Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019)


A few weeks ago, concurrent with and possibly motivated by one of the many snowy disasters that has marked the early months of 2019 here in the South Puget Sound, I watched all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order. Most of them I had seen before, either in their initial release (sporadically as I found them to be relentlessly mediocre and all pretty much the same) or last summer, around the time I started reading comic books again for the first time in 30 years. The books too I’m tackling in chronological order, following the Marvel Literary Universe from its Silver Age inception in 1962 with Fantastic Four #1 on into the present day (so far I’m somewhere in 1965). Watching the movies in order has given me a sense of how they have changed over time, responding to current events (especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the election of Donald Trump) in occasionally interesting ways and forming their own internal structure through a system of Phases which can serve as markers for changes in tone and approach as the series has progressed. Reading the books has given me a new perspective on the films as well: not only can I now find them wanting as action films (the house action style is poor without exception: the editing a half-assed knock-off of Paul Greengrass’s already bad Bourne movies; the choreography, even when it is good, buried under whip pans, extreme close-ups, blurry images and too dark night scenes designed to hide the seams of CGI), as auteurist expressions (with authorial voices as distinct as Ryan Coogler, Louis Leterrier, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, Peyton Reed and a host of less interesting types smooshed into the familiar rhythms and bland imagery of a bad knockoff Joss Whedon (including Whedon himself)), and as adaptations of one of the unique 20th Century American art forms: the comic book.

Watching the MCU films as comic book adaptations highlights two of their biggest shortcomings in the middle phase of their run (roughly Iron Man 3 through Ant-Man, with Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron and the Civil War (technically Phase 3 but in spirit belonging to Phase 2) being the big ones). This is Marvel’s “We Make Real Movies” phase, where heroes deal with trauma in increasingly dangerous and irrational ways. It’s Marvel’s only real attempt to deal with contemporary politics, albeit at least a decade too late (I mean, it is Hollywood), as the various heroes discover that the government is full of lies, that those lies are used to prop up a global system of never-ending war for the benefit of capital, and that the human consequences for both the people who fight the wars and the people who get caught in the middle of them are incalculable. But, rather than seriously explore these issues, or the contradiction of being critical of this system while also being a multi-billion dollar profit-generating machine for one of  the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world, the MCU films are content to merely touch on them at the most basic level of exposition or sad-face acting, brief pit-stops on the way to another nauseatingly hyperactive bout of fisticuffs or a weightless car (ship, plane, robot suit) chase through empty pixels. Borrowing from prestige television, the movies never really end: individual episodes are merely subsumed into the mass whole, with any glimmer of individuality or self-contained storytelling swallowed up by the need to hype up the next installment (a trend which reaches its apotheosis in Marvel’s unwatchable Netflix series, where every episode of bleak dullness blends into the next in a formless, personality-less mush of moodiness).

But, with Phase 3, things begin to improve. These are the movies I’d mostly skipped when they were released in 2016 and 2017, and so when I caught up with them last summer I was pleasantly surprised to see that Marvel appeared to be moving on from its moody teen years and rediscovered some of the fun of its pre-1990s self. Doctor Strange is a misfire, a rote origin story with a tenth of the imagination that the character should inspire, but the rest of the group (new movies for Spider-Man and Black Panther; bright, goofy sequels for Thor, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy; with Civil War and Infinity War as the big crossovers) are pretty good. Civil War, split between classic superhero vs. superhero stuff that’s been essential to Marvel’s storytelling since the very beginning, and gritty psychodrama is half good (guess which half), while Infinity War is the closest the MCU has yet gotten to the kind of all-star crossover epic these films are supposed to be: bright and fast-paced yet expansive in its world and never too self-serious (despite the whole killing half the universe thing). The others all approach having an individual style, with Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok being the closest the MCU has yet gotten to a true auteur movie, while Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther fights the good fight against the series’ corporately-mandated middle-road politics, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man movies continue to shine in small moments (though they mostly fail in big ones), and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films do a pretty good job of capturing the (mostly safe) weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic adventures.

So, it’s with all that in mind that I found myself watching Captain Marvel, the penultimate film of Phase 3 (Endgame wraps it up next month while another Spider-Man kicks off Phase 4 this summer). And, well, it’s fine. It’s an origin story, albeit one that, like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming before it, avoids many of the clichés of that genre (unlike Doctor Strange). Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is blessedly free of dark trauma, rather she suffers from some kind of amnesia while serving in the Kree army (the Kree being an alien race that figures in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie) in their on-going war against the Skrulls, another alien race, this one with the ability to shape-shift into other humanoid beings. The Skrulls head to Earth in search of Annette Bening’s MacGuffin, and Larson follows them there. She teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (this being set in 1995, Jackson has been digitally de-aged, a ghoulish special effect that hopefully will quickly be dropped from the language of cinema and forgotten for all time) and the two have adventures while on the run from the Skrulls, the US government, and the Kree, led by Larson’s boss and mentor, Jude Law (doing little more than fulfilling the contractual obligation wherein every actor in Hollywood must appear in at least one MCU movie).

Like most recent MCU films, Captain Marvel is at its best in its smallest moments, with Larson’s impetuous quips and her easy rapport with Jackson, who appears to be having more fun than he has in any of his big spectacle movies to date, or at least since he battled a plane full of snakes. Larson’s performance is closer to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in its bug-eyed charm and confidence than any of the MCU’s stiffer, more tortured heroes, and the character should fit easily into the cosmic side of the cycle, alongside the Asgardians and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Which is good, because that’s where the Captain Marvel character belongs: she’s way too overpowered to be dealing with Earth-bound drama. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, mostly known for well-regarded little indie dramas that I haven’t seen like Half Nelson and Sugar, are an unlikely choice for a slightly goofy interstellar epic, and it shows in the film’s lack of visual and aural imagination (1995 was apparently a strip mall in suburban LA playing a “We Love the 90s” mix CD and that’s about it) and its action sequences, which are almost entirely bad. The fist fights (between Larson and Law in the beginning and between her and various other stunt people later) are jumbled to incoherence, which is to be expected, and Larson doesn’t appear to be a natural for this kind of physical performance: she always looks off-balance to me. Her stunt double is probably pretty good, but it’s hard to tell what they’re doing amid all the editing and camera movement. The only halfway decent action comes at the end, with a reasonably well done dogfight and then when Danvers has achieved full power and just turns into a fiery ball of CGI vengeance, ripping through spaceships like a superstar.

Captain Marvel is, of course, the first MCU film built around a woman, and much of the film’s marketing has revolved around this fact. People much more qualified than I am should speak to the film’s feminist credibility, or about just how much its representation is worth. It doesn’t seem to me though that it’s as nuanced in its engagement with feminism as, say Black Panther was in its examination of potential responses to institutional racism. Rather it’s content to just assert its heroine’s power as an end it itself. And that might actually be more revolutionary, more joyously liberating than Black Panther‘s middling neo-liberalism. Danvers begins the film as a subservient tool of the patriarchy and ends up burning a bunch of men to the ground before heading out to dismantle the entire social-political system they’ve constructed. It’s a real comic book movie and that works for me.

Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige, 2017)

Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat is not what you’d expect it to be. Well, at least not after the first 20 minutes or so, wherein the eponymous feline wreaks havoc on the lives of Tang Dynasty courtiers, promising buried treasure in exchange for fish eyes and then turning to murder. That kind of Strange Tales of a Chinese Studio off-beat horror-comedy kind of thing (the cat talks, oh boy is this a talking cat movie). But after the set-up, the horror dissipates and for long stretches of time, the talking cat is absent. And what we get instead is a moving melodrama based on some real history about the fall of the Tang Dynasty, famously beautiful concubine Yang Kwei-fei, and master of drunken poetry Li Po, plus or minus some eunuchs and a magician or three. Our heroes in exploring this mystery are a Japanese Buddhist monk and an unemployed Imperial Scribe/would-be poet, and they live in a world as lushly gorgeous as anything Chinese CGI has yet been able to muster.

The two tones, that of a deeply romantic melodrama and a talking cat picture, should be, by all conventional rules of movie-making, incompatible. And judging by the film’s reaction in the 14 months since it was originally released back in December, 2017, the combination does not work for most (it’s hard to know where to laugh, I suppose), though it should be noted that it did seem to be greeted positively when it played in Toronto last fall, in a supposed Director’s Cut (I have been unable to find out any details on what did and did not change since the film’s initial release). But I’m weird and I loved it. Because I’m perversely fond of history, I loved how the whole long middle section of the film contains almost no action, but is instead just the monk and the scribe talking about what might have happened thirty years earlier, while gorgeous visions of a lost Golden Age play out on screen. It’s that loss that is at the film’s heart: a movie motivated by people who have had a vision of perfection (a woman, a world, a poem) and lost it, and the anguish that can cause. And it’s about the lengths they’ll go to to bring it back, defying the laws of physics and even death itself for that end.

The film’s vision of the present isn’t quite degraded enough for the dichotomy to work, though. Chen is still as decorous as ever (fans of Farewell My Concubine need have no fear: the costumes here are just as decadently lustrous). Even his lost world, which should be significantly diminished even 30 years after the An Lushan Rebellion, possibly the bloodiest conflict of the entire Middle Ages, looks pretty nice. But, maybe that’s to the point: that even in relatively prosperous times, not unlike our own, the lure of the ideal can still be destructively strong. Maybe it’s time to let the old dreams die.

I opened at random my copy of David Hinton’s translation of Selected Poems of Li Po, looking for something to tie into this lovely, sad, weird movie. This is what I found:

Making My Way Toward Yeh-lang in Exile, I Remember Walking
Among Peach Blossoms Long Ago at Autumn River

Peaches in blossom, spring waters high,
white stones appear, then sink away,

and rustling wisteria branches sway,
a half moon drifting azure heaven.

Who knows how many fiddleheads wait,
clenched along paths I once walked?

In three years, back from Yeh-lang,
I’ll resolve my bones into gold there.

The Legend of the Naga Pearls (Yang Lei, 2017)


In what has been a strong summer for Chinese language releases here in Seattle (with Our Time Will Come, Wolf Warrior 2, Meow, Once Upon a Time, and The Adventurers following SIFF’s minifestival of Hong Kong films and their presentation of the restored Taipei Story last week), Legend of the Naga Pearls shrugs its way on screen for the last week of August. The latest in a string of fantasy films built around special effects and photogenic stars, it’s set in the universe of Novoland, which is apparently a popular fictional construction in China, home to more than thirty novels by various authors. This story follows 25 years after a war between humans and the villainous Winged Tribe. A gang of evil former Winged People are trying to assemble a weapon with which to unleash a horde of deadly flying tapirs (seriously) on the human population, which has built their city, Uranopolis, atop the ruins of the Winged Tribe’s city in the clouds. A rag tag team of adventurers unites to steal the key item first. They include the daughter of a good Winged Person, the callow son of a human prince, and a thief with a mysterious blue mark on his hand that turns out to be connected to the eponymous MacGuffin.

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Once Upon a Time (Zhao Xiaoding, 2017)

The intersection between myth and teen drama, between cartoon wuxia and soap opera, with a dash of Hitchcock just to make things interesting, Once Upon a Time is unlike anything likely to play on Seattle Screens this year. The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng. (You can read about the allegations and compare some evidence for yourself here. I can’t read Chinese, so I can’t judge if it is outright plagiarism or simple imitation. The fact that both works were published online and that in Da Feng’s the romance is homosexual (LGBT depictions are officially banned on television and online media in China) makes the issue particularly complicated). The novel was also adapted earlier this year as the Chinese TV series Eternal Love starring Mark Chao and Yang Mi.

Continue reading Once Upon a Time (Zhao Xiaoding, 2017)”

The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2016)


The Great Wall, an experiment in co-production between Hollywood and China, opens with the spinning globe of the Universal Studios logo, its computer-generated image rotating slowly as it zooms in on the eponymous defensive fortification, helpfully orienting the hoped-for American audience by showing them where exactly the nation of China is located. Matt Damon is our audience surrogate, a white man on the road to China to trade for (that is, steal) gunpowder, heretofore undiscovered in Christendom. He encounters The Wall and learns that it is designed not to defend against the horse archers of the Mongolian steppes, but rather vicious alien lizards that hatch every 60 years and attempt to eat everything in sight: half giant iguana, half locust, half cicada. The well-organized and color-coordinated Chinese soldiers manning The Wall are initially suspicious of Damon and his friend, played by Pedro Pascal, but eventually they join the fight in a series of entertaining spectacles leavened by a few moments of such beauty that you remember that this is a Zhang Yimou film after all.

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The Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)


In 1977, at the age of twenty and making only his third film, Derek Yee got the starring role in Death Duel, a film by prolific Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen. After helping spark a revitalization of Cantonese language language cinema with his hit ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants in 1973, Chor had settled into his own little corner of the Shaw Brothers universe, making a series of lavishly ornate studio-bound wuxias, usually adaptations of novels by popular author Gu Long. The stories are intricate fantasy tales of swordsmen who travel the jianghu, the chivalric world that runs alongside but separate from the everyday reality of the Chinese peasantry, a world with its own hierarchical structures (usually based on swordsmanship) and complex rivalries and feuds. Unlike the Shaolin films that Shaws directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kau-leung were making at the same time, Chor’s movies are relentlessly ahistorical, existing entirely in a world of their own making (even the geography is fictional). The fights scenes are acrobatic and wire-aided and make occasional use of magic but more usually bizarre weaponry and poisons are featured. Chor fills his brightly colored sets with beautiful decorations, gorgeously landscaped backdrops and ornamentations that block  and frame our view of the scene: it’s the closest Shaw Brothers ever came to replicating Josef von Sternberg’s aesthetic. After the success of Death Duel, Derek Yee went on to star in several more Chor Yuen films over the next decade, the final days of the Shaws’ studio, joining Alexander Fu Sheng and Ti Lung as Chor’s primary stars in films like Heroes Shed No Tears, the Sentimental Swordsman movies, and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre Part I & II. But with Shaws in decline, wuxia work dried up and Hong Kong action cinema went in new directions: Fu Sheng died tragically young, and Ti Lung found himself overshadowed by his younger costar in A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun-fat. Derek Yee turned to screenwriting and directing.

Never as prolific as many of his Hong Kong contemporaries, Yee has nonetheless had a productive and somewhat acclaimed career as a director. He won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best director for C’est la via, mon cheri in 1993 and One Night in Mongkok in 2004, and has been nominated for that award five other times. His 1996 film Viva Erotica, with Shu Qi and Leslie Cheung is one of the very best films I’ve seen in 2016. Cheung plays a young director with artistic aspirations who can only find work making a cheap soft-core porn movie. Shu Qi plays his star, a woman who comes to learn that she in fact has more to offer to art than her physical assets. Lau Ching-wan has a brief cameo as a successful director named “Derek Yee” who chats with Cheung and then runs and jumps off a pier, killing himself. Its the kind of weird, beautiful, romantic paean to art that one rarely finds among the work of martial arts actor/directors. Yee has made a handful of action movies over the years, along with comedies and romances, but now, with The Sword Master, he’s made his first period martial arts film. He’s gone all the way back to his beginning, remaking Death Duel in the style of 21st century digital wuxia.


The story is about two swordsmen who have grown disillusioned with the cutthroat world of the jianghu, where all anyone cares about is celebrity and power. One, Yen Shi-san, cloaked in black with his face tattooed to look like a diseased skull, learns that he’s dying and retreats to a cemetery, where he works as a gravedigger. The other, the Third Master of Sword Manor, abandons his clan’s estate and finds work as an errand boy in a brothel, where he is known as Useless Chi. After defending a young prostitute (allowing himself to be stabbed multiple times by a pair of irate customers without flinching), he flees the brothel, knowing his identity will soon be discovered. He takes up with a friendly young man in a nearby village, who just happens to be the brother of the prostitute he saved and also happens to be located near to Yen’s cemetery. Eventually, all the forces of the jianghu descend on Chi and Yen and the village, led by the woman Chi was supposed to marry, the daughter of another powerful clan, along with a mysterious group of warriors in skull masks armed with nasty poisoned weapons. Everyone fights everyone while Yen resolves to defend the weak and Chi attempts to defend his new family from the psychotic woman who loves him without actually doing any fighting himself. It ends in a battle, followed by the inevitable duel between the two heroes.


In tone, the film is faithful to Chor Yuen’s works: while lacking the distinctive overcluttered visual style it faithfully reproduces his bright colors and fanciful locations (the setting for the final duel, a fog-enshrouded mountain-top crowned by an ancient, white-blossomed tree, is pure Chor). But Yee and his co-writer and co-producer Tsui Hark, have slightly shifted the emphasis of the original film, amplifying the emotions and the romances while cutting down on the characters and miscellaneous swordsmen who appear only to be cut down after an action sequence or two. The result is less a reflection of a cutthroat world where everyone is driven by ambition, the desire to be known as the best, to rise to the top of the jianghu, where the only way a swordsman’s life can have value is by being known as a great swordsman than it is a soap operatic entanglement of intersecting love triangles. Chor’s films reflect the decadence of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, a laissez-faire world disconnected from the mainland and from history, a ruthless capitalist paradise. The new film is from a different world entirely, and its characters are driven not by ambition but by thwarted desire. Everyone in the film loves someone who doesn’t love them back, the heroes manage to make peace with this, the villains are twisted into evil. But along the way, we’re treated with many a lush romantic interlude, including several momentum-killing flashbacks to the lifelong romance between Chi and his murderous girlfriend.


For the fight sequences, Yee adopts the digitally-enhanced techniques of contemporary wuxias, with lots of slow-motion and computerized movements. It lacks weight and none of the performances or scenes are particularly exceptional, though neither are they ever bad. The fights are fluid and faithfully recreate the fantastical style of the Shaws movies, eschewing the rapid cuts of Tsui and Ching Siu-tung’s wire-fus of the late 80s and early 90s. The choreography is by Yuen Bun, who’s most famous for his work with Johnnie To, and while it lacks the virtuosity of the fights in this summer’s Call of Heroes (with Eddie Peng and Wu Jing choreographed by Sammo Hung), it’s a step above the action in Yuen Woo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. That film provides the best point of comparison, as an adaptation of wuxia literature harkening back to the 1970s, but reformulating the characters and motivations for an audience trained to accept personal melodrama as the only motivation for action heroics (see also: every Marvel movie). The Crouching Tiger sequel though gets the balance all wrong: the characters don’t make much sense and the action is too disconnected, even when it’s quite good (and Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh are certainly more charismatic and accomplished performers than the competent stars of Yee’s film: Lin Gengxin and Peter Ho). The Sword Master is the best version of what Sword of Destiny tried to be, a pulpy wuxia romantic melodrama. A throwback and a tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive filmmakers.

Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015)


The disaporic film program at the AMC Pacific Place this week features two of the hottest Chinese-language films of the past year: the latest in Donnie Yen’s series about Wing Chun Master Ip Man and the CGI monster-wuxia that took the Chinese box office by storm last summer, breaking records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing local film in the Mainland’s history. The two films represent state of the art variations on the two oldest forms of the Chinese martial arts film, kung fu and wuxia tricked out with digital manipulations and effects, packed with enough celebrity cameos and show-stopping stunts to make even the most generic or implausible story a lot of fun.

Continue reading Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015)”

Mojin: The Lost Legend (Wu Ershan, 2015)


International treasure Shu Qi stars in this blockbuster effects-action film out of China, opening this week at the Pacific Place. One of a trio of grave robbers, Shu and her compatriots Chen Kun and Huang Bo find themselves roped into a scheme to dig up a MacGuffin from an ancient tomb by a creepy cult leader and her armed gang of nobodies. Deadly traps, zombies, colored lights and CGI adventure follow, with all the weightless, personality-free sheen of 21st century Chinese digital cinema. Directed by Wu Ershan, the man behind 2012’s Painted Skin: The ResurrectionMojin has some potentially intriguing ideas at its core, but one has to dig deep to find them.

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Go Away Mr. Tumor (Han Yan, 2015)

Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu) and his patient Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe) in the Chinese film, Go Away Mr Tumor. Xiong has watched lots of Korean TV dramas and she has a crush on Dr. Liang, so she often imagines scenes like this one.

The goofy, cutsy, CGI-driven, Chinese fantasy cancer melodrama we didn’t know we needed. The clash of tones I imagine would be unbearable for most, especially audiences trained on Hollywood rules about tonal and generic consistency, but it was a smash hit in China (and is still on-going) and managed an extremely rare third week in diasporic theatrical release here in Seattle. When I left the auditorium, I saw a woman sobbing uncontrollably, the guy with her trying in vain to console her. I can’t blame her at all. It’s silly and dumb and heartfelt and devastating.

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Baahubali (SS Rajamouli, 2015)

baahubali 4

One of the biggest movie events of the year happened this past weekend, but you wouldn’t know about it if you read any of the biggest English language film publications around. Baahubali: The Beginning, the latest film from SS Rajamouli, was just released. The New York Times didn’t deem it worthy of a review. Variety publishes stories of its box office success and gigantic marketing push, but can’t throw a freelancer at it. A cursory search reveals a couple of reviews from English-language publications at best. It’s a rather sad state of affairs for one of the modern cinema’s best mainstream filmmakers.

SS Rajamouli has, over the last few years, steadily upped his scope and ambition. No longer content to tuck his most lavish and improbable images into narrative side trips or flashbacks (Yamadonga‘s trip to hell, Magadheera‘s flashback structure), Rajamouli in his last two films has focused his attention on utilizing his considerable gifts to giving shape to impossible images. His preferred tool is the CGI image, and he’s possibly one of the only filmmakers currently working not bound to traditional ideas of realism – for Rajamouli, each image is fantastic. So Eega, his fly revenge film, becomes not just about its technological advances (Rajamouli is proud of his special effects and wants to show them off – his Zemeckis or Cameron side, if you will), but about how the technology can enhance the film’s devilish sense of humor (the film shares DNA with Tex Avery and Joe Dante all while successfully invoking and playing around with the idea of the Telugu film hero). Baahubali successfully creates a world and aims for a sense of realism in its battle scenes, but will often drop an image of such iconic and mythic stature that any thought that realism is the end game here is quickly dispelled. Rajamouli demands more.

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