The Criterion Collection (Spine #1207): THE HEROIC TRIO / EXECUTIONERS -- Cult Classic Action at Its Finest
By Sean Boelman
In recent years and months, the Criterion Collection has shown more of a commitment to including action films like the work of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, among others. The Heroic Trio / Executioners is a two-pack comprising some absolute gems of Hong Kong cinema, adding to the collection some incredible (and fun) cult classics.
The Heroic Trio and Executioners make up an interesting series because both films were made and released in the same year. Yet the two films are entirely different. Still, these two cult classics gave the world the incredible action filmmaker that is Johnnie To, which is a gift in and of itself.
The first film in the duology, The Heroic Trio, follows a group of three superpowered women who are connected by a plot of an evil wizard to kidnap babies. It’s absolutely as crazy as it sounds — a superhero martial arts movie that knows exactly how campy it is. There are some pacing issues, especially toward the middle, but the film is so unabashedly ridiculous that it’s hard not to be charmed.
That being said, if you thought the first one was off the rails, Executioners takes things even further. It’s a post-apocalyptic adventure featuring the characters from the first film as they seek to find a water source to restore peace to humanity. It’s ridiculous. It’s over the top. But it’s exactly what fans would want from an HK action flick.
The action sequences of both films are pretty incredible and fittingly ludicrous. Zany is the name of the game here. There’s a guy who decapitates people using a cage-like device, lots of people flying through the air, invisible fights. It’s the type of action movie where there’s a lot of creativity on display, and while not all of it works, you have to at least admire it for what it tries to do.
The main draw of this double feature is, of course, the performances from its lead trio: Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love), and Anita Mui (Rumble in the Bronx). As three of the most iconic actresses in Hong Kong cinema history, Yeoh, Cheung, and Mui are a true dream team, and to see them share the screen like this is an absolute delight.
As far as bonus features go, this two-pack is, unfortunately, very thin. The highlight is an interview with actor Anthony Wong, who plays the coolest character in The Heroic Trio. There’s also an interview with film critic Samm Deighan and an essay by Beatrice Loayza (on a wicked poster in lieu of Criterion’s typical booklets). Still, those looking for supplemental materials might be a bit disappointed.
Although the lack of bonus features is admittedly a bit concerning given the higher price point of this edition than most, the quality of the restorations and the films themselves make The Heroic Trio / Executioners a must-get for anyone building up their Criterion Collection. It’s awesome to see the boutique label give more attention to genre cinema like this.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Heroic Trio / Executioners is available February 20.
By Sean Boelman
Although most of the attention in awards season goes to awards like Best Picture and the performance categories, the Academy also gives out awards for achievement in short filmmaking in three categories: live-action, animation, and documentary.
Something unique about the Oscar-nominated short films is that ShortsTV screens them in theaters every year, giving cinephiles a rare opportunity to see these acclaimed shorts on the big screen. If you can only see one of the programs this year, we’d recommend the documentaries because they’re the most consistent grouping in terms of quality, but some of the animated shorts would create a wonderfully cinematic experience, too.
We at disappointment media have watched all 15 of the Oscar-nominated shorts, and here are our rankings of the respective categories, along with our predictions of what will take home the statuette on Oscar night.
5. The After
Misan Harriman’s The After owes much of its high profile to its A-list leading man (and producer) David Oyelowo. He plays a grieving rideshare driver who is forced to confront his tragic past by an unexpected passenger. For what it’s worth, Oyelowo’s performance is strong, serving as the sole element of the film that is even moderately grounded. The film's opening scene is clearly intended to be shocking, but it ends up being laughable, and the second half crams an entire feature-length arc into 10 minutes. Frankly, the whole affair feels rushed and poorly thought out. It’s the weakest of the nominees by far.
4. Knight of Fortune
The Danish drama-comedy Knight of Fortune is the type of short that feels like something was lost in translation. The film follows a man who, having to confront the loss of his beloved, finds unexpected friendship in the mortuary. Although the core story is unbelievably sympathetic, the short’s dry sense of humor is in that middle ground where it is too pronounced to ignore but not strong enough to be funny. The result is a tonally confused 25 minutes, where you can’t tell if you’re supposed to laugh or cry. Although the final few moments are pretty effective, much of the runtime is frustratingly circular.
3. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Is this the year that Wes Anderson will finally get his Oscar? If so, it’ll be terribly disappointing, not only because The Wonderful Henry Sugar is the weakest of the filmmaker’s output this year but because he will get the spotlight in one of the few categories at the Academy Awards that frequently honors up-and-coming filmmakers. This star-studded quirky tale, adapted from a story by Roald Dahl, is the very definition of hyperactive. It’s the longest but least satisfying of Anderson’s Dahl shorts. The performances and visuals are characteristically strong, but the film feels too monotonous to be entertaining.
2. Red, White and Blue
This year’s crop of live-action shorts has far more celebrity stars than usual, as Red, White and Blue is driven by a very strong performance as a waitress struggling to save up for an interstate trip for an abortion. Nazrin Choudhury’s film is a classic example of the “it’s heart is in the right place” type of short film. In our current political landscape, voters will undeniably connect with and support this message. However, the film is derailed by a twist meant to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the viewer — and, to an extent, it does — but it feels manipulative to the point of being in poor taste.
Thankfully, there is one really strong live-action short this year; unfortunately, it feels like the one most likely to go under the radar. The Canadian short Invincible tells the story of a teenage boy on a desperate quest for freedom from his unfortunate life. In a year where this category is filled with established actors, young Léokim Beaumier-Lépine might give the best turn in any of the films. With short films, it can be difficult to achieve subtlety, as filmmakers often feel the need to spoon-feed the audience due to the constricted runtime. Vincent René-Lortie lets his film breathe, allowing it to stand out.
What Will Win: Red, White and Blue
Potential Upset: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
5. War Is Over!
War Is Over! It carries with it the distinction of being “inspired by the music of John and Yoko,” but in reality, it just features one of the most incredibly bad needle drops of “Happy Xmas” you have ever seen. Although the computer-animated WWI battlefield the filmmakers create is visually impressive, the narrative of two soldiers on opposite sides playing a game of chess before battle is — quite frankly — silly. It’s the type of animated short where you can all but see the filmmakers trying to tug at the viewers’ heartstrings, and the result feels cringe-worthy, even if it has good intentions.
There’s not really anything *wrong* with Pachyderm, per sé — it’s just that there’s not anything particularly interesting about it either. This French coming-of-age short follows a young girl holidaying with her grandparents. It’s a story you’ve seen dozens of times before with a competent art style, if not particularly innovative. Although some might be able to connect with the story better on an emotional level, it’s too simplistic and tropey to be moving. In simpler words, it’s safe. It’s the type of by-the-book debut that serves as the foundation for an animator’s much more illustrious career in features.
3. Letter to a Pig
To give credit where it’s due, Letter to a Pig is an audacious film — thematically, narratively, and most of all formally. And while filmmaker Tal Kantor’s visual ambition often pays off, her swings tend to miss in the other two departments. The film shows a Holocaust survivor as he reads to a class a letter he had written to the pig that saved his life. However, this is less his story and more that of one of the students who goes through her own existential crisis upon hearing this tale. The narrative can sometimes be hard to follow, and even when it’s not, it feels frustratingly unfocused.
2. Our Uniform
Yegane Moghaddam’s animated short Our Uniform would probably be excellent if it were only a touch longer. The film follows an Iranian girl who explores the mores of her strict Islamic community, and Moghaddam uses an innovative animation technique of fabric animation. From a standpoint of pure innovation, Our Uniform is unparalleled in this category. However, at a mere seven minutes long, it feels like the film is just starting to explore its themes and story when it ends. Still, of all of the filmmakers to come out of this year’s batch of fifteen shorts, Moghaddam is arguably the one who shows the most promise.
1. Ninety-Five Senses
Although it’s always hard to root for the established filmmakers in these shorts categories, Jared and Jerusha Hess’s Ninety-Five Senses is on a different level from the other four animated shorts. The animation is creative and gorgeous, the story is compelling, and the voice performance by Tim Blake Nelson is incredible. There is a bit of emotional manipulation — the way the film asks for the audience’s pity is a bit questionable for reasons that can’t be explained without spoiling it — but there’s no denying how effective this is at what it sets out to do.
What Will Win: Letter to a Pig
Potential Upset: Ninety-Five Senses
5. The ABCs of Book Banning
The ABCs of Book Banning is probably the most frustrating of this year’s nominees, and it’s because it’s not a good film despite having all the elements it needs to be incredible on paper. The message of this short is undeniably incredibly vital, but the filmmakers go about conveying it in the entirely wrong way. For one, the visuals are amateurish, with the graphics and cinematography having the quality of a school project. It might be possible to get past that, though, if it weren’t for the fact that the runtime is spent interviewing the wrong people. Although the intentions of talking to the people affected the most — the kids — are noble, there’s one thing wrong with that… they’re kids. As a result, everything said feels unnatural, uninformed, rehearsed, or some combination thereof.
4. Island In Between
S. Leo Chiang’s documentary Island In Between tells a story that few in the Western world are probably familiar with — the Taiwanese outer islands of Kinmen, which sit a mere two miles away from mainland China and have become the frontline for the tension between China and Taiwan. For such tiny islands, this is a tremendously big story, and therein lies the film’s flaw. At 20 minutes long, it feels like the short bites off more than it can chew thematically. Still, even if it cannot serve as a definitive exploration of this topic, Island In Between does work as a much-needed conversation starter.
3. Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó
Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó is a documentary short from filmmaker Sean Wang, whose feature debut Dídi recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim. This is undoubtedly the most personal of the documentary shorts, telling the story of Wang’s two grandmothers. It’s endearing, heartwarming, and often funny, offering the type of wisdom you’d expect to hear from two elders such as these subjects. It’s the slightest of the documentaries this year in terms of subject matter, but seeing something less political and more wholesome in this category is refreshing.
2. The Barber of Little Rock
The Barber of Little Rock manages to blend its uplifting story perfectly with timely themes, making it feel both thought-provoking and satisfying. The film tells the story of a barber who, seeing the effects of generational poverty on his community, decides to form a nonprofit community bank to help those in need who cannot get fair financial assistance. While this is, at its heart, a feel-good story about someone doing something good for his community, it is also eye-opening about one of the biggest problems we face in America today.
1. The Last Repair Shop
The Last Repair Shop reunites previous Oscar nominees Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot (A Concerto Is a Conversation), and this film is even more incredible than their last. The film follows four craftspeople who work in an instrument repair shop servicing the students of Los Angeles County. It’s truly an astonishing film because of how it connects the challenges that these individuals faced in their own lives with the challenges the students live through and the music that unites them. It’s an incredibly rousing documentary that will leave few viewers uninspired; a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t feel pandering — something that is exceedingly rare to find.
What Will Win: The ABCs of Book Banning
Potential Upset: The Last Repair Shop
The 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films open in theaters on February 16.
By Daniel Lima and Sean Boelman
Slamdance has long been known as the “indie-r cousin” of Sundance, as it happens at the same time as the higher-profile festival in its mountain home of Park City, Utah. However, Slamdance has made a name for itself as a platform for up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world to showcase their edgy, experimental, and — most of all — independent visions.
We at disappointment media covered the 2024 edition of Slamdance remotely. Here are a few of the films we saw in the festival lineup and our thoughts on them:
Reviews by Daniel Lima
Whoever thought there was enough here to sustain one hundred and thirty minutes of screentime should be criminally prosecuted. Anna’s Feelings is about a factory worker in a small Russian town who begins to hear aliens speaking to her, disrupting the lives of her entire family. This is a formulaic indie dramedy, predictable to the point of parody, shuffling along at such a laborious pace that one is fooled into expecting some subversion or deeper meaning. There is none. It's a shame to see Anna Mikhalkova’s great performance so wasted.
Darla in Space
There are two ways a film about a woman who discovers a kombucha mother that grants transcendental orgasms can go: absolutely bonkers in embracing a premise so strange or disappointingly milquetoast as it slowly reveals that the filmmakers only thought as far as that premise. Darla in Space, unfortunately, is the latter, content with coasting on the charms of the lead actress and the voice performance of the mother without ever actually coalescing into being actually about anything. That lack of vision is perfectly exemplified by the lazy AI-generated images meant to capture how those orgasms feel.
Hell of SE
I would be lying if I said I knew, at any point, what the hell was going on in Hell of SE. As far as I can tell, it is a meandering, opaque portrait of youthful angst and ennui. Yet it’s hard to find fault in director Sawa Kawakami’s deliberately experimental style, actively challenging not only the audience but also her own capabilities. The disaffected performances, shooting the film on formats including MiniDV and the Nintendo 3DS, it’s genuinely exciting to see a filmmaker who actively tries to make such an abrasive feature debut — even if it is impossible to decipher.
Reviews by Sean Boelman
Slamdance’s documentaries tend to be much more polished than the festival’s narrative features, and the closing night selection of the festival, Vanessa Hope’s Invisible Nation, is a very sleekly directed film. Although the documentary is primarily about the election and term of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, it uses this as a starting point to ask many big questions. In many ways, the film almost works better as an exploration of the overall merits of democratic government than a biography of this particular political figure, but Hope mostly does a great job of tying together the story with its historical background and broader implications.
The interesting thing about Petro is that there’s another documentary about the same election, from the side of another candidate, playing at the *other* Park City festival. Of course, it’s hard not to compare the two, but they’re on surprisingly equal ground. This portrait of Colombian President Gustavo Petro (spoiler alert, he was the victor) is a mostly straightforward biographical documentary. With a strong mix of archive footage, talking head interviews, and fly-on-the-wall footage — with an astounding level of access to Petro himself — the documentary offers a mostly compelling look at the political landscape of Colombia. Unfortunately, it fails to connect this to the big picture in a way that makes it feel like essential viewing.
The 2024 Slamdance Film Festival ran January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.
Review by Sean Boelman
In 2024, Sundance again offered a hybrid edition of the festival, with in-person screenings and festivities happening at the festival’s home in Park City, Utah, and nearby Salt Lake City, with select films available online across the United States.
We at disappointment media again got the opportunity to cover Sundance remotely. Here are some of the films we saw as part of this year’s lineup.
The French drama àma Gloria debuted in last year’s Cannes Semaine de la Critique before making its way to Park City. Filmmaker Marie Amachoukeli does a great job of tenderly exploring this unorthodox love between a 6-year-old girl and the nanny who essentially raised her. Although it’s a bit one-note, both thematically and emotionally, a brisk 86-minute runtime and great performances from Louise Mauroy-Panzani and Ilça Moreno Zego allow it to be consistently impactful.
And So It Begins
Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s previous documentary exploring the intricacies of the Filipino political system, A Thousand Cuts, was widely acclaimed. Yet while that film took a compelling, investigative journalism-focused approach, her follow-up, And So It Begins, assumes the form of a more straightforward fly-on-the-wall campaign doc. Although the campaign of candidate Leni Robredo makes for a compelling story that opens the door to numerous questions, some of the most intriguing aspects of the film are not what was intended. Viewers might find themselves more interested in the unique mechanics of Robredo’s campaign than Robredo’s message, which feels counterintuitive to the film that Diaz was trying to make.
Winning not just the Audience Award in the US Documentary Competition at Sundance but also the overall Festival Favorite award, it’s understandable why the documentary Daughters connected with audiences so well. It’s a crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking story of a group of inmates given the opportunity to connect with their children through a “Daddy-Daughter dance.” Some moments are thoroughly devastating, exposing systemic injustices that many other films have tried and failed to explore.
Titus Kaphar’s Exhibiting Forgiveness is a visually stunning film, although it would be shocking if it were any less, considering the story revolves around an artist. In the movie, André Holland plays an artist who is unexpectedly visited by his estranged father, who hopes to reconcile. Holland shines — as does James Earl Jelks, who plays his father — but this story feels too slow and familiar to make much of an impact. Still, there are some incredible moments here, and Kaphar infuses the film with an ineffable sense of humanity. It will be intriguing to see what the filmmaker does next.
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw already explored and celebrated the weird world of Italian truffle hunters. Their latest film turns the camera to the traditions of Argentine cowboys known as “gauchos.” Anyone who saw The Truffle Hunters will be unsurprised to learn that the cinematography of Gaucho Gaucho is utterly spellbinding, with the choice to shoot in black and white allowing it to be particularly gorgeous. However, even beyond the surface beauty of the documentary, there’s a deep inner beauty thanks to the humanistic perspective Dweck and Kershaw take in exploring this community.
India Donaldson’s directorial debut, Good One, is incredibly confident, and even if it doesn’t always work, you have to admire how deliberate it is. Following a teenager who goes on a camping trip with her father and his best friend, the film is a ticking time bomb, leading to a result that is visible from a mile away. Still, even though we know what the film is going to say from moment one, its message resonates thanks to incredible performances — especially from newcomer Lily Collias.
The story of activist (and now Colombian Vice President) Francia Márquez is a fascinating story deserving of the documentary treatment, but Juan Mejia Botero’s Igualada doesn’t quite do its extraordinary subject justice. The title refers to a derogatory term levied against Marquez during her bid for office that she reclaimed as part of her campaign. When Botero explores this backlash alongside Marquez, the documentary is utterly engrossing. However, the film too often falls back onto traditional biographical beats for it to make much of a lasting impact. In other words, this is yet another Sundance documentary carried by the strength of its subject.
The Haitian crime comedy Kidnapping Inc. has some intriguing elements, but they don’t congeal into anything particularly satisfying. Following two down-on-their-luck kidnappers who become unwittingly entangled in a political conspiracy, the plot somehow feels overly simplistic yet also far too convoluted. It’s not very funny either, nor does the political satire pack much of a bite. Nevertheless, the film’s never boring — it’s so manic that it won’t let you get bored — and the final act, even if it feels entirely unearned, does leave you thinking.
Luther: Never Too Much
Dawn Porter is an incredible documentary filmmaker, so it’s massively disappointing that Luther: Never Too Much is almost completely a dud. The filmmaking on display is competent across the board, and there’s lots of great music and interviews. Yet the angle with which it approaches its subject’s story is frankly disrespectful to his legacy. Luther Vandross was an incredible talent, but this documentary focuses far too much on his struggles with weight — even despite including archive interviews in which he asked the media not to linger on or define him by his weight. There are so many more things this film leaves unexplored to focus on that thread.
Stephen T. Maing and Brett Story’s documentary Union tells an essential story: the plight of Amazon workers fighting for the right to unionize. Maing and Story take an exposé-style approach, showing not only the methods that the Amazon Labor Union is using to fight for workers’ rights but also the unethical union-busting practices of the biggest company in the world. The film is equal parts inspiring and infuriating, but at a certain point, one has to wonder if this film will only reach people who already agree with its message.
Veni Vidi Vici
The social satire Veni Vidi Vici desperately wants to be a riff on the themes of The Most Dangerous Game in a Michael Haneke style. However, it can’t pull it off because it lacks the wit, sharpness, or depravity to achieve that tone. The result is a film that’s simply dull and annoying. It is a shame that this isn’t more interesting, as the cinematography is gorgeous to behold, and there are some interesting performances, but it’s just genuinely unpleasant to watch.
The 2024 Sundance Film Festival ran from January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.
The Criterion Collection (Spine #1204): TRAINSPOTTING -- A Pristine Restoration of an Enduring Modern Classic
By Sean Boelman
Although we tend to avoid some of the more mainstream movies as they get added to the Criterion Collection, there are a few that are absolutely irresistible. The latest in the line of Criterion Collection releases that are bringing beloved films to 4K for the first time, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, earns its spot with what might be one of the best restorations the specialty label has ever put out.
Trainspotting follows a Scottish heroin addict who, along with his equally junkie friends, goes through the trials and tribulations of living in Edinburgh and trying to get clean — only to fall back into the same cycle. It’s one of the most unique, expressive depictions of addiction you will see, thanks to the vision of Irvine Welsh’s novel, John Hodge’s screenplay, and Boyle’s direction.
The themes of the movie still ring true today despite the film having been shot nearly 30 years ago. We might be through the particular moment the film depicts — the rampant drug use and the HIV/AIDS crisis — the messages of fighting to “choose life” and strive for redemption even at your darkest moments are still thoroughly moving.
Trainspotting will go down in history as one of the best-edited movies of all time. The amount of energy that Boyle was able to infuse into the film through both the imagery and the soundtrack (which contains everyone from Iggy Pop to Jarvis Cocker and everyone and in-between) is absolutely incredible.
However, the thing that remains most impressive about Trainspotting to this day is how well it pulls off its tonal balancing act. It’s a very funny movie, but it also has several moments that are truly unsettling and others that are genuinely moving. Many films have tried to do a similar style, but few — particularly ones about this subject matter — have succeeded.
What might be surprising is that this Criterion Collection edition of Trainspotting is the first time that the movie will be available on 4K. The restoration is gorgeous (and, of note, was supervised by Boyle from the uncut version of the film), making the movie look even crisper, surreal, and utterly terrifying.
As is the case with many of Criterion’s releases of films from the ‘90s, there’s a wealth of bonus features to be found here — mostly because there’s plenty to pull from thanks to various editions put out by the studios over the years. The only new interview on the disc is with the production designer and costume designer, but there’s plenty on the disc to justify fans of the movie upgrading or adding the new 4K to their shelves.
Trainspotting is a brilliant film that holds up extremely well, and the 4K restoration being released by Criterion will ensure that the movie continues to age like fine wine — and as a bonus, it has one of the best subtitles you will ever see. Any cinephile would be remiss not to pick up this wonderful release.
The Criterion Collection edition of Trainspotting is now available.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.