Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

Ninja Champion has been voted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Comments on this initial review are closed. Please see the official Certified Weird entry to comment.

DIRECTED BY:  Godfrey Ho

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Bruce Baron, Richard Harrison

PLOT: The hard-to-unravel plot involves a raped woman seeking vengeance, her relationship with the ex-fiance Interpol agent who deserted her, diamond smugglers, identical twins, and ninjas.  No champions appear.

Still from Ninja Champion (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTNinja Champion is like manna from heaven for bad movie fans, who will want to check it out posthaste.  Its only weirdness, however, comes from the utter incoherence of its cut-n-paste plot, and this chopped-up chopsocky needs more than that to escape out of the kung fu jungle and crack the List of the best weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  Godfrey Ho is a director who believes that basic continuity is a luxury only big-budget productions can afford; he’s confident that the meat-and-potatoes masses won’t care if a movie makes absolutely no sense, as long as there are frequent ninja battles in it.  You must turn off your rational faculties to enjoy Ninja Champion. Otherwise, you will be rewinding the DVD every five minutes, trying to solve riddles like “where did that actress’ new blouse come from?,” “who was that guy and why he just disappear for no reason?,” and “how in the heck did she get those handcuffs off?”  The film seems to be simply another cheesy, cookie-cutter kung fooey, until the first really wacked out scene appears.  To prove her smuggling cred to an opium-smoking crime boss, our heroine Rose opens her blouse wide to display the diamonds she has been hiding.  It’s obviously a cheap ploy to smuggle some nudity into the film—but—the actress’ breasts (and the pilfered jewels) are blurred so that nothing can be seen. (It’s not a case of censorship, as a naked breast does appear in the film later, courtesy of a body double). It looks like someone smeared a thick wad of Vaseline on the bottom half of the camera lens. We are even treated to leering, full-frame closeups of her smudged, impossible to ogle chest.  This begs the question: is Godfrey Ho the first director in exploitation movie history to manage the oxymoronic feat of including a gratuitous topless scene with no nudity in it?  Hot on the heels of this bungled attempt at smut comes the badly integrated ninja storyline, wherein a Caucasian ninja randomly hunts and kills other ninjas (sometimes wearing headbands helpfully describing themselves as “ninja”) while they are practicing their circus tricks.  In between trying to follow the twisted, ludicrous plotline and watching for continuity errors, you can thrill to sparkling lines of dialogue:

“OK, you can help me kill them if you like, but I’m still going to kill you!  It’s over, George!”

“We ninjas are getting bored.  Can we start now?”

And of course, this immortal exchange:

“The wine, there must have been something in it!  Oh God!”

“Not the wine, my nipples, you jerk!”

Ho “directed” over 40 movies with “Ninja” in the title.  His method was to buy up cheap footage from unreleased Hong Kong movies and to intercut them with film he shot of American actors playing ninjas, then dub the older movie to incorporate a ninja subplot.  The results were then dumped into U.S. video stores in an attempt to cash in on the minor 1980s craze for ninja movies.  Without having seen any of his other efforts, I’m going to declare Ho’s Ninja Champion his weirdest, because the diamond smuggling/rape revenge/identical twin plot is so bizarre and confusing on its own that I doubt he could have found a more incompetent film to use as the base movie.

Although Ninja Champion is sold separately or packaged with various other kung fu, the best deal is Mill Creek’s “Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack,” which also contains the borderline weird Kung Fu Arts and 48 other silly butt-kickers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…simply one of the most insane so-called ‘movies’ that I’ve ever seen.”–Keith Bailey, The Unknown Movies (DVD)

CAPSULE: UHF (1989)

AKA The Vidiot from UHF

DIRECTED BY: Jay Levey

FEATURING: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Michael Richards

PLOT:  Walter Mitty-style daydreamer George becomes manager of an independent television station, and his bizarre programming becomes a surprise hit.

Still from UHF (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t begrudge Al his weirdness, but he means something more juvenile by “weird” than we do.  UHF has an irreverent and independent spirit and takes a few turns into the decidedly offbeat, but it’s basically Al’s mildly skewed idea of mainstream comedy.

COMMENTSUHF saw pop-parodist “Weird Al” shift his gentle satirical sights from hit singles to movies and TV.  The framing plot is stock: likable ne’er-do-well comes to have responsibility for a failing enterprise and unexpectedly makes it a success, drawing the ire of soulless corporate powers who seek to crush him.  While you won’t be surprised to find out the Weird Al wins the day and gets the girl back, the plot is just a frame on which to hang a series of skits and parodies.  Al tackles movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the facetious Gandhi sequel Gandhi 2, and Rambo.  Like his music videos, the satire is not exactly incisive (Conan the Barbarian becomes Conan the Librarian, for example), but that’s OK: Weird Al is in the business of making puns, not enemies.  Film nuts will enjoy the subtler nods to This Island Earth, Network, and a real groaner based on Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  The parodies of Eighties movies should have gone stale by now, but they haven’t, largely because Hollywood keeps recycling the same cliches twenty years later.  You don’t need to have seen the original Rambo to recognize what’s being lampooned when the musclebrained hero’s automatic weapon’s causes bamboo huts to randomly explode.  The TV skits, which for the most part stand on their own without requiring knowledge of long forgotten shows, are funnier and more inventive than the straight parodies; they allow Al to show off a more unique and absurd sense of humor.  “Wheel of Fish” is a memorably ludicrous game show, and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” (hosted from his apartment, where he investigates his ant farm and teaches poodles to fly) is another highlight.  Squeaky Emo Phillips, improbably cast as a shop teacher (!), gets off the film’s darkest and most hilarious line after an accident with a table saw.  But the best of all is Michael Richards as a slow, mop-loving janitor whose children’s show (where the kid who finds a marble in a vat of oatmeal is rewarded by getting to “drink from the firehose”) becomes the station’s flagship hit.  Richards steals most of his scenes and demonstrates some of the herky-jerky physical comedy that would make him beloved as Seinfeld’s “Kramer” in a few years.  All in all, UHF is a meandering, light-hearted series of gags in an Airplane! vein that makes for a pleasant enough afternoon matinee.  The PG-13 rating is for some silly cartoon violence.  Other than that, it’s sweet, sex and swear-word fee, and appropriate for older kids, who will eat up the booger humor.

“Weird Al” sold millions of parody records in the 1980s (redoing Michael Jackson’s #1 hit “Beat It” as “Eat It” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as “Like a Surgeon.”) Hoping to cash in on Al’s already fading popularity,UHF was intended as a summer blockbuster by Orion studios, but the movie critically savaged and tanked at the box office.  Orion went bankrupt soon after.  The film later became a huge hit on VHS and DVD.  It’s not nearly as bad as the cold-hearted critics initially claimed (Roger Ebert called it “the dreariest comedy in many a month”), or as hilarious as the Weird Al cultists who made it one of the best-selling videos of all time would have it.  Instead, it’s diverting spoofery for the ten-year-old inside all of us that should keep you amused for 90 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You look at his picture, you hear he’s called ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, you nod your head. The man, if nothing else, has the right name.” Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Vooshvazool.” Suggest a weird movie off your own here.)]

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT:  In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTSPonyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life.  When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.  There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy, and the main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way).  The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke.  Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life.  Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults.  Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood.  Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven.  There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education).  The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films,Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Following the events of Evil Dead II, Ash finds himself flung backwards in time into a medieval land, where his failure to retrieve the Book of the Dead enables evil forces to muster a massive army of stop-motion animated skeletons.

Army of Darkness

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEvil Dead II struggled mightily to obtain its weird credentials, and just barely qualified for its weird badge thanks to the “cabin fever” sequence in the middle portion of the film.  In the third entry of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi distills what he thinks is the popular essence of Evil Dead II, emerging with a concentrated dose mixing ghoulish comedy with a stiff shot of badass working class hero Ash.  Weirdness was discarded as a waste product, although traces remain.

COMMENTS:  The beginning of Army of Darkness rewrites the tale of how Ash came to be recognized as the “Chosen One” at the end of Evil Dead II, but consistent storytelling (along with respect for the laws of physics) has never been a high priority in this series.   Since the  midpoint of the second film, Raimi’s Evil Dead emphasis for the trilogy has been comedy, and Army of Darkness is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish.  As an action/comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness pulls in too many directions to hang together as a story, much less integrate itself with the rest of the series, but the manic energy is a lot of fun, and the film does work on a scene-by-scene basis.  The flick dips into the Three Stooges tribute well even more than Evil Dead II did; in one funny scene, every orifice on Ash’s face is invaded by skeletal fingers from still buried corpses, despite his best defensive maneuvers (our hero never learned from Curly’s mistakes—don’t introduce your tongue as a new target by sticking it out in triumph after successfully blocking the dual finger eye poke).  Gags aside, the comic momentum overwhelming comes from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who has transformed from a much abused punching-bag for macabre forces into an arrogant, wisecracking hero.  Campbell adopts just the right campy, parodic tone when reprising hit action catchphrases like “Groovy” or fresh favorites like “Just me, baby.”   Ash’s overweening, usually unjustified bravado is the comic binding that keeps the scattershot script from blowing away in the wind.  For fans of weirdness, the best bits are the hallucinatory scenes after Ash takes refuge from a shakycam assault inside a windmill: for unexplained reasons, he ends up by menaced by a gang of tiny Ashes in a “Gulliver’s Travels” parody, then sprouts an Evil Ash from his shoulder.  These scenes take place at approximately the same stage in the movie as the “cabin fever” sequences did in Evil Dead II, and may have been intended as one of the many, many nods to the previous film.  Another high point is the army of stop motion animated skeletons (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen).  Each member of the bony horde is brilliantly individualized and detailed; particularly striking is the martial band, beating drums made from skulls and playing flutes fashioned from arm bones.   Overall, Army of Darkness is a worthy, if commodified and popularized, sequel, and a solid roller coaster for fans of fantastic film who aren’t hung up on logic.

Army of Darkness was the transitional film for Raimi between campy experimental films like Crimewave and Evil Dead II and purely commercial fare such as the Spider-Man series.  The large scale battle and professional action scenes in Army seem almost like audition reels for making a Major Motion Picture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy, hyperventilated send-up of horror films and medieval warfare, so action-packed it sometimes seems less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times

CAPSULE: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman

FEATURING: Robert Towne (as Edward Wain), Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland

PLOT:  Opposed by incompetent spy Sparks Moran, a shady American expatriate and his

Still from Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

gang of crooks try to cheat General Tostada and his crew out of gold they are smuggling out of post-revolutionary Cuba by pretending a sea monster is on the loose.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCreature from the Haunted Sea is a strange little comedy indeed, one that feels improvised, even experimental at times.  Unfortunately, although there’s nothing else quite like it, after watching it for a few minutes you will understand why there’s nothing else like it.  It’s not funny, or meaningfully entertaining on any level; the only draw is to be awestruck by how utterly a movie can fail.  The movie has a few lukewarm fans, but basically, this is among the worst of the worst, something you should only watch on a dare.

COMMENTS:  Anyone renting Creature from the Haunted Sea thinking that it’s going to be a terrible monster flick may be surprised to find themselves watching what appears to be a terrible spy movie, until it dawns on them that they’re actually watching a terrible comedy.  Creature features a senseless, slow moving, confusing plot; confusing, because every time the action lags, the script introduces us to another “wacky” character to take up the slack.  We get General Tostada (groan); the henchman who speaks in dubbed-in animal noises (monkey cackles or elephant trumpets, as the mood strikes him); his dream girl, a hefty matron with a similar mode of communication; Roger Corman in sunglasses grinning like an idiot for no reason; an unexplained man in a suit on a desert island who feels the need to step in every tide pool along the beach; Carmelita, the senorita love-interest who arrives from out of nowhere; and Mango, the island girl who takes up with “weird strangers” as a “come-on for tourists” so her mom can sell them “coconut hats.”  Gags include Sparks being forced to eat a transmitter disguised as a sandwich and the slightly amusing theme song (a torch song that throws in the improbable non sequitur “…and the creature from the haunted sea.”) Humor is subjective, so you very well might find the silly absurdity of it reasonably entertaining; you’ll just be in a very small minority if you do.  The highlight, and the main thing most viewers remember, is the utterly ridiculous sea monster with the ping-pong ball eyes, who only appears on screen for a few seconds at a time.  Some feature movies would have worked better as shorts; this one would have worked better as a still.

The abject failure of Creature to amuse is all the more shocking since it came from the pen of Charles B. Griffith, the Corman collaborator responsible for several smartly scripted minor classics: A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975).  In true Corman cheapie fashion, this script is a recycled comic treatment of an earlier Corman production, Beast from the Haunted Cave, and was written in three days and filmed in five.  It was shot together with two other forgettable movies made in Puerto Rico for tax reasons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the script is an unfocused mess; it’s poorly paced and structured, suffers badly from its low budget, and often ends up being just weird rather than funny.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings & Ramblings

CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction.  Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper

CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)

AKA It Happened in Your Neighborhood

DIRECTED BY: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde

FEATURING: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux

PLOT:  A documentary crew follows a serial killer around on his daily rounds, becoming more and more complicit in his crimes as he slowly charms them, and eventually finances completion of the film with the money he steals from his victims.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTMan Bites Dog starts with an absurd premise, that a camera crew would follow a serial killer around nonjudgmentally documenting his crimes, and follows that bizarre idea to its illogical conclusion. Once the concept is established, however, the film goes about its business with a stark realism that only rarely strays into absurd territory. The movie’s black humor and ironic celebration of violence don’t set out to give us a weird feeling; they are an intellectual attempt to disturb us, morally.

COMMENTS: Even though Man Bites Dog ultimately misses its satirical target, there is a lot to admire in the craft behind this experimental expedition from three Belgian student filmmakers.  Chief among them is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer (also named Benoît). Poelvoorde inhabits the role with a cocky, credible naturalism that suggests he is playing himself, if only he made his living by killing old ladies and postmen for a handful of francs at a time.  As the subject of the documentary, the character of Benoît is fascinating, even when he’s not pumping bullets into a body.  He has the soul of a bad poet; a would be philosopher, he takes time to notice and pontificate on the finer things in life.   He’s capable of pausing in the middle of stalking a victim to notice some amorous doves, and discourse to the camera in hushed but knowledgeable tones about avian mating habits before resuming his hunt.  He’s also casually racist and homophobic, kind to his parents and girlfriend, constantly aware of the camera’s location and visibly anxious to make sure that it is always pointed in his direction.  He’s shamelessly unafraid to be captured on film, either killing or vomiting up a mix of wine and bad mussels, so long as he’s the center of attention.  Without such a strong, guiltily charming characterization centering the film, the extreme violence and cruelty of  Benoît’s rape and killing sprees would be unpardonable.

The film, ostensibly a black comedy, also has some very funny moments: Benoît is ambushed by a rival killer, only to find, after he dispatches him in a shootout, that his latest victim also had a camera crew following him around.  The juxtaposition between Benoît’s amiable public personality, exemplified in a conversation with his grandpa about the time the old man sold a sucker a department store-bought pair of panties claiming they belonged to Brigitte Bardot, and scenes where he discourses in a drolly businesslike manner about the various ballast ratios needed to sink bodies of adults, children and midgets, also provides an undercurrent of fun.  But unfortunately, although there are a few gems, most of the way the gags fail badly to find the correct balance between darkness and comedy, leaning much too far towards the former.  Most people find the child snuffing and gang rape/murder scene particularly, and needlessly, vile, but the Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)