Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two takes on independent films now playing, including the made-in-Seattle picture The Paper Tigers, which can be viewed via the Northwest Film Forum’s revenue-sharing portal here.
The Paper Tigers
The vibe of The Paper Tigers is evident from the opening credits sequence, which uses footage from an 80s-era camcorder to show the youthful martial-arts education of our three protagonists. The sequence is kicky, funny, and also quite useful (it sketches the relationships and gives us the passage of time), setting just the right tone for what follows. Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran has a skillful hand here: Little finger-flicks of humor invariably make their way into even the serious scenes.
The premise itself is nearly irresistible. Three middle-aged men—the once-peerless martial-arts students from the camcorder footage—are reunited after the death of their master (played by the mighty Roger Yuan). The three are hobbled by age or worn down by reality: Hing (Ron Yuan) has a bum knee, a spare tire, and a bad toupee; Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is in physical shape but has forgotten the kung fu spirit; and Danny (Alain Uy) has pretty much given up entirely, a divorced dad who would prefer to skulk away from confrontation. The action that follows is not exactly ground-breaking, but it’s punctuated with regular martial-arts dustups while also leaving room for jokes and agreeable dawdling.
The main players are clearly punching above the film’s budgetary weight, including Matthew Page’s splendidly meat-headed turn as a white-guy kung fu master who styles himself more Chinese than the Asian-Americans in the room. Throw in a non-postcard approach to visualizing Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, and the director’s canny sense of comic timing, and you’ve got a sleeper on your hands.
The Last Shift
I was on the FIPRESCI critic’s jury for last year’s Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. We gave our award to Andrew Cohn’s The Last Shift, set in a Midwestern suburb of the kind that could be found anywhere in the United States, populated by folks whose aspirations haven’t worked out the way they’d hoped.
In my FIPRESCI report, I said: “The Last Shift addresses thorny issues while working in a fundamentally comedic tone. The result is an accessible movie that raises legitimate questions. Our central character is Stanley (Richard Jenkins), a simple man who has worked at a fast-food restaurant for 38 years. A glass-half-full kind of person, Stanley rarely complains, and has been able to get by on a barely-living-wage for all these years. He is no Forrest Gump, however; Cohn and Jenkins give Stanley just enough crankiness to keep him from being a Holy Fool. About to retire, with a vague plan to move to Florida to help his mother, Stanley experiences some late-arriving inspiration that suggests that perhaps spending his life as an uncomplaining drone hasn’t been the best policy.
Some of the changes come during the week he spends training his replacement, Jevon (the excellent Shane Paul McGhie), to take Stanley’s place on the overnight shift. (Setting the movie during the after-midnight shift is key: There’s a lot of time to talk, goof around, and deal with the kind of weirdos who show up at three o’clock in the morning.) Jevon is young, Black, and recently rehabilitated from a prison stint. He’s not happy about the new job, but he has little choice in the matter, given his probation rules. It goes without saying that Jevon and Stanley will clash a little before working out an understanding, but Cohn and the actors manage to keep this from becoming a predictable, feel-good formula …. Cohn captures some of the middle-of-the-night poetry of American streets, the fluorescent glow that fits this tale of loneliness and uncertainty that afflict young people and elders in equal proportion.”
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.