Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: KUNG FU ARTS [HOU FU MA] (1980)

AKA Kung Fu: Monkey, Horse, Tiger

DIRECTED BY: Lee Shi Chieh, Lee Geo Shu

FEATURING: Carter Wong [as Huang Chia-Da], Cheng Shing, Sida the French Monkey Star

PLOT:  A princess marries a chimpanzee, amidst intrigue in the Chinese imperial court.

kung_fu_arts

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Any film featuring “Sida the French Monkey Star” is at least a little weird.  The main obstacle to Kung Fu Arts cementing a place in the list of 366 is that it’s coming out of the weirdest movie genre of all—those short lived 1970s “chopsocky” movies made quickly, dubbed badly, and exported to the West to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee.  When the average entry in this genre features fists that cut the air with a loud swoosh, heavily stylized but amazingly choreographed fight scenes between men wearing brilliantly colored robes, and silly dialogue that surrealistically refuses to keep up with the actor’s lips, the threshold to be considered “weird” rises significantly.  Kung Fu Arts adds monkeys to the formula: monkeys who are addressed by the ensemble as if they were mute actors with a perfect understanding of Cantonese, but monkeys nonetheless.  This is creates a fairly high weirdness quotient, but in the end I decided not to make Kung Fu Arts a finalist, because I have faith there were even more deserving entries out there.  But don’t be surprised to see this movie reconsidered and placed on the list some day in the future.

COMMENTS:  If you’re tuned in to the chopsocky wavelength (and you should be), Kung Fu Arts is an entertaining little picture.  Although it’s somewhat light on fighting, it has wonderful costuming, an intriguing fairy-tale plot, and a reasonable amount of chuckles stemming from the straight-faced acting directed at the primate stars.  From the moment the imperial guards fall to their knees and plead with Sida to come down from the rooftop with the king’s pilfered royal proclamation, to the final battle where a small army of primates help the hero to defeat the evil usurper to the throne, Kung Fu Arts supplies plenty of silly smiles, some intended by the filmmakers, and many unintentional.

Kung Fu Arts is available as part of the Mill Creek 50 Martial Arts Movie Pack.  Because the movie is in the public domain, it’s available for download from Public Domain Torrents.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: ” The plot is completely nonsensical (though possibly based on some sort of Chinese myth), and it seems like the film was designed mostly for children with some potty humour thrown in for good measure.”–Doug Tilley, Movie Feast (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

CAPSULE: ANGEL HEART (1987)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet

PLOT:  1950s private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by a suave, sartorial client (Robert DeNiro) to track down a crooner; as the search takes him from Harlem to New Orleans, Angel finds that every lead he interviews ends up dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With its (sometimes literally) dripping atmosphere, mysterious dreamlike flashbacks, and a conclusion that will chill the blood if you don’t see it coming, Angel Heart appeals to lovers of the weird. In the end, however, this macabre film noir is simply too conventional to be weird, a standard detective story with the supernatural grafted onto it.  The fact that the mystery is completely and satisfactorily resolved at the end leaves us little wonder to carry forward.

COMMENTS:   There was one throwaway scene that almost tipped Angel Heart into the weird column.  Angel is standing on the beach at Coney Island, backing off from the oncoming tide, wearing a plastic nose shield on his sunglasses (more than a little reminiscent of the bandage Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) on an overcast day, and talking to the wife of a carnival geek as she soaks her varicose veins in the Atlantic.  Now that’s a situation you don’t find yourself in everyday!  Had there been more subtly off-kilter scenes like this peppered throughout, Angel Heart could have been a weird classic.

On its original release, the film was notorious for the bloody, MPAA-enraging sex scene with recent ex-Cosby kid Lisa Bonet.  The scene still packs a wallop today, and is even more memorable because it isn’t wholly gratuitous, but has a horrifying significance within the context of the story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Angel Heart,’ with its stigmatic sets and satanic text, makes the perfect cult movie just as the Rev. Jones made the perfect batch of Kool-Aid. It already has assured itself a limited audience, as most moviegoers will be repulsed by the needless gore, including sudden open-heartsurgery and assorted other murder-mutilations. The lot overwhelms this devilishly clever detective allegory, a supernatural variation on ’50s pulp mysteries.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GRAVEYARD ALIVE: A ZOMBIE NURSE IN LOVE (2003)

Beware

PLOT: A dowdy nurse contracts an odd strain of the zombie virus which changes her into
a flesh-eating sex maniac.


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are plenty of weird elements in this low-budget B&W horror comedy, from slightly out-of-sync dubbing to deliberate overacting to Eraserhead-inspired dream sequences, but they seem forced and shallow, like an attempt by the filmmakers to distance themselves from the thin material they have to work with.

COMMENTS:  One of the hardest things to do in the movie universe is to make deliberate camp.  Yet, it’s a pitfall that beginning directors seem to fall into over and over.  They want the audience to realize that they are too talented to be making a silly zombie nurse movie, when what the audience really wants is to not notice the direction and enjoy a silly zombie nurse movie.  There is some talent on display here, especially in the black and white photography, but overall the humor is alternately too subtle and too broad to work.  It’s obvious that the filmmakers and the crew and actors (who worked for free) enjoyed themselves tremendously, and that do-it-yourself enthusiasm comes across on screen and makes the movie seem less of a failure than it might otherwise have been.

Parts of the movie are obviously inspired by the look and feel of the films of fellow Canadian Guy Maddin.  In fact, the movie was originally intended to be silent (which may help explain some of the mugging for the camera from the guy who played “handsome” doctor).  The dubbing was added later by different voice actors, after the director and producers decided Graveyard Alive didn’t work as a modern silent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You have to be able to master the genre you plan to mock, or your movie will die of shame… Merely parading bad actors spouting cretinous dialogue does not make a movie funny or effective. Striking a pose and chewing the scenery does not create a character on screen. Deliberately applying cheeseball makeup does not turn an actor into a campy horror zombie.” -Bruce Kirkland, Jam! Magazine

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick, , Jennifer Jostyn, , , , Robert Mukes, Dennis Fimple,

PLOT: Four college kids are abducted by a backwoods maniac family.



WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff plot was too tissue-thin to support a movie, heavy metal musician turned debutante director Rob Zombie’s fleshed the film out with stylistic excess.  Home movies from inside the serial killers’ psyches, purposeless solarizations, classic drive-in intertitles, and clips of vintage B&W cheesecake constantly interrupt what action there is.  The effect is not to make the film weird, but to draw attention to the director– “I’m Rob Zombie, trash horror aficionado, and I’m making a movie!”–and make him seem weird.  It ends on a highly surrealistic note, but this is actually the weakest part of the movie.

COMMENTS:  Make no bones about it: House of 1000 Corpses is bad.  This movie is what happens when you take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, drain out all the scary, and replace it with annoying.  Still, if Zombie had to fail, at least he failed bombastically rather than meekly.  If you took away the directorial flourishes from the movie and left only the plot, played straight, then this movie really would have been a nightmare (see the weirdly praised sequel The Devil’s Rejects).

The presence of trash film icons Sid Haig (Spider Baby) as the memorable sideshow Captain Spaulding (pictured) and Karen Black as the redneck matriarch adds some interest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As Rob Zombie’s name twitched over the seizure-inducing opening credits sequence of ‘House of 1000 Corpses’, one highly eager dude in the 1/4 filled theatre gamely raised his fists and shouted, ‘Rob Zombie Rules!’ As the closing credits rolled an unbearably slow 88 minutes later, I’ll bet that same guy contemplated raising his fists again and announcing, ‘I apologize for rushing to judgment.'” -Todd Levin, Film Threat