VIFF 2022: Riverside Mukolitta (Naoko Ogigami)

Part of the deal as an auteurist is that we will follow the director from film to film, keeping an open mind The relationship is the point. The director reaches out to us, and we hope to reach back and embrace their new film. Will it make us understand something new? Will it deepen a certain aspect of their art? Will it set off in new directions? Will it disappoint us? Each film is a new encounter. And so we take out our notebooks and begin to revise our notes, our ideas.
There is currently a video on Youtube titled “Naoko Ogigami: Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker.” It’s around 25 minutes long and goes in-depth into Ogigami’s career and background, combing through her interviews to provide insight into her process and her films. It’s worth watching. But this title of “Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker” cannot be ignored. At first blush, it is understandable. But it’s also somewhat insidious. Ogigami’s films are undeniably gentle and whimsical. Their surfaces are placid and calm. More than anything else, her cinema is welcoming. But this only describes her cinema up to a point. And it doesn’t quite work to describe the achievement of her latest films, 2017’s Close-Knit and 2021’s Riverside Mukolitta. In these two films, she is pushing her art further and further – her films will always be gentle and inviting, but now these same surfaces are used to invite you to wade into darker and darker undercurrents.


How do you live?
Riverside Mukolitta is a work steeped in death. All the major characters are touched by it, ruined by it. But Ogigami does not film dourly She does not film to wallow in her character’s misery. Her cinema provides an alternative. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Yamada, a young man recently released from prison. He finds a job slicing up squid at a small factory; repetitive work that his boss says has driven people to quit after a day or two. But Yamada has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. His boss helps him find a room at an old apartment building where he soon meets his colorful neighbors.

Part of Ogigami’s universe will always be, on some level, filled with quirkiness and whimsy. But whereas in previous films, like Kamome Diner, this revealed itself as a way to celebrate the oddity of all its characters, in Riverside Mukolitta, tries to marry the oddball nature of her characters to their desperate struggle to find a way to live. Ogigami always makes community pictures. So Yamada’s neighbor invites himself into his apartment, over and over, first to use his bath, and then to eat his food – anything to stave off the loneliness. Another of Yamada’s neighbors takes his young son to sell tombstones door to door, both of them wearing identical suits, which at first registers like a too-cute joke, but soon makes sense as another aspect of the film’s relationship to death. Once Yamada is able to afford some food and finds a fan in the garbage heap, life begins to be somewhat bearable.

How is community built? How is it formed? Ogigami’s cinema is built of small gestures, mundane domestic rituals. Characters share meals with each other, they help tend to each other’s gardens, they walk to the local temple to cool down. One of the film’s funniest scenes occurs as more and more neighbors invite themselves to a meal, popping up by the door, as they prepare their sukiyaki. Perhaps they complain, but deep down it is nice to have company. Each interaction builds on the last, and soon an unmistakable fond is formed, impossible to ignore.

All of Ogigami’s films are essentially manuals on how to go about life. Her early films such as Kamome Diner and Glasses built up small little communities, they preach tolerance, inclusiveness, relaxation, rest. In Rent-a-cat, the main character lets people rent her cats so they can find healing and comfort. Perhaps, on some level, they deal with issues of self-care. But in her last two films, she has left behind these characters who don’t have too many conflicts to show characters who genuinely struggle through life. Ogigami’s search in how to deal with these characters lends the films a lot of their interest. How do you live becomes how do you film.


Eat your bones
When writing about Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I wrote that the camera was always at right distance, every time. Due to the nature of the film’s subject, she had to confront intolerance and at points approached melodrama. But in Mukolitta, her staging is a little unclear. The film registers as a reformulation of her approach to character, to drama. Everything is more internal, a little more abstract. Sometimes she falls back to her wide shots, letting the action play out from a distance. But then the camera moves in for a medium shot, hand-held for some reason, and the staging feels a little haphazard, like it has not been blocked out all the way, which is not something I would’ve ever felt about Ogigami’s cinema before.

The question becomes how to integrate death into her cinema, how to represent it. Perhaps adapting her own novel has forced her to dig deeper into metaphor. Giving images to her words is already something difficult, but to make them feel alive, new… All the characters are surrounded by death. Early on, Yamada is told that his father has died, all alone, in a nearby apartment. He goes to pick up his remains and is told that his father’s Adam’s apple survived cremation intact. But now what does he do with these remains? What kind of relationship does he hope to have with his father now that he’s dead? His neighbor reveals that he had a son and then lost him. He then asks him to forget he said that. His landlord, Hikari Matsushima, lost her husband a few years ago. He sees a ghost, tending to the garden, and everyone agrees that, yes, that was the old lady who used to live at the apartments.

Death is not abstract. Ogigami makes the experience of it literal. The death of a body is not the end. The living must deal with what remains, a body, bones. For Matsushima’s landlord, she visits the grave of her husband, buried by a tree. While on the way back, the taxi driver remarks that he took the remains of his wife, ground them up, and put them in a firework, shooting her up in the sky. And this leads to the most striking sequence of the film, and Ogigami’s cinema so far. Matsushima, alone in her room, takes out the remains of her husband, proceeds to nibble at the bones, take a few hesitant bites, and then uses it to fondle herself. Ogigami has never quite filmed something like this. She’s not really a director that places a premium on sensuality. But in here she takes a fairly big swing, connecting the desire to commune spiritually with the dead to a somewhat erotic exploration, hesitant, awkward, a moment that’s mystifying, even to the character.

Watching Riverside Mukolitta, we witness a director test the boundaries of what her cinema will allow. Ogigami makes hangout films, she does not film complex scenarios. So she must look for new images and often this can a beautiful and awkward struggle. She does not forget her quirky touches, such as that garbage dump in between the train tracks, where the characters congregate. It’s here where that little boy in the suit fiddles with a melodica while Yamada watches, or where he gathers all the rotary phones he can find while he waits for a call from an alien. It’s precious, it’s twee. But this is important to understand, it is not naïve. The image of the alien in the sky in a lesser film would be joyful. Ogigami immediately complicates it but showing by showing the despair it triggers.

Part of the evolution in Ogigami’s cinema has necessitated an engagement with melodrama. At first, her films resisted outbursts of emotion. But now her films seem to demand it. Part of the journey of the film is from Matsuyama’s early reticence to show any display of emotion to the overwhelming breakdown at film’s end. Ogigami’s films are ultimately healing. Her gaze seeks to shelter and protect her characters. She films her characters to heal them. But the process has become more complicated, more fraught. As Yamada’s tears fall and mix with his father’s bones, Ogigami makes clear that both are necessary to move forward. The final images perfectly express this sentiment. Death is now all around them, in the air, in their room, in their clothes. But also the joy of being able to move forward, to smile, to live another day. In this new encounter with Ogigami’s cinema, we register the joy of seeing the boundaries of her cinema, reaching its limits, and then pushing forward with new images and new approaches.

Riverside Mukolitta is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Inu-Oh (Yuasa Masaaki, 2021)

Yuasa Masaaki continues his winning streak: he’s probably been the best director in the world over the past five years, or at the very least the most productive great director. Since 2017, he has produced three acclaimed TV series (Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks 2020, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) along with four feature films: the definitive One Crazy Night romance Night is Short, Walk on Girl, the off-beat Little Mermaid variation Lu Over the Wall, the heart-breaking post-romance Ride Your Wave and now Inu-oh, a medieval rock opera about the power of rock and roll to connect us to our past, find our true selves, and help us overcome our terrible fathers.

Inu-oh begins with the story of Tomo (they’ll be, at various times, “Tomona”, “Tomoichi”, and “Tomoari” throughout the story). As a child, Tomona works with his father diving for treasure lost at sea 600 years ago during the definitive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans, passed down through history in the Tale of the Heike, a collection of stories about the war that plays a somewhat similar role in Japanese literary history as The Iliad or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1371 by Kakuichi, part of a band of traveling blind monks that recited the various tales accompanied by music on the biwa, a lute-like stringed instrument, pretty much just as the Greek bards would have done (and, if he was an actual person, the blind poet Homer himself). What Yuasa’s film, written by Nogi Akiko, asserts is that there were other tales of the Heike, tales which were so powerful in their truth that they were able to magically transform their tellers into the greatest versions of their selves.

Tomona is blinded by buried treasure in an accident which also kills his father. Wandering the countryside, he takes up with the blind monks and over the next decade or so learns the biwa and all the various tales. One day he meets a malformed young masked man (legs too short, one arm way too long, scales for skin, and eyes in the wrong places) who loves music and dance. He’d grown up all but disowned by his father, a dancer of Heike tales in an early form of Noh theatre called sarugaku, made to live and eat with the family dogs. One day, overcome with the spirit of music, he dances and his legs are transformed into normal human limbs. Tomoichi (name changed to reflect his status as a member of the blind monk troupe) deduces that the spirits of the lost Heike soldiers are rewarding the as yet unnamed man for dancing and singing their story. The two then do what comes naturally: form a rhythm and blues band to spread the untold tales of the Heike (whispered to them by the spirits of the dead) far and wide.

The second half of the film is dominated by their music, as Tomoari (a third name, adopted to show their new-found indepence, along with a fluid expression of gender) incants lengthy rock introductions to three spectacular performances by the newly self-christened Inu-Oh, songs and dances which heal his limbs and skin and face. But they run afoul of the shogun, who doesn’t have time for new stories, and especially Inu-oh’s father, who turns out to have been a villain all along, like so many rock and roll dads. It all ends tragically, as a rock opera should. Rock star revolutionaries don’t tend to last long, at least not in that form. They shine bright and either burn out or become something less spectacular (think Ziggy Stardust morphing into the Thin White Duke, or the Wild Mercury Dylan turning into a Regular Dad). Music can keep stories alive, or bring them back from the dead, and it can change people’s lives for better and for worse, but is it enough to sustain them? For that, the maker of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Inu-oh would seem to suggest we need animated cinema. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.

The Killer (Choi Jaehoon, 2022)

Last night I picked up and started reading the first Jack Reacher book. I saw the first Tom Cruise movie years ago, and liked it well enough, and really enjoyed the Amazon series that premiered on Amazon earlier this year. My edition of the book includes an introduction by author Lee Child, where he describes how he came to be a writer in mid-life and how he designed his project deliberately to run counter to prevailing trends in suspense literature. Specifically, he wanted to make Reacher not a flawed protagonist, haunted by addiction or trauma or moral grayness, not a guy who loses over and over again until he somehow, barely, wins in the end, but rather the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable person in every situation. He figured that audiences would grow tired of relatable heroes, that we’d much more enjoy seeing the forces of evil get what’s coming to them by a larger than life (literally), hero. I thought about that a lot while watching The Killer, the latest action thriller from Korean star Jang Hyuk.

Jang plays a retired professional assassin (the eponymous killer) who is tasked by his lovely wife with babysitting her friend’s teenage daughter while the two of them (wife and friend) go hang out at a beachside resort for three weeks. Because he’s a pushover, he accepts the job, only for the unfortunate teen to almost immediately fall into the hands of murderous sex traffickers. So he does what he does best: employ his fists, feet, knives, guns, automobiles, sticks, or whatever in tracking down the girl and killing all the bad guys in the way. Many many action scenes follow, a highly competent example of the dominant contemporary mode of action filmmaking outside the Hollywood blockbuster machine: flowing digital cameras in artificial sequence shots; bright colors (golds, neon pinks and greens) contrasting with deep blacks (the hero wears all-black, John Wick-style); reasonably creative choreography emphasizing physical impacts and speed but lacking the inspiration of the Hong Kong filmmakers at their best (no opera acrobatics or ingenious appropriations of found objects and natural environments) performed by competent stunt-people (with Jang apparently doing much of his own stunt-work). Above all the fights emphasize a forward momentum, paralleling Jang’s dogged pursuit of his quest. And, most interestingly, he never appears to get hurt.

For Jang’s killer is very much in the Reacher mold: he is quite obviously better (physically, intellectually, morally) than any of his opponents. This isn’t a crumbling kind of hero, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s Kate, taking an unreal amount of abuse but staying the course until her enemy is defeated. Instead, we never believe Jang is in any real peril—our enjoyment of the action scenes comes not from suspense, but from the thrill of watching evil get punished. The only suspense there is in the film is the mystery of why the girl was kidnapped, but we can rest assured Jang will kill his way to a satisfactory answer. It’s not an enlightened approach to moral dilemmas to be sure, and the pacifist in me knows very well that it is not a good thing for individuals to run around murdering people, even if they are for an undoubted fact terrible human beings. But we’ve been living with gray areas in our action fiction for so long: anti-heroes and heroes who can’t win because the system is corrupt, and heroes who cling to a code of honor no longer relevant in our corrupted modern age, and heroes who sacrifice themselves for an infinitesimally small chance at a better tomorrow. Is it so bad to make believe ourselves into an excessively violent yet morally clear world for a little while? Yeah, probably. But it’s fun while it lasts.

Potato Dreams of America (Dir. Wes Hurley, 2021)

It’s rare to see a film that’s so simultaneously affecting, funny, and inventively crafted as Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America. A dark comedy infused with magical realism, the film tells the moving story of Hurley’s experience growing up gay in the former Soviet Union and then immigrating to the U.S. with his mother, Lena, a brave and principled prison physician who can only get out of the USSR as a mail-order bride. The two navigate the strange vicissitudes of life in the U.S., together coping with Hurley’s well-meaning but clueless teachers, his sometimes cruel classmates, his unpredictable stepfather, and his own evolving identity as an out gay man.

The story alone is remarkable enough that it would be entirely absorbing even if it were only told in plain, conventional, realistic narrative form. But Hurley makes some compelling choices in the way he crafts his film that heighten its impact. Most notably, he underlines the sharp differences between his life in Russia and his life in the U.S. with a dramatic mid-movie shift in visual style. During the first part of the movie, when young Hurley (nicknamed “Potato”) and his mother are still living in the Soviet Union, his child’s-eye view of his family, school, and home is conveyed through deliberately stagy, stylized, frequently absurdist dramedy, in which the progress of his life is interspersed with some well-placed cuts to an imaginary movie or vaudeville play of the “real” action unfolding before us. Potato even has an imaginary friend in Jesus Christ, portrayed by gay icon Jonathan Bennett. The visual world of this part of the film is anti-realistic, by turns evoking a school play, a dollhouse world, and—frighteningly—the Brechtian nightmare of a Soviet prison. All of these elements put us into Potato’s view of his world, which is marked by an incomplete but intuitive understanding of the significance of what he sees and hears.

In the second part of the film, we enter a different kind of heightened reality—more realistic than the first part but still clearly framed as a filmed world, almost like a period sitcom, with a bright, cheery soundtrack and sunny establishing shots of perfect residential exteriors. (This almost-sitcom effect is helped by Hurley’s choice of Dan Lauria—the dad from The Wonder Years—as his stepfather.) In this part of the story, the characters are portrayed by an entirely new set of actors who, in the style of the leads in Moonlight, resemble the previous actors only passingly. This choice works beautifully to suggest that we, along with the characters, are in a completely new world in this part of the narrative. It amplifies the stark drama of the characters’ departure from their old lives and causes us to feel that starkness alongside them.

It would have been possible for Hurley to become so absorbed in his film’s formal cleverness and adventurousness that audiences became detached from the emotional truth of the story. However, he cannily avoids this trap by keeping the pacing tight and focusing most of our attention on the inner worlds of the characters. The actors’ expressive performances are central here. Noteworthy among these is Sera Barbieri’s taut, coiled embodiment of the Soviet Lena, whose passionate moral convictions vie with the necessity of submitting to corrupt authority in order to protect her son’s life. Marya Sea Kaminski as American Lena reveals the same emotional tension as she mediates between the demands of her new husband’s authoritarianism and her need to protect her son’s psychological well-being. Both actresses reveal Lena’s intelligence, her moral courage, and her feeling heart in bravura performances that teleport us into the mind of a woman who faces unimaginable difficulties in her quest to protect her son and live freely herself.

The actors who portray Potato are similarly talented and committed to their roles. Promising teen actor Hersh Powers portrays Potato’s early adolescent uncertainty and angst with wit and intelligence. As the older version of Potato, Tyler Bocock (a ringer for a younger Tom Hiddleston) is charming in his befuddlement about life in America; he’s a pleasure to watch as his version of Potato grows wiser and more confident. The movie’s bigger names bring their reliable and considerable skill sets to bear on their roles. Lea DeLaria in particular is delightful here, portraying Potato’s grandmother with her trademark crusty puckishness.

Viewers who remember what B. Ruby Rich called the New Queer Cinema in the ’80s and ’90s—that movement in which queer filmmakers with micro-budgets opted to tell queer stories and did so in a frank, raw, unapologetic, creative way—might well see Potato Dreams of America as a kind of latter-day entry into that school of filmmaking. As a descendent of that lineage, Hurley reminds us that a true and truthful story can often be told best by a fearlessly creative filmmaker who lived that story. His is a story well worth telling and a film well worth seeing.

New York Ninja (John Liu & Kurtis M. Spieler, 1984/2021)

In 1984, a B level martial arts actor from Taiwan named John Liu, who had starred in a handful of movies in the late 70s for Ng See-yuen, working with choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen, directed and starred in a no-budget action film called New York Ninja. The film was never finished: the production company went bankrupt and the film sat in storage for decades without a finished cut, script, or soundtrack. And then the video label Vinegar Syndrome, specialists in the misbegotten genre films of yesteryear, got their hands on the material and commissioned a reconstruction. Kurtis M. Spieler handled the “re-direction” along with the editing, while a cast of 80s luminaries (including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Ginger Lynn, and Cynthia Rothrock) recorded all new dialogue. The result is a loving recreation of a bit of 1980s ephemera, though not a good movie by any means.

Liu plays the sound tech guy on the three person remote news team (a cameraman and a woman reporter round out the crew) who disguises himself as a ninja to beat up the masked gangs who terrorize New York after one of them murders his pregnant wife. The gangs (or gang, it’s unclear if they’re all connected or a bunch of different groups) kidnap women on behalf of a mysterious guy in dark glasses known as the Plutonium Killer, who for some reason tortures some of the women and sells the others to an English guy who may or may not be an undercover Interpol agent. The basic pattern is: gang wanders through the streets terrorizing people (often with the reporters looking on a filming while saying “why that’s just awful, someone should do something!”); Ninja shows up all dressed in white (the color of death); each gang member attacks him one at a time while he kicks them or stabs them or throws something at them; then the Ninja runs away.

None of this makes the least bit of sense, but in a more or less fun kind of way. I’m always wary of this kind of manufactured cult classic, there’s a tone of condescension to a lot of “so bad it’s good” discourse that I simply find distasteful. But New York Ninja avoids a lot of that simply by the sheer effort involved in its recreation. I can’t imagine anyone would put so much work into a project like this if there wasn’t a lot of sincere love for the genuine “putting on a show” indie spirit of making a DIY martial arts movie. At it’s best, the movie is a time capsule of a lost age: the shots of the pre-gentrified Broadway area (including the heart of the grindhouse movie district where so many movies like this (and many many significantly better ones) got their own theatrical releases in the US), as well as old fashions and hairstyles and cars (including the beautiful destruction of a what appears to be a 1970 Buick LeSabre, the first car I ever owned), all shot on film, which even in this debased form still has more life and character than most every digital production today. It’s not the avant-garde semi-masterpiece that is the just as no-budget 1984 karate film Furious, but it is still a genuinely weird movie.

I only wish the action was better. Liu was supposedly one of the great movie kickers of the late 70s, and you can see hints of that here. But the fight scenes are so deathly slow. None of the movements are connected: Liu kicks someone and they stand there, one beat, two beats, and then they punch him, pause pause, he kicks them again. I haven’t watched many American martial arts movies–I had an uncle who was into Chuck Norris so I watched some of his Vietnam POW movies, but I missed the whole 80s ninja craze–but I can’t imagine they were this slow. And I know for a fact action like this would never have seen the light of day in even in the cheapest Taiwanese or Hong Kong kung fu film of the era. So I wonder if this is a by-product of the (re-)editing process, that Liu had intended more cutting (to close-ups or different angles or just jump cuts within the same shots) to make the fights seem faster and more dynamic than they are, but either the materials weren’t available or they weren’t ever shot or the reconstruction team for some reason just didn’t use them. My fear is that they left them this way because they think it’s funnier, but I hope that’s not the case.

Belle (Hosoda Mamoru, 2021)

Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle is incredibly corny, and I kind of loved it. I think you could probably say that about any number of the slice-of-life animes I’ve adored in recent years, like the Kyoto Animation productions K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Liz and the Blue Bird, and A Silent Voice, but while Belle shares with most of those works a focus on the emotional life of a musically-gifted teenage girl, it also reaches outward to make a statement about The Way Things Are Now in a way anathema to the KyoAni hyper-specific approach. Hosoda goes big: it’s not enough for his moment of epiphany to simply be one damaged person connecting with another, it has to be witnessed by the entire world.

The entire virtual world, that is. Belle is about a young woman, Suzu, played by singer Nakamura Kaho, painfully shy and still suffering from the loss of her mother years before, who joins U, some kind of futuristic virtual reality world that scans your mind and body and creates as your avatar an idealized version of yourself, amplifying your strengths and weaknesses. She, in her virtual form as “Belle”, quickly becomes a singing sensation, charming millions with plangent pop ballads about loneliness. Her (fake) world is disrupted by a rampaging monster known as “Dragon” to whom she becomes weirdly drawn. This becomes more and more obviously the Beauty and the Beast story, until even I picked up on the connection. Suzu tries to find out who Dragon is in real-life, and what’s pained him so much to cause his destructive acting out, before the VR police (led by a fascist blond named Justin) can dox him into nothingness.

It’s all ridiculous of course, and the rules of the virtual world make absolutely no sense. But I’m not sure that matters, and Hosoda plays it all so emotionally straight that when it builds to the big climactic song, for awhile you actually kind of believe that music can bring the world together, can make us all better people, and that bullies can actually be defeated with nothing but the power of innocent moral righteousness. Hosoda loves big climaxes like this, and while Wolf Children, his masterpiece, does this while still staying believably small (it’s about one mother’s love for her child), he seems more at home in big mind-exploding climactic sequences, real emotions collapsing or blowing up virtual or imaginary worlds (Mirai and Summer Wars take this approach, if I remember correctly).

One of my favorite bits in all of the Hosoda films I’ve seen though is the scene right before the big climax, when a couple of romantic plot threads involving side characters get resolved at a train station. He holds a long shot: Suzu and her friend Ruka on the right side of the screen, and Ruka’s crush Kamishin on the lower left corner. As her two friends realize the other has a crush on them, they turn red and awkward, Suzu silent in the middle. Ruka does not move, Kamishin runs back and forth out of the frame. Hosoda holds the shot for an extraordinarily long time, only cutting to a close-up of Suzu when one of them mentions her crush. It’s a very funny scene, the more so because Hosoda underplays it, never overplaying the cartoonish surreality (I shudder to think how such a scene would play out in Demon Slayer, for example) or even the standard shot-reverse shot formula one would get in a typical live-action film. The restraint takes a scene that could have been merely comic into something as beautiful as it is silly. It’s slice-of-life filmmaking at its best.

Hell Hath No Fury (Jesse V. Johnson, 2021) and Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, 2021)

Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sucks up all the multiplex screens in America, leaving little space in theatres for movies where good-looking people find themselves in dangerously violent situations that don’t have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but interesting things are nonetheless afoot with the action film genre. There’s a real need for on-screen fisticuffs and gunfighting, among the oldest of film genres, and the Disney films (along with pretty much every other blockbuster) no longer satisfy it. Instead, driven by the destructive possibilities of computer generated imagery, they are disaster films: movies designed around the obliteration of space, of increasingly elaborate digital representations of our world. The model for the modern blockbuster is not the action film: the buddy cop and sci-fi adventure/horror movies of the 80s and early 90s, or even the epic adventures of early 2000s hits like the Lord of the Rings series or Gladiator. Rather they’re variations on the disaster films revived in the mid-90s by Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Even when a Disney film tries for a different sort of template, say Shang-Chi with the Hong Kong wuxia film, it devolves in the end into a movie in which pixels fly around, make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of ultimately meaningless damage.

And yet there are still action movies being made, but on the margins of the industry. Jesse V. Johnson has built a solid career for himself as a director of straight-to-video action films, movies in which beefy men punch and shoot each other. His films star guys like Robert Davi, Tom Berenger, Tony Jaa, Billy Zane, Eric Roberts, and, above all, Scott Adkins (whose One Shot is another fine recent antidote to Disney blockbuster bloat). A former stunt man, Johnson makes movies with actual action performed by actual stunt performers, not actors dancing with ping pong balls in front of a green screen. Hell Hath No Fury switches up Johnson’s formula, in that it stars a woman, Nina Bergman. She’s a French woman who has be imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. Four American soldiers have “rescued” her from the local mob, with the understanding that she will lead them to a bagful of Nazi gold, hidden somewhere in a cemetery. Most of the movie takes place in this one location, as the soldiers encounter Bergman’s erstwhile companions in the French Resistance (her true loyalties are a matter of question for most of the film) and a group of Nazis led by Bergman’s former lover, who are headed their way. The action is clean and focused, making effective use of its location, finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for traps and daring escapes, the kind of filmmaking that only really works out in the wild.

Largely a collection of classic WW2 movie tough guys, Johnson gives the generic character types a twist by making everyone just a little bit weirder, a little more demented, a little more savage than we’re used to seeing. The result is a film of admirable nastiness, more effectively conveying the brutality of war on both physical bodies and psyches than would be allowed in a more prestigious war film (say, 1917). In this Bergman’s physicality is central: head shaved by a mob, covered in mud, bruises, and a slip of a dress, she nonetheless never shrinks from the world of cruelly violent men she finds herself in. It’s a war movie that isn’t the least bit about heroism, but about the struggle, the will to survive. 

Johnson’s dusty images capture the dirtiness of this world, a rare case of modern gray-scale cinematography serving an expressive purpose. Another recent action film goes the opposite direction. While Kate shares with Hell Hath No Fury a brutal physical performance from its lead actress, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan opts for a palette of deep blacks accented by neon blues and pinks, what might be called the John Wick style, after one of the few blockbuster franchises that does understand the primal joy of seeing stunt fighters at work (like Johnson, John Wick director Chad Stahelski was a former stunt man—I’ve said it before and it remains the case: stuntmen make the best movies). Nicolas-Troyan started in visual effects, working for years with Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Weather Man, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), so it’s no surprise that his images would pop more than Johnson’s, or that his action would be less convincing. Though that’s no fault of the film’s star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a fascinating actress who should have been a major star but never quite broke through.

Winstead plays a professional assassin who is poisoned by someone and has 24 hours to figure out who it was and exact her revenge before she drops dead. It’s the plot of the classic noir DOA of course, except with a sociopathic and unnervingly childlike killer as the hero rather than an accountant. Prowling the back streets of Tokyo, she sorts her way through the various factions of a yakuza group, before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she was betrayed by the two biggest names in the cast: Woody Harrelson, her handler/father figure, and Asano Tadonobu, an ambitious lieutenant in the gang. (Asano, one of the finest actors in the world, simply has to be admired for his determination to rack up cash being underutilized in American genre films. See, for example, the Thor series.) The action is solid but unspectacular gun and fist fights, with Winstead enduring even more punishment than Bergman: shot and stabbed and bruised on top of the debilitating effects of the poison she’s been given, it’s a wrenchingly tactile performance. Yet the film pulls its punches, so to speak, in a way that Hell Hath No Fury does not. Winstead is given a sassy teen sidekick, the granddaughter of the yakuza boss, and flashbacks creating a poignant backstory (she’s been killer since she was a kid, literalized by her obsession with a particular brand of lemon soda). It’s more conventional story-telling, and the film is all the less effective for it. In the end it doesn’t end up feeling any more real than any other franchise film, with their lab-tested and handbook-approved screenplays. But at least it’s got actual people in it.

West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s updating of the classic musical is just an elgort away from greatness. They make a number of changes to the script and song order, all in the interest of bringing what was, in the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film version a hallucinatory vision of Romeo & Juliet set less in the decaying remains of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood than in the midst of the color red. The 1961 film is musical above all else, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics more alive than almost any of the characters, given physical expression in Robbins’s balletic choreography and the bodies of ridiculously beautiful, yet generally ethnically inappropriate, actors. The ’61 film is about the fact that red is the color of blood as much as it is of romance. It’s as abstract and poetic as a mainstream Hollywood production would ever get.

But Spielberg and Kushner are less interested in poetry and, sadly, less interested in the color red. Their West Side Story takes pains to situate its melodrama in an actual time and place—the same time and place as the ’61 film, but more so. Which is one of the strange things about it: while the original was shot among the real ruins of the West Side, but felt imaginary; the remake is in a constructed space (how much is actual and how much computerized, I can’t tell), but feels real. The commitment to realism (such as it is) extends not just to casting (with white people thankfully only playing white people this time) but character as well, building backstories for each of the major characters, fleshing out what had been archetypal figures transmuted from Shakespeare into the present. Justin Peck’s choreography builds on Robbins’s work, but adds a more authentically Latin style to the gangland ballets. The “America” number in particular benefits from this, and its restaging: instead of a rooftop at night, the sequence now takes place in the bright daytime out in the open streets, passersby of all ethnicities joining in the joyous yet darkly comic celebration/indictment of the nation.

Several of the songs have been moved around. “I Feel Pretty” gains an unexpected poignance from its repositioning, while “Somewhere” takes on entirely new resonances. Instead of a duet between Tony and Maria, it’s now sung by Rita Moreno as Valentina (the Puerto Rican widow of Doc the druggist, the film’s only other example of an interracial couple). Moreno of course was in the original film, winning the Supporting Actress Oscar as Anita. “Somewhere” in the original is a romantic ballad, the two lovers imagining a world where they can be happy together, outside the prejudices of the real world. With Valentina/Moreno singing it, it’s a lament for society as a whole, its dream of unity not individualized in the two lovers, but a wistful hope for all of humanity. That metaphor of course was always there in the original, but the new film makes it the primary text, rather than the romance. And the fact that it’s Moreno singing it, a song of hope from 50 years ago that’s just as relevant today as it was then, makes it all the more tragic. Given the way Spielberg frames it, Valentina singing while looking at an old photo of her and Doc, one can imagine it being the lost dream of her youth as well, just as it now is for Tony and Maria. It’s now more than 50 years since the film was set, maybe another 50 since that photo was taken, and things don’t seem to have changed much at all.

And still, there’s a gaping hole in the film where Tony should be. Every other actor is tremendous—David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria are tremendous, terrific singers and dancers who sell every big emotion the musical demands. Ansel Elgort, though, as Tony, is quite tall. Like so many young American movie stars, he looks soft, like he hasn’t worked a day in his life, let alone spent the last year in jail. He gives Tony a kind of naive innocence that’s incompatible with his backstory: he should be broken-down by guilt and depression over his violent past, only brought back to life and hope by Maria. He should also be believably charismatic and tough, the kind of guy the Jets, grungy violent men who’ve only known abuse and crime at home and from the world around them, would follow anywhere (except, of course, to peace). Elgort is. . . not. And, worst of all, his voice seems weak, easily overpowered by everyone else in the cast (note the “Tonight (Quintet)” when Elgort can’t hope to stay on equal footing with the other singers, turning it into more of a Quart-and-a -Half-tet), conveying none of the strength you want from a romantic or heroic lead.

But still, Tony has always been a bit of a blank (as so many male leads are in musicals), and his performance isn’t nearly enough to sink what is in every other respect a great film. Spielberg may not give us the reds I loved so much, restricting his palette for the most part to the various shades of gray that pass for color cinematography these days. The reds do show up in key places: Maria’s lipstick before the party, the lining of Anita’s dress during “America”. But this is a world defined not be an all-consuming, self-destructive passion, but by the brick and concrete ruins these desperate people are forced to fight over because they’re the only America they’ve ever known. 

Karnan (Mari Selvaraj, 2021)

After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.

Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.

Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.

There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.

*It’s been explained to me that the historical context here is essential. In 1995, police attacked a village called Kodiyankulam, which was populated by people of the Dalit caste. It was the flash point of a series of conflicts between the villagers and more dominant members within that same caste. The conflict in the film is similar to the actual events, though fictionalized. My mistake was in not noting the centrality of caste to the conflict between the two villages in the film, a vitally important issue that I, in my ignorance, failed to pick up on. It’s also the case that in my desire to read the film through my own (limited, American) lens, by seeing it as a film about revolution in general, I delegitimized the specific concerns of the caste struggle itself, of which this film is certainly very much about. My apologies and thanks to those who took the time to explain what I’d missed.

Maanaadu (Venkat Prahbu, 2021)

In the post-modern hellscape that is 2021 it takes a lot to distinguish a time loop movie from the films that came before it. In the three decades since the release of Groundhog Day (certainly not the first time loop tale but arguably the reference point for all subsequent films) the conceit has ballooned into a subgenre all its own, lumping video game-type action films such as Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code with comedies like last year’s Palm Springs. Thankfully, the new Tamil-language feature Maanaadu from director Venkat Prahbu is bursting with creativity, cleverly building on the time loop framework with a series of clever twists and unexpected wrinkles that breathe new life into what has become rote or cliche.

T. R. Silambarasan stars as Abdul Khaaliq, a flashy guy attending a friend’s wedding who gets kidnapped and is coerced into playing the patsy for a political assassination. He’s more of a Hitchcockian wrong man than Phil Connors clone. In the melee that follows the assassination, Abdul himself is killed. He then wakes up back on the flight he took to the wedding earlier in the day. He has no answers for the rebirth, he does not know why he was resurrected nor what he needs to do to get out of the loop. Through trial and error (i.e. dying repeatedly and gruesomely) Abdul finally discovers his purpose. The catch is that a corrupt police officer, the sinister Dhanushkodi, is onto him. Actor-writer-director S. J. Suryah plays Dhanuskodi to a maniacal hilt, replete with Snidely Whiplash mustache and ever present cigarette. He brings panache to the cat-and-mouse game. The man knows no scenery he cannot chew and the movie is better off for it.

The tricky thing about time loop stories comes from avoiding the tedium inherent in repetition. (Frankly, these movies feel like a real pain in the neck to edit.) But save for a couple clunky exposition-heavy moments, the film manages to move at a consistent clip, doling out enough information to keep the narrative fresh and intelligible. It might seem reductive to explicitly acknowledge the film’s time loop forefathers to begin this review but Prahbu, who also wrote the screenplay, makes the connection explicit in the film. And for good reason. It allows the characters (as well as the viewers) a narrative shorthand to get everyone up to speed. Every little bit helps.

The film really shines in its middle third when Abdul really begins using the knowledge he gains through his replays to his advantage. The high point is an action setpiece as it plays out over multiple lives. In one life Abdul kicks the ass of a couple low level goons but is felled by an ax in the back. The film immediately incorporates that knowledge into the scene by having Abdul anticipate the ax and then counter its attack. The action here possesses a brutal force on par with the John Wick franchise.

The credits that open and close the film do not state that Maanaadu is a Venkat Prahbu “film” but instead “politics”. While the movie exists just fine as a sci-fi action romp, there is a heavier narrative thread about the corrupt machinations of the ruling political class and how easily it is for the powers-that-be to literally get away with murder. The state can keep ruining people’s lives and clinging to power because they have manipulated the masses into not paying attention to the shady men behind the curtain. It’s easier to hate your neighbor with different religious beliefs anyway, they say. The more we cycle through the time loops of our own, that cynicism can feel like the only real truth.