Thursday, July 27, 2017

My Favorite Agnes Varda Film

The female cinema auteur is a rare creature, and there haven't been many who have managed to fill my requirements for an entry in my Great Directors series.  The few who have, like Leni Riefenstahl, Věra Chytilová, Ann Hui, and Chantal Akerman, present the additional dilemma of obscurity.  It's very difficult to find many of their works.  The same was true of the beloved New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda until recently. It's thanks to the efforts of Criterion and Mubi that I'm finally able to include her here.   

I came to Agnes Varda's films knowing very little about their historical and political context, though I recognized that many were explicitly feminist.  "Le Bonheur" or "Happiness" was released in 1965 just before the political climate would really become explosive, and though it appears mostly peaceful and lovely on the surface, the undercurrents of unrest are visible.  The plot is very simple: a happy young family's existence is upended by a moral lapse and resulting tragedy, but this unpleasantness is quickly resolved with disturbing efficiency.    

"Happiness" can be viewed as a reflection of the French women's movement of the time, as women began to enter the workforce and became more socially conscious.  This is done through the film's cynical examination of romance and relationships in particular, how the protagonist views the two women in his life, and how his worldview is challenged or fails to be challenged.  There have been many interpretations of the film over the years, and its intentions are not entirely clear.  Is Varda warning against the false security of domesticity?  Condemning the newly emerging sexual revolution?  Should we consider the protagonist a villain for seeking his version of happiness or merely pity the wife who cannot accept it?  Or is self-delusion the real culprit?

What really gives the film its bite is the contrast of all these thorny psychological questions with the stylized loveliness of the mise en scene.  The film largely takes place in the pastoral French countryside, and the lives of the characters are portrayed as sunny and idyllic.  They picnic in beautiful clothes, surrounded by bright flowers.  The young children are unusually well-behaved, and no one ever appears tired or stressed.  Even the most mundane chores are brightened by the presence of colorful household objects and artful composition.  Instead of fading to black, the screen fades to blocks of solid color.  It's worth noting that this was Varda's first color film, and remains one of her most eye-catching.  

Also very evident is Varda's aggressive editing style.  She coined the term cinécriture, or “cine-writing,” to describe her method of directing, which involves highly detailed planning of sounds and images to maximize their effectiveness within the narrative of a film.  And it's in the editing of all these pretty, colorful images that you really get a sense of something amiss in the universe of "Happiness."  There's the relentless quick-cut montages and the use of repetition.  There's the use of the musical score to underline the emotions of the characters, and their incongruity to the situations we watch unfold.   

There are also some metatextual elements, which would become very prevalent in her later work.  Popular television actor Jean-Claude Drouot was cast as the lead, and his wife and children were played by Drouot's real life wife and children.  It gives the satirical elements of the film a few more teeth, knowing the picture perfect family was one that was already familiar to the French media.  However, "Happiness" stands apart from Varda's other films in that it is so stylized and removed from reality, lacking the documentary-style blurring of the real and the unreal she often employed.  

I had some difficulty deciding on "Happiness" as my favorite Agnes Varda film, because I don't enjoy it nearly as much as some of her later films, particularly her warmer, self-reflective documentaries.  However, "Happiness" was the film that stuck with me, years after I saw it.  I've never been able to shake the chill that the ending gave me, or the strangely sinister vibe of the gorgeous domestic imagery.  I keep coming back to it, again and again, and ultimately I think it's the Varda film that best encapsulates everything I so admire about her.      

What I've Seen - Agnes Varda

La Pointe Courte (1955)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Happiness (1965)
The Creatures (1966)
One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977)
Vagabond (1985)
Jane B. by Agnes V. (1987)
Kung Fu Master! (1988)
The Gleaners and I (2000)
The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Roll the "Oats"

Director Neill Blomkamp has made quite a splash this summer with his new series of web shorts, dubbed "Oats Studios: Vol. 1." These are interesting little experimental pieces, testing various ideas and concepts. I don't think any of them work very well as stand-alone shorts, because they're mostly left open-ended by design, but they do offer some interesting bits and pieces to chew on. Blomkamp is hopeful that they could lead to bigger things, the way that "Alive in Joburg" lead to "District 9." But do any of them have what it takes? And is this a worthwhile use of Blomkamp's time?

Please note that more shorts from Oats Studios are likely forthcoming in the weeks ahead, and I'm not exactly sure what the cutoff between "Vol. 1" and any further volumes is. However, Blomkamp has said in interviews that July 14th was the endpoint for the first round of releases, so I'm taking him at his word and doing this write-up now. Oh, and spoilers ahead.

"Rakka" - Notable for featuring Sigourney Weaver, this is an alien invasion story that does a good job of creating a tactile future dystopia and showing off some icky special effects. I love the first segment that charts how the vaguely reptilian Klum have taken over and are trying to squash the remains of the human resistance. The image of the puppet politician being used as bait is especially nasty. However, the second and third segments setting up other characters are less coherent and less interesting. "Rakka" is probably the most likely contender for being turned into a full feature film, but it would need a lot more work to get there.

"Firebase" - I completely missed the VR simulation element the first time I watched this, which doesn't speak well of this short's effectiveness in getting across its narrative. This one is a clear step down from "Rakka," with less impressive CGI and noticeably more wooden actors. And it really hammers home how reliant the "Oats" shorts are on genre conventions, jarring shock imagery, and slick effects. Still, I like some of the depictions of carnage and horror here. The few seconds of floating military vehicles in the grainy film footage is extremely effective. I'm less impressed with the execution of the "River God," however, though I do think that the idea has some promise.

"Cooking With Bill" - Now this set of shorts just feels like throwaway filler. We've seen plenty of spoofs of crummy infomercials from other sources done much better. Adult Swim's "Broomshakalaka" immediately comes to mind. "Cooking With Bill" leans heavily on shock value, and the multiple installments just get repetitive by the end. All the shorts share the same formula, and the sushi and smoothie installments essentially have the same gross-out ending, even. I'm not sure why this series is even included on the channel, considering how unpolished it is, and it's telling that pretty much all the coverage of "Oats" has been soundly ignoring it.

"God: Serengeti" - So far, this is my favorite of the shorts, mostly because it's such a departure in tone and style from the others. Sharlto Copely, as God, is also allowed to give a full-fledged comedic performance as he messes with mankind and a dutiful butler. The concept is well-executed, even if it doesn't add up to much and lacks a good punchline. However, this appears to be the first installment of another series, so I'm hopeful that it can build up to something bigger in the future.

"Zygote" - Well, it's nice to see Dakota Fanning again. This is the strongest piece from Oats so far, largely because it is a complete narrative that follows one continuous, well-executed story for a full twenty minutes, even if that narrative ends on a cliffhanger. Arguably it's one of the least ambitious concepts, with a very familiar monster scenario with plus some slapdash worldbuilding mainly conveyed through exposition dump. The monster, however, is a winner. I love the way this thing looks and moves, even if all the mumbo-jumbo around its creation didn't play so well. If any of the Oats shorts were to be expanded, this would be my choice. In this case, simple works best.


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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

This has been a fairly disappointing summer movie season if you're a fan of big franchises and expensive tentpoles.  There have been some notable busts at the box office over the past few months, including "Transformers: The Last Knight," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," and would-be franchise starters "King Arthur," "Baywatch," and "The Mummy."  Even the hits are mostly coming in below expectations, like "Despicable Me 3," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and "Cars 3."  Thanks to overseas audiences, most of these titles will make plenty of money, but there's an overall sense that the audience is losing interest with most of the big summer movies.

And who have the studios been blaming for this?  Rotten Tomatoes.  And by Rotten Tomatoes, they mean the critics who write bad reviews of these films.  There's been a much closer correlation between the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation scores for big tentpole films and how they've performed at the box office this year.  Specifically, if the Tomatometer is especially rotten, it takes a bite out of the bottom line.  Somehow, after years of terrible summer movies becoming blockbusters and earning oodles of money, the audiences have started paying attention to the critical notices, or at least the appearance of a general consensus.  That consensus is illusory, of course, as I've discussed on this blog before.  However, it's an illusion that has turned out to have some teeth.

Personally, my first instinct is to write this latest trend off as a coincidence or a fluke.  After so many years where the Tomatometer didn't make a lick of difference to box office results, it stands to reason there should be at least one year where they just happen to correlate more than usual.  I'd really love to believe that bad movies are finally getting their just desserts and will stop being rewarded, forcing the industry to make some changes, but I've grown cynical with age and experience.  I know the marketing and the release dates and so many other things have a bigger effect.  The recent gossip about Johnny Depp's finances probably had a bigger impact on the latest "Pirates" than a dozen bad reviews.

Then again, it's possible that the bad reviews are having more of an effect because the actions of the movie business have pushed audiences to become more receptive to them.  A good chunk of the bombs this year were from franchises that had arguably overstayed their welcome.  The most recent prior installments of "Transformers," and "Pirates" made lots of money, but nobody much liked them, and there wasn't much buzz for the new installments to begin with.  If audiences are already skeptical about a franchise, the bad or even middling reviews seem to hit harder.  Viewers that might be forgiving enough to see a third installment will run out of patience for a fifth one.  And keep in mind that good reviews remain powerless to affect much - before Labor Day, anyway.  

Theatrical exhibition is already suffering as attendance has been stagnant and the studios are contemplating other distribution options.  SVOD has reared its head again, though the likelihood of its implementation is far from clear.  A problem with pushing for more event movies is, of course, that the trip to the theater only becomes worth it if a movie is really an event.  And it's hard to sell the fifth or sixth installment of an aging franchise or the umpteenth reboot of an overly familiar story as an event.  Only one movie really seemed to be on everyone's must-watch list this summer, and it was "Wonder Woman," thanks to being the first major female-led superhero film in a decade.  And it was well-reviewed to boot.  

Rotten Tomatoes is the new scapegoat, however, which has both upsides and downsides.  The industry is paying attention to reviews, which is good.  However, some are calling for an end to critics' screenings and more embargoes to limit the perceived damage, which is bad.  I expect significant curtailing of high-numbered sequels in the future, which is good.  However, reboots and spinoffs will inevitably take their place, which is not so good.  As I type this, that "Bumblebee" spinoff is still being readied for next summer.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

And What Didn't Make My 2016 Top Ten List

As a companion piece to my Top Ten list, every year I write a post to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of positive attention, in order to give some context to my own choices. I find this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my list and the year in film as a whole. I wish more critics would do similar write-ups, as what's not on someone's top ten list can be as fun to discuss as what is. Please note that I will not be writing about films listed among my honorable mentions like "Silence" or "Moonlight."

Let's talk about the big awards contenders first. Why isn't "La La Land" on the list? Well, while I appreciated all the care and craft that Damien Chazelle and his collaboration poured into the film - not to mention the audacity of making a wholly original jazz musical in this day and age - the film didn't work for me. Stone and Gosling are a great pair, and the film was fine when it was dealing with their relationship. But every time they were obliged to act like they were in a musical, it all fell apart. These two just aren't musical actors, and the only big number that landed right was the first one - which didn't feature them.

What about "Arrival"? A heady science-fiction film with prestige honors should have been right up my alley, right? Well, again, I liked what the film was trying to do, but I couldn't' stop thinking of all the ways that it could have been better, and the manufactured dramatics at the climax really grated. It was a smart film, but it could have been smarter. Ditto "Jackie," which I found impressive in bits and pieces, but never as a whole. There were a lot of indie films that I had been looking forward to which just didn't connect. "The Nice Guys" was too uneven and unsure of what it was doing. "Everybody Wants Some" and "Swiss Army man" felt too slight. "Sing Street" had some good songs, but was way too indulgent for me. "Certain Women" had one great story, and two completely useless ones. "The Neon Demon" was just ugly through and through.

As I've already written about in a previous article, I suffered an awful disconnect with the foreign arthouse pictures this year. I was pretty cool on "Elle," "Toni Erdmann," "Things to Come," "The Lobster," "Julieta," "A Bigger Splash," "It's Only the End of the World," and liked "The Handmaiden" all the way up until it became a pulpy revenge picture with extra lesbian fetishization. "Aquarius" and "Under the Shadow" had me intrigued, but their flaws were too major to ignore. However, I was impressed some of the genre films - "Train to Busan" and "Shin Godzilla" were in serious contention for spots on the Top Ten list earlier in the year. "Your Name," however, was not. This is probably the best Makoto Shinkai film I've seen yet, but it still has all the bad habits that make me think he's still got a long way to go.

Usually a big populist mainstream hit or two manage to grab some critical attention, but there weren't may contenders this year. "Deadpool" was the biggest one, which I found enjoyable, but not excellent in any sense. "10 Cloverfield Lane" and "Green Room" had their supporters, but I didn't find either to be transcendent of their very specific genres. "Kubo and the Two Strings," sadly, struck me as Laika's least successful film due to poor writing. There were some pleasant surprises, however, with the latest "Star Trek" film, and "Captain America: Civil War," which delivered all the summer action thrills I could ever have hoped for.

Movies just missing a spot on the list included "The Edge of Seventeen," "Hail Caesar!" "Anthropoid," and "Hell or High Water." I considered "Our Little Sister," the recent Hirozaku Koreeda film, for my Plus One spot, but realized I wasn't all that impressed with the film, at least not enough to want to spotlight it. Oh, and after some deliberation, I've decided Beyonce's "Lemonade" really shouldn't count as a theatrical film.

And that's my 2016 in film.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2016

It was a good year for movies, though an uncertain one. Lots of disappointments, lots of interesting surprises, and lots of excitement. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm feeling the blockbuster fatigue, and nearly all my top picks are very small films. My favorite genre films came from overseas this year, though more on that in a later post. I also haven't been in the best of moods, and my picks tend to skew toward darker subject matter over more hopeful, uplifting, and escapist fare.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2016, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, and previously posted reviews are linked where available. I usually have a "Plus One" spot reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list, but there wasn't anything this year I found compelling enough to single out for praise.

And here we go.

Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan returns with a film about a man and his nephew, both figuring out how to pick up the pieces after a tragic loss. While there are moments of gutting sadness, there's also a tremendous amount of humor and warmth here, conveyed through keenly observed behavior and dialogue. I especially appreciate Lonergan's ability to not only create great characters, but the vital relationships and communities around them.

Krisha - First time director Trey Edward Schultz creates a showcase for the formidable talents of his aunt, Krisha Fairchild. She plays an addict who is trying to reconnect with estranged family matters during a Thanksgiving holiday, but suffers a nightmarish relapse. Schultz puts the audience right inside her breakdown, the filmmaking mirroring Krisha's alienation and eventual descent. It's Fairchild, however, whose raw emotion and verve give the film its edge.

The Fits - A tomboy's decision to join a dance troupe is the catalyst for an engrossing exploration of gender, identity, community, and group dynamics. With very little dialogue, the film is largely told through the striking visuals and the very physical, very energetic performances. In the hands of director Anna Rose Holmer, a Cincinnati rec center becomes a maelstrom of strange, unknown forces, that our young heroine finds herself irrevocably changed by.

American Honey - Andrea Arnold provides an outsider's view of America by exploring the parts of it that others rarely do. The heroine spends most of her time travelling through an endless Midwest, eking out a marginal existence hustling for magazine sales. However, there's also a tremendous sense of exploration and possibility for her, as she encounters different people along the way from all walks of life. It's a hard film at times, but also a hopeful one.

The Witch - I love Robert Eggers' "New England Folktale" for its daring and its unwavering commitment to its ambitious premise. The final scenes especially sound very unlikely on paper, but Eggers and his actors fully earn that ending and make it work. They've created a universe where God and the Devil are real, powerful forces, while also acknowledging the harmful, repressive nature of the Puritan culture of the times on our tortured cast of characters.

The Wailing - Can be seen as a South Korean companion film to "The Witch," where a policeman investigates a series of demon possessions. The ambiguity of the narrative is a major strength, the way it film keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end which of the spiritual figures are benevolent, and which are the monsters. The oppressive atmosphere of paranoia and frustration is terrific, but the exorcism sequence is the showstopper.

The 13th - I don't have much patience for documentaries with an axe to grind, but Ava Duvernay's latest, linking the American history of slavery to the current prison boom, is exceptional. It makes its case in very clear, very memorable ways, and shines a spotlight on a major American social problem that clearly needs to be addressed more seriously. More than that, I found myself deeply engrossed and emotionally invested as I watched it all unfold.

O.J.: Made in America - A five hour documentary on the O.J. Simpson case may sound like overkill, but all the historical and cultural context prove to be absolutely vital in understanding why the case was the cultural landmark that it was. I certainly didn't understand all the little nuances and implications of what was going on at the time it was happening. And, or course, there were all those fine details we never knew, and the aftermath we mostly ignored.

Zootopia - I can't get over how beautifully this was executed, a modern day Aesop's fable and buddy cop comedy that tackles the none-too-child-friendly subject of discrimination. Sure, there are some missteps and a Shakira single, but otherwise this may be the most thoughtful, earnest, and intelligent children's film I've seen in years - and it's from Disney no less. It's always heartwarming when so much creative energy is used for something so positive.

I, Daniel Blake - Ken Loach has always made very timely, socially conscious pictures, and this may be one of this most pointed, but something about the travails of Daniel Blake really resonated with me. Loach does such a great job of capturing the mindset and the behavior of people living on the brink, and all the little cruelties that they face. I can so easily imagine this story in other hands being deluged in sentiment and soapboxing, smothering its more subtle charms.

Honorable Mentions

High Rise
Love & Friendship
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Cameraperson
Silence
The Red Turtle
Paterson
Moonlight
The Founder
The Witness

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Monday, July 17, 2017

About That "Wonder Woman" Movie

Wonder Woman was never one of my favorite superheroes, even though I was always more invested in DC properties than Marvel ones. Princess Diana of Themiscyra has a complicated origin story, a bunch of random powers that don't seem to go together, and no particularly interesting allies or villains associated with her. Being a "Justice League" fan I was familiar with her, and I've liked the various bits of media that have featured her over the years - including an excellent animated direct-to-video feature from a few years back. However, I wouldn't count myself as a fan.

And now here come Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins to give us a live action Wonder Woman who I finally feel like cheering for. Her origin story still strikes me as one of the weaker ones, as superheroes go, but at least all the various elements feel consistent here, and the character of Wonder Woman herself is given her due. Diana's journey from spirited princess of a hidden island of warrior women to full-fledged heroine is handled very well, and thankfully there's no real attempt to darken or add complications to her story the way that we've seen with the most recent Batman and Superman films.

What surprised me the most was how much of a WWI film "Wonder Woman" turns out to be. After early scenes establishing how Diana grew up among the Amazons, as the daughter of their Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she meets the American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whose plane crashes on their hidden island home. She journeys with him back to Europe, believing that the war is the result of the god Ares' influence on mankind, and intends to kill him. The rest of the film follows their adventures getting to the Front, and trying to stop the evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from launching a devastating gas attack that would destroy the impending Armistice.

Gal Gadot makes a great "Wonder Woman," accent and all. She really gets across all the hopefulness and heroism of the character, and is appropriately inspirational and badass. I think the film's real secret weapon is Chris Pine, however, who is essentially playing Captain Kirk again, but a Captain Kirk who does a great job of both embodying this particular era in history and transcending it. Another major highlight is Robin Wright as Diana's aunt Antiope, a warrior woman who inspires her niece to follow in her footsteps. The Amazons in general are fantastically cast, all played by incredibly physically impressive women who sell their battle scenes with everything they have. The weak spots are the villains, but that's mainly due to them being fairly two-dimensional baddies. I'm not even going to name the actor who turns out to be playing Ares, because it's quite obvious when you see him. I'll just say that he's had much better material on television this year.

The Great War is treated with all possible gravity, staying within a PG-13 rating, but acknowledging the horrors of warfare. This setting really gives Diana's actions some weight as she grapples with how best to fulfill her mission. I appreciate that while Diana's gender is acknowledged and there are some brief jabs at the sexist attitudes of the era, the filmmakers don't feel the need to underline it. We understand how strong the Amazons are from their spectacular fight scenes. Diana demonstrates her independence and drive again and again in her dogged pursuit of Ares. The "stranger in a strange land" narrative works very well for her, slowly chipping away at Diana's idealism and naivete while also also allowing for little moments of humor and subversion.

And it makes such a difference to have those moments of lightness and romance. Diana and Steve Trevor's relationship is handled right, so when the plotting starts to sputter and falls victim to the usual third-act superhero pitfalls, at least the emotional throughline is strong enough to get us through the ending. "Wonder Woman" is by no means a great superhero film, though there are a few moments of greatness in it. However, after the DCU has delivered one grim, unfun slog after another, it's such a relief to have one that balances out its sequences of intensity and bleakness with warmth and optimism. And though there are some superficial similarities between "Wonder Woman" and the first "Captain America," it's tonally very distinct from the MCU.

So while I'm thrilled that the new live-action "Wonder Woman" movie has been so well received by critics and audiences, and that it's going to pave the way for more female-led superhero films, and maybe get a few more female directors heading up blockbuster films, what I really love about it is that it's righted the DCU franchise. Well, at least temporarily. We'll see how "Justice League" fares in a few more months.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Actually Do Want to See the Sequel

I've been complaining about sequels this year an awful lot lately, so I thought I'd write up a list of a few movie sequels that I actually do want to see. I'm absolutely not against sequels being made, but which films have gotten sequels often confounds me. In some of these cases, a sequel was explicitly set up by the original film, but isn't close to actually being in production for one reason or another. Others just left the door open for more.

"Chronicle" - There's clearly demand for another trip into the universe of 2012's "Chronicle," considering that the original made ten times its tiny, $12 million budget. However, Max Landis's script for the sequel, "Martyr," went in a much darker direction than FOX wanted. Landis and troubled director Josh Trank don't appear to be involved in the development of "Chronicle 2" anymore, and the last anyone heard, a new writer had been brought on sometime in 2014. I think that the likelihood of another "Chonicle" film being produced at some point is likely, but if Dane DeHaan really blows up next year - he has three high profile films coming out in 2017 - there's probably little chance of "Chronicle 2" looking anything like "Chronicle."

"District 10" - We were promised a sequel three years after "District 9," which came out in 2009, remember? Director Neill Blomkamp has kept insisting that he'll get around to it eventually, as no one can imagine doing a "District 10" without him, but I wonder if he'll have to hit rock bottom in Hollywood first. Frankly, after the bumpy path that Blomkamp has taken over these last few years, I'm eager for him to return to the "District 9" universe, which is still by far the best thing he's ever created. I'm hoping that if his "Alien" project falls through, he'll turn his attention back to the plight of poor Vikus Van der Merwe. And ultimately it's really not going to matter if it takes ten years for the story to continue instead of three.

"The Mortal Instruments" - There was so much about "The Golden Compass" that went wrong, not the least of which was the removal of its original downbeat, cliffhanger ending, which was supposed to be shifted to the beginning of the next movie. All the pieces were put in place for a much more interesting pair of sequels, which sadly never happened. I know that the BBC is looking into making their own version of "His Dark Materials" for television, but the cast assembled for the film was a once in a lifetime convergence of some impeccable talent, and the failure to launch still stings quite a bit. Compare to "The Dark is Rising," which I'm quite happy to see being redone as a television series after the spectacular bungle that was "The Seeker."

"Brave" - This PIXAR film didn't get the greatest reception, because certain viewers were expecting something more epic and grand. And that's why I think it's the studio's best candidate for a sequel, because there are so many more places that the story of Merida could go. A sequel could see her bloom into a full-fledged warrior on a big adventure, or we could have another wacky outing with more bear transformations and family bonding. While I don't object to other PIXAR movies like "Toy Story" and "The Increcdibles" getting sequels, those feel like finished stories to me, while "Brave" remains intriguingly open-ended. Merida learned one important lesson, but she's clearly got a lot more growing up to do.

"Wasington" - Taking a brief detour into the arthouse, don't think I haven't forgotten about your incomplete American trilogy, Lars von Trier. "Dogville" was a disturbing masterpiece, and "Manderlay" less so, but still fascinating. I want to see von Trier bring this series to a climax, especially in the wake of the recent mess of an American election. There was some chatter about Nicole Kidman coming back for "Wasington," but it never came about. Fortunately, because of the way von Trier made the first two films, with essentially no sets and a completely new cast each time, it doesn't matter how long the gap is between the films. If he still wants to make "Wasington" in thirty years, he can and should.

"Master and Commander" - There are twenty Aubrey and Maturin novels! Twenty! I know that "The Far Side of the World" didn't as make as much money as the studio may have liked, but it was massively critically acclaimed, and plenty of people still love it. Russell Crowe seems game for making another one, going so far as to try to drum up support for a potential sequel on Twitter in 2010, and director Peter Weir certainly doesn't seem to be up to anything else. I don't understand why Fox and Universal haven't pulled the trigger on another installment, as costly as it might be. We're getting close to the point where the original cast wouldn't be able to come back, and that would be an awful shame.

.... and "Bill and Ted." Because I still love those dudes.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dracula (1979) v. Nosferatu (1979)

1979 saw the release of three films featuring Count Dracula: the comedy "Love at First Bite," John Badham's "Dracula" with Frank Langella, and Klaus Kinski's "Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night" with Klaus Kinski. I'm going to compare and contrast the latter two, which are both remakes of older classics, the 1931 "Dracula" directed by Tod Browning, and the 1922 "Nosferatu," directed by F. W. Murnau. "Dracula" and "Nosferatu," or course, both share the same source material, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, though "Nosferatu" was famously an unsanctioned adaptation with all the names changed. The two classics are very different, and have very different takes on its central character. But do the two remakes follow suit?

Let's start with John Badham's "Dracula," which begins with the arrival of Dracula (Frank Langella) in England. In this version, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and the daughter of Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum. She's visited by her friend Mina (Jan Francis), the daughter of Professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier). Mina becomes the first victim of the Count, a dashing, attractive figure who no one suspects of wrongdoing until fairly late in the story. Harker never makes the trip to Transylvania in this version, and more emphasis is placed on Dracula's seduction of his victims. The film's tagline is "A Love Story." However, Dracula is ultimately dispatched by Harker and Van Helsing, in an action sequence worthy of one of Christopher Lee's toothier Hammer horror films.

The film plays if fairly straight, and the story works as distillation of all the most well known "Dracula" tropes. Yet, with Langella's hunkier Drac and the more romantic intimations, this is the "Dracula" adaptation that probably started shifting modern perceptions of the character from monster to tragic romantic anti-hero. Badham still keeps all the usual trappings of a "Dracula" story, though, and executes them very well. Carfax Abbey, Dracula's new residence, takes the place of the Transylvanian castle, full of cobwebs and candles. The art direction is ornate, but stately, and most of the film was shot on location in various parts of coastal England. It's refreshingly well grounded in the real world. However, the most memorable scene is a surreal "Wedding Night" sequence with Dracula and Lucy, which was created by Maurice Binder, best known for many James Bond opening title sequences. He uses optical effects, including colorful laser projections, to create a striking piece of 70s psychedelia.

Badham's "Dracula," though clearly a prestige production with a stellar cast and great respect for its source material, comes off as very much a film of its time. The passion is fairly chaste. The action and effects work are limited. The visuals are picturesque, but rarely cinematically ambitious. Like many of the mainstream action films of this era, there's a flatness to the lighting, and a staidness to the performances that undercuts its dramatic aims. Langella's Dracula is charming, but too reserved for my taste. Kate Nelligan's Lucy may have seemed unusually forward in 1979, but it's difficult to say how much control she has over herself or the relationship with Dracula from a modern standpoint. The only member of the cast who manages to evoke any real sympathy or horror is Olivier's Van Helsing, as he dispatches his vampirized daughter.

Werner Herzog, with his "Nosferatu," approached the material from an entirely different direction. His film is much more explicitly an homage to F.W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," which Herzog considered one of the greatest German films ever made. Here, Dracula is played by Klaus Kinski, and looks almost exactly like the unnaturally pale, monstrous figure with the pointy ears and long fingernails who starred in the original. Because copyright isues were no longer a concern, in Herzog's "Nosferatu," he can be called Dracula instead of Orlock. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), and Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) also make appearances, but much of the plot has been altered. The vast majority of the film is taken up with Harker's visit to Transylvania, with only the final third covering what happens when Dracula relocates, to Germany this time instead of England.

The most interesting narrative change was to place Lucy as the primary heroic character. She's far more active here than in any other version I've seen, a pure soul who spearheads the fight against Dracula, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Van Helsing is only a minor character, the impotent voice of science and reason in a universe governed by spiritual and supernatural forces. Harker, though our POV character for the first half of the film, ultimately becomes incapacitated and compromised. It's Kinski and Adjani who dominate the story, their characters locked in a battle of wills, evil versus good. Their performances are so strong, they have become iconic. Kinki's Dracula is a twisted, inhuman creature, desiring of life and love, but all too aware that they are beyond his reach. He is horrific in every aspect, but still deeply pitiable. By contrast, Adjani has been styled as a righteous Madonna figure, radiant and virtuous.

Herzog was working with a tiny crew of only sixteen people, and it's amazing what they managed to accomplish. The sets and visuals are simple, but wonderfully evocative. Herzog recreated some of Murnau's shots, including images of grasping shadows looming large in the frame. There are almost no effects, but some good makeup and lighting create a great sense of the fantastic. There is also a heavy emphasis on the natural world, including landscapes and animals. Herzog also links Dracula's reign of terror to the Black Plague, and has several scenes that involve swarming masses of rats invading the town. Though there is little violence depicted onscreen, death is everywhere. There's this wonderful atmosphere of apocalyptic dread that permeates everything, with a little help from an excellent score.

Tod Browning's "Dracula" also gets a few nods in each film, or rather the Bela Lugosi performance of Count Dracula does. Both of the 1979 adaptations have their own takes on the "Children of the night" and "I never drink wine" lines. It's indicative of these "Dracula" films having roots in both of those early portrayals, as starkly different as they are. And you can definitely see the influence of Badham's and Herzog's films on later adaptations, including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Dracula" and beyond.

But that's a post for another day.
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Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Legion," Year One

My opinion of "Legion" kept changing as the season went on. After the spectacular premiere, I thought it was the best superhero-themed show I'd ever seen. After three episodes, my enthusiasm had waned significantly. After five episodes, I was mostly back onboard, though my expectations were tempered. After seven episodes, I was ecstatic again. And after the eighth and last episode, I was mildly infuriated. A couple of minor spoilers for the first episode below.

"Legion" is a show about David Haller (Dan Stevens), who thinks he's schizophrenic, but it turns out that he's actually a mutant in the "X-men" universe with strong psychic gifts. A fellow psychiatric patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), becomes David's girlfriend, and starts to help him realize his powers. She's part of a secret mutant collective that help to bust David out of captivity. However, something in David's confused mind is interfering with their efforts to help untangle his past, something he calls the Devil With the Yellow Eyes. And there's also shadowy government groups running around constantly trying to kill him.

I don't want to go into much detail, because part of the fun of "Legion" is learning how to interpret all the wildly stylized images that you're seeing, and figuring out what's real and what isn't. A huge amount of the show takes place in David's head, as the characters sort through his memories and fractured consciousness, and David is a highly unreliable narrator. For instance, Aubrey Plaza plays an important character named Lenny, initially introduced as David's friend from the psychiatric hospital. However, she keeps popping up in David's other memories, and it takes several episodes to pin down exactly who her character is.

The pace here is slow, but there's usually something interesting going on. Showrunner Noah Hawley uses David's wonky mental landscape to do all sorts of wild stuff, like random song-and-dance numbers, a silent movie sequence, and a very impressive chalkboard animation scene. Music plays a big role, as much of the show is very atmospheric and concerned with juggling shifting moods and tones. We can go from claustrophobic horror to thrilling action to whimsy in only a few minutes. Frankly, this is not the kind of ambitious series that is going to be to everyone's tastes. I'm not really sure if it's to my tastes either.

"Legion" is mighty impressive when you look at its individual pieces, and there are multiple times when it's just firing on all cylinders and so much fun to watch. However, it has just as many lows, when the fancy dance number just comes off as indulgent, or the umpteenth return to a particular memory is just coming off as repetitive, and the experience of watching the series is just plain dull. I really got invested in the characters, and Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller are absolutely fantastic to watch, but it was frustrating to keep seeing them dragged back into David's head week after week. I don't think that Hawley managed to fundamentally crack the story of David's struggle for control over his mind, even with all the flashy visuals and the sweet soundtrack.

I haven't said much about Syd's friends, the Summerland mutants yet, because I found them pretty poorly handled. Led by a psychiatrist named Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), they provide a haven for mutants while trying to fight back against the government agents who seek to oppress and control them. Their team includes a memory expert, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), and the curious pair of Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder), who are technically two different people sharing one body. Melanie's husband Oliver (Jermaine Clement), who disappeared years ago into the "astral plane," also plays a role.

They are all terribly interesting characters, and well portrayed by talented actors, who don't get nearly as much to do as they should. "Legion" stays so tightly focused on David, and is so caught up in his particular set of problems, there's not much room for anyone else. We only get the most cursory storylines about Cary and Kerry, and Melanie and Oliver. Ptonomy and, oddly, Syd's whole pre-David life, are pretty much ignored after a few episodes. What really surprised me about "Legion" was ultimately how limited in scope it felt.

However, the series will be getting a second season and plenty of opportunity to expand its horizons. Maybe the next time around, the show's creators will find a way to beef up their narratives a bit more without sacrificing the show's impeccable style. I really did get very attached to this cast and these characters, especially Aubrey Plaza in all her different incarnations. Maybe next time I'll come out of "Legion" a fan instead of a jumble of mixed reactions.

Oh, and that mid-credits scene was just terrible.
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Friday, July 7, 2017

My Top Ten "Review" Reviews

Comedy Central's "Review" ended recently with a three-episode third season to wrap up the show. In lieu of doing a season review, which I normally would, I thought it would be more appropriate to do a Top Ten list of my favorite reviews from the whole series. There are some spoilers ahead, especially for the first season, but I've tried to sidestep the major ones that happen later on.

Entries are unranked and ordered below by airdate.

"Divorce," and "Eating 30 Pancakes" - These two reviews are inextricably linked together by the episode that contains both of them, along with the introductory "Eating 15 Pancakes." However, the first review was really only the set-up to the other two, where we learn how far Forrest MacNeil is willing to go in order to do his job, and the amount of self-harm he's willing to endure. Forrest's grim soul searching being mirrored by his horrific consumption of breakfast food is one of the most brilliant endings to any episode of a comedy that I've ever seen.

"Being Batman" - We've all dreamed of being a superhero, but what should be a lark for Forrest turns into a nightmare when he has to maintain the Caped Crusader persona while attending his custody hearing. Following the fallout from the previous week's "Divorce," Forrest continues to let his dedication to the job screw up his life in more and more alarming ways. Also, I just love how terrible that Batman costume is.

"There All is Aching" - A short review, but definitely one of my favorites because it is such a great example of the absurd lengths that Forrest will go to in order to fulfill any review request, and the twisted logic he often employs in interpreting them. When confronted with a nonsensical review request, Forrest nonetheless throws himself into the task, going on an existential journey to try and find meaning in the meaningless.

"Leading a Cult" - Forrest becomes a cult leader, creating a system of worship based around his own philosophies in life, including a catchy five star rating chant. The visual gags in this one are great, especially all the nerdy science fiction references and Forrest's followers emulating his dorky dress sense. Alas, it can't last. As with the best of cults, the whole thing ends in betrayal and property damage. Just like model airplane club.

"William Tell" - While I enjoy the father-son relationships getting some more attention, this review is here mainly for the ending, which allows Andy Daly to engage in the kind of wild physical comedy that the show seemed eager to work into any situation. After all, "Review" is really all about watching Forrest MacNeil torture himself - spiritually, mentally, and definitely physically. And this review is definitely all about physical pain.

"Rating Something Six Stars" - I like the reviews where the show gets self-referential and messes with its own format. Here, Forrest has to get creative in order to break the rules of his own star ratings system, and winds up creating entirely different review shows within review shows to get the desired result. And, of course, he's constantly foiled by his own insane integrity to the entirely arbitrary standards. I rate this review ten stars!

"Magic Eight Ball" - Essentially the whole of "Review" in miniature. Forrest puts himself at the mercy of completely random fate, much as he does with his reviews every week. Following the commands on a Magic Eight Ball is fun at first, but of course it ends up negatively impacting Forrest's personal life, then his personal safety. Daly's performance really kills me here, the increasing desperation, the antagonizing of the toy, and finally, defeat.

"Eating a Locorito" - I love the disgusting turns that this one takes, and how Forrest chooses the worst possible way to fulfill the review request. Of course they manage to track down a hoarder who hangs on to discontinued food items. Of course. It also eases us back into the universe of "Review" after the extended hiatus, picking up old plot threads and assuring the audience that Forrest's personal troubles were far from over.

"Last Review" - Well, technically the last two reviews, which together close out the show and give "Review" a fitting ending. I don't want to spoil anything, but of all the potential ways that "Review" could have gone out, this is one that I didn't see coming. However, it's a very fitting ultimate fate for Forrest MacNeil.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Is Anyone Still Paying For Cable?

I was on vacation last month, and spent a couple of evenings with nothing much to do except channel surf. So I watched a couple of recent movies I had skipped, and marvelled at how annoying it had become to watch live television. The commercials had never felt more numerous or intrusive. The programming had never seemed more inane. My hotel provided at least two dozen cable channels, but there never seemed to be much on, even in the prime time hours. After months of almost exclusively watching online streaming content and a la carte episodes with very few ad breaks (if any), I felt positively spoiled. And I had to wonder, how was anyone still paying for cable television?

Well, a recent Deloitte survey suggests that most pay TV subscribers are staying because the service comes bundled with their internet service. While there are still millions of US households with pay TV service, most are keeping it because of the hassle of cord cutting. Caps on data usage in many places can make streaming expensive. There still aren't good replacements for sports or live TV streaming, though multiple services have tried to break through in recent years. Live events still present a challenge. When it comes to the actual experience of watching cable, the on-demand streaming services are far more popular and user-friendly. And the new streaming services are popping up like daisies. 27 premiered in 2016 alone, including Filmstruck.

The cable providers seem to have accepted that streaming services are here to stay, but continue to try and stem cord cutting any way that they can, because they make much more from traditional cable services. Still, since HBO Now premiered, there aren't many popular cable shows that aren't online in some form or another. This means that the content wars are getting more heated than ever. A big sign of the times is that many of the smaller cable channels serving niche interests are starting to be trimmed. The Documentary Channel, History International, Trio, and MundoMax all recently got the axe, and more casualties are expected soon. The age of the traditional cable bundle is ending, being replaced by cheaper "skinny" bundles of the most popular channels, and the increasing likelihood of real a la carte options.

Still, we have a long way to go before we truly see cord cutting en masse. As many news articles keep proclaiming the demise of cable television, just as many caution that things aren't moving as fast as people think. Last year's drop in cable subscribers was the biggest yet - but still less than 2%. There is always going to be terrestrial, over-the-air television in some form. Cable too, even if it will probably end up looking very different in the future. And streaming services might end up being just as expensive as a cable subscription in the long run if you subscribe to multiple services at once. It might only be $10 for Netflix, but paying for Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Filmstruck, HBO Now, and however many other services monthly, plus the cost of broadband, adds up quickly.

I'd argue, however, that the online experience is so much better, there's really no comparison. Sure, there's not as much easy access to content on streaming, but I've never had any trouble finding something to watch. In fact, as I've recently complained, I have too much to watch. Much, much too much to entertain the idea of paying for a service that still plays twenty minutes of ads every hour. Even with the legally mandated volume control these days, that's too much to ask.

One of the things that struck me while watching cable this time around was how much effort they put into selling themselves. A good chunk of those commercials were for upcoming movies and shows on the channel we were watching, lovingly edited and packaged to generate the viewer's interest. All the while, these ads were interrupting the movie that I was trying to watch at that moment, which only underlined how poor the viewing experience was.

I don't deny that it's still fun to be able to channel surf, but I'm fine with only doing it on vacations. It was actually a relief to get home to Netflix and Prime and Youtube, where my programming choices were entirely in my own hands.

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Monday, July 3, 2017

"Split" is Solid

Yeah, I realize I've made it this far into 2017 without actually reviewing a film from 2017, and I feel bad about it. Really, I do. There will be several catch-up posts coming soon. So let's start with "Split," which was a surprise hit out of the dead of January, and has been hailed as the big return to form for M. Night Shyamalan after several years of cringey action pictures and bottom-of-the-barrel horror flicks. I skipped most of these, so this is actually my first Shyamalan film since "Lady in the Water."

It's immediately apparent that "Split" was made for very little money, with a limited cast, and hardly any frills to speak of. No surprise that it's a Blumhouse production, which deals mainly in very cheap horror films. However, nobody skimped on the talent. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, a troubled teenage girl who is kidnapped and held captive along with two classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), by a man who we eventually learn is named Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has dissociative identity disorder, and has at least 23 personalities. The one we see the most often, named Dennis, is a violent "exiled" personality who has seized control from the others with the help of a religious fanatic personality, Patricia, and a child personality, Hedwig. Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), is the only one who suspects that something may be terribly wrong with him.

I've seen several thrillers over the years that have used a villain with dissociative identity disorder, and Kevin is one of the better ones. We can credit much of this to the go-for-broke performance of James McAvoy, who is clearly having a ball with the chance to play multiple roles. Wisely, we only see a handful of the twenty-three personalities, and none of them are particularly gimmicky, though there's a fair amount of camp and schlock. Care was clearly taken to define each of the personalities as distinct characters, who all interact differently with the girls. However, just as important is the development of Casey, our lead heroine. "Split" spends just as much time setting up her backstory with multiple flashbacks, and Anya Taylor-Joy does some excellent work getting us invested in her fate before the inevitable genre movie hijinks kick in.

As a horror movie, "Split" is not especially horrific, and the movie struggles whenever it leans too heavily on the usual horror movie tropes. However, it is a very effective, entertaining thriller and works pretty well as character drama too. It's also immediately recognizable as a Shyamalan film, with its glum Pennsylvania settings and mythologizing of its characters. There are definitely some fantasy elements in the mix, as dissociative identity disorder is essentially treated as a super power in this universe. Kevin's different personalities have different physical traits, so one is diabetic, one has OCD, and one is physically stronger than the rest. Some pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo gets trotted out by Dr. Fletcher to flesh this out, but it's thankfully not too indulgent. And there are some minor twists, but none that you could say are particularly "twisty."

And to my relief, the quality of the filmmaking is actually quite strong. Some of the concepts may be ridiculous, but they're all executed very well. The cinematography is nothing short of excellent. Shyamalan is still deft enough to get some good suspense out of the girls' escape attempts and some striking moments out of little Izzie Coffey, who plays the younger version of Casey in flashbacks. "Split" doesn't have the polish of "The Sixth Sense" or "Signs," but it's definitely operating on the same wavelength. I don't think it's too much to declare that Shyamalan is still quite capable of doing work on the same level as his earlier hits. And it's very, very good to see him still trying.

After multiple attempts last year to get more horror films into my movie-watching diet, "Split" may have finally done the trick. It's given me the itch to go look at some of the other horror films I've skipped recently - even the last few films from M. Night Shyamalan that I wrote off sight unseen. And I look forward to the inevitable "Split" sequel.
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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Into a Blind Spot With the Shaw Brothers

One of the biggest movie blind spots that I've had is kung-fu movies. This is a little odd because I actually grew up watching a lot of wuxia with my Chinese parents and grandparents. Of course, I rarely knew the names of the movies or TV shows, or could identify any of the actors or directors associated with them. By the time I was an adult and keeping track of such things, most of the old kung-fu movies were fuzzy memories.

Once Jackie Chan became popular in the late 1990s, I did go back and track down the original "Drunken Master" and "Police Story" that made him famous. It took a little work to find them in the original Chinese. I also watched a few of the most famous Bruce Lee movies. However, one particular studio kept coming up in discussions of kung-fu movies that I wasn't familiar with at all: the Shaw Brothers Studio. This was the biggest and most well known of the Hong Kong movie studios, founded and run by the four Shaw brothers starting in the 1920s. It operated for sixty years, produced thousands of films, and usually gets the credit for popularizing the kung-fu genre. Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and other big name fans always namecheck them when talking about their favorite martial arts films.

So, since I was looking for more 70s movies to watch, I decided to take the plunge. Over the weekend I watched "Five Deadly Venoms," "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," aka "Master Killer," and "The Master of the Flying Guillotine," aka "One Armed Boxer 2." They were high on many lists of the most popular kung fu films, and all had generated sequels (or at least had subsequent films marketed as their sequels). I managed to find subtitled versions of all three, though it turns out I didn't need to. Unlike most of the Hong Kong action films I'd seen, these were all in Mandarin instead of Cantonese, so I could follow the dialogue. I hadn't seen any of them before. These films were all much older than anything I ever remember watching with my parents in the '80s.

It's not hard to see why they were so popular. The films have simple, formulaic stories, but strong production values, and are tremendous fun to watch. Though there are moments of humor, they aren't schlocky or campy in the least. Instead, they are very earnest adventure films with strong heroes and occasionally some interesting historical or political business going on in the background. All the films I watched were from the period where kung-fu films were at their most popular and Hong Kong was going through an economic boom. The Shaw Brothers studio saw fierce competition from other studios like Golden Harvest, the home of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan's films. So it's no wonder that the filmmaking looks so polished and the actions scenes are executed with so much apparent craft and skill.

So how were the movies? Of the three, I found "Five Deadly Venoms" the weakest, since it has to juggle multiple characters with animal-themed schtick, hidden identities, and the POV shifts among several of the characters. However, it has the most elaborate production design and eye-catching costuming. "The Master of the Flying Guillotine" is a stronger affair, pitting an admirable hero, the One-Armed Boxer, against the fascinating Master of the Flying Guillotine. Most of the film is taken up by a lengthy tournament-style martial arts competition. That means there's plenty of action, as multiple martial artists get to demonstrate different fighting styles, weapons, and tactics, the best of which is, of course, the flying guillotine of the title.

My favorite, however, is "The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin," starring Quentin Tarantino favorite Gordon Liu. It tells the most complete and classical kind of wuxia narrative, where a promising young man suffers a terrible injustice, and has to go through many trials to turn himself into a great martial artist and win the day. It also delves heavily into the mystical side of kung-fu, as our hero's training comes from the Shaolin Temple and its monks. Liu is great, the training sequences are inventive, and the writing is actually pretty sharp. It's the best version of the kind of wuxia story that I've seen many, many times before, and it brought back a lot of good memories.

What's really fascinating is how you can see the influence these films had on Western culture and other martial arts films over the years - the character types, the mysticism, and the particular style and rhythm of the action. I have to wonder what the modern action film would look like without them. Anyway, I still have a couple of other Shaw Brothers titles I need to track down before I'm done, and the '70s deep dive will continue.
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