Alright folks, pile in, pile in, we’ve got a full session to get through and no time to waste. As is so often the case, this was an eclectic week in film viewing, with our selections ranging from unimpeachable classics to balletic martial arts displays to subversive horror revivals. I even tried out some of this season’s new anime, though to be honest my experiences were routine enough that they’ll probably just slot in as a few lines at the end. But first, let’s charge through some assorted feature films, as we ramble past one more fleeting Week in Review!
Our first film this week was Clear and Present Danger, an adaptation of one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels starring Harrison Ford as Ryan, the newly appointed deputy director of the CIA. Over the course of the film, Ford discovers that fellow CIA members have been conducting covert operations to disrupt the Colombian drug trade, and ultimately follows this conspiracy all the way to the top.
Like all Clancy stories, Clear and Present Danger takes place in an alternate universe where the CIA and American military are fundamentally good guys, performing necessary and honorable actions across the globe, with any exceptions to this rule proving to be the work of specific bad actors. Obviously, this isn’t the case – the operations this film considers beyond the pale are standard procedure for the CIA, and the film’s overall perspective on the nature of the “war on drugs” would be hilariously quaint, if conservatives still didn’t believe these things three decades later. While there is some acknowledgment of the lawless clusterfuck that composes CIA covert ops, this film’s political vision doesn’t really extend beyond folks who browse magazines for tactical baby carriers.
Dubious politics aside, Clear and Present Danger is a generally reasonable action thriller. Harrison Ford has a gift for hiding a nugget of goofy vulnerability within a façade of bold confidence, and this talent makes him uniquely capable of humanizing America’s Superman With A Gun. When he discovers the CIA is conducting illegal private wars, you can genuinely believe the shock and disappointment in his voice, like he just witnessed his father lie for the first time. And over in Colombia, Willem Dafoe turns in one more reliably excellent performance as the operative in charge of their private war, who eventually teams up with Ford for what may be their only buddy cop battle? That alone almost paid for the cost of entry (two hours and twenty minutes of your life).
After that, we made some time for another Shaw Brothers production, as we checked out Heroes of the East. Heroes of the East stars 36th Chamber legend Gordon Liu as a kung fu expert, on the verge of marrying a Japanese woman who proves to be a master of martial arts in her own right. When the two’s arguments over Chinese versus Japanese martial arts threaten to tear them apart, Liu sends his wife a letter of challenge – only to have it answered by a full gallery of Japanese masters, all determined to prove their disciplines’ superiority.
Heroes of the East is so good, you guys. I expected coming in that it would lean towards the goofier end of their collection, and while there’s plenty of fun comedy here, there are also so, so many generous martial arts sequences. The film’s first act offers your classic “culture clash romantic comedy” scenario, as the newlyweds bicker childishly about the relative merits of their disciplines. Of course, the newlyweds in question also happen to be infinitely graceful killing machines, with Yuka Mizuno proving a fine foil for Liu both in personality and combat ability.
What ensues are a series of squabbles as funny as they are physically dazzling, as Liu attempts to convince his wife to stop destroying the brick walls of their garden, or practicing so loudly that all the neighbors think she’s being abused. Considering the modern appeal of a girl who will just absolutely destroy you, Heroes of the East feels quite ahead of its time, and finds a great deal of chemistry in its leads’ quest to utterly obliterate each other.
Then, as soon as the film has used up all its best battle romcom ideas, it introduces a dazzling parade of Japanese masters for Liu to square off against. Unlike some kung fu films, the Japanese forces aren’t portrayed as nefarious or ridiculous in any way; they’re proud martial artists who are looking to defend their honor, and the film grants them just as much respect as it does Gordon Liu. Liu’s gauntlet of battles consumes the film’s second half, offering distinctive, beautifully choreographed faceoffs that run from katana versus Chinese straight sword to nunchaku/tonfa versus three-segment-staff to crab stance versus crane stance. Heroes of the East presents a thrilling showcase of both Japanese and Chinese martial arts, and stands as one of Gordon Liu’s most impressive performances. A must-see for any martial arts fans.
Next, we checked out the new Candyman film, a sequel to the 1992 adaptation of a Clive Barker story. I had initially figured this would be more remake than sequel, but in retrospect, drawing on the mythology of the original film makes far more sense. After all, Candyman himself is a figure born of collective mythology – how could the horrifying events of the original film not get swept up in his legend, and become the impetus for a new generation of scary stories?
Anyway, the original Candyman was excellent, and this one kicks ass as well. The bloody racial politics of urban development are woven into the heart of the Candyman mythos; the process of building housing projects and then destroying them, and the precise forms “police peacekeeping” takes when it comes to black communities, both spawned and fostered his legend. The story of Candyman is the story of American racial injustice, and this film conveys both the reality of that injustice, as well as the frustration of modern African-Americans attempting to define themselves outside of that legacy.
The film’s two central characters are Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an artist and art gallery director who are both financially incentivized to embrace past tragedy as future publicity, with McCoy at one point being informed that his own childhood in the projects is “played out.” There is a persistent tension in the film between forgetting the past and being consumed by it, along with perpetual reminders that racial injustice never disappeared, it just altered its face with the times. Through its meta-trending reflections on racially charged art, Candyman seems to scorn our desire to intellectualize something ugly, simple, and omnipresent, and thereby disarm its power. What right do we have to see racism as something apart from our lives, when it is the membrane through which we live and breathe?
Candyman serves as a thoughtful continuation of the conversation sparked by the original film, while also succeeding as a thrilling, beautiful horror film. Nia DaCosta’s direction is purposeful and bold, relying on wide-open compositions to convey the bleak anonymity of urban sprawl, and embracing dynamic colors for the more intimate kills. The up-tilted long shots of the film’s external scenes convey both continuity and absence; the audience is keenly aware of the missing towers in the landscape, but their shapes are mirrored by the upscale condos built to replace them. The persistent use of reflections echoes the mythology of Candyman and this film’s own critique of that myth, as McCoy often seems equally frightened of seeing either Candyman or himself in the mirror. And the kills are both elegant and brutal, with the film’s fundamental grace allowing plenty of room for blood-curdling horror. On the whole, Candyman both expands upon the ideas of the original and establishes its own identity, offering an insightful and vividly executed horror ride.
We finished off with a classic, the ‘50s crime drama On the Waterfront. The film stars Marlon Brando as a former prizefighter named Terry Malloy, whose older brother Charlie works for the corrupt local union head, Johnny Friendly. After Terry is roped into unwittingly assisting with the murder of a fellow dockworker, he ends up getting involved with that dockworker’s sister, and is forced to make some hard choices about family, loyalty, and justice.
On the Waterfront is a sizzling drama elevated by a bevy of standout performances, with Brando’s shifty-eyed, recalcitrant disposition frequently stealing the show. Brando plays a character who is neither confident nor articulate enough to fully express his feelings in speech, but Brando’s masterful control of eyes, brows, and jaw make his every thought perfectly clear. Through performances like this and A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando popularized method acting and the “Stanislavski system,” which encourages fully submerging yourself in a character in order to evoke more authentic emotional responses. In On the Waterfront, the strengths of this method and his mastery are clear to see; there is no Brando, only Terry, possessed of all the false bravado and nervous sentimentality that Terry specifically can muster.
Brando’s clearly the star here, but he’s surrounded by an array of top shelf stars who all put in dynamic performances of their own. Lee J. Cobb (who previously impressed me as one of the holdouts in 12 Angry Men) brings a grand mixture of sleazy confidence and ferocious bitterness to the role of Johnny Friendly, while Karl Malden’s turn as a local preacher offers him one of the most righteously furious speeches I’ve seen in film. As a crime drama, a story of working class struggle, and an actor showcase, On the Waterfront soars.
Oh right, and I watched some anime! The first new show I checked out was Sakugan, which had been making some waves on my twitter feed. I lasted about twelve minutes into Sakugan’s first episode before turning it off, unmoved by the show’s combination of shrill comedy and undercooked fantasy storytelling. The show’s production values are quite nice, but given Sakugan’s narrative and sense of humor seem inspired by works like Gurren Lagann, there’s nothing for me to grab onto here in terms of writing – just a whole bunch of “I’m tired of being a Worker, I want to be a Hero,” along with screaming played for laughs. When it comes to these shows, I mostly just wish everyone would stop yelling so much.
Fortunately, Ranking of Kings proved to be far superior, offering an intriguing and beautifully realized premiere. The show’s fantastical worldbuilding feels more fablesque than realistic; characters embody their strength with their physical forms, and the titular ranking system seems more like an emotional metaphor than a literal phenomenon. That all suits me fine – I always tend to enjoy when a story’s physical world serves as an evocation of its emotional drama, and Ranking of Kings’ world is illustrated with such storybook beauty that it’s a pleasure simply to spend time in its pages. Gorgeous art design, an intimate, fantastical story without a hint of otaku pandering, and sumptuous animation throughout – Ranking of Kings handily boasts one of the best premieres of the year, and I’ll certainly be following up on it soon.