Tag Archives: Adventure

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.

At the movie’s center is ‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln in The Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from his condescending, sadistic grin to his prickly use of his hands—is electric. Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.

Still from The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)Although an atypical MGM production, Mask of Fu Manchu was lined with typical top studio talent. Co-written by Edgar Allen Wolf (The Wizard Of Oz) and John Willard (The Cat And The Canary), co-directed by Charles Brabin (1925’s Ben-Hur) and Charles Vidor (1946), gowns by the famous Adrian (Grand Hotel), and art direction by Cedric Gibbons (Singin’ in the Rain).

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is filled to the brim with mockery of Christian platitudes. Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See take every opportunity to sadistically ridicule WASP hypocrisy and, as bland as the heroes are, it’s easy to root for the villains—particularly when the opium addled antagonists are gleefully preparing to sacrifice the dull, virginal Karen Morley as she screams: “You hideous yellow monsters!” The plot is ho-hum, and the film manages to be alternately animated and static. It’s the trashy dialogue, villainous leads, erotic art direction, and sumptuous photography that sell it as an excuse for torture scenes, alligators, and genocidal death rays, oh my!

Still from Murders in the Zoo (1933)The opening scene of Murders In the Zoo (1933), in which sews a man’s mouth shut, was considered so gruesome that the film was long banned in England. The film shares certain themes with both Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1933), but its uniqueness lies in Atwill’s manic, savory performance and its zoological themes. (Not coincidentally, apart from Atwill, the only performance of note is Kathleen Burke, AKA “the Panther Woman” from Island of Lost Souls). It is unfortunate that Atwill was wasted in Hollywood. He should have gone down as a horror star ranking near Karloff. Apart from playing the Burgermeister to inspectors and politicos, he only was permitted to shine in half a dozen or so features, one of which is the grand-guignol Murders In The Zoo. 

Here, Atwill plays the malevolent Dr. Eric Gorman, a distant cousin to both Dangerous Games‘ hunter of humans Zaroff and Island‘s self-styled God Dr. Moreau. Among Gorman’s victims is his much put upon wife Evelyn (Burke), whom he eventually feeds to crocodiles. After committing crimes against humanity in the jungles, Gorman acclimates himself into American society with relative ease. His vast wealth buys and influences friends. True to Depression-era morality, the elitist super rich are cold, calculating villains, the dregs of society, and (here) the true beasts. Quite a bit of time is spent on this social commentary, in between some rather nasty bookended homicides and brutal pre-Code misogyny.

The film’s primary flaw lies in the comedy relief supplied by Charles Ruggles. Most of that is forgiven in an elaborately staged banquet hall finale, with the self-appointed deity meeting his comeuppance, courtesy of unlocked cages and Mother Nature.

CAPSULE: AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Del Negro, Ruy Guerra

PLOT: 16th-century Spanish nobleman Aguirre convinces an Amazonian scouting party to turn against their commander and continue a futile trek down the river in search of the fabled city of “El Dorado”; privation, massacres, and death ensue.

Still from Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is certainly atypical, but the only truly weird thing about it is that it is one of the few movies featuring Klaus Kinski in which his role is not overshadowed by his ding an sich.

COMMENTS: There are any number of good things to say about this movie, and I’ve little doubt that most have been said already (by reviewers far more experienced and informed than I). Still, for what it’s worth, I’ll boldly take the stance that, yes, this movie is amazing, and anyone who considers him or herself a cinephile should watch it, and that no, it does not qualify for the auspicious (dubious?) honor of being “Certified Weird.”

The two factors that would have most likely planted this movie firmly in the “weird” category in conjunction, somehow, preclude that possibility. A young Werner Herzog directs a young Klaus Kinski, filming in the middle of a Peruvian rainforest. The story concerns the mishaps of a clutch of very misguided conquistadors who, defying all logic, continue on a suicidal mission to find “El Dorado”, until they meet a very grim fate indeed. So far, so promising. However, the whole prospect of “weirdness” gets derailed within the first five minutes, as things quickly become very real and very grounded in a believable depiction of the febrile hardship that would necessarily come of such an ill-equipped and poorly planned expedition.

The opening shot invokes something close to Heaven, as the audience sees tall mountain peaks obscured by vaporous clouds. Popol Vuh’s choir-like score enhances the detachment from the world below. The next cut brings the action back to earth, as a serpentine procession of Spanish soldiers and Indian slaves trickles slowly down. Weapons, armor, cannons, and food are all being laboriously maneuvered down the narrow path, along with two cumbersome sedan chairs for the ladies in the group. The red uniforms make a zig-zagging crimson line, slowly flowing from the top of a peak down into the lush, tropical mire below.

Foreshadowing comes quickly, as Pizarro and Aguirre confer by the river’s edge. “No one can get down that river alive,” Aguirre asserts. “I tell you, we can do it,” replies Pizarro, “From here it will be easier.” Aguirre retorts, “No. We’re all going to go under.” In this brief bit of dialogue, the rest of the movie is laid out, and the movie becomes no longer concerned with what’s going to happen, but with how it’s going to happen.

The minimalist camerawork provides a sense of documentary footage for a great deal of the film. Characters are observed as they stare blankly at the water, or stare blankly at the surrounding jungle, or even as they stare blankly at the camera. The action is disjointed, but linear, as various forward jumps occur, typically narrated with a specific date. The merciless crunch of time weighs on the viewer, as he sees the terrible state of the men, only to find in the next scene they have somehow survived another four weeks of this torment. And while they are all either starving, collapsing from fever, or being stealthily murdered by hostile natives, they are under the watchful eye of the nobleman Aguirre.

Kinski provides his signature otherworldly presence in his depiction of Aguirre, but the effect does not come across as jarring. On a number of occasions Aguirre refers to himself either as “God” or “the Wrath of God”, and often has a habit of looking over those around him as if they were some sort of insects. The Aguirre “vibe” is one of megalomaniacal narcissism (if that’s redundant, it is appropriately so), and no actor other than Kinski could have delivered the look and temperament required of so zealous a leader.

This adds up to a movie that is a) narratively comprehensible, b) credible, and c) troubling, but appropriately so. See it by all means: the performances are all top-notch, the pacing is incredible (Herzog somehow manages to squeeze just the right amounts of madness and tedium in a 94-minute movie), and the sound and visuals will knock your socks off. Were this site “366 stunning movies.com”, Aguirre would be first on the list (and not only because of the title…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, then hallucinatory.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies

(This movie was nominated for review  by Eric, who correctly asserted “whether [this] make this list or no, nobody’s time watching [it] will have been wasted.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: VIKINGDOM (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Yusry Kru

FEATURING: Dominic Purcell, Conan Stevens, Craig Fairbrass, Natassia Malthe, Jesse Moss, Jon Foo, Patrick Murray 

PLOT: A medieval Viking king who’s been raised from the dead goes on a quest to defeat the god Thor, who wants to destroy Earth because he is jealous of the rise of Christianity.

Still from Vikingdom (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s bad, but outside of a couple of head-scratching scenes, not so-bad-it’s-weird.

COMMENTS: Made by Malaysians and played out on CGI-sets that look like black metal album covers, Vikingdom is an odd film whose stupid title telegraphs the level of sophistication involved. I don’t mean to insult the Malaysian film industry; I suspect that if a group of Norwegian filmmakers tried to make an epic film based on traditional Malay mythology, the results would be equally dubious.

The details of the quest storyline are overcomplicated and confused. Essentially, Thor (the massive Conan Stevens, whose wig is dyed that unnatural pink-red shade typical of the Wendy’s mascot) is pissed at the popularity of Christianity and wants to crucify a few priests and steal the sacred necklace of Mary Magdalene (?) as a prelude to opening the gates of Hel and destroying the Middle Kingdom. Opposing him is the former king Eirick, beloved of the goddess Freya, who raised him from the dead when he fell on the battlefield. After coming back to life Eirick spends ten years living as a hermit in the wilderness. We first encounter the shirtless hero in a snowstorm; using only his dagger, he kills and skins a bear for its hide. (I would have done that the first winter). The glam-god Frey, Freya’s more feminine twin brother in a fabulous glowing yellow cloak, visits Eirick’s cabin and informs him that thanks to his undead/semi-dead status, he will be able to enter the underworld to seize the Gilded Horn that, when blown in Thor’s face (!) will destroy the god’s Earthly avatar and send him back to the place of spirits. Eirick reluctantly agrees and sets out assembling a mini-army in bad wigs, including a loyal slab of beefcake, a kickboxing Chinese slave (?), a babe who’s so hot she can bare her midriff even in the arctic winter, and many more lovable sidekicks with backstorys to squeeze in. After storming a random village and killing everyone they see, the good guys rescue an ancient wizard with a shrubbery growing between his shoulder blades who tells them how to get to Helsgate. When they arrive Eirick enters Hel, dives into the Gate of Souls (the afterlife’s hottest dogpile, where the world’s deceased strumpets go to be covered in gold leaf and lie in a giant flesh pyramid for all eternity), before being chased by a macrocephalic dragon into the Sea of Inspirational Appearances by Supporting Characters. And that’s just the first half!

Of course, that summary makes Vikingdom sound like a lot more fun than it actually is. This is one of those films where you will largely be required to supply your own entertainment. The filmmakers are mightily over-serious, believing that they are making a -esque fantasy epic, when in reality the final result looks like a TV pilot for a syndicated series that was never picked up (“Thor: The Legendary Journeys,” or “Eirick: Undead Prince”). Since most of the movie was shot against a green-screen—the portable contemporary version of the studio backlot—Malaysia is not even destined to be the next New Zealand. The two hour-plus running length is a clue that the filmmakers did not clearly grasp that their target audience should be children and B-movie fans who want to get to the set pieces and fights as quickly as possible, bypassing talk and cliche character development. The plot twists are as blunt as Thor’s hammer. On the plus side, the battle scenes are not too bad, involving some interesting tactics (overlapping shields used as an umbrella against arrows), gouts of blood, and head-scratching moments (Jon Foo’s out-of-left-field medieval kung fu moves). With a faster pace, Vikingdom could have been a zippy camp spectacle; instead, it’s a cross-cultural train wreck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will surely be savaged by critics and honestly enjoyed only by the most naive audiences (though there will be plenty of cynical types who, like myself, will read the film as a camp production or accidental comedy)… not a great movie, or even a very good one, but it is an original – and sort of adorable – one.”–Philip Martin, Arkansas Gazette (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: RENEGADE (2014)

“Renegade” is an homage to 1940’s pulp magazines, you may assume correctly that there’s a good guy, a bad guy, and a damsel in distress. What makes these stories unique, and even weird by today’s standards, is what the good guy has to go through to save said damsel from her distress. “Renegade” maintains a great approach, and fortunately doesn’t go as far as the notorious story featured in Man’s Life, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh“.

LIST CANDIDATE: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley

PLOT: During the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field while searching for an ale-house. In that field, they unearth (oddly literally) a fifth companion, who turns out to be a domineering alchemist. He manipulates the four deserters into hunting for a buried treasure, leading them on a journey of dubious magic, self-discovery, and psychedelia.

Still from A Field in England (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The last Ben Wheatley film I saw–Kill List–ended on a weird, brutally discordant note and it had its dark inexplicable moments, but I didn’t recommend it for the List because it felt too calculated and purposeful. A Field in England, on the other hand, is fully spontaneous, right up to the vaguely cyclical ending, and weirdness is its baseline. Those palatable touches of order and familiarity, like the vaguely heroic character arc and melodramatic villain, seem to spring wholesale out of the film’s twisted substrate; they serve, if anything, to orient and emphasize the weirdness, rather than undermining it. Because it is both random, and confident in its randomness, I submit A Field in England for consideration.

COMMENTS: A Field in England is a grimy, trippy gonzo costume adventure, one of the least heroic and most eccentric swashbuckler narratives I’ve been privy to. The story is so constrained, it’s almost cute: during the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field where they are manipulated into hunting for a buried treasure. Matters of friendship, power, fear, life, and death ensue, and a loose, quirky hero’s story takes shape, though it’s driven more by suggestive leaps of happenstance than by fate or necessity.

Like Wheatley’s previous Kill List, A Field in England benefits from being a pastiche. It wears the heritage of historical adventure films on its sleeve, but it also has buddy-comedy and art-film elements, and it brings it disparate tones together admirably. One of its special accomplishments is to operate as an art-film while exhibiting a British comedy’s sense of humor. The dialogue and situational gags are dry and crass, and they serve to establish the five characters in a way that makes them genuinely endearing, even as we puzzle over what the hell is actually happening to them.

The five main characters have names, Wikipedia informs me, but I didn’t really pick up on them during the film. To me, they represented archetypes: the coward (Whitehead), the soldier (Jacob), the fool (Friend), the lackey (Cutler), and the evil mastermind (O’Neill). Of these five, Whitehead got all the most pivotal roles, and Field ends up being his story. His character arc provided a framework for all the other relationships and interactions, and though he didn’t have the funniest or most endearing moments, he drove all the key developments in the non sequiturish plot. Without Whitehead and his four boorish cohorts, the movie might have been almost unwatchable, but it actually went down pretty smooth.

As I said before, the reason this is an accomplishment is that the narrative logic of the film is genuinely random, driven by a sort of weird intuition with no respect for cause and effect. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the film’s hallucinogenic drug subtext, which led to some trippy, seizure-inducing sequences accompanying the major plot points. It only worked because the whole film had a foggy, disorienting quality, disconnected from its own reality, with an unstable relationship between dreamy detachment and visceral sensory amplification. The swing from one extreme to the other is epitomized in Whitehead’s psychedelic character climax, where he shifts from a sort of bleary, stupefied slow-motion degenerate into a potent force of nature, a raging hurricane-god rising up from the swaying of the wheat fields.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo… a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC (2010)

Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louise Bourgoin, Nicolas Giraud, Jacky Nercessian, Gilles Lellouche, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre,

PLOT: In 1911, novelist and adventuress Adele Blanc-Sec seeks an ancient Egyptian cure to bring her twin sister out of a coma; her plans are interrupted when she must deal with a pterodactyl who is terrorizing Paris.

Still from The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s more Spielberg-on-the-Seine than a weird movie per se.

COMMENTS: Adèle Blanc-Sec will probably remind you of those fantasy/adventure hybrids from the mid-1980s, movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Young Sherlock Holmes that mixed swashbuckling with the supernatural in an attempt to cash in on the cachet of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you imagine Audrey Tautou’s Amelie Poulain cast in the role of Indiana Jones, you wouldn’t be too far off the style here. Assaying the title character from a popular series of French graphic novels, newcomer Louise Bourgoin (previously a weather girl) stars as a proto-feminist novelist/adventurer at the dawn of the 20th century, the era just before the myths and legends of the ancient past were scoured away by the mustard gas blast of World War I. Interestingly, although all of her foils are male, no one in the French patriarchy comments on Blanc-Sec’s gender. She’s so confident and forceful in her actions—always seizing the initiative and never giving anyone else the opportunity to object—that we really believe her sex is not an issue. Adele bumbles around like an absent-minded professor, blind to everything that is alien to her goal of resurrecting her sister from her coma, including the clumsy advances of a young scientist who’s smitten by her. Yet, she’s also incredibly composed under pressure, not even breaking a sweat when she’s captured by an oily nemesis in the middle of raiding a pharaoh’s tomb.

Bourgoin is excellent in the role, and what success the movie achieves is largely due to her performance. Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. The cinematography is great, the set design (from desert tombs to Adele’s apartment, cluttered with relics from her adventures) is fantastic, and director Luc Besson’s eye for composition is as imaginative as always. Unfortunately, when it comes to effects and makeup, Blanc-Sec is not up to contemporary standards, giving the movie a cheap, ersatz Hollywood sheen that detracts from the sense of wonder the movie is desperate to instill. The pterodactyl is fine in closeups, but when it’s animated in clumsy CGI, it looks about a decade or more behind current technology. The grotesque Halloween makeup is unnecessary; it’s purpose, it seems, is to transform the onscreen characters into the exact duplicates of the characters from the graphic novel. One character has ridiculous eyebrows, another has unnatural dark spots surrounding his eye sockets, and the nutty professor of parapsychology wears a liver-spotted latex mask that just looks wrong. The makeup all looks slightly uncanny rather than whimsically cartoonish, as intended. The comic plot tries very hard to entertain, with telepathic connections to dinosaurs, a Clouseau-esque investigator who accidentally talks into his shoe, and reanimated Egyptians who speak perfect French and are fond of pranks. In fact, if anything Adele Blanc Sec may try a little too hard to impress, coming off as desperate; but any movie that manages to fit both pterodactyls and mummies into its running time has something to recommend it.

France just doesn’t have the funds to compete with Hollywood when it comes to blockbuster international entertainment; even in its dubbed version, Adele Blanc-Sec barely played American theaters (although the film did well in the Far East, surprisingly, and managed to break even on its budget). The movie arrived unceremoniously on Region 1 DVD three years late, without fanfare, from specialty distributor Shout! Factory. In a small controversy, a brief and apparently inconsequential scene of Bourgoin bathing in the nude was not included in Shout!’s initial release (as it had been snipped from the U.S. theatrical print). Three weeks later, however, Shout! issued a “director’s cut” with the topless footage included, forcing early-bird cinephiles to double dip if they wanted to catch the double nips.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Matching lavish period sets to surreal visual effects, Besson has crafted a feast for the eyes – but while there is absurdity aplenty on display here, the film also requires a very high tolerance for the broadest of humour and the slightest of whimsy.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (1983)

Les Trois Couronnes du Matelot

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Raoul Ruiz

FEATURING: Jean-Bernard Guillard, Philippe Deplanche

PLOT: A weary sailor promises a desperate student passage on a sailing ship, but first he

Still from Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983)

relates tales of his surreal adventures in ports around the world.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s easier to think of reasons Three Crowns of the Sailor should make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies than reasons it shouldn’t. It won’t make it on the first ballot because it lacks a “wow” factor; with its subtle, literary tone, it’s more of a slow burn movie, one that seems likely to grow in stature the more one thinks about it. Time will tell whether it will end up Listed among the best; in the meantime, director Raoul Ruiz has better known movies that may deserve Listing before this one.

COMMENTS: In the first post-credits sequence of Three Crowns of the Sailor, a student is discussing his crimes in the first person; as he wanders the streets in post-offense panic, he begins talking about himself in the third person. This is an appropriate digression, because in Crowns one character is always turning into another. Situations, dialogues and symbols recur with variations; one of the crew of the cursed ship Funchalese will often blame his actions on “the other,” some perpetual double always hiding out below decks. The film’s main themes are storytelling (stories are told inside of other stories), forgetfulness, otherness, and escape, and totems also show up across the seaman’s wandering tales, especially jewelry and money. The nameless sailor continually borrows money from his seafaring brethren, keeping himself in a constant state of debt that ties him to the ship. Each of the episodes the sailor relates are absurd—such as the time he fell for the exotic dancer with only one orifice, or when his shipmates give birth to worms through their boils—but they are also verbally and intellectually playful, inspired almost as much by Jorge Luis Borges as by Luis Buñuel. Each of the sailors is tattooed with a single letter, to stress that they are all individual elements that go together to form a sentence and eventually a story. Our old salt is rescued by a child who lives inside a vast house with edges he has never been able to locate in his explorations. The sailor tells him his life story, but the boy informs him that those anecdotes have already been told in the books that line the house’s infinite walls. Other memorable conceits include children chanting the 365 names of the male organ outside a bordello window, a sentence served in prison with a guru who teaches the inmates the basics of theology, and a second prophet, a black supremacist who requests three Danish crowns. The sailor’s bizarre tour of the world’s exotic ports plays with reality in a way that’s deliberately intended to confound; the framing story where he encounters the student adheres to a fantastical folktale logic that makes for a pleasing contrast. If you’re in the mood for literate confusion with a vein of humor as black and dry as gunpowder, you couldn’t do much better than Three Crowns of a Sailor.

Incredibly, Three Crowns of a Sailor was made for broadcast on French television. According to Ruiz the story was inspired by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and a Chilean legend about a ship of the dead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…should delight students of semiotics and probably no one else.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who explained it featured “a lot of mystic characters, events, Latin America ‘bordelieras’, beautiful ‘putas’, and when you see worms squeezed out of boils on a sailor’s chest, and later these worms metamorphosing into poisonous butterflies killing the birds who eat them, you understand that this movie is to be mentioned here.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)