With Anger.  So, while it is a movie I’d recommend people looking for quality cinema skip, it is revealing in ways that may make it valuable to people (like myself) who are trying to figure out what makes this guy tick.

Though Shyamalan was raised as a Hindu (a part of his identity he explored in the last film), he was educated at a Catholic school for some reason and also considered that Catholicism part of his outlook and this is a movie where he explores that part of his personal and spiritual journey.  The film is about a kid of roughly ten years old who’s plainly something of a Shyamalan surrogate, though one stripped of his Indian heritage.  This kid has recently lost his grandfather and this has led the slightly precocious kid to start exploring a bunch of religious notions of the afterlife in order to cope with this.  Meanwhile he goes through some typical coming of age stuff like school memories and first crushes.  We’ve seen lots of movies like this and they tend to gain power through relatability and nostalgia, but you don’t really have that with this movie because, well… M. Night Shyamalan is a weird guy who had a weird childhood based around an unusual hodgepodge of spiritual beliefs and absolutely nothing about his entirely sincere memories of this childhood really scan to outside observers.  In many ways his observations of the school itself and its staff (including his teacher, played by Rosie O’Donnell) do seem a bit more recognizably observed, but the kid at the center of it all just seems like a total weirdo even though the film seems to view him as more of a quirky underdog.

Shyamalan has always been a bit evasive of his own personal religious beliefs despite religion being a pretty constant feature of his work.  I’ve long suspected he was some sort of closeted evangelical Christian, and at certain points people suspected he was a closeted scientologist, but seeing this movie and Praying With Anger I think he’s actually pretty sincerely one of those “spiritual rather than religious” people who likes to keep things ecumenical.  As something of a militant atheist I’ve always found this outlook kind of baffling: it seems crazy enough to subscribe to one religion but to subscribe to all religions, most of which contradict each other, seems positively daft.  As such this movie kind of comes from a weird outlook, which is a problem because the movie really doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond its outlook and sense of nostalgia.  The anecdotes are only mildly amusing and its cast (including a completely wasted Denis Leary as the boy’s father) doesn’t really do much to elevate it.  Beyond that the film does have one other thing that makes it interesting at least in retrospect as an early Shyamalan work… a [Spoiler] twist ending where it’s revealed that a character who’d been there the whole time wasn’t real but was in fact a supernatural being that only the protagonist can see.  I’m not kidding; one of the kids in the school turns out to be the kid’s guardian angel.  It’s a reveal that’s not that impactful, but it is kind of wild that it’s in there given the filmmaker’s future.

Clearly the people at Miramax realized that this movie wasn’t going to find an audience as soon as it was made and they more or less set it up to go direct to video disguised as more of a family comedy than it really is.  I’m sure some people casually rented it because Rosie O’Donnell (who’s a supporting player at most) was on the cover or casually watched it on cable here or there, but now it’s almost exclusively watched by people like me trying to look up Shyamalan’s roots.  I do think Shyamalan clearly learned something from his experience making this, namely that he’s probably the wrong person to be making straightforwardly autobiographical movies.  With The Sixth Sense he learned that he’d find much more success couching his personal concerns into a genre film.  In fact that very movie also features a private school kid of about the same age living in Philadelphia, but one that’s rendered much more richly and who’s odd quirks are better acknowledged and fit better in the story.  Later on he’d similarly try to use genre stories to express his various spiritual concerns with dramatically varying degrees of success, but I suspect we’ll get into that in more detail soon enough.
*1/2 out of Five

The Last Airbender (2010)
Night Shyamalan’s “legacy” as a director who went off the rails largely revolves around the toxic reception to two films: Lady in the Water and The Happening, films that were terrible in kind of opposite ways. Lady in the Water is mostly consistent with Shyamalan’s usual stylisitic strengths and has some decent performances, but it also feels like the work of a madman who has a bizarre and is deluded as to how far people are going to go along with his strange vison of “Narfs” and “Scrunts.” The Happening, by contrast had a perfectly serviceable genre concept to work with (an unseen force driving people to kill themselves) but it was executed in a way that was fundamentally inept, with some truly laughable dialogue and downright strange performances.  Both of those movies made slightly more money than you might think given their reputations but they were unquestionably artistic failures and after that one-two punch Shyamalan clearly realized that it was time to change things up and enter a new phase of his career… one where he would find whole new ways to disappoint people.  In this phase he would stop trying to make his usual Twilight Zone-esque stories with twist endings and would instead do some director-for-hire work on some of the larger budget franchise stuff Hollywood was working on.  And he started this phase out with a real doozy, his 2010 live action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

To call this movie “reviled” would be a bit of an understatement.  Fans of the original animated series thought it was a failure on pretty much every level and critics who weren’t familiar with the source material also found it just baffling and both camps found its general visual effects and production values unimpressive at best and downright shoddy at worst, especially coming the year after James Cameron’s Avatar, the film that would force this to be known simply as The Last Airbender.  At the time, I didn’t give too much of a shit either way.  I was still very much in my “I’m too good for family movies” phase when this came out, I had zero knowledge of the show, and when this got panned my only reaction was “cool, don’t need to waste my time on that.”  In the ten years since though I actually have caught up on the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series when it came to Netflix and I actually dug it a lot.  It’s way better made than a kids show like that needed to be and I totally get why it became the beloved show it did.  It’s like Gen Z’s “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Dragon Ball Z” all rolled into one accessible series.  Watching it in my thirties it was never going to have the place in my heart that it had for its original target audience, but it definitely felt like a bad idea for Hollywood to try to fuck with it.  And frankly Hollywood has kind of a bad track record of doing live action anime adaptations in general, so this was probably going to be a bad idea no matter who did it.

And that’s where I will say that this thing is at least slightly less terrible than I was expecting it to be.  I’d long been under the impression that this was a unique failure in which M. Night Shyamalan shat all over this beloved property with his unique brand of Shyamalan craziness, but that’s not really the case.  This actually seems like a much more routine kind of Hollywood failure; just a hubristic attempt to translate something that was probably never going to translate.  In fact, if anything, the movie’s mistake was that it was trying to be too faithful to the source material.  Rather than trying to adapt this into its own story set in the same universe, this basically takes the entire storyline of the show’s twenty-episode first season and crams the whole thing into one single 103 minute movie, cutting away all kinds of character development, world building, humor, or general flavoring along the way.  The movie just has to rush through all sorts of events at a break neck pace, failing entirely to really make you care about who these people are or what the stakes are in all of this.  As someone who watched the show I could sort of fill in the blanks for myself, but I can imagine someone unfamiliar with the source material watching the movie and thinking “what sort of non-sense is all this?”

And the people who are familiar with the source material?  Most of them were downright offended.  For one, there was a major online controversy about the fact that white actors were cast to portray the anime inspired characters from the show, who (though living in a fictional world) were clearly modeled after Asian culture.  I don’t want to re-litigate that whole debate, but I will say that whatever their races are Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone do not replicate the magic the show was able to conjure in bringing Aang, Katara, and Sokka to life, though I can’t exactly blame them because they have rather minimal screen time in this over-stuffed film.  Dev Patel fares better as the villain/anti-hero Zuko, but he’s still not going to replace the original animated version in anyone’s mind.  The film also struggles mightily to make the elemental “bending” that defined the series work on screen.  The film’s visual effects aren’t quite as bad as I’d been led to believe, I’ve certainly seen worse, but the film never really makes a case that a live action version of this was needed or preferable to the animated equivalent and some of the animated elements like the flying bison Appa just look kind of silly in this context.

I will say, I think a lot of this all seems a little less offensive in 2022 than it did in 2010 just because we know in hindsight that (despite the film actually having made a better-than-its-legacy-suggests $319 million at the worldwide box office) this live action franchise never went anywhere and that there’s no danger anymore of this interpretation supplanting the original in the minds and imaginations of anyone.  Really in retrospect this kind of just blends in pretty well in the extensive graveyard of orphaned YA franchise launch attempts of the era like The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, or Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  If this stands out a little more than any of those mediocrities it’s because it’s trying to adapt something that was already in a visual medium and just that the fanbase for the source material was a bit larger and more vocal, that and because it fits well into the narrative of M. Night Shyamalan’s strange up and down career.  But I can say that with how low my expectations were I was expecting to much more aggressively hate the movie than I actually did; scene to scene it’s not really that objectionable and in terms of dialogue, acting, and general decision making Shyamalan has actually done much worse elsewhere.  His basic work as a director here is merely functional and mediocre rather than incompetent.  It’s really more his failure to adapt someone else’s vision that got the better of him here more than anything and it kind of exposed why being a director-for-hire was probably never going to be his forte.
** out of Five

Devil (2010)
I think when M. Night Shyamalan took the job directing The Last Airbender he probably assumed that making that film into a trilogy would consume his time for a better part of a decade and that a career as a Hollywood blockbuster helmer would follow… as we all know now that didn’t exactly pan out.  However he did seem to have a backup plan in place to keep his usual brand of high concept twist ending movies alive in the form of a series of films that he’d produce that would be based on his stories and would have his name all over the poster but which would be written and directed by others.  He even had a brand name ready to go on this: “The Night Chronicles” of which the 2010 film Devil would be the first installment, its follow-up would be kind of a Twelve Angry Men riff about a supernatural case, and the planned third installment ended up becoming Split.  I guess give the guy an “A” for smart career planning but the execution faltered on both fronts; The Last Airbender really dragged his name through the mud and “M. Night Shyamalan movie not actually made by M. Night Shyamalan” wasn’t the marketing gold that they had hoped, although Devil did actually become the better reviewed of the two 2010 movies with the guy’s name on it, but only by having a “mixed” rather than openly hostile reception.

Devil was actually directed by a guy named John Erick Dowdle, who is otherwise known for directing the [Rec] remake Quarantine and the forgotten studio horror flick As Above, So Below and the screenplay was written by a guy named Brian Nelson, who wrote Hard Candy and co-wrote 30 Days of Night.  The story Shyamalan gave these guys is basically a high concept: “what if five people are stuck in a stopped elevator, and one of them is secretly the devil himself, and people keep dying one by one on the elevator as the lights go out?”  So, we’ve got overt religious elements here, which I suspected might be another peak into Shyamalan’s strange ecumenical religious thoughts, but it really isn’t.  This movie takes theology about as seriously most of these recent The Exorcist ripoff horror movies like Along Came the Devil or Prey for the Devil, so the real draw here is probably just seeing how they execute on the concept of a claustrophobic murder mystery of sorts and I would say their execution is… middling.  The characters they assemble on the elevator are not that interesting either as characters or as types and the deaths that start happening aren’t terribly creative.  But the bigger problem is that this just feels like an idea that didn’t have much material in the first place and which needed to be padded out to even get to its short 80 minute runtime.

That’s not to say it’s completely without merit.  It’s decently enough staged and for better or worse the fact that this is being filtered through other people does kind of sand off some of the sharper edges that would be here if Shyamalan were making this himself, but it ultimately just kind of doesn’t feel like there’s enough meat on the bones.  The movie made about $60 million worldwide, which probably was a decent profit given that the movie only cost $10 million to make, but it’s also a movie that most people probably don’t remember or care about and no one was compelled by the idea of seeing more “Night Chronicles” and Shyamalan also probably decided that with The Last Airbender 2 not happening it was probably no longer a good idea to give away all his ideas to others.  But even if Shyamalan’s “director for hire” career had kept going it may well have been a mistake to turn “The Night Chronicles” into a series of movies when it would have made a lot more sense as an anthology TV series like what Guillermo del Toro did last year with his “Cabinet of Curiosities.” In fact if this had all happened in 2022 that’s almost certainly what he would have done, and as a one hour TV episode I think Devil would have made a lot more sense.  As a movie though, it’s just kind of forgettable.
** out of Five

After Earth (2013)
After Earth marks the second and last time that M. Night Shyamalan tried to be a director for hire on a more conventional action movie and in some ways it was even less successful than the first.  As widely mocked as it was The Last Airbender did make more money than you’d think and sort of looked like a half success on that level but After Earth was both a critical and financial failure which its star Will Smith looks back on as the biggest mistake he made since Wild Wild West.  And Will Smith is definitely the person you should look to first when understanding this film because he was the driving force behind it long before Shyamalan got on board.  The project was birthed when Smith watched an episode of the Discovery Channel show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” in which a father and son’s car breaks down on a mountain road and they need to survive the conditions.  At some point Smith got the idea to turn this into a science fiction story (earning him a “story by” credit on the final film) and he went to screenwriter and former video game journalist Gary Whitta to write a screenplay and then went to Shyamalan after having aparantly been the only person in the world impressed by The Last Airbender and Shyamalan made some additions to the script as well and the film went into production very quickly.

Of course the big elephant in the room is that this was one of a handful of projects that Will Smith developed with the intention of providing work for his son Jaden Smith, in fact it wasn’t clear until relatively late in the project that the elder Smith would even be in this, it was all for his son.  This… was kind of a PR blunder as the public kind of found the Smith’s molding of their children’s career to be a little creepy and off putting.  Of course nepotism is pretty widespread in Hollywood and in the grand scheme of things Jaden wasn’t too much more advantaged than a lot of celebrities in good standing, but usually Hollywood nepotism is at least a little bit more subtle than this that the Smiths were.  Usually they wait until the kids are older and can feign self-made status slightly better and they try to get other people to cast them instead of producing projects themselves.  It did not help that Jaden Smith just seemed like a really weird person in interviews and frankly wasn’t terribly compelling on screen and he was at his absolute worst here.

But maybe I should back up, what even is this movie?  Well, it’s set in some distant future where the human colonists are fighting these aliens called Ursas who find people by sensing fear and Will Smith has become a legendary soldier by using a technique called “ghosting” to suppress all fear and make him invisible to these enemies.  He and his teenage son find themselves stranded on a hostile planet after a ship crash and Smith’s character has been injured during the crash so the son needs to go out through the planet’s wilderness to set off a distress beacon while only getting advice from his father over a radio.  The basic story does have some potential but there are some pretty big gaps in execution.  For one, both of the Smiths here are completely miscast.  Will Smith in particular is not the right person to be playing this person defined by icy calm, which really washes away all the charisma and comic timing that made Smith a star to begin with.  And Jaden, well, I’m not sure what Jaden is capable of but it’s not this.  Both stars are hampered by the film’s writing and directing which seems to have both of them adopting this just completely odd vocal cadence that’s not quite an accent but certainly feels intentional and unnatural.

Beyond all of that the film is just kind of a limp action movie.  The film is trying real hard to make this alien world feel like its full of interesting flaura and fauna but it’s no Avatar and most of the CGI animals they come up with are mildly interesting at best and the visual effects haven’t aged particularly well.  Beyond that the whole science fiction universe here just isn’t very interesting and this whole “ghosting” concept is kind of a loser.  I’ve actually heard theories that suggest that this whole thing is some kind of metaphor for scientology, a “church” which Smith has long been rumored to have been secretly a member of.  Personally I don’t think the parallels are that strong but this whole “ghosting” thing does feel kind of odd and like it might have been adopted from one New Age-y philosophy or another and Will Smith in many ways does have the same kind of ecumenical “all religions are valid” outlook that Shyamalan has.  Beyond that and the weird dialogue choices I don’t really see a lot of Shyamalan here at all, it’s just kind of a failed “forgotbuster” and not really even that interesting as a train wreck.
** out of Five

The Visit (2015)
After making two straight movies that were pretty big disasters both artistically and commercially, M. Night Shyamalan clearly decided that he was done being a director-for-hire and that going forward he was going to be getting back to basics by making low budget thrillers based around high concepts that will likely have twist endings.  Not only that, but he also decided to self-fund his movies and then work out major studio distribution deals after the fact.  This meant that his first effort out the gate needed to be particularly low budget and to do that he went to what was at the time an incredibly trendy technique in the creation of low budget horror movies: found footage.  Even by 2015 found footage movies were already becoming an almost groan inducingly over-done trend following the success of 2009’s Paranormal Activity.  But as a business proposition this gambit worked out, the movie made almost a hundred million dollars worldwide on a five million dollar budget, and as the film’s sole investor Shyamalan himself reaped most of the rewards and would use that money to bankroll his recent career revival.

But what to make of The Visit artistically?  The idea behind it is that a brother and sister are going to stay with their grandparents, who they’ve been estranged from because of family drama, and because the sister is a film buff she decides to “document” the whole trip with a camera she brings along in what is a pretty typical found footage contrivance.  Honestly the film doesn’t really feel entirely committed to the format; it certainly has the camera angles you would associate with found footage but the video quality and lighting doesn’t particularly look like it was done with consumer-grade cameras and the actors here don’t necessarily feel like they’re behaving entirely naturalistically, but that might be for the best on both accounts.  As a true work of horror, the movie is a bit lacking, I don’t think it would really “scare” too many people but I did like both of the kids in the movie (working with child actors has long been a specialty of Shyamalan’s) and I think the twist in this one actually worked pretty well and led to some pretty decent bits of suspense.  Of course that twist plays on some thematic tropes that would come to be something of a running complaint about this era of Shyamalan’s filmmaking, namely that he tends to kind of demonize mental illness, which is probably a bigger problem with the horror genre than Shyamalan, but it is a tendency worth bringing up.  Aside from that I do think The Visti mostly works and I can see why it sparked some new optimism for his career going forward though I perhaps worry that I’m letting my usual low expectations from modern Shyamalan get the best of me here, but at least when grading on a curve I think I ended on at least a little bit of a high here.
*** out of Five

In Conclusion
The Shyamalan experience has, I think been something of a study in what expectations tend to do to perceptions.  Some of Shyamalan’s initial misses like The Village were perhaps not as bad in retrospect but were movies I was very hard on at the time because I was expecting great things from Shyamalan, meanwhile I think I was if anything kind of easy on some of the movies I looked at for this series just because I kept expecting Shyamalan to fall flat on his face more than he did.  And that’s probably reflective of a larger change in outlook I’ve had about Shyamalan, where once I felt a sort of sense of betrayal at what he’s become as a filmmaker I’m now just kind of fascinated about the various twists and turns his career has taken.  It’s almost like watching a long time film franchise where I’ve long given up on the movies getting good again and am instead just interested in seeing what they’re going to do to keep this thing going and keep it relevant.


Home Video Round-Up 12/30/2022

Meet Me in the Bathroom (12/22/2022)

Meet Me in the Bathroom is a documentary adaptation of the book of the same name by Lizzy Goodman, which was an oral history of the 2000s New York rock scene typified by bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and LCD Soundsystem.  I was a bit too young and too uncool to really get into these bands at the time, but their careers were highly sentimentalized by the music critics I grew up reading so I’ve been familiar with their reputations even if they aren’t really my thing.  The documentary is not terribly interested in deflating the legend of any of this and it is kind of wild seeing a movie chronicling events within my lifetime looked at through the same language of cultural shifts and rises and falls that I tend to associate with documentaries about decades prior.  Given the oral history nature of the source material it will not be too surprising that this is largely told through interviews with the various bands and of course it also has a pretty sizable amount of archive footage to work with.  The film also tries to fit the emergence of these bands within the larger cultural context and historical events that occurred in New York at the time, with September 11th being the most obvious of them.  At the end of the day this is still definitely a documentary for the initiated and I’m not sure it has that much to offer people who aren’t already into these bands and as someone who is himself only kinda/sorta into them I’m not sure it was really for me.
*** out of Five

Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva (12/23/2022)

Here’s another installment of “The Movie Vampire tries to understand modern commercial Indian cinema.”  This particular movie was made by a studio that was a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, meaning it’s now owned by Disney and as a result the film is streaming on Disney+, which is probably appropriate because this seems like Bollywood at its most Disney-fied.  As the “Part One” in the title suggests this is meant to be the first part in not only a series but a whole “cinematic universe” dubbed the Astraverse, which already has its own logo and everything.  It also has something of a color palate and effects style that feel inspired by the MCU and many of its characters could sort of be called superheroes, though the more direct inspiration may be various YA franchises as no one here is wearing capes and tights or the like.  It’s set in the modern day and follows a “chosen one” type who has powers he doesn’t understand and appears to be one of many people who possess powers given to them by “astras” that came down to earth as part of mythological shenanigans thousands of years ago.  On some level it seems to be trying to do with hindu mythology what something like Percy Jackson did with Greek mythology, though that’s a little more awkward given that Hinduism remains a prominent world religion in a way the Greek pantheon does not.

Despite all this Hollywood influence, this is still firmly a work of Bollywood.  It opens with this massive musical number and stars this slightly too old movie star at the center of it who’s this totally pure of heart hero who literally helps orphans with his free time and he and the movie’s love interest basically fall instantly in love within the first forty minutes without the slightest suspense that they won’t end up with each other.  From there it’s kind of action-movie-plot by numbers and ends on a moderately well done set piece.  The special effects and action choreography aren’t quite up to Hollywood standards but they’re not too far off and despite some quirks like the musical numbers this doesn’t come off as one of those wacky gonzo Indian productions you see weird clips of on Youtube.  In that sense this could be a decent gateway Bollywood movie if you want to get in on the shallow end of the pool, but like the MCU films it borrows from I’m going to guess serious fans of the form view this as kind of safe and soulless if well executed in its own way.  Personally, as someone for whom the Bollywood style has never really been that appealing, this sanding down of the edges did make this go down a bit easier for me, but on the other hand if I just want a simple little MCU type thing Disney is already providing me with plenty of that and if I’m going to go through the trouble of overcoming the language and cultural barriers of foreign cinema I kind of want to be rewarded with something more than this.
**1/2 out of Five

Hold Your Fire (12/28/2022)

On January 19th 1973 four African American men entered a Brooklyn sporting goods store with guns attempting to steal more guns, the police were alerted and arrived quickly, so the attempted robbers took hostages and a standoff began.  This was a year after the incident that inspired Dog Day Afternoon as well as the Munich Olympics disaster, so the NYPD had been putting a lot of thought into hostage negotiations so they utilized a “police psychologist” named Harvey Schlossberg for negotiations this time and that made at least some difference.  The film looks back on that “siege” from the sides of both the police and the hostage takers, whose stories diverge pretty sharply.  The police frankly say a lot of stupid stuff in these interviews; they have a perspective of crime that you might expect retired cops from the 70s to have and they sound pretty unreconstructed in the time since.  I’m not exactly sure the former hostage takers are exactly on the level either, they seem rather defensive and not everything they say totally adds up either, so I think both parties are spinning things but the Rashomon of all of this is not necessarily a bad thing for the movie.  This is not a particularly flashy or highly budgeted documentary.  You can tell they simply filmed the various interviews in the homes and offices of the subjects and didn’t put a lot of work into giving them any special lighting or framing and you can also tell it was edited on a laptop, but the film does get a variety of perspectives and gets to some interesting points about the era in question and the nature of law enforcement.
*** out of Five

The Woman King (12/29/2022)

African history is unfortunately a topic that is beyond woefully under-discussed in both cinema and in culture as a whole.  The reasons for this are legion, but the fact that modern Africa has quite the death of films made above a certain budget level mixed with Hollywood disinterest have made movies like The Woman King something of a rare novelty.  In some ways this works in The Woman King’s favor: this setting isn’t over exposed and it’s giving people a needed education.  But in many ways this also gives The Woman King a bit of a burden I’m not sure it overcomes; there aren’t a bunch of other more serious minded movies about this subject matter so if this turns out to be Hollywood pabulum that can make it feel like it’s really doing a disservice to the subject matter.  Unfortunately I would say this leans more towards “disservice to the subject matter.”  The film is set in the Dahomey kingdom in West Africa circa 1832 and deals with the interaction between colonizers and local slavers in the area, which is a pretty complex and interesting story potentially, but the movie isn’t very interested in diving into that complexity.  Rather, this seems to want to be the African version of Braveheart, which is not a good thing to aspire to because that movie is dumb and wildly over-rated to begin with.  The one thing that Braveheart does have going for it though are large scale bloody battle scenes and this movie kind of lacks the bloodlust for that.  Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is a talented filmmaker but it’s readily obvious that action scenes aren’t where her passions lie, in fact she seems to have regressed in that department since making The Old Guard, and what action that is here is rather bloodless and tame.  It’s a movie that wants to be able to inspire kids but it’s about a time period that doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of treatment, I don’t think the movie really works.
**1/2 out of Five

What We Leave Behind (12/30/2022)

What We Leave Behind is a personal-level documentary from filmmaker Iliana Sosa looking at the past life and current condition of her grandfather Julián Moreno.  Moreno is, in the grand scheme of things a fairly ordinary man who lived a pretty average working class existence; he lives in Northern Mexico and did some migrant work in the United States in his younger years and then later made trips North of the border pretty regularly in order to visit his children and grandchildren after their emigration.  There are some similarities to be found with the 2020 documentary Dick Johnson is Dead here as both films are about women coming to terms with an elderly relative’s impending mortality, though this lacks that film’s meta concept and playfulness.  Honestly the film kind of lacks a hook more generally.  Moreno is kind of an interesting guy to observe for a little while but I kept waiting on the movie to reveal either some surprising biographical detail about him or use his story to make a broader point about U.S. border policy or something and it never really does, or if it does it’s very subtle.  The film’s title suggests that it’s very much meant to come from the perspective of an emigrant looking at the disconnection that results from living away from one’s roots, which is kind of an interesting take but the film very rarely gazes inwardly or directly tackle the feelings of the people who did the “leaving behind.”  The film is rather short, clocking in at about 71 minutes and yet I think it might have had more impact as a short-form documentary coming in at 40 minutes or so.
**1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the movies in Arrow Video’s Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set.  Part 1 can be found here.

Executioners from Shaolin (1977)
At the beginning of Executioners From Shaolin we’re greeted to text talking about the burning of the Shaolin Temple and survivors fleeing from it with the intention of keeping the Shaolin style alive.  Seeing this my first thought was “oh, this story yet again.”  Indeed, the movie kind of feels like it’s on autopilot for much of the first half as the former disciples of the temple scatter.  However, things pick up quite a bit in the second half when the movie definitively focuses in on one guy and years pass while he’s in hiding and we start focusing on his wife and son.  Frankly the very presence of a woman in the movie in a fairly large role was a bit refreshing as a lot of these other Kung Fu movies were starting to seem like some real sausage fests.  Women were a much bigger part of martial arts cinema in the 1960s and earlier but the whole genre got highly masculinized after the rise of Bruce Lee as a cultural icon.  This film is far from feminist in its portrayal but having a somewhat healthy marriage at the center of this is distinct from some of these other movies.  In fact if you’re looking for a 1970s Shaw Brothers movie to write a gender studies paper on this is probably the one to pick.  As scholar Tony Rayns explains in one of Arrow’s supplemental features, the man uses Tiger style kung fu while the wife uses crane style and the son (who is somewhat androgynous in his depiction) uses a combination of both while the villain is in some ways a genderless eunuch. Speaking of that villain, Pai Mei, he’s probably the most iconic element of the movie.  Mei is a legendary figure associated with the Shaolin Temple who may or may not have been historical and may or may not have been the Judas who betrayed the Temple.  Here he’s definitely depicted as the traitor and is depicted as this elderly man who still kicks ass and has this long white beard and bushy eyebrows.  This look was borrowed pretty much wholesale by Quentin Tarantino for his character (also named Pai Mei) in Kill Bill Vol. 2 who was played by Gordon Liu and trained The Bride in flashbacks.  Again, a lot of these interesting elements don’t really come into play until the second half of the film, making the movie as a whole a bit uneven, this is definitely an important Shaw Brothers movie.
***1/2 out of Five

Chinatown Kid (1977)
We return to the world of Chang Cheh as he transitioned from making movies choreographed by Lau Kar-leung to making films with the “Venom Mob,” a group of performers I’ll be discussing in more detail in our next Shaw Brothers movie but who you can see starting to form here.  Chinatown Kid differs from a lot of The Shaw Brothers most famous movies as it is set in the present and for much of its runtime isn’t even set in Asia.  The film concerns a young man living in Hong Kong who flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown to escape some triad activity only to become enmeshed in a whole other gang war on the other side of the Pacific.  Now, this is set in California but aside from some early B-roll establishing shots early on it’s filmed almost entirely on Hong Kong backlots, as evidenced by the fact that this San Francisco has basically no white people and the cars are all driving on the left side of the road there.  The film stars Alexander Fu Sheng in what is probably his most famous role.  Fu Sheng was a contemporary of Jackie Chan and at times seemed poised to have a similar career trajectory but that was all cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1983 while filming The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.

This would be the one movie in Shawscope Vol. 1 that has a “weird alternate cut” problem.  The original version of the film was about 115 minutes long and played out in a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin (because in the story one character spoke one language and another spoke the other) but a different 90 minute cut was made for markets like Malaysia which is entirely dubbed into Mandarin and removes some key scenes.  For whatever reason Celestial Pictures (the company that absorbed The Shaw Brothers’ back catalog at some point) has focused on that shorter cut when it comes to restorations and home video releases so this Arrow release actually marks the first time the uncut “international” version (also known as the “Southgate Cut”) has been given a real home release in the digital age.  The film itself is maybe a bit more interesting for the story behind it than for the movie itself.  It’s interesting as a transitional movie for Cheh and for the platform it gives Alexander Fu Sheng and for it’s oddball mixed up take on San Francisco and some of the moments of violence, but the story itself isn’t exactly riveting and there’s some definite cheesiness to the whole thing.
*** out of Five

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
The Five Deadly Venoms (sometimes just called The Five Venoms) is the only one of the films from the Shawscope boxed set which I had already seen prior to buying the box, and I hadn’t even watched it all that long ago, so this is the only rewatch I’m writing about but this is definitely an essential Shaw Brothers so that’s probably fitting.  You can probably intuit from the film’s title that this movie was an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the basic concept of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” from the Kill Bill movies was almost certainly a lift from this movie.  The film opens with a young student being told by his master that he can no longer train him because several of the master’s former students (who the young one never met) have proven to be evil and need to be taken down at all costs.  Each of these students has a martial arts style based on one of five different venomous animals: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Gekko, or The Toad.  It is not clear which of these five is behind a scheme to kill people and steal a treasure, and the young student is no match for any of them, so his mission is to suss out who these students are and try to build an alliance with the ones who are on the side of good.

The real importance of this movie is that it kicked off a whole era of Shaw Brothers production by being a sort of debutant ball for Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, and Chiang Sheng, a collective who (give or take a Wei Pai) would come to be known as the Venom Mob.  The Venom Mob was something of a kung fu boy band of sorts that Chang Cheh put together who would come to define the next five years or so of Cheh’s career as performers and choreographers.  But you don’t need to know that to appreciate this movie.  The film just generally has a really cool high concept and it provides a great showcase for unique martial arts styles to be out front and center.  The film is Chang Cheh to its core for better or worse; I don’t think there’s a single woman to be found anywhere in the movie and some of the film’s “heroic bloodshed” kind of borders on the sadistic (things do not go well for the Toad in this) and some of the sets and costumes are a little crude, however it is probably the first movie I’d point to in order to really get an idea of what that guy was all about.  Between the Gekko’s wall walking wire work and some of the other more eccentric martial arts styles the film is just a blast and its five-way final fight sequence is a real clinic in how to make these kinds of movies.
**** out of Five

Crippled Avengers (1978)
After the release of The Five Deadly Venoms in the August of 1978, Chang Cheh and the Venom mob managed to release two more movies together before year’s end: Invincible Shaolin and the film we’ll be looking at today, Crippled AvengersCrippled Avengers opens with three martial artists breaking into a home and murdering a mother and cutting off the hands of her son before the father rushes in and takes out the three of them with superior technique.  We then flash forward and the son is an adult and is fitted with iron prosthetic hands and the father has clearly gotten consumed with revenge despite having already killed the perpetrators.  The father has essentially become a local gangster/feudal lord and has begun having his son cripple anyone who defies him, and that’s where our heroes come in.  One has had his legs cut off, one has been blinded, one has been made a deaf mute, and one has had his head squeezed until he’s been rendered mentally handicapped.  The disability of that latter character especially can charitably be described as “not particularly sensitive.”  I don’t think it’s the most offensive representation you’re likely to find but it does speak to the film’s age, but the film’s overall message about disability is a positive one in which the characters are able to overcome their disadvantage and become formidable kung fu avengers.  There’s not really a whole lot to say about this one beyond that it’s got a very cool gimmick that gets employed in some pretty creative ways and is just generally a rip roaring good time.  It’s the last Chang Cheh film in the Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set and it finds him in good form.  Oh, and side note, when this was released in the west it had an alternate title: Mortal Combat.  Someone was a fan.
**** out of Five

Heroes of the East (1978)
For the last two movies in the Shawscope Vol. 1 box set we once again look at the cinema of Lau Kar Leung and his key collaborator Gordon Liu. The last movies we looked at were the two movies before their international breakthrough The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and these two were movies they made after that triumph.  We start with Heroes of the East, which is an odd and interesting fusion of the martial arts film with a sort of romantic comedy.  The film is about the son of a wealthy merchant who enters into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a Japanese merchant and comes to learn that she is a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts.  Misunderstandings occur and long story short he ends up offending the members of a Japanese martial arts dojo and he ends up having to fight a series of duels with the masters of various Japanese martial arts disciplines.  The Japanese were frequently villains in Hong Kong movies, which could sometimes border on the xenophobic in their treatment of such characters, but this movie feels a bit more interested in reconciliation with the land of the rising sun even if it ultimately finds the Chinese fighter to be the victor in the battles against them.  Those fight scenes in the second half are a whole lot of fun and mix up the various stylistic matches nicely, culminating in a large scale duel with a straight-up ninja.  My one complaint is that the newlywed conflict that was so fun in the first half kind of gets lost once the Japanese fighters show up and the wife really becomes a pretty secondary character.  I feel like just a couple more scenes with her late in the movie could have really brought this to the next level, but even with that problem the movie is still a whole lot of fun.
**** out of Five

Dirty Ho (1979)
Okay, first thing’s first: that title is not what it sounds like.  The film’s original title (爛頭何) translates to something like “what a bad head” which is something of a pun on the name of one of the film’s characters whose name is “Ho” (which is pronounced more like “huh”), so “Damaged Head Ho” or “Damaged Ho” might have been closer to the effect they were going for, but that doesn’t really scan either so the Shaw Brothers went with “Dirty Ho,” likely in an attempt to jokingly invoke Dirty Harry.  This was a misguided translation pretty much from the beginning and the evolution of slang since then has been even less kind to this choice over the years, which is unfortunate because it’s a really solid Shaw Brothers movie.  This is another collaboration between Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu, but the title character is played by another actor named Wong Yue and the film is a pretty even two hander between the two, possibly to a fault.  In the film Liu plays a luxuries merchant who’s living a double life in that he’s secretly a kung fu master and also secretly something else I won’t spoil.  Wong by contrast plays a bit of a comical doofus, but someone who can fight and becomes an even stronger fighter once Liu takes him on as a disciple.

That’s where things start to get a little odd because Liu and Wong are basically the same age, so making one the master and the other the apprentice feels a bit odd.  The plot also gets a tad convoluted in the second half as it starts getting mired in courtly politics and related assassination attempts that are a bit hard to follow.  But at the end of the day the plot isn’t the main thing people are looking for in a movie like this and where it matters (the fight scenes) the film has a lot going for it.  The film has a lot of really creative choreography and finds unique ideas for action scenes like an early sequence where the Liu character is trying to conceal his abilities so he manipulates a woman acting as his “bodyguard” rather than fighting directly or another scene later on where he and Wong fight off a bunch of attackers while he’s confined to a wheelchair and the fact that he’s a luxuries merchant means there are some cool sequences where they need to fight around some expensive looking props.  It’s not all about gimmicks though, there’s a pretty straight weapon fight between Liu, Wong, and three armed guards towards the end that’s just a solid freakin’ martial arts fight from top to bottom.  The whole movie is comedic in tone, but not an out and out parody and generally kind of has a different vibe and tone from your average Shaw Brothers movie and just generally feels like it was made by Lau Kar-leung at a point where he felt the genre needed a few fresh ideas and he delivered on it.
***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, I stuck to my “one Shaw Brothers a month” plan and saw it through and I will say it feels like the right pace to have gone in.  I’d seen a healthy handful of Shaw Brothers movies before this but I feel like watching this boxed set gave me a better understanding of some of the patterns and workings of the studio and particularly the differences between Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh as well as a deeper understanding of some of the studio’s stars beyond Gordon Liu, who I also feel like I saw different dimensions of.  That having been said, I do think I could use a bit of a break from this marathon so I can explore some other aspects of Chinese and martial arts cinema next year, so while I’ve already pre-ordered Shawscope Vol. 2 and fully intend to watch that as well I think I may wait until 2024 to do it.

Home Video Round-Up 12/21/2022

Cow (12/16/2022)

Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who seems to have sort of disappeared since making her film American Honey and this year we finally learned way; her time was divided between making the second season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” (which Jean-Marc Vallée apparently took back over at a certain point) and also making this documentary, which chronicled several years in the life of a dairy cow.  The film kind of plays like an on land version of the fishing vessel documentary Leviathan in that the camera is focusing in largely on non-human subjects with the human workers on the periphery.  Arnold has said she “wanted to show [audiences] her consciousness. I wanted to show the character and the aliveness of a nonhuman animal.”  I must say, if the goal was to make this animal look particularly intelligent and emotive then it didn’t really work on me, it kind of just seemed like a dumb animal being put through the motions to me.  She says that her intention was not to make a movie advocating for veganism but, I must say I don’t believe her about that because I’m not sure what else this is supposed to be or what anyone not coming at it from that angle are supposed to take away from it.  I suppose this is a well-made as something with these goals is ever supposed to be but it probably requires a different perspective and a different set of assumptions than I possess and it didn’t really work at all on me.
** out of Five

Disenchanted (12/17/2022)

Well here’s another movie watched for the silly and stubborn reason of insisting on getting every minute I can out of the month of Disney+ I paid for and this one was really misguided.  This “sequel” to Enchanted seems to fit into what seems like a distressing trend at Disney: sequels that are made with streaming in mind and kind of feel like the cheapo direct-to-video sequels of old despite having been legitimized with most of the first movie’s original cast, and the fact that it was directed by uber-hack Adam Shankman kind of tells you their ambitions for this.  The movie is set at least ten years after the events of the first film (though it’s taken fifteen years to make) and begins by the family formed at the end of that film moving from New York (an essential and defining setting in the first movie) to the suburbs in what sure seems like a move intended to cut costs on this.  If not for the presence of Amy Adams and other legit stars I would almost suspect this was meant as a backdoor pilot for some sort of Disney Channel sitcom adaptation of the franchise, which might have been the better road to go down actually.  Now, I suspect that, but I also suspect that the real problem here is that they took a script that was meant to be for a sequel made a couple years after the original and held onto it even though it’s been a decade and a half and a lot of the developments here don’t really line up with that, namely the fact that the Amy Adams character still seems bizarrely oblivious to the norms of her new home despite having lived there for a decade.  Beyond that the Disney parody of the whole franchise just feels dated and played out.  There have probably been more film parodies of pre-Renaissance Disney Princess movies at this point then there were actual pre-Renaissance Disney Princess movies and the cut production values just make this one not feel like a real movie at all.  Complete waste of time for everyone involved, they should have left well enough alone.
* out of Five

If These Walls Could Sing (12/19/2022)

I’ve come not to expect much from documentaries that are made for Disney+, at least outside of their National Geographic stuff or certain one-offs like The Beatles: Get Back.  In fact that Peter Jackson Beatles documentary almost certainly had something to do with their greenlighting of this documentary about the recording studio which was made famous by that band.  However, this is not a Peter Jackson archival footage epic, it’s a puff piece that mostly exists to string together some interviews with famous rock stars like the two surviving Beatles, Elton John, Jimmy Page, John Williams, and members of Pink Floyd.  They even somehow manage, likely through extensive editing, to get profanity free interviews out of Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis.  These interviews try to stay on the topic of the recording studio but at the end of the day there’s kind of only so much to say about the place beyond the fact that it’s a place with some good microphones and nice acoustics.  For the most part these artists are telling highly abbreviated career stories, many of them not terribly related to Abbey Road, that anyone interested enough in classic rock to be watching something like this will have already heard before and in less truncated form elsewhere.  If you just want an easy watch that will give you a couple fun stories, I guess this will be inoffensive enough viewing, but to me this is really a wasted opportunity that does nothing to probe any deeper than the very top of the surface level and just isn’t good enough generally.
** out of Five

The Invitation (12/20/2022)

When Get Out showed up on Sight and Sounds Top 100 Movies list I rolled my eyes a bit at a recent horror movie like that being canonized so quickly, but I heard one person argue that this choice made sense because even now it’s the movie people reference back to when talking about politics infused horror.  I don’t think that argument entirely holds up to scrutiny because a hit movie spawning imitators is relatively common and this trend has not really been going on that long.  However, it is certainly true that there are people trying to copy that movie’s success and I don’t think we’ve quite gotten as clear a ripoff of that movie yet as The Invitation.  The film is essentially “Get Out but at an English estate.”  In this case the person of color is a woman rather than a man and she’s lured there because she’s a long lost cousin rather than because she’s dating someone from the family but otherwise it’s the same basic idea, but its social satire isn’t nearly as sharp and when it finally does flip into horror movie mode in the third act it does it in a much less creative way.  Outside of its unoriginality there’s not a ton to say about it.  Nathalie Emmanuel (AKA Missandei from “Game of Thrones”) is a pretty good screen presence and deserves better than this and the basic core filmmaking is largely competent but unexceptional and the movie isn’t remotely scary.  Not worth anyone’s time except to gauge where this “social horror” trend is going and how it can go wrong.
** out of Five

McEnroe (12/21/2022)

I’m not exactly sure why it was decided that 2022 was the year we needed a new movie about troubled tennis star John McEnroe, but we got it just the same.  Actually we’ve gotten a lot of McEnroe related projects lately like the experimental doc John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection and the scripted film Borg Vs. McEnroe.  It is perhaps interesting that he’s so well remembered given that he was only playing champion level tennis for about four years in the early 80s, but it isn’t really the tennis that he’s remembered for is it?  No, he’s remembered for cursing out umpires and showing up in tabloids.  Ostensibly this doc’s job is to try to get to the bottom of why McEnroe was so pissy, and I’m not sure it ever really does come up with an explanation, in no small part because McEnroe himself doesn’t seem to really know and this is very much an “authorized documentary” on his part.  The film doesn’t really seek out sports journalist to be its talking heads, instead mostly opting to stick to McEnroe himself, his friends and family members, as well as fellow athletes like Billie Jean King and his one-time rival Bjorn Borg.  We get some dishy talk about his disastrous marriage with Tatum O’Neal, though she (perhaps understandably) did not choose to participate herself, and the film never really gets into McEnroe’s second life as a commentator.  All in all I can’t say I’m terribly impressed by the doc, which is made professionally enough and provides a biographical overview well enough but otherwise really isn’t much to write home about.
**1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 1

Two things I really love: kung fu movies and buying things.  Fortunately for me Arrow Video recently provided me with the means to scratch both of those itches with the release of a big fancy blu-ray boxed set called “Shawscope Vol. 1” featuring twelve movies straight from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, the premiere Hong Kong studio for the creation of top of the line Kung Fu movies from the late 60s through to the early 80s.  Naturally I’ve had the thing pre-ordered for months and relished the moment when Amazon finally delivered it to me.  So, this dropped into my position in January, there are twelve movies, and there are twelve months in the year… it seemed like my destiny to turn this into a year-long watchathon where I take in one of these movies a month over the course of 2022.

King Boxer (1972)
Before we get too into this it is perhaps important to know that us westerners have a somewhat limited notion of what the “Shaw Brothers Studio” is.  To us the studio name is synonymous with 70s kung fu movies when the studio has existed in some form since 1925 and made all sorts of movies over the course of their existence.  With that in mind it’s probably notable that this blu-ray boxed set opens not with one of the studio’s most impactful movies in Hong Kong but rather with the film that is primarily a landmark in the export of their movies to the international market.  The people making King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) almost certainly didn’t expect such great things from it, but it happened to be the movie that seen by a Warner Brothers buyer who cannily knew there would be an appetite for martial arts cinema in 1973 off the heels of the success of the “Kung Fu” television series and a dubbed version of the film would go on to great B-movie success around the world just in time for an even greater explosion in interest when Enter the Dragon hit.  Of course that success may have been less coincidental than legend would suggest as King Boxer was plainly a movie meant to be something of a response to Bruce Lee’s recent Hong Kong success with rival studio Golden Harvest.  Unlike many of the Shaw Brothers’ earlier films this was set in the early 20th Century rather than ancient times and a lot of the fighting is done with bare fists rather than swords.

The film was helmed by Jeong Chang-hwa, a Korean emigre who worked under the Chinese pseudonym Chang Ho Cheng, and would be the last movie he made for the Shaw Brothers due to behind the scenes quarrels with Run-Run Shaw.  If I were to take issue with anything in the movie it might be his direction as he makes some rather odd choices in terms of lens choice and depth of field here and there and I would also say that while star Lo Lieh is pretty good you can certainly see why he never quite had the star power of a Bruce Lee or a Gordon Liu.  Aside from that and some expected cheesy moments this is a pretty damn solid bit of kung fu cinema.  It has a number of colorful villains for the lead character to defeat (one could almost argue too many) and it gets kind of gory here and there, particularly in a scene where a dude gets his eyeballs plucked out.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as a favorite of his and you can definitely see the influence, most directly in its musical motif in which it uses an excerpt from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme song to heighten certain moments, and Tarantino uses the same music in a similar way in the Kill Bill movies.  That said, this should generally be thought of more as the beginning of something for the Shaw Brothers and not the high water mark, they definitely had bigger and better things in their future.
***1/2 out of Five

The Boxer From Shantung (1972)
While King Boxer was likely selected for this boxed set because of its importance in bringing Shaw Brothers films to the world, The Boxer From Shantung was the more important movie with “boxer” in the title in Hong Kong.  Of course aside from the titles these movies don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that both were sort of meant to be responses to the success of Bruce Lee as both focused in on unarmed fisticuffs rather than swordplay.  What’s probably more important is that this film was the creation of Chang Cheh, who is probably the most important director to work at the Shaw Brothers studio and is the man behind six of the twelve films in this Shawscope boxed set.  Cheh was something of a mentor for John Woo (who worked as an assistant director on this film) and was instrumental for the development of what is called “heroic bloodshed” within the genre and this movie would certainly be an example of that.  Things in the film start out fairly straightforward with star Chen Kuan-tai arriving in a town and getting enmeshed in the criminal goings on there, a bit like Yojimbo or The Man with No Name but this guy isn’t really an antihero.  A highlight of this early section is a scene where he challenges a western strongman (Italian wrestler Mario Milano) who’s the center of a circus attraction challenging people to try to knock him down and no one else seems to be able to phase.

Later the movie starts to engage in bloodier “heroic bloodshed,” particularly in its extended finale.  I’m not sure if this is the movie that introduced the trope but all the bad guy gangsters in this run around wielding this small hatchets that they threaten people with Kung-Fu Hustle style and in the final scene one of these hand axes ends up planted in the hero’s gut and he then spends the next ten minutes or so fighting people off while trying to keep his guts in place.  That probably sounds more graphic in print than it feels in the actual movie, this is candy colored Hong Kong blood we’re talking about here.  In America this movie was retitled The Killer from Shantung and was released in a heavily cut down version with nearly 30 minutes missing.  I doubt that version of the film was any good but I do kind of feel like that distributor was correct that this could have used some trims.  At about 135 minutes this is the longest movie in this boxed set by quite a bit and the pacing suffers as a result and I also found the story to be kind of basic and not terribly interesting.  Some of the bigger set pieces here are more than worth seeing but there are limits to how much I can really endorse the overall film.
**1/2 out of Five

Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
The first two Shaw Brothers movies I looked at from Arrow’s set were both “bare-fisted” martial arts movies made in reaction to the emergence of Bruce Lee.  Like the last film this one is directed by Chang Cheh (though some suggest choreographer Lau Kar Leung had more control) but shows the studio and filmmaker kind of moving forward into what is called their “Shaolin Cycle.”  This informal grouping consisting of six or seven movies made between 1973 and 1976 are not really a series in the sense of having a real continuity between them but they are all about the legendary Shaolin group and many of them share some of the same “historical figures” between them and I think they expect audiences to have some familiarity with the legendary events even as they take all sorts of creative liberties with them.  This film, Five Shaolin Masters, is set after the Shaolin temple has been burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers in a sneak attack and follows five survivors as they try to regroup and find a way to fight back.  In a lot of ways this feels like a movie that started with its climax (five separate fight scenes that the film cuts between) and then they wrote the screenplay backwards from there finding a way to lead up to that.  On the bright side, that climax kind of slaps.  Each Shaolin monk has a different fighting style and strategy and that delivers five pretty solid fights that remain compelling even as the film cuts between them.  On the not so bright side, the film never quite gives any one of the Monks a unique enough personality and aesthetic to stand out as characters through much of the rest of the film given how many characters are being stuffed into this thing’s relatively short runtime and much of the material leading up to the climax feels a bit messy.  Not the best movie the Shaw Brothers ever made by any means, but hardly a dud.
*** out of Five

Shaolin Temple (1976)
In their boxed set Arrow pairs the film Five Shaolin Masters with the film Shaolin Temple, both of them films about the Shaolin style of kung fu from director Chang Cheh.  One could view Shaolin Temple as something of a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters as the earlier film begins with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty troops and then deals with the aftermath while Shaolin Temple is set at the titular temple and depicts the treacherous events that led up to the temple’s destruction, but the films aren’t really in continuity with one another and the characters from the earlier film aren’t all represented here.  The other big distinction between the two is that Five Shaolin Masters was made while Lau Kar Leung was still working as the fight choreographer (and some would suggest ghost director) for Chang Cheh while Shaolin Temple was made after Leung had split from the master to become an accomplished Shaw Brothers director in his own right (almost certainly the second most important filmmaker at that studio).  This is interesting because Shaolin Temple in many was feels like a precursor to one of Lau Kar Leung’s most famous directorial efforts The 36th Chamber of Shaolin… to the point where you wonder if Leung made that film in order to one-up his former mentor.  Both films are set at the Shaolin Temple and focus on them allowing outsiders to train there and focus in many ways on training moreso than combat.  It interestingly uses that “trick people into learning martial arts by having them do chores” trick that would be made famous by The Karate Kid.  It has a few too many characters for its own good and is a little rough around the edges (the film’s score is really poor and out of place) but once it gets to that finale where the pupils are fighting off waves of Qing soldiers it does find its mojo and kind of redeems it.  Definitely a Shaw Brothers deep cut, but worth a look.
*** out of Five

Mighty Peking Man (1977)
In the west “Shaw Brothers” is synonymous with Kung Fu in much the way “Hammer Films” is synonymous with horror, but the actual truth is that “Shaw Brothers” was an all purpose film studio that made all sorts of film in a wide variety of genres, and while Arrow’s boxed set mostly conforms to the studio’s reputation as the maker of martial arts epics they did choose to include one film that hints at the broader width of their work and that’s the 1977 film Mighty Peking Man, which sought to capitalize on the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong with its own (bordering on plagiarism) version of the same story.  The reason this particular non-Kung Fu movie was selected for the boxed set was almost certainly a function of it having been championed by Quentin Tarantino back in the late 90s, in fact he distributed it on VHS back in the day as part of his short lived “Rolling Thunder” boutique label.  Tarantino is a man of eclectic tastes and I feel like his endorsements generally come from a place of sincere enthusiasm but I can’t help but feel that his interest in this movie is at least a little ironic because whatever enjoyment is going to come from this thing is going to be its camp value.  The story is a shameless ripoff and its effects work is largely sub-Godzilla.  It’s got some laughable rear projection and some elaborate if rather unconvincing miniature work throughout and the Gorilla costume is not very good, but in something of a charming way.  What’s much more convincing are some of the animal effects in the first half as the crew go through the Indian jungle looking for the monster.  There a scene where a dude ends up fighting what sure looks like a real tiger and another scene where the film’s female Tarzan puts a full grown leopard over her shoulders like a fur shawl… not sure how they pulled that off.  Anyway, speaking of that female Tarzan, she was played by a Swiss actress named Evelyne Kraft and spends the whole movie (including sections where she’s brought to Hong Kong) in a fur loincloth and tiny bikini top which occasionally results in noticeable nip-slips.  What makes it all the weirder is that while this doesn’t have the kind of budget that something like De Laurentiis’ King Kong it wasn’t made for dirt cheap either and some of the fundamental filmmaking is not terrible.  It’s an odd movie and one that would make a solid choice if you’re going to have a “bad movie night” with friends, but don’t make it into something more than that.
** out of Five

Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Within the context of the Shawscope boxed set I’ve been looking into Challenge of the Masters marks the first appearance of two very important figures: it’s the first official directorial effort we’ve gotten from Lau Kar-leung and the film is also the starring debut of the actor Gordon Liu.  I say “official directorial effort” because Lau was a fight choreographer on several earlier films we’ve looked at like Five Shaolin Masters and rumor has it he more or less ghost-directed a lot of movies in that capacity for his mentor Chang Cheh.  He finally broke from Cheh in the late 70s and really hit the ground running as the director of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies right away and would become one of their leading directors throughout the late 70s and 80s.  As such he has a more manageable filmography than his mentor (who toiled for decades making dozens of movies in several different genres).  Challenge of the Masters was his third film after making a pair of less remembered minor efforts and this and the next movie we’ll be looking at really paved the way for his fifth film and major breakout: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.  That film would also propel star Gordon Liu to fame and he gets his debut starring role in this movie.  Liu was practically family with Lau Kar-leung; he trained in the martial arts with Lau’s father Lau Cham, who took Liu in as his godson.

The Gordon Liu you see here is a little different from the one who would become famous two films later, in part just because he hasn’t shaved his head yet here, which certainly makes a difference given that that would basically become his trademark.  Here he’s playing a character named Wong Fei-hung, who was a historical figure who lived in southern China from 1847 to 1925 and whose life has been heavily mythologized and featured in dozens of Kung Fu movies where he’s been played by everyone from Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, which was a parody of other movies about the guy).  I believe there were several movies about the guy before this as well but this one was notable for being something of an origin story for Wong, and looked at him when he was first being trained.  In this sense you can see how this could be a precursor to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in its focus on training, albeit without the Shaolin elements.  What this doesn’t have is a particularly cool fight sequence for all this training to be leading up to and instead ends with this weird ceremony/competition involving firecrackers that I never really got my head around and felt a bit tangential to the fight training.  Kind of a transitional film, but a deep cut worth knowing about if you’re getting deeper into these movies.
**1/2 out of Five

To Be Continued in Part 2

Home Video Round-Up 12/14/2022

Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story (12/7/2022)

For better or worse, trans athletes have become a matter of some heated public debate as of late, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that this documentary about a prominent trans athlete didn’t get more attention when it showed up on Netflix.  The film looks at Leo Baker, formerly known as Lacey Baker, who was a fairly prominent “female” skateboarder before coming out as trans-masculine a few years ago.  I can’t say I’d ever heard of this person before this film came out but I can also probably count the number of skateboarders I knew by name on two fingers so that’s probably not saying much.  The film follows Baker as he first goes public with his situation after having been relatively gender-nonconforming in recent years but still officially being declared a “female skateboarder” competing in women’s skateboarding competitions.  This is of course the opposite of what most of the controversies around trans athletes revolve around: he’s a trans man competing as a woman rather than a trans woman competing as a woman.  He did this in accordance with all the rules involved by delaying medical transition until around the time the movie started and appears to have basically left formal competition once it started.  In a sense he was doing exactly what the conservative critics of trans athletes want trans athletes to do: compete based on the gender assigned at birth, but I don’t think this is really what they have in mind when they say that.  The movie, I think, could have done quite a bit more to interrogate this little irony.  We don’t see Baker so much as consider simply competing with the male skateboarders and we don’t really see him reckon with his feelings about apparently not believing he can make it in that world.  The tone is instead pretty heavy on the “it gets better” of it all, which isn’t “bad” exactly but it feels like it could have gone a bit deeper into all of this.
*** out of Five

Bullet Train (12/10/2022)

The original 2014 John Wick was largely believed to have been co-directed by a couple of guys named Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, though only Stahelski received credit from the DGA.  Since then Stahelski has stuck with that franchise, making two sequels and is currently working on a third, while Leitch has moved on to other projects.  Normally I’d have more respect for the guy making new things than the dude focused on a franchise, but I feel like time has shown that Stahelski has actually proven to be the part of the duo with more taste because Leitch’s career has been rather… annoying.  He started off promising with Atomic Blonde, but then he went and made Deadpool 2 and the Fast and Furious spinoff Hobbs and Shaw and now he’s made Bullet Train which… feels like a product from the director of Deadpool 2 and Hobbs and Shaw.  On some level I do feel obligated to give at least some nominal support toward a star-driven big budget R-rated action movie with no superheroes in this day and age, but man; this movie has a very irritating attitude.  When the movie came out I heard a lot of people compare it to Guy Richie’s Snatch, and that sounds about right.  Some people may view that as more of a compliment than I do, but personally I’m not a huge fan of that sort of shark and aggressive “cleverness” in my action movies.  What’s more, the film’s actual action did not impress me a whole lot.  It’s not terribly but coming from a co-director of John Wick I expected it to ramp up a little more.  There are a couple neat moments but also a lot of silly moments and some questionable CGI.  It’s certainly not the worst movie out there but it’s not nearly as cool as it thinks it is.
**1/2 out of Five

Katrina Babies (12/12/2022)

Hurricane Katrina is one of those events that seemed like a monumentally important tragedy and a major political scandal at the time, hell, it pretty much sealed George W. Bush’s legacy as a failed president.  But after a few years the people not immediately impacted by it just sort of moved on and are unlikely to even think about it as a major event of the 2000s if not prompted to.  The new documentary Katrina Babies intends to serve as a reminder that the effects of this disaster are in fact very long lasting and still certainly matter today in the places where it happened.  On one hand that isn’t something a documentary should have to “prove” but on the other hand it is kind of a broad thesis and I’m not sure the film is ever quite able to fit all the pieces together to really make the argument.  The film mostly consists of interview with various people who were children when the storm happened and trying to sort of piece together a narrative about the various ways that generation of gulf coasters were disadvantaged by the experience.  The pattern of the various stories aren’t terribly hard to predict; a lot of trauma and a lot of seemingly misplaced priorities.  At a certain point it becomes hard to entirely tell which disadvantages are the usual results of modern urban poverty, though the truth is it’s probably both.  The film’s director, Edward Buckles Jr., was himself thirteen years old when Hurricane Katrina hit and does add more of a personal touch to his work here because of it.  In some ways I almost wish he’d leaned into that even more.  The film more or less does what it set out to do but I don’t know that it did it in a way that was fully remarkable.
*** out of Five

Fall (12/13/2022)

Not all movies are going to aspire to greatness and I like to think there’s still a place for the well done B-movie in the world and this year’s high concept thriller Fall seems to fit the bill of a movie that does that.  The film focuses on a mountain climber whose husband has died in a climbing accident and her friend wants to get her “back on the saddle” by having her climb to the top of this outrageously tall television antenna while she documents the stunt on her Youtube channel.  All goes according to plan until they get to the top and start trying to climb down only to have the ladder down collapse on them, trapping them at the top.  From there they need to find a way to survive the conditions and come up with some way to either get down or send a signal to the ground.  That’s a neat little twist on the fairly familiar isolated survival genre alongside the likes of Open Water, The Shallows, Frozen (the one on the ski lift), or Beast.  The film was made on a modest budget but mostly has convincing effects and does give that sense of vertigo that it’s going for.  The film’s stars (Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner), are not really names I’m terribly familiar with but both of them do a decent job of getting you on board with them even if they’re not exactly “deep” characters.  I would say that this is a movie that you most likely know whether you want to see if from the trailer, it more or less delivers on what it promises.  It doesn’t really go above or below your expectations for it.
*** out of Five

Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard (12/14/2022)

One of the big trends in documentary and elsewhere is the obsession with “true crime,” and when it comes to the endless parade of murderers and serial killers that get exploited by the genre I start to bristle.  But one form of “true crime” that I can’t get enough of are these tales of corporate fraud and large scale financial scandal, and I tend to get interested in even the lesser known ones.  In fact one of the great assets of Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard is that, because it largely revolves around the downfall of a German company which wasn’t covered extensively in the U.S. media that I remember, I can watch this one without having had everything about the scandal having been spoiled for me ahead of time.  The company at the center of this one, Wirecard, was meant to be sort of a paypal type thing but whose actual business was kind of unclear to outside observers.  Long story short the whole business turned out to basically be a fraud, one that was basically making up profits and insomuch as they actually did anything it was basically to accommodate money laundering.  It was also being partly run by a very shady person with a bunch of ties to foreign intelligence who is to this date a fugitive from justice.  It’s kind of a wild story, and the film is mostly told from the perspective of the people who exposed the company’s wrongdoing, namely a cadre of short sellers and a group of reporters at the Financial Times newspaper who had to fight against a lot of evasiveness by the company as well as a bunch of nationalistic refusal to believe on the part of Germany and its regulators.  As a film the documentary does absolutely nothing to break the mold and while the story is interesting it’s not earth shaking, so if you’re not already fascinated by docs like this this probably isn’t the most important one to start with but it gets the job done.
*** out of Five