Tag Archives: Action

CAPSULE: BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)

Le pacte des loups

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, , Émilie Dequenne,

PLOT: It’s 1764 and a vicious monster is terrorizing the French province of Gevaudan; the king sends his foremost naturalist, along with his Iroquois companion, to track down and slay the beast.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Convoluted plot and Matrix-style combat in a period drama do not a Weird Movie make, but darn it if it doesn’t come close.

COMMENTS: When contemplating this wondrously over-the-top film, I was struck (once more) with too many ways to open a review. Perhaps, “Wikipedia informs me that Brotherhood of the Wolf is a ‘French historical action horror film'”; or alternately, “Reader, be warned that along-side the ‘Recommended’ tag slapped at the top should be an as-prominent ‘Ridiculous’ tag.” I’ll settle, instead, on the following: “Baroque ’90s action hits its peak in Christophe Gans’ period drama, Brotherhood of the Wolf.” This movie crams in so many rehashed film techniques that it becomes a gloriously Bruckheimer-Woo-Ritchie-Besson-esque romp through mid-eighteenth century France.

The French Revolution is in full swing, but within minutes we careen back to half a century prior. Two horsemen in the rain approach a gaggle of thugs (dressed in drag) who are harassing an old man and his daughter. Down jumps Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior, and after a bit of slow-motion, quick-cut bandit-thrashing, he remounts and continues his journey with the other rider and soon the two arrive at the castle of Gévaudan’s local aristocrat. Who are these mysterious strangers? Along with Mani is the much-laureled Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a natural philosopher and some-time adventurer, who is determined to solve the mystery of the “Beast of Gévaudan.” What follows involves French-court courtship, martial-arts, French-court politics, a mess of cultists, and even some aristocratic incest. And of course there’s that big wolf monster cutting down the peasantry with impunity.

The stylistic approach Christophe Gans employs is apt for a narrative as convoluted as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Granted, he allows himself one-hundred and forty minutes to spin his yarn, but a miniseries’ worth of characters, events, and twists is jammed therein. The cinematic bombardment is pinned onto the plot bombardment: slo-mo combat set pieces, where one man (typically Iroquois) dispatches the baddies with an unchanging expression; staggered “pan and pause” shots setting things up for some not-so-subtle action foreshadowing; and even a few reverse chromatic effects for no reason other than, “Hey, you know what would look cool?”-ism. Having immersed myself during the ’90s in some of the best action movies the decade had to offer, I saw all their elements distilled in the service of an obscure eighteenth-century wolf legend1)Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.. I was overwhelmed with what could be best described as “smirking nostalgia.”

Alas, while Brotherhood of the Wolf stands as tour-de-force that attains considerable novelty through its impressive derivativeness, it is something of a “weekend warrior” in the realm of weird movies. Gans keeps the movie’s tone turned up throughout the run time, but despite being the director of the second (ever) Certified title, he seems more commercially inclined with this “French historical action horror” romp. But I have no complaints about that what-so-ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory… I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.

CAPSULE: MOLLY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Colinda Bongers, Thijs Meuwese

FEATURING: Julia Batelaan, Annelies Appelhof

PLOT: Gifted with supernatural powers, Molly survives as a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world, while a warlord tries to capture her and force her to become his champion in deadly cage fights.

Still from Molly (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Molly‘s main—well, only—claim to weirdness is its namesake’s superpowers, and the fact that they’re entirely unexplained. That’s not enough to qualify it as a truly bizarre film, let alone one of the weirdest ever made. Still, although it may have mainstream genre aspirations, normals will never see Molly as one of their own.

COMMENTS: Detailed worldbuilding is not Molly‘s strong suit. It would rather focus on kicking ass. It throws you into its post-apocalyptic milieu without much explanation, trusting you have seen enough Mad Max movies to know what’s going on. Tropes like the lone scavenger, the orphan of the wasteland, the barter-based economy, and a scaled-down Thunderdome-style arena ground you. Other concepts are not fully explored: what exactly are the “supplicants”? They seem to be either an underclass (everyone who is not a warlord), or a nickname for the cage fighters, or simply people who (futilely and foolishly) ask others for food. Most significant of all, Molly’s telekinetic superpowers are not explained, although there are a few obscure hints, and the ending suggests that an (unlikely) sequel might explain more about her origins.

Molly’s magical abilities are important because they level the playing field, helping to explain how this slip of a gal, just barely out of her teenage years and not tipping the scales at much more than a hundred pounds, can slug it out toe-to-toe with the baddest asses the Wasteland has to offer. Make no mistake, fighting is what Molly is all about. She can be shrewd, to be sure—she uses a rope to retrieve her only arrow so she can fire it multiple times—but mostly, she takes on crews of guys almost twice her size with nothing but kicks, punches, and swipes from her wicked handsaw. There are three or four major fights sprinkled throughout the first part, but the final act is basically an extended thirty-minute melee as Molly carves her way through a small army of punk henchmen and drug-crazed zombie fighters on a oil rig turned floating fiefdom. Few of Molly‘s performers, including the lead, are especially athletic or polished; but, as other reviewers have pointed out, the film uses its performer’s clumsiness to its advantage. The battles feel authentic, like messy, stumbling, bone-crunching street brawls rather than precisely choreographed ballets. (At one point, Molly pelts an assailant with tin cans grabbed off a shelf.) Clever editing, including some invisible cuts used to make some of the fights appear to be done in a single take, helps immensely. At times it the camera employs a high shutter speed (the “Saving Private Ryan effect”) which reduces motion blur, making scenes seem choppier but allowing you to see details like water droplets or globs of sand suspended in the air. It’s a technique I find annoying in high budget films, but in a modest effort like this I think it’s a good choice to add some camouflage to the amateur stunt work. Sometimes the filmmakers shoot with a jerky handheld camera to emphasize the chaos, and at other times the camera is stable, allowing the performers to stagger about; they aren’t locked into a particular style, but go with whatever feels right for the scene. The pièce de résistance occurs when Molly finds herself hanging upside down over the fighting pit while supplicants claw at her. Molly—both character and film—survives by pure ingenuity.

Molly is far from perfect, as befits its modest, ramshackle setting. Freckly Batelaan is appealing in the lead—though I kept wondering how she kept her bookworm glasses on through all the fights, when mine fall off my face every time I bend over to pick up my car keys. The rest of the acting is iffy; the main villain is not over-the-top enough, and his top henchwoman, with her cybernetic arm, easily outshines him. The small budget is apparent throughout. But despite these handicaps, Molly manages to assemble an entertaining ninety minutes, and it does it the hard way—by making a fast-paced action film rather than relying on dialogue. Fight scenes are difficult to stage, and if Molly‘s crew can produce reasonable-looking ones on this meager budget, we can only imagine what they’d pull off with significant resources behind them. As a rental, you could do a lot worse than Molly; and, as a filmmaker, you could do a lot worse your first time out than making a movie people could do a lot worse than seeing.

In an earlier age Molly might have graced drive-in screens. Nowadays, Artsploitation releases it straight to home video and video-on-demand. The DVD and Blu-ray come with thirty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and a director’s commentary from Thijs Meuwese; these featurettes will be inspiring to fellow low budget filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese have managed to create a fun post-apocalyptic caper, and even more impressively: they manage to surprise.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE MEG (2018)

Every year that 366 Weird movie readers have been sending  me to the Summer blockbusters, I’ve managed to actually see one good or at least remotely passable movie picked from the poll. Not so in 2018. All three picks, including this week’s, The Meg, scraped the barrel’s bottom.  366 readers found the summer goldmine of  blockbuster feces, but didn’t even bother to spot me for a pack of peanut butter M&Ms to alleviate their sadism in sending me to both Slender Man and The Meg in one weekend. As this may be (or not) our last Summer Blockbuster together, I’ll thank you for not sending me out with a bang, but rather feeling like barely getting through a trilogy of embarrassments. Actually, neither movie was as fun as a Wood opus. If only he were still around to inject some inspired lunacy. That’s the problem with The Meg; it neither realizes its dumbness, nor is it dumb enough. It’s not hard to imagine the boardroom scenario: “We’re going to do a shark movie. Jaws made a ton of money.”

“The last few Jaws movies were flops.”

“Yeah, so we’re going to change the name to The Meg.”

“‘The Meg’?”

“Yeah, like the Megalodon. So, see instead of it being a 25 foot great white, it’ll be a 75 foot prehistoric shark.”

“So, kind of like Jurassic Park meets Jaws?”

“Exactly. We throw in a good looking cast and we’ll make a killing.”

And it is making a killing, because as long as something is marketed right, Americans will consume anything that is fed to them. In his TV and film career, spanning 25 years,  director John Turteltaub has been consistent in never once having an original thought or producing an original work. In short, he’s a hack, and if he has anything resembling a style, it is his derivativeness.

In a recent interview with Collider, Turteltaub defends his excrement with “I didn’t set out to win any awards,” which is the paint-by-numbers auto-response for something embarrassingly bad. Although he did admit that he wanted it to be “R” rated (it might have helped) and hinted at a lot of studio interference, he also had the chutzpah to claim he didn’t pander to audiences, before then talking about the ways in which he did pander to audiences. I wouldn’t doubt studio interference, but I doubt it would have been much better had the studio left him alone to craft his masterpiece.

Usually, the legitimate complaint about Jaws ripoffs is that they take Stephen Spielberg’s reworking of Melville about three men, one of whom is an Ahab-like character, facing a community terror, and turn it into a slasher film focused on a shark who is a replacement for Michael Meyers. Still, with as little as Turteltaub had to work with from the screenplay (Jan and Eric Hoeber and Dean Georgaris adapting the “reportedly” superior novel by Steve Alten), it might have been smarter to focus more on the beast. Instead, he makes the movie a star vehicle for stud muffin Jason Statham as Jonas (you know; the Bible guy in the belly of the whale). While Statham is no Robert Shaw, he does have adolescent charisma that would do, if only the movie supplied him plenty of shark ass to kick.

There’s an early nod to submarine-in-peril melodramas (e.g. Gray Lady Down) that requires an expert rescuer. Of course that would be Jonas, but he has a haunted past. The portrayal of inner torment, however, is a mere sketch that can’t offer the pathos of a U.S.S Indianapolis experience or anything in the way of Old Testament lessons. Then, the movie makes a fatal mistake. It spends the next half on… nothing.  Instead of offering anything in the way of characters, there’s a lot of techno mumbo jumbo, mixed with occasionally cheesy dialogue, including about a half minute of a half-baked sermon about the immorality of hunting whales, etc.

Cliched archetypes abound; the shady billionaire financier, the joker sidekick, and a potential romance with a marine biologist (Bingbing Li) who, despite being smart-as-a-whip, needs rescued a lot by he-man Jonas.

Still from The MEG (2018)Then, there’s the shark, which is a complete CGI failure. Spielberg’s mechanical shark Bruce, for all its off-screen malfunctioning, felt threatening. That is not the case with the Meg, which looks like a souped-up version of “Jabberjaw.”  She whizzes by, and we never actually sense her there.

The late-in-the-film big set piece is a blatant ripoff of the beach scene in Jaws. For a moment, it looks like it’s either going to full-out one-up the original source, with an ocean-full of primary colored balloons and lifejackets and a poor tyke about to prove that the world is one big restaurant; either that, or U.S.S Indianapolis-meets- Godzilla. But, it’s too late in the game, and the movie chickens out of going either direction. The scene, like the film itself, evaporates.

I vividly remember seeing Jaws on its opening weekend in 1975. Dad took us to see it, and the theater employees were busy cleaning up from the previous audience where someone had vomited. Everything in Jaws—from the two guys on the pier complaining about a wife’s roast, to Scheider’s improvised sweaty line, the interplay between Dreyfuss and Shaw (most people don’t get the beer can image today since beer cans in 1975 were made of a harder aluminum, not tin)—all of it seemed intimate, which heightened the horror.

Comparatively, The Meg is an a adolescent cartoon, and not even a fun one at that.

BATMAN NINJA (2018)

Batman Ninja (2018, directed by Junpei Mizusaki) is an utterly bizarre hoot; the most refreshing take on the Batman character since 2014’s The Lego Movie. It’s about time that the Dark Knight got a face lift. Reportedly, fanboys are heading to drugstores by the busload, buying out all the Preparation H. From the reactions I scanned on IMDB, the general consensus is “Batman can’t be in Feudal Japan!” Uh, boys, do you remember the day mummy told you that the Jolly Green Giant wasn’t real? Ditto.

However, it’s more than concept alone that makes Batman Ninja a thoroughly enjoyable, off-kilter adventure. It’s also one of the most visually dazzling animation efforts I’ve seen (famed anime designer Takashi Okazaki practically has a kaleidoscopic, calligraphic watercolor orgasm onscreen, and its gorgeous). Additionally, Batman Ninja takes a nothing-is-sacred approach, which undoubtedly is the inspiration for the sound of exploding, angst-ridden batfundie heads heard all over social media.

Batman and Catwoman are having a  bit of a tiff with Gorilla Grodd (the old Flash nemesis) who has a time-teleporting thingamajig . Lo and behold; Batman is in feudal Japan. The film is hyper-kinetically paced. Within seconds, he is dueling with a small gang of Joker-faced samurai, which of course leads him to Lord Joker himself as well as Harley Quinn.

Catwoman arrives, too. She is a geisha with a kitty puppet, and she makes Dolly Parton look like an A cup. Oh, and she bought Alfred (not me, Bruce Wayne’s butler), too, and the Batmobile. Smartly, Misuski and company resist the boring temptations of Batman traditions. They get a new use out of the Batcycle, turning it into a suit of armor. When the battle begins, Batman has an arsenal of batninjas backing him up. Grodd, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Deathstroke, and sumo wrestler Bane (!) all exist in feudal Japan; each has his or her own territory, and they are fighting for control—a bit like the mafia in Godfather.

Batman needs all the help he can get, so several Robins come to save the day, including a red Robin, and one with a green mohawk who has a chimpanzee for a sidekick! Robin himself is no longer Robin: he’s lost his primary colors and become a gray clad-ninja called Nightwing.

The battles come fast and furious, including one in Joker’s castle, one at sea with a Joker clipper ship, metallic simians, magic bats, and Bane mantling George “Watch Out for That Tree” of the Jungle.

In addition to the anime style (which suits Batman well), Batman Ninja has its tongue-firmly-in cheek with purple dialogue: “I am no longer the Batman. I will be what the bat clan calls me. I will be their prophecy. I will be Sengoku Batman.” Batman as a samurai isn’t even half of it. He disguises himself as a monk and gets a tonsure hairdo—in the shape of the bat signal. Harley Quinn and Catwoman engine in pseudo-lesbian combat (busty lesbians, with groan-inducing dialogue, of course). In-jokes are aplenty, with wacky nods to Transformers, Planet of the Apes, War of the Gargantuas, For a Few Dollars More, Legend of the Seven Golden VampiresPower Rangers, and The Empire Strikes Back, to name a few.

This is the opposite of ‘s white trash take on super people, and of all the Freudian Batmans we’ve been inundated with since Frank Miller. Thankfully,  unnecessary character development  and formulaic writing go the way of the dinosaur, and with all that out of the way, Batman Ninja is a creative and surreal romp. After seeing a 70-year-old plus character go from camp to dystopian, and to just plain godawful, Mizusaki actually does something new with it. Sure, Hamburger Helper-variety batfans will probably keel over from seeing their pedestaled funny paper deity put through the wringer and their formula diet challenged, but the rest of us can invite our weirdest friends over for one helluva extra anchovy pizza party and Batman Ninja.

P.S.  Stay put for the credits.

HOTTER THAN HELL ITSELF: KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)

Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.

At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up  to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).

Still from Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park could very well be to 1970s TV movies what Manos: The Hands of Fate was for the 60s: a movie so Continue reading HOTTER THAN HELL ITSELF: KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)

CAPSULE: GHAJINI (2008)

DIRECTED BY: A.R. Murugadoss

FEATURING: Aamir Khan, Asin, Pradeep Rawat, Jiah Khan

PLOT: A dashing young CEO suffering short-term memory loss hunts the gangster who killed his fiancée.

Still from Ghajini (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghajini is mostly just clumsy blockbuster entertainment, appearing weird only to Westerners unfamiliar with Bollywood’s much looser tolerance of narrative coherence. In its home country, it was actually a hit, both financially and with critics.

COMMENTS: At about the thirty-minute mark of Ghajini, an unprepared viewer might assume someone at the DVD factory in New Delhi messed up and burned reels from a different movie onto the disc. Up until this point, you’ve been watching a dark revenge thriller about a tattooed amnesiac maniac. Suddenly, a narrator introduces himself as Sanjay Singhania, suave cell phone magnate, a prelude which segues into an MTV-style video with dancing girls, and then we find ourselves immersed in a sappy mistaken-identity romantic comedy, with a model pretending she’s Sanjay’s boyfriend, while unbeknownst to her he’s pretending to be an actor helping her with her deception… try not to get whiplash from one of the most violent tone shifts you’ve ever seen in a commercial film. What turns out to be a flashback lasts for about 45 minutes (with more upbeat musical numbers), ending on a “will they get married” cliffhanger… and then we’re back in the first movie, where the tattooed man delivers a brutal beating to the police officer who had been reading his diary. We’ll return to the lighthearted romantic comedy again later, which ends as all good comedies do… with the brutal torture and killing of the female lead after she uncovers a kidney-stealing ring preying on orphan girls.

Ghajini is pretty exhausting, honestly. It steals borrows plenty from the (vastly superior) thriller Memento, only with an anti-hero who has gained bone-crunching kickboxing skills along with short-term memory loss from a blow to the head. Oh, and musical numbers, and, as mentioned, a romantic comedy with a tragic ending as a bonus film. All this in a mere three hours! If you’re looking for even more, there’s the hammy performance of beefy Aamir Khan, who, despite his impressive physique, turns out to be better suited to comedy than action/drama (where he relies on over-the-top, animalistic howls and face-churning grimaces to convey grief). You also may have fun picking out the plot holes, like the basic question: why, if the hero is a multi-millionaire, does he choose to live like a squatter in a run-down apartment rather than using the vast resources at his disposal to bring his enemy to justice? I mean, a competent personal assistant would have been far more helpful in keeping him on-task in his revenge quest than a bunch of mysterious scribbled notes, Polaroids, and tattoos are.

My guess is that the romantic comedy portion of the film (which has no third act) was adapted from an unpublished screenplay the studio had lying around, and incorporated to provide chick appeal and a more natural substrate for the mandatory Bollywood musical numbers. To make things even more confusing, Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of a 2005 Tamil-language film of the same name, by the same director, with some of the same cast. complained about Ghajini‘s similarities to Memento but did not take legal action; however, Murugadoss was sued (and even briefly arrested) by the producers of Ghajini (2005) for not properly securing remake rights.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experience almost too stimulating for the non-Indian nervous system, a blockbuster layer cake of full-strength escapist entertainment.”–David Chute, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “jenn” who called it “an indian remake of ‘momento’… its a bit weird… its like momento, u know…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)