Mortal Kombat (2021)

Must every cinematic property receive the extended-universe Marvel treatment now?  It’s getting exhausting.  The new movie adaptation of the Mortal Kombat video game is absolutely doused in the stink of the MCU, functioning more as a desperate franchise starter than a standalone film.  This is a near two-hour shared origin story for longtime Mortal Kombat characters like Scorpion, Jax, and Sonya Blade (as well as the entirely new, entirely forgettable protagonist Cole Young).  They spend the entire runtime learning to summon & hone their personal superpowers for the titular fight tournament, which never actually occurs; you have to wait until the next film for a proper payoff.  Meanwhile, the cyborg jackass Kano sarcastically quips his way throughout the entire process to constantly remind the audience to not take its supernatural martial arts genre tropes too seriously, distancing itself from any potential for genuine nerdiness.  It’s all explained-to-death and relentlessly undercut with corny “That’s so random!” humor to the point where you never really feel like the movie has actually started in earnest; it’s only the first piece in a planned 20+ film franchise, more concerned with justifying its sequels than satisfying its audience in the moment.  The only MCU touchstones it’s missing are a post-credits teaser and a Stan Lee cameo.

It’s especially difficult to not look at the new Mortal Kombat film as an example of everything wrong with contemporary franchise filmmaking, since we have a clear example of how much better this same property would’ve been treated just a couple decades ago.  Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 only briefly introduces its central Human cast before diving headfirst into its titular fight tournament, working its story beats & character moments into the structure of a supernatural combat competition instead of delaying that payoff for another film.  The 2021 version can’t help but over-explain every single step of its characters’ journey towards that competition, as if it were cowering from hack YouTube critics’ inevitable critiques of its “plot holes.”  As a result, all of the film’s fun genre payoffs feel delayed & rushed, pushed out of the way to make room for the downplayed, normalizing drudgery of post-MCU franchise filmmaking.  To put it in pro wrestling terms, it’s like watching an hour of promos followed by a few quick squash matches – the kind of lopsided booking that can drain a Pay-Per-View of all potential excitement no matter how may fun, crowd-pleasing payoffs are crammed into the final half-hour.

Despite the MCUification of its tone & plot structure, there were just enough over-the-top gore gags scattered throughout Mortal Kombat to make the film passably okay as dumb-fun entertainment.  The film would’ve been a total disaster had it not leaned into the hyperviolence that made its arcade game source material controversial to begin with in the early 1990s, but it gets by okay.  Combatants are disemboweled, sawed in half, stabbed in the skull, frozen & shattered, and just generally separated from their blood & vital organs in every way the 12-year-old hedonist still lurking in the back of your brain can imagine.  It’s fun to watch.  Too bad the film appears to be embarrassed of its source material’s more out-there details, so that it has to go out of its way to explain the practical reason for Scorpion’s chain-spear weapon or to have a character joke that Mortal Kombat is “spelled wrong.”  By the time all that normalizing groundwork is laid out, there’s very little space left for the actual climactic fight scenes, which are edited together in a simultaneous, overlapping flood of violence that would’ve been much better served as individual action set pieces. 

Maybe now that all the plot-obsessed foundational work is out of the way, the second film in this series will be able to just jump right into the ultraviolence fantasy fight tournament promised here without wasting any valuable time.  It’s just a shame that we used to be able to pull that off in a single 100min goofball action movie without any concerns for appearing level-headed or respectable; now you’ve got to put up with at least an hour of eating your vegetables before you get even a small taste of the good stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (2021)

I love a shameless gimmick, and few films are as up-front about theirs as the martial arts mini-epic Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1. It was originally called Crazy Samurai Musashi in its film festival run, but its marketing has since doubled down on highlighting its overriding gimmick right there in the title. Even official posters that stick to the original Musashi subtitle declare in large block letters “400 VS. 1 IN A SINGLE TAKE” just so you know what you’re paying for: a 90min movie with a continuous 77min shot of a samurai swordfighting 400 opponents to the death. Unfortunately, Crazy Samurai cannot live up to the movie you imagine in your head when you read that premise. It’s basically an SOV backyard movie with an exceptionally large cast, not a feature-length action set piece with an endless parade of expertly choreographed kills. Bummer.

Crazy Samurai starts at the climax of a three-hour samurai epic that was never filmed, assuming that the audience is already familiar with samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s reputation and his legendary battle with 400 fallen swordsmen. Fair enough; maybe we should be. If you aren’t, there’s no reason to show up for this single-gimmick movie except to see the hour-long swordfight, so why waste time. Unfortunately, despite the length of that battle, there isn’t much to see. Musashi is surrounded by a never-ending supply of swordsmen who take turns lunging at him and dying monotonous deaths – dispensed of with a quick swipe of his blade and a uniform spurt of CGI blood. If you watch the first five minutes of the fight you know exactly what the last five minutes will look like, as the sword violence never really escalates in any satisfying way. It’s more of a video game tutorial than a movie.

Crazy Samurai does for sword violence what Free Fire does for guns: making you numb with relentless repetition to the point where you never want to see the weapon again, like a concerned parent making you smoke an entire carton of cigarettes until you puke. Free Fire was a lot more fun to watch, though. The only hook that kept my attention in this one was the impressive physicality of actor Tak Sakaguchi as the (sometimes) titular samurai. Watching him swing his sword at literal hundreds of nameless goons for over an hour, I thought back to how sore I am after 15min of shoveling garden soil in my own backyard; he looks genuinely broken down by the end of the film, and you feel that exhaustion in your bones. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that changes as the fight drags on, and it’s too gradual of an arc to hold your attention even at this short length.

In a best-case scenario, Crazy Samurai is a proof-of-concept prototype of a much better film that’s still to be made. There’s a brief epilogue obviously filmed years after the long-take centerpiece that delivers exactly what I wanted out of this movie, but it only lasts a couple minutes. You can practically hear director (and well-respected fight choreographer) Yûji Shimomura explaining “Here’s what I could’ve done with this premise now that I have access to better resources”, which makes me wonder why he didn’t just start over. There honestly isn’t much worth salvaging in this version except proof that it could be done. Maybe it was preserved & distributed out of respect for Tak Sakaguchi’s endurance-test performance, which is sweet, but the film’s in obvious need of a better-funded revision with more varied, harder-hitting kills.

-Brandon Ledet

Master (2021)

It has officially been a full calendar year since I saw Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man at AMC Westbank, which was the last time I watched any movie in a proper indoor theater. There hasn’t exactly been a cinematic drought in the year since the pandemic started, since plenty of delayed-distribution festival releases (and filmed-in-lockdown experiments like Host) have rushed in to fill the void left by the major players who’re still waiting out this never-ending shitstorm. As much as I love a good low-budget arthouse provocation, I’ve come to miss seeing large-scale blockbusters at the local megaplex over the past year, especially as another dreary summer season approaches. Of the big-budget action spectacles that have been missing from my movie diet, I most miss the sprawling Indian blockbusters that play at AMC Elmwood, often to sparse, weirdly unenthused audiences. Catching over-the-top action movies like 2.0, War, and Saaho on the big screen has made for some of my most satisfying cinematic experiences of the past few years, as they’re often far more daring & entertaining than their timid American equivalents – including supposedly eccentric franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible. It was a wonderful gift, then, that the recent Tamil-language blockbuster Master appeared on Amazon Prime mere weeks after its theatrical run. I’m still nowhere near comfortable with returning to the megaplex even as our local vaccine rollout escalates, so I very much appreciated getting a small taste of the over-the-top action spectacles I’ve been missing over the past year.

Master is a Kollywood action blockbuster throwback to 90s American thrillers like Dangerous Minds where real Tough Cookie teachers fight to save impoverished, overlooked students from lives of petty street crime. In this variation, an alcoholic college professor quickly sobers up when he is assigned to teach troubled youth at a juvenile correctional facility, only to discover that the kids are being preyed upon by a local gangster (and corrupt union organizer) who frames them for crimes committed by his adult underlings. Even as a sloppy drunk in the first act, the Badass Teacher is treated with the wide-eyed hero worship afforded action stars like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Stallone in their 1990s heyday. He wears his sunglasses inside, wields his pocket flask as a weapon, has several badass theme songs that refer to him as “Master the Blaster” (including a reggae diddy that eventually becomes his ringtone), and periodically winks at the camera to remind you to have fun. Meanwhile, his union-gangster nemesis is an ice-cold sociopath who’s so freakishly strong he can murder his victims with a single punch (including, it should be said, small children on several occasions). Their head-to-head battlegrounds are stereotypical action locales like warehouses, construction sites, and meat lockers, but most of the drama unfolds in classrooms where they compete for control of the neighborhood children’s minds & freedom. Really, the only thing that’s missing is the titular Master going full Michelle Pfeiffer by turning his chair backwards to appear tough & cool to the youths, accompanied—of course—by the Tamil equivalent of Coolio. There are plenty of Gully Boy-style rap songs on the soundtrack, though, so it’s not exactly an opportunity missed.

I genuinely believe India’s various, disparate movie industries are currently making the best big-budget action flicks in the world, the same way that Hong Kong martial arts thrillers hit an unmatched creative high in the 1980s. Admittedly, Master is not my favorite example of this trend. I wish its action set pieces & lengthy dance breaks had escalated more drastically post-intermission to push its premise into full-blown delirium, but for the most part it’s still three hours well spent. The combat is brutal, the melodrama is wonderfully saccharine, and there’s a song with the lyrics “Problems will come & go/Chill a bit, bro” that legit unclenched my jaw. I also can’t discount the instant rush of pleasure I got just by having access to this kind of cinema again, something I usually only encounter at the megaplex. As soon as the endless production cards & multiple-language health warnings (about the dangers of drinking in this case, of course) kicked off the minutes-long opening credits I knew I was about to be spoiled with some Grade A action entertainment. I hope that when my community is sufficiently vaccinated and I feel comfortable with the moviegoing ritual again, these films will still be on the menu at 20-screen monstrosities like AMC Elmwood. I miss them very much.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Sweepers (2021)

There haven’t been any new releases during this neverending pandemic that have made me miss the big-budget blockbuster experience. Maybe it’s because titles like Tenet, Mulan, and Wonder Woman ’84 have been locked behind exorbitantly expensive paywalls, followed by a mile-high wave of tepid reviews. There have been plenty of mind-melting arthouse experiments released straight to VOD in the last year that I would have loved to have seen in a proper theater, but it feels as if the bigger studios have been holding back The Good Stuff when it comes to their money-making popcorn movies. Space Sweepers is the definitive end to that drought. The straight-to-Netflix Korean blockbuster is the exact kind of sci-fi pulp entertainment I miss seeing on the big screen with easily pleased opening-weekend crowds and buckets of overpriced snacks. It’s doubtful that Netflix would have ever released Space Sweepers to giant-screen multiplexes even in “Normal” times, but all the same it’s the first film released in the past year that truly made me miss the summer blockbuster ritual.

Like with all multiplex blockbusters, the action sequences in Space Sweepers are a confounding CGI cacophony, just as difficult to remember after the credits as they are to comprehend in the moment. I was genuinely lost during the opening set piece, in which rival crews of space-junk scavengers race for possession of a malfunctioning satellite or cargo vessel or whatever. It’s the character beats between those blurred-CG action sequences that distinguish these monster-budget sci-fi spectacles anyway. In this case, the audience plays stowaway with a motley crew of intergalactic junkyard scavengers captained by The Handmaiden‘s Kim Tae-ri. Their go-nowhere routine of working their way deeper & deeper into debt is disrupted when they accidentally scoop up a dangerous bomb disguised as the most adorable child in the universe. That pricey, lethal, cute-as-a-button cargo puts them at odds with an evil white capitalist who runs what’s remaining of humanity as a technocratic megacorporation. The resulting conflict is essentially The Guardians of the Galaxy vs. Elon Musk, with all the money-torching glut & irreverent, character-based humor that descriptor implies.

Space Sweepers works best as an intergalactic hangout film. Any scene that doesn’t involve the ragtag space crew interacting with their adorable kid/bomb cargo can only feel generic by comparison, including all the laser shoot-outs & space-chase action sequences that eat up most of the budget. The more you get to know the crew the easier it is to be charmed by the film at large. From the tough-guy lone wolves learning to care for a defenseless child-bomb to the transgender android scrounging spare credits to purchase their ideal body (a much more explicit version of the allegory teased in Alita: Battle Angel), it’s a pure joy getting to know these reformed reprobates. I also cannot stress enough how cute the kid-bomb they’re debating whether to sell is. The cutest. It’s the exact effect I get from most big-budget crowdpleasers at the multiplex: I may forget everything that happens to them, but if the characters are likeable enough than I don’t really care. These characters are very, very likeable, and I’d happily pay money to see their adventures continue with an in-the-flesh crowd on the other side of this eternal hell year.

-Brandon Ledet

Matching Escort (1982)

Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.

Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.

Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.

-Brandon Ledet

The 6th Day (2000)

Every year for my birthday, I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a gift to myself. Something about that Austrian galoot’s heyday as the live-action cartoon version of an American action star makes me warmly nostalgic in a way no other media can. This year, I took a risk by revisiting one of the lesser loved action flicks from the final days of Arnie’s golden era, just a few years before he switched from explosions to politics. The 6th Day held up much better than expected as a dumb-as-rocks nostalgia trip, though, with the camp value of its early-aughts futurism aging like fine wine over the past couple decades. More importantly, it was surprisingly solid Schwarzenegger Birthday programming (something I should remember for future celebrations). Not only does the film deliver two Arnies for the price of one, but it’s also set on his own character’s birthday for at least the first half of the film. My only regret is not timing my viewing where I could have blown out my birthday candles at the same time as my favorite muscled-up goofball.

In short, The 6th Day presents an alternate reality where Joel Schumacher directed Total Recall, and it’s just as delightfully stupid & gaudy as that sounds. In the near future—”sooner than you think”—a Totally American Dad (and helicopter pilot for an X-treme sports snowboarding company) has his life derailed when he is cloned against his will by an evil Bill Gates type and his scientist lackeys. Horrified to discover that he’s been replaced in his home (and marital bed) by his own clone, Schwarzenegger vows to take down the Evil Scientist Dweebs who ruined his life with the only tools he knows: punches, explosions, and one-liners. Beyond the chase scenes & mustache-twirling villainy that earns the film its vintage action movie credentials, The 6th Day is essentially just a collection of kitschy predictions of what the “future” is going to look like circa 2015. Some of these predictions are supposed to read as Super Cool to the macho set: the continued sports world dominance of the XFL, remote control helicopters you can pilot with video game joysticks, programmable slutty hologram girlfriends, etc. Most predictions are supposed to be terrifying & dystopian: the criminalization of tobacco use, creepy robot smart-dolls made for little girls and, most importantly, the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiments being extended to creating human life. And Schwarzenegger’s at the center of it all, just trying his best to be a good Husband & Dad like every red-blooded American should.

Admittedly, The 6th Day can’t compete with the very best of Schwarzenegger’s macho American caricatures, as seen in trash-action classics like Commando & The Running Man. Still, it’s charming to see him doing his thing so many years after he already spoofed himself for it in Last Action Hero. Playing off the film’s cloning theme, Arnie lands not one but two “Go screw yourself” one-liners, as well as the self-referential zinger “I might be back.” That is comedy, folks. There’s also something adorable about his character’s quest to return to a life of chomping cigars and making love with his wife, which is positioned as being in direct opposition to The Modern World. The details surrounding this macho, all-American throwback kitsch can be surprisingly grotesque, as the cloning gimmick at the center of the movie essentially makes human bodies disposable and, thus, fair game to dismantle. No amount of severed thumbs, limbs, or intestines can fully pave over the childlike naivete at the film’s core, though, and the violence ends up coming across as more live-action Looney Tunes than anything genuinely severe. The 6th Day is a little overlong and very much overwhelmingly macho, but it’s mostly a hoot. It will likely never enjoy the same Cult Classic reputation as other brainless action spectacles from Schwarzenegger’s prime, but I find it to be one of those classics’ better late-career clones. I can’t wait to blow out my birthday candles with Unkie Arnie on my next revisit.

-Brandon Ledet

Bacurau (2020)

One of the major benefits of genre filmmaking is that you can repeat & mutate stories audiences have seen hundreds of times before and still make them freshly exciting. In its most basic terms, the Brazilian whatsit Bacurau is a delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game”, a short story that has been reshaped into countless genre films as wide ranging in tone & purpose as Hard Target, The Hunt, The Pest, and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. Bacurau is so deliberately disorienting in its own psychedelic mutation of “The Most Dangerous Game”, however, that it’s not until well into its runtime that you even recognize that’s what it’s going for, despite the story’s cultural familiarity. It’s a film that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit its central scenario is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Yet, it incorporates trashier genre filmmaking signifiers like screen-wipe transitions, extreme split-diopter framing, 1950s UFOs, and the casting of Udo Kier as its central villain so as not to lose its traditional action movie cred while pursuing its more artsy-fartsy ambitions. This is a film that uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

The title Bacurau refers to a fictional small town in near-future Brazil, “a few years from now.” The town begins the film in mourning, having lost its community leader & matriarch to old age. Then, the town descends into full on crisis mode as it is mysteriously erased from all online maps of Brazil and is surveilled by retro UFO-shaped drones. The film delays allowing its audience any solid footing for as long as it can, deliberately bewildering us in the first act to mimic the mental state of the Bacurau citizenry. Once the hunting-humans-for-sport aspect of its plot emerges from the confusion, however, the crisis only becomes exponentially more intriguing & thrilling. Like all great genre films, Bacuaru deploys its familiar plot template to address something intimately specific & fresh in metaphor that its premise has not been applied to before (not to my knowledge, anyway). This small Brazilian community is literally hunted from all sides by outside capitalists who see them as subhuman: gun-crazy American tourists, wealthy São Paulino elitists from the opposite end of the country, and even their own local government. It’s a literalized exaggeration of the kinds of exploitation that strains nearly all low-income POC communities no matter how remote, which only makes the exaggerated ultraviolence of the town’s bloody revenge on their oppressors all the more satisfying once it inevitably arrives.

If there’s any clear message being communicated in Bacurau, it’s to be found in the film’s emphasis on community & solidarity. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to get your footing in the first act is that the film has no clear protagonist. Each member of the community is allowed their own command of the film’s POV in time, and it’s the way they equally value each other’s contributions to the town’s daily survival (from doctor to musician to sex worker) that eventually sees them through what looks like an impossible crisis. Meanwhile, the racist, capitalist scum who seek to destroy the people of Bacurau for frivolous entertainment end up destroying each other in the process instead, as their selfishness & individualism makes them too weak to function. There’s a lot to praise in the way the film reshapes its “Most Dangerous Game” inspiration source to make it freshly exciting in both its aesthetics & politics. If nothing else, it has a low-key hallucinatory effect in its matter-of-fact handling of surreal circumstances that I can only compare to other recent South American films of a similar political bent: Monos, Zama, Icaros, Good Manners, Electric Swan, etc. It’s the focus on communal solidarity and de-emphasis of the individual that really distinguishes the film as something freshly exciting for me, though, especially considering the action genre’s long history of Lone Muscle Man hero worship.

Bacurau traffics in such familiar tones & thematic territories that it takes a while to fully register just how overwhelmingly odd it is in its distinguishing details. It’s clearly one of the stranger new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I don’t know that I fully realized that until I was fully immersed in its climactic bloodbath. This is genre cinema alchemy, the kind of bizarro outlier that reminds us why repeating these stories in new, evolving contexts is a worthwhile practice in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy World (2020)

I’ve finally had my first Wakaliwood experience, thanks to the pandemic-inspired We Are One: A Global Film Festival charity event that ran for free on YouTube earlier this month. The D.I.Y. African movie studio has been operated out of the home of self-taught filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana (self-credited as Nabwana IGG) for a full decade now. It seems to be little more than a few laptops & cameras in the hands of amateur action-movie buffs in Kampala, Uganda, but its acclaim in Midnight Movie circles has been emphatically spreading for years now. Where most outsider-art cult movies of recent years have earned their notoriety through so-bad-it’s-good mockery from tragically insincere Film Bros (think Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or whoever’s responsible for the Birdemic Cinematic Universe), Wakaliwood pictures sidestep that pitfall entirely by having fun with the audience, allowing little room for anyone to mock them from a distance. There’s no way these micro-budget action thrillers could compete with the over-the-top spectacles of Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious, at least not in terms of resources or scale. Instead, they aim for a deliberate action-comedy bent, verbally acknowledging their quality as a bootleg version of Hollywood action franchises and inviting the audience to laugh along with them instead of mocking them from afar. When Tommy Wiseau was let in on The Joke, his schtick was ruined, and he hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since The Room. By contrast, Wakaliwood was already having fun with their outsider-art oddities before a worldwide audience arrived to the party, so all anyone could do was join in the fun. I’m grateful that We Are One finally sent along my invite (courtesy of the Midnight Madness programmers at TIFF).

A lot of Wakaliwood’s unique it’s-all-a-party vibe is due to its in-house hype-man narrator, Emmie. Emmie is billed as the films’ VJ (“Video Joker”), a master of ceremonies who excitedly talks over the movies to explain their onscreen action (as if he were Silent Era title cards) and to keep the audience’s blood pumping. It’s as if the films had built in their own MST3k commentary team, except will all the show’s above-it-all Gen-X snark replaced with unembarrassed movie-nerd joy. Sometimes, the VJ interjects to establish characters’ motivations or to remind the audience who’s fighting on which side. More often, he’s just shouting energizing catchphrases like an exercise class instructor, keeping our heartrate up with gloriously redundant outbursts of “Supa!”, “Commando!”, and “Movie, movie, movie!” Nabwana IGG’s hyperactive editing style is similarly geared towards keeping the mood light & the audience constantly wired, cutting out all breathing room between cuts so all that’s onscreen is action & jokes alternating in dizzingly rapid succession. Curiously, the characters themselves seem to be aware of this constant need to push onto the next action sequence, as if they are aware they’re in a movie. When a husband is about to find his wife in bed with another man or an evil gang is about to clash with the film’s heroes, there’s usually an excited observer on hand to comment about how good of a movie we’re about to see, sometimes doing the VJ’s job for him before he gets to weigh in. It all plays into the communal, regional filmmaking vibe Nabwana IGG establishes with his hyperlocal Ugandan crew and his exponentially international audience at home. Everyone’s on the same footing, whether narrator, actor, or outside observer; we’re all invited to party.

In Crazy World, a Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & the children’s enraged parents. In the 80s & 90s action movies Nabwana IGG is emulating (Commando, Cobra, Hard Target, etc.), the crooked network of child abductors would normally be taken down by a lone ex-military musclehead who is mysteriously unable to be struck by the bullets fired by dozens of enemies. Nabwana IGG opens up the playing field to allow as many of his local community actors to have their heroic Schwarzenegger moment as possible: returning characters from past Wakaliwood classics, a new crop of ”Kung Fu”-trained neighborhood children called The Waka Starz, and a random assortment of revenge-seeking parental figures who just want their kids back. The most notable of which is a once-reputable local man who becomes communally ignored as a homeless lunatic once his son is abducted by the evil gang. As the Video Joker solemnly explains, “He lost his child, then he lost his mind.” The title of the film is borrowed from the homeless man’s self-built shanty town, a reconstructed pile of trash from where he observes the comings & goings of the wicked kidnapping gang until he finds the right time to strike, using societal dismissal of mentally ill vagrants to hide in plain sight. None of this matters too much once the gang is actively overthrown by the community they terrorize, though, as he’s only one hero of many. It seems Nabwana IGG & his VJ mouthpiece especially want the Waka Starz to steal some of the homeless vigilante’s spotlight, repeatedly asserting that Crazy World is “The Greatest Kidz Movie Eva” despite the fact that it’s drenched in gunfire & bloodshed. The kids are adorably tough in their own moments of collective heroism, though, which really accentuates the movie’s charms as a document of hyperlocal communal filmmaking.

I can’t speak to how Crazy World compares to other films in the Wakaliwood canon, but it worked exceedingly well as an introduction to Nabwana IGG’s output for me. That often came across as a deliberate intention of the piece, as the movie periodically stops dead to promote the trailers for past & future Wakaliwood productions the audience should get hyped for. It worked too, as I was jotting down titles like Bad Black & Who Killed Captain Alex? as necessary homework assignments I needed to catch up with. Unfortunately, a documentary titled Once Upon a Time in Uganda was supposed to premiere at this year’s SXSW fest to help further spread the good word of Wakaliwood’s output but was preempted by our current COVID-19 pandemic. In what had to be my favorite aspect of Crazy World’s presentation on the We Are One platform, Nabwana IGG directly acknowledges that bizarre circumstance, interrupting the film’s action to deploy “anti-piracy enforcers” to online bootleggers’ homes across the globe via CG helicopters to apprehend them for stealing his movie. There is no shyness around self-promotion or copyright protection here. Characters will directly ask bootleggers onscreen “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?” as a plea for compassion (as well as a for-its-own-sake comedic gag). It is damn hard to make a movie, something that makes Nabwana IGG’s growing media empire look even more enticing as a newcomer who’s far behind the curve. He has so many titles under his name, yet so few resources behind their production or distribution. In that way, he’s a true D.I.Y. filmmaking success story, and I’m incredibly excited to have finally stumbled into his crazy world.

-Brandon Ledet