Summer 2022 – Week 3 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. You all bearing this absurd heatwave okay? I’m currently spending my time migrating between a pair of temperature-controlled rooms, treating every sojourn into the outer world as something akin to a moonwalk through a deeply hostile alien landscape. Which, to be honest, is a regimen I’ve already become familiar with due to COVID – so I guess, just, this is what the future is from now on? We’ve surrendered the outer world to unmitigated climate change and pandemic waves, and just sort of have to accept this as the new normal. Delightful! But even if humanity cannot unite in solidarity to save itself, we can at least come together to rant about some movies. Let’s get right on with that then, as we charge through the latest Week in Review!

Our first feature of the week was Iron Monkey, a ‘93 martial arts film. The titular Iron Monkey is a folk hero, a sort of Robin Hood-like figure who steals from the corrupt local government to support the common folk. When a wandering martial artist (Donnie Yen) and his son stop into town, they are initially conscripted to take down Iron Monkey. But soon enough, Donnie and Monkey realize their souls burn with an equal passion for justice, and team up to topple their nefarious overseers.

Iron Monkey is a classic tale executed with unfathomable generosity, offering scene after scene of dazzling martial arts choreography. Combining strong athletic fundamentals with ornate set design and just a dash of wire-fu, Iron Monkey’s fights are creative, physically stunning, and often quite funny. Donnie Yen’s absurd footwork and steel gaze are frequent scene-stealers, but the film is far more than his showcase – in fact, both his son and Iron Monkey’s sister get top-notch sequences of their own, making full use of the film’s multileveled sets to create roaming battles with a clear sense of momentum. The film merges the plucky simplicity and humor of a Shaw Brothers production with an updated scale and deft wirework, culminating in a pole-top battle over a raging inferno. I’ve seen a fair few martial arts films, and in terms of density and quality of fights, Iron Monkey stands toe-to-toe with any of them. A must-see for fans of the genre.

Next up was Velvet Buzzsaw, a feature written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the writer/director of Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler was a harrowing journey into one of the seediest possible professions, as Jake Gyllenhaal scoured the streets of LA for violence to shake up the 6 AM news. That film served as a scathing indictment of the depths of human nature – but having seen Velvet Buzzsaw, I don’t really think Gilroy has much hope for any fragment of humanity.

The film focuses on LA’s fine art scene, following an art critic, studio manager, and agent as they discover the full collection of a master who died in obscurity. Though initially ecstatic at this financial and creative windfall, strange occurrences begin stacking up regarding this collection, followed by an ominous trail of bodies.

There are basically no outright likable characters in Velvet Buzzsaw, though there are plenty of people to hate. It’s clear that Gilroy holds absolute contempt for the vapid networking and performative spectacles of fine art, seeing the medium as nothing more than a particularly pompous version of stock manipulation. He reserves the most disdain for Gyllenhaal’s art critic, who the film constantly frames as essentially bullying artists by giving them bad reviews. Gilroy’s feelings towards critics are so extreme and so petty that Gyllenhaal actually rises into a sort of buffoonish charm – in spite of his acid tongue, it’s clear that he and the film’s other doomed stars genuinely did love art once, before being subsumed into the high culture hitmaker market.

It’s frankly hard to pin down my full feelings on Velvet Buzzsaw. There are many scenes where the film’s contempt for humanity seems so extreme as to preempt any meaningful takeaway, as if Gilroy himself shares Nightwalker-Gyllenhaal’s total indifference towards our petty lives. And there are others, like when a formerly-acclaimed John Malkovich is tenderly urged by his long-time agent to go find himself, where it seems like Gilroy has tremendous sympathy for the process that dehumanized Buzzsaw’s stars. The film’s proposed duality of authentic street art versus high art product is far too simplistic to take as a serious argument, particularly since Gilroy’s understanding of high art seems to extend no further than “they made a friggin’ toilet into an art exhibit.” But these moments are balanced by sequences of simple, rapturous appreciation for truly great art, in all its transformative and even terrible power. The film is a mess, but poking through its wreckage is a good bit more interesting than praising a simply functional picture.

Speaking of simply functional pictures, our next viewing Vacancy was precisely that. The film stars Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson as a couple on the brink of divorce, their marriage having been poisoned by their son’s accidental death. While on the way back from their final extended family gathering, the two are forced by car troubles to take a room in a creepy roadside motel. There, they discover videos of prior occupants being attacked by unknown assailants, and soon find themselves the stars of the motel’s latest home movie.

Vacancy knows what it’s about and fucking goes for it. A tight fifteen minutes to set up the core relationship and premise, a smoldering half hour of discovering what precisely is wrong, and then tense standoff after tense standoff, as the two scramble around the facilities in an attempt to either escape or defeat their tormentors. The film’s greatest strength is its intelligent use of its setting; careful attention is paid to the enemies’ active sightlines, the threat of unlocked windows or doors creates a constant sense of a clock ticking down, and the eventual introduction of a tunnel system turns the whole motel into a satisfying maze of odd connections and blind corners. Nothing too fancy, but totally confident in what it is – Vacancy is a fine little horror-thriller to perk up a lazy afternoon.

Our next feature was a samurai feature, the 1990 version of Ronin Gai. This film was apparently just one of many adaptations of the original silent film, but we landed on it in particular for one reason only: it stars Yoshio Harada (the visual inspiration for One Piece’s Admiral Aramaki), Kunie Tanaka (ditto for Admiral Borsalino), and Shintaro Katsu (likewise for Admiral Issho). Only Harada is here in the role that directly inspired his One Piece persona, but it was still quite an experience to see such clear visual inspirations alive and in the flesh.

The film itself is a brutal tale, playing out much like a more cynical version of Seven Samurai. While a local noble executes the girls of a poor brothel for his own amusement, the resident ronin hem and haw, lamenting their fallen status but refusing the call of this last chance to embody samurai virtues. There is a sense of well-earned fatigue permeating the film, and the leads do a terrific job of illustrating various post-glory dead ends, from the chaotic anger of Harada to the desperate bargaining of Tanaka. I felt the middle stretch was a tad repetitive in its string of similar murders, but the electrifying ending of three samurai facing a hundred men more than made up for such quibbles. An altogether effective samurai film with a bonus for any One Piece fans.

Our last feature of the week was an experience unlike any other, the breathtaking MAD GOD. The film is a labor of love by stop-motion maestro Phil Tippett, and presents a harrowing vision of a world undone by cruelty and war. A nameless explorer is sent down, down, down into the depths of the god’s brutal realm, his mission uncertain, his map crumbling in his hands. There is no solace or vindication found in those depths; only one horrifying creature or sand-blasted ruin after another, spiraling out into the distance like fading testaments to the folly of mankind.

With virtually no overt narrative to muddle things, MAD GOD proceeds like a journey through the nine circles of hell, as one or another traveler bears witness to a madness-inducing procession of terrible wonders. The film is a celebration of the unmatched tactility of stop-motion form, dazzling both through its wide array of monstrosities and through its unimaginably ornate set design. Alternately claustrophobic and harrowingly vast in its scope, MAD GOD dispenses enough horrifying concepts and designs in any five minute stretch to fully populate your average horror film, before turning its gaze to some new set of wonders. Constantly evoking a sense of both fatalism and awe, it conjures a sense of simply bearing witness to a fallen world like nothing else I’ve seen, requiring a shift to the works of Dante or Cormac McCarthy for any reasonable comparison point. An absolutely essential work for any animation enthusiast.