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Winter 2024 – Week 1 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time, as well as to motherfucking 2024. I’m hoping this year will be an improvement on the last, which, considering that my house burned down, probably shouldn’t be that much of a struggle. Unfortunately it’s also an election year, meaning there’s a fair chance 2024 will conclude in chaos and total anarchy, but I suppose we must take the bad with the good. All we can really hope to do is improve our lives and those of our loved ones on a personal level, and with that in mind, I’m happy to have initiated a new weekly film-viewing regimen that will hopefully expand both the number and variety of my cinematic screenings. Let’s start the year off strong with a robust selection of features, as we ramble through 2024’s first Week in Review!

Our first viewing of the week was a classic Shaw Brothers feature, Clan of the White Lotus. White Lotus contains practically everything you’d hope for from a Shaw Brothers film, starting with its star Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), the most charismatic in their admirable lineup of leading men. He features as one of two masters who collaborate in taking down the nefarious Pai Mei, only to be hunted down by Pai Mei’s brother White Lotus (Lo Lieh). Liu’s collaborator and bride-to-be are killed in the attack, but Liu survives alongside his sister-in-law, and dedicates himself to crafting a counter for the seemingly invincible White Lotus.

So yeah, copious fight scenes, preposterous training regimens, comical pratfalls, Gordon Liu is there: basically everything you’d want from a martial arts film. It seems clear that White Lotus is one of the films that inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill, given it stars a Pai Mei who looks exactly like his own take on the character, features a variation on his “five point palm exploding heart technique,” and also stars Gordon Liu. But if Tarantino’s going to crib from anything, White Lotus is a terrific choice: it is martial arts cinema reduced to one of its essential theatrical forms, a sort of dramatic puzzle constructed around finding the athletic key to unlocking an opponent’s weakness.

Much of the fun of White Lotus comes from the unexpectedly warm interplay between Liu and his nemesis Lo Lieh. Lieh plays a proud villain and even prouder martial artist, and he seems to actually welcome the idea of being harassed by a nemesis who occasionally pops out of the bushes, fights him to an ignominious defeat, and then scurries off to master some new secret weapon. And the diversity of those weapons adds plenty of variety to the film’s fights – Liu dabbles in countermeasures ranging from acupuncture needles to a graceful “woman’s style” of kung fu, stretching his own performance in some charmingly Jackie Chan-reminiscent directions. An altogether top notch Shaw Brothers feature.

We then watched The Creator, a recent scifi feature by Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One. The film posits a world set fifteen years after a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles initiates a global war against artificial intelligence. John David Washington stars as Joshua Taylor, an undercover U.S. soldier tasked with infiltrating the A.I.-embracing New Asia and discovering the inventor behind A.I.’s recent advancements. After his mission results in the presumed death of his partner, Taylor abandons the military for a quiet life – but years later he’s pulled in for one last job, a job that ultimately sees him standing as a bridge between the human and A.I. worlds.

Whoof, that premise was a mouthful. Honestly, it plays more cleanly on-screen than it does in summary – almost to a fault, in fact. While The Creator is absolutely overflowing with delightful worldbuilding and mechanical design details, its narrative swiftly resolves into a boilerplate “old soldier is given new purpose through the love of a child” narrative. Taylor is dragged from action setpiece to action setpiece in order to protect the child-like robot Alphie, who may well be this world’s robot Jesus.

I frankly wanted to like The Creator more than I did, as wholly original scifi blockbusters are a precious resource in this age of sequels and remakes. But the film ultimately proved to be one of those features that cannot match the promise of its trailer: lots of striking, seemingly iconic images, nothing that can actually draw them together into an emotional narrative. Alphie is more of a device than a person, Washington never feels fully convincing in his role, and the narrative beats they run through feel like templates without texture, the character relationships lacking the rich detailing of the world’s mechanical design. Also, while I’m sure my recent viewing of Pluto isn’t really doing this film any favors, it nonetheless never felt like The Creator had a single meaningful thing to say about A.I. – its story dives no deeper than “what if prejudice existed on an arbitrary new line of distinction.” The Creator was frequently fun to look at, but never made me feel anything.

Our next viewing was Ride Lonesome, a ‘59 western directed by Budd Boetticher. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter looking to turn in the outlaw Billy John while evading the pursuit of John’s brother Frank (the sinister Lee Van Cleef of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly fame). Upon stopping at a seemingly abandoned stagecoach station, he runs into the outlaws Sam Boone and Whit, as well as the station master’s wife Carrie Lane. With Boone and Whit intent on claiming Billy John and the amnesty that comes with him, the five make for an uneasy traveling company, their mutual distrust only outweighed by their need to pull together for survival.

Ride Lonesome is a tough, gritty film, formed of hard-beaten leather and stretched roughly across an iconic narrative shell. Though it’s overflowing with stars (even the almost wordless Whit is goddamn James Coburn), everyone involved sinks entirely into their performances, driven by grudges and dreams that surface naturally over the course of their odd partnership. What results is a meditation on justice and forgiveness grounded in painful lived experience, a film whose larger-than-life characters and thrilling setpieces are accompanied by a welcome splash of moral complexity.

Ben Brigade and Sam Boone make for perfect dramatic foils: one a man of justice driven only by a violent urge for revenge, the other an outlaw who dreams of a peaceful life, lacking any of the fatalism you might expect from a hunted man. And beside them you have the killer Billy John and innocent Carrie; icons of their better and worse natures, forever stirring the pot of their uneasy alliance. Propulsive (it’s remarkable how much this film accomplishes in a brief 73 minutes), thrilling, and stuffed with dynamic performances, Ride Lonesome proves itself an unexpectedly hefty and altogether engaging feature.

Alongside all the films, my house’s recent foray into Cyberpunk 2077 also prompted us to check out Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. The anime offers an original narrative within the Cyberpunk universe, following the fortunes of teenager David Martinez as his surface life in Night City swiftly collapses. With his mother dead and prestigious school abandoned, David embraces crime and the cybernetic implants enabling it as an edgerunner, finding new friends and a sense of community on the far side of the tracks. Of course, life in Night City is precarious at the best of times, and with his new friends hiding secrets of their own, David soon finds himself running towards an ambiguous tomorrow, desperate to clasp something that won’t fade in his grip.

Edgerunners is poignant, fast-paced, and thankfully self-contained; knowing more about Cyberpunk can enhance your appreciation of tossed-off details, but it’s to Edgerunners’ credit that it focuses entirely on its own cast of characters, rather than the distinctive world surrounding them. Instead, the unique details of Night City life provide a texture that scans as absolute confidence, an understanding that this world expands beyond the walls of David’s life, but that such details are outside the bounds of this story’s perspective. This is the story of one boy who falls off the grid and keeps falling, an inevitable downfall where every step necessarily implies its followup, such that we in the audience feel as trapped in a malevolent system as David himself.

Edgerunners flits gracefully from gritty fatalism to starry-eyed romance, the fragility of life in Night City only making celebrating the brief highs of love and victory all the more essential. The combination of Imaishi as director and Yoh goddamn Yoshinari as character designer/animation director makes for a consistently energetic, personality-rich visual experience, while the screenplay is undoubtedly the tightest, most coherent script Imaishi has ever worked from. The tendencies that normally distance me from his work are largely absent here; I’m not sure whether Imaishi has grown up or this collaboration demanded he abandon the fart jokes, but the result is a series that possesses all of his passion for rebellion with none of his tendency towards dramatically self-defeating juvenilia.

Episode by episode, David attempts to find some peace and security within a hostile city, only for the persistent social and financial demands of simply existing to drag him under. Cybernetic enhancements make for an easy metaphor for whatever long-term sacrifices get us through our immediate situation; as his body is transformed, he gains instant power at the cost of any brighter future, paying in flesh just to get through his next gig. And in between the jolts of violence, scattered moments of tenderness: a shared hologram dream, a love unfulfilled, a sacrifice made for a dear friend. Edgerunners is an accomplished variation on a familiar lament, seeing hopeless optimism as our only salvation in a world where our bodies and minds are no more than disposable parts. No one escapes Night City, but it’s a beautiful dream nonetheless.

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