Tag Archives: Mythology

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

is practically American cinema’s masochistic patron saint of Juvenile Delinquent exploitation garbage. Guided by daddy Arch Sr. (who penned the script and produced) The Choppers was Junior’s first film in a mercifully brief career (he retired in 1965 to become a musician and aviator—daddy was ex-Air Force).

To most contemporary viewers, Hall, Jr. is possibly best known for his second film, Eegah (1962), after it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000—although to the cult crowd, his crowning achievement is 1963’s The Sadist. Both of these will be covered here, along with Wild Guitar (1962), in upcoming exploitation collections from their respective years.

In Leigh Jason’s The Choppers, Hall is cast as Jack “Cruiser Bryan, the greasy-haired rockabilly leader of a gang of car-part thievin’ JDs. After stripping down cars, the Choppers take their loot to junkyard dog Moose (Z-movie veteran Bruno VeSota, familiar from Attack of the Giant Leeches, Wasp Woman and Bucket of Blood), who gives them ten cents on every buck!

Still from The Choppers (1961)Working out of their chicken coop truck, the Choppers also siphon gas out of unsuspecting vehicles, with Cruiser taking the role of the lookout guy who taps the steering wheel to the radio music he loves (which, the credits reveal, is Hall’s own song). For most of the film, the Choppers remain one step ahead of bland coppers and insurance suits. Later, we actually get to see Hall strum his guitar and sing “Monkeys in my hat band, I can do a handstand.” The jaw-dropping scene alone makes the entire film worthwhile. With rhyming genius like that, we can totally understand how Cruiser is a chick magnet who attracts a 1959 Playboy centerfold!

The yawn-inducing plot requires a comeuppance, which seems a tad harsh for the Choppers stealing car parts, but the producers probably realized a minute or so of something resembling excitement was necessary.

Mario Bava‘s Hercules In The Haunted World stars with apocalyptic hair. Bava and Lee, together with a bulging pair of male mammary glands in a loincloth (Reg Park), overcome laughably bad dialogue, near-fatal comic relief, echo boxes informing us that “these are gods!”, a prosaic plot, shrill dubbing, a green monster who must have been an ancestor of Sigmund the Sea Monster, and a bulimic budget to produce one of the most psychedelic sword and sandal fantasy flicks of the early 60s.

Still from Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)With painted sets and sky, diaphanous tints, swirling ink vapors, and transcendent camerawork, Bava’s cardboard Hades is the quintessence of orgasmic psychedelia masquerading as Continue reading 1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

Have you had any interest from distributors?

The sales rep is talking to distributors. He’s saying, ‘Be patient.’ The distributors are afraid of the film because the film is weird. If you noticed.

You’d think that weird might be good.

Yes, weird should definitely be good, especially among these distributors who talk about how they’re into fresh, new original stuff. But they’re not. They’re the most cowardly creatures on the planet. I just got this big wave of good press, so that will make them realize it’s safer.”–Nina Paley, early Sita interview with Studio Daily

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Reena Shah, Debargo Sanyal, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Nina Paley, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

PLOT: The relationship between artists Nina and Dave is strained when Dave relocates to India for a job. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets discuss the legend of Sita (the avatar of the god Lakshmi) and Rama (Vishnu’s reincarnation) from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” introducing animated recreations of the story of the love affair between the two demigods. Portions of the story are further illustrated by musical numbers where a flapper version of Sita sings the ballads of 1930s torch singer Annette Hanshaw.

Still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama, the seventh human incarnation of the god Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon-king; he rescues her but then rejects her, unable to cure himself of the suspicion that she was unfaithful during her captivity. The epic Sanskrit poem is composed of 24,000 couplets, was written centuries before the birth of Christ, and is considered one of the key works of Hindu literature.
  • Paley was inspired to create Sita Sings the Blues by noting parallels between the dissolution of her own marriage and the failed relationship of Sita and Rama as told in “The Ramayana.” After her breakup, she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw while staying at a friend’s house, and incorporated the songs into the narrative.
  • Paley animated the movie almost entirely by herself on home computers (much of it in Adobe Flash); the process took three years. Although she was a working cartoonist before making Sita, she had no professional training as an animator.
  • Although universally praised in the west, Paley reported receiving criticisms from India from both the right (that the film was irreverent) and the left (that it represented a neocolonialist appropriation of Indian culture).
  • Paley originally released the movie under a liberal Creative Commons license, but later took the unusual decision to remove all restrictions and make the work a true public domain release. However, Annette Hanshaw’s music is still under copyright to its owners, so the film is not truly free and clear of restrictions (although no litigation has yet resulted from its continued distribution).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Selecting a single image from this visual smorgasbord is an impossible task. It’s likely that the characters from the Hanshaw musical numbers, with their undulating Flash graphics and comic book coloring, will stick in your memory the most: curvy, -ish Sita and her broad swiveling hips; buff, Hanna-Barbera-blue demigod Rama; and the many-headed, multi-limbed gods and demons who float through the story.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hindu big bang; flapper goddess; flying eyeball stalks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Paley is on record as suspecting that her homemade Hindu jazz epic was too “weird” to get a distribution contract. After Roger Ebert championed the film as “astonishingly original“, and it received overwhelming praise at festival screenings, the “weird” talk died down. It shouldn’t have. Sita is weird. It’s a proud, purposeful, defiant re-connection with humanity’s weird mythological roots, with primordial legends of hybrid god-monsters whose bizarre appearances only serve to magnify their very human foibles. Add in psychedelic animation, torch song musical numbers, and a chorus of unassuming non-omniscient shadow puppets, and you’ve got one strange and spicy stew of a home-cooked movie.


Theatrical release trailer for Sita Sings the Blues

COMMENTS: Sita Sings the Blues is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible Continue reading 237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

231. ORPHEUS (1950)

Orphée

“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , María Casares, François Périer, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe

PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.

Still from Orpheus (1950)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
  • Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
  • The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
  • Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
  • The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.


Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus

COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)

CAPSULE: THE FISHER KING (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer

PLOT: A guilt-ridden ex-shock jock discovers he has a tragic connection to a homeless man who believes himself to be a knight questing for the Holy Grail.

Still from The Fisher King (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although it has a couple of transcendent moments of magical Arthurian fantasy. As weird titan Terry Gilliam’s most popular and commercial (non-Python) film, it is an important touchstone in weird movie history, however.

COMMENTS: Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King starts out strong, as a karmic drama about creep disc jockey Jack hoist on his own petard of media cynicism. When Robin Williams appears as the junkyard knight Parry, attacking a pair of punks with a garbage can lid and the power of song, it briefly becomes a wacky comedy; then develops into a redemption fable as the relationship between Jack and Parry deepens. Magical realism appears in Parry’s Arthurian hallucinations of fiery knights riding through the streets of New York. These multiple tones actually mesh surprisingly well, until the tale goes errant into the Realms of Rom-com, from whence no sane plot emerges unscathed. It concludes with a happy ending that feels very un-Gilliam; the story requires a happy ending, but this one is too pat, too Hollywood. Maybe it’s all over the map, or maybe The Fisher King just has something for everyone; high drama and mythological touchstones for the art house crowd, comedy and sentimentality for the masses.

Plot and style aside, The Fisher King is an actor’s showcase, anchored not by headliner Robin Williams, but by the excellent Jeff Bridges as a self-centered Jack (a character who inevitably evokes Howard Stern). Bridges is slick and unlovable, admired by the public only for his outrageous cruelty. But because he suffers, and because his guilt is enormous and comes from a core that has not yet been drowned in the oily cynicism that engulfs the rest of the character, we root for him to reform. Williams, of course, is the Fool. Under Gilliam’s direction, he’s restrained so that his berserk improvisatory tendencies never overshadow the story and turn it into a Robin Williams vehicle. The comic still gets plenty of moments, both manic (a nude moonlight dance in Central Park) and mawkish (his romantic stoop speech to Lydia, in which he essentially confesses to being a stalker). Mercedes Ruehl is wonderful as Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend, a typical New York Jewish/Italian mutt in trampy miniskirts. This character, who has attached herself to a down-and-out ex-celebrity, could easily have come across as needy and pathetic, but instead she is strong, sexy and noble. She justifiably won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Of the four major characters, only Plummer disappoints, slightly, and that can be blamed on the screenplay rather than her thesping. Her super-quirky, clumsy love interest role is simply unnecessary, a distraction from the film’s important relationships between Bridges and Williams and Bridges and Ruehl.

Standout moments include the Red Knight rampaging through Central Park, a massive waltz in Grand Central Station, and in a cameo as a “moral traffic light.” Curiously, one of the stylistic inspirations for the film is the Hollywood musical. Williams breaks into show tunes throughout, a fellow homeless man dresses up like Gypsy Rose Lee and does an Ethel Merman song-and-dance number, and the words “the end” even appear in the sky above Manhattan lit up like a Broadway marquee. Though not a musical, that spirit of light fantasy bubbles through the movie, leavening some of the themes of mass murder, alcoholic despondency, and homelessness. Even though The Fisher King has a strong sense of purpose, stylistically it’s more than a bit shaggy around the edges. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film featuring a madman, and perhaps that makes it more lovable in the end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a wild, vital stew of a movie… veers with great assurance from wild comedy to feverish fantasy, robust romanticism and tough realism–with only an occasional stumble.”–David Ansen, Newsweek (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: POM POKO (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (Disney dub) voices of Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, , Tress MacNeille

PLOT: A community of shapeshifting “racoons” struggle to deal with suburban encroachment on their forest homes, inventing schemes that range from arranging hauntings to all-out war.

Still from Pom Poko (1994)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: To Westerners, much of the weirdness in Pom Poko comes from their unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore; however, there is a far deeper and more affecting strain of strangeness here than can be explained simply by culture clash. The hallucinatory “monster parade” sequence alone could be enough to put Pom Poko over the top.

COMMENTS: Written by and directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata, Pom Poko was an all-star effort from Studio Ghibli. It’s also one of their most Japanese productions, made with no eye for how it might play for Western audiences, and it’s richer for indulging its indigenous roots. The epic story tracks the struggles of a band of tanuki (translated in the English dub as “racoons,” although the species is more closely related to dogs than to racoons) against the deforestation of their homes by the suburbs expanding outward from Tokyo. The tale embodies Miyazaki’s environmentalist concerns, although the mood is not so much one of activism as it is of melancholy. Since tanuki are spirit creatures, ancient tricksters who transform to play pranks on humans, their decimation symbolizes not only the degradation of the natural world, but also of the spiritual world, whose frontier continually recedes in modern times in the name of progress. The eventual fate of the tanuki is reminiscent of the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as they cede their turn as the dominant culture to Men with reluctant dignity.

The tanuki are famous shapeshifters, and Pom Poko‘s creatures come in at least three forms: the quadrupedal state that we humans are familiar with; the anthropomorphic bipedal form in which they spend most of their time for exposition purposes; and, when they’re in a partying mood, the animals spontaneously shift into happy-faced teddy bears. That’s not counting the infinite variety of shapes gifted tanuki can take with practice; the best of them can even pass among us as humans. Watching their transmogrification training regimen, as young male tanuki show an unflattering aptitude for shifting into female forms, provides much of the comedy in the first few reels. Tanuki, though noble creatures, are also the buffoons of the spirit animal world. The helpful narration explains that they are basically lazy and hedonistic, somewhat gullible (Japanese children are able to trick them into revealing themselves by singing songs), and that they find hamburgers irresistible. Obviously, not all of this is strictly folkloric, but the mixture of legend and anime tropes makes for a surprisingly rich milieu: comic, tragic, and alien all at the same time.

Of course, it’s difficult for Westerners to discuss Takahata‘s tanuki without addressing their oft-prominent testicles, depictions of which have infamously given rise to the movie being described by immature sorts as “that raccoon ball movie.” Even worse than seeing the cartoon testicles is the fact that male tanuki occasionally stretch their scrotums to enormous proportions, large enough to serve as a parachute or a welcome mat for dozens of their fellows. That’s the perfect example of the film’s culture shock value. Other sequences from the film show cross-cultural weirdness, however, like the tanuki’s Nintendo presentation on their shrinking habitat, or the time they lured corporate functionaries into their Escher-esque flying cat shrine to steal a million dollars worth of yen. And the five-minute phantasmagorical “monster parade” of skeletal horses, fire-breathing tigers, and various misshapen yokai must be seen to be believed. Overall, Pom Poko is a remarkable adventure in Japanese mythology that is all the more involving because it makes no concessions to Western audiences.

Disney upgraded Pom Poko to Blu-ray in 2015. The film can be watched in the English dubbed version or in the original Japanese with subtitles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Quite frankly, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.”–Norm Schrager, AMC (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)

CAPSULE: JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)

AKA Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Zhang Wen, Qi Shu, Bo Huang

PLOT: A pacifist Buddhist demon hunter who tries to redeem rather than kill evil spirits clashes with a powerful mercenary huntress, who falls in love with him despite his vow of chastity; together they seek the Monkey King’s help to defeat a powerful boar demon.

Still from Journey to the West (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We have a crazy Stephen Chow movie on the ListKung Fu Hustle—and while Journey to the West is wild, it doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the 2004 classic to justify including two such similar films.

COMMENTS: Journey to the West contains the hallmarks Stephen Chow fans love: a delirious mix of wacky wire fu, cartoonish comedy, outlandish visuals, and a massive dose of heart. Chow’s spectacles recall great Hollywood storytelling traditions—you could easily imagine Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas tackling similar material—while remaining distinctively Chinese. Although Chow’s presence in front of the camera is missed in this outing, mop-headed Zhang Wen makes for an excellent stand-in. He is totally beleaguered and outclassed by demons and demon hunters alike at the film’s opening, but perseveres to find the spiritual strength to face down evil by the conclusion. Qi Shu is delightful as the tomboy mercenary smitten by the pacifist cutie, and constantly scheming to get under his robes, while Bo Huang makes an impressively impish Monkey King with groovy dance moves and insidious cunning. A trio of rival demon hunters—including a nameless shapeshifter, the ancient Foot, and the sickly Prince Important—fill out the roster of kooky characters. Every element of the film is top notch except for the CGI, which lacks necessary detail and realism and isn’t up to Hollywood standards, often looking like bad, 90% finished renderings of animatronic puppets. The monster designs themselves, however, are very good—check out the catfish/tiger/dragon hybrid—and the level of creativity is so impressive that only the most parochial and unimaginative American effects snob would complain about the sub-par technology. Journey to the West constantly surprises with its twists and turns, highlighted by a battle with a fish demon in the harbor of a ramshackle riverside village, a deserted inn that’s been turned into a ghostly pork palace, and a comic sketch involving an “obedience charm” that turns hilariously homophobic. Topping it all off is an outrageous fifteen minute final battle scene with grotesquely oversized body parts, an armada of heat-seeking swords, and (naturally, this being a Chow movie) a giant glowing space Buddha with magma palms. A lot of the Chinese tropes, both mythological and comedic, will seem unfamiliar and strange, but that only enhances the experience for the adventurous viewer. Westerners, journey to the East to see Journey to the West; you won’t regret the trip.

Journey to the West is based on a 16th century Chinese novel that has been loosely adapted for film many times (including 1995’s A Chinese Odyssey, where Stephen Chow himself played a reincarnated hero version of the Monkey King). The final scene suggests sequels to come, and as long as Chow remains involved, we should look forward to the further travels of Xuan Zang as he makes his way westward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s during this cartoony, anything-goes climax that Conquering The Demons truly hits its stride; part highly stylized wuxia, part Looney Tunes, the sequence showcases Chow at his weirdest and most entertaining.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

“The montage of hermetic symbols becomes first dreamlike, then menacing; centuries of mystical thought are distilled into a series of voyeuristic fantasies, a kinky psychodrama backed by the carnival strains of a maleficent calliope.  Anger intended Lucifer Rising to stand as a form of ritual marking the death of the old religions like Judaism and Christianity, and the ascension of the more nihilistic age of Lucifer.”–Mikita Brottman in “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Myriam Gibril, , Marianne Faithfull, Leslie Huggins,

PLOT: Lava erupts and the goddess Isis awakens, calling to her husband Osiris. In a room far away a man wakes up, sits on a throne in his apartment and somehow spears a woman in a forest far away, then climbs into a bathtub to wash off the blood. Later, the moon awakens the goddess Lilith, a magick ritual summons Lucifer, and flying saucers appear over Luxor, Egypt.

Still from Lucifer Rising (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Anger originally shot a film called Lucifer Rising (A Love Vision) in 1966, which starred Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer.  Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole most of the completed footage and hid it; the star contended that Anger merely ran out of money to complete the movie.  Anger then took out an obituary-style ad in The Village Voice announcing his retirement from filmmaking.  Whatever the case, Anger incorporated some of the surviving footage from the original Lucifer into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969).
  • Anger began working on the project again in 1970 and completed the first cut of Lucifer Rising in 1973, with a score by Jimmy Page.  After a falling out with Page he had the movie re-scored by Bobby Beausoleil.
  • Beausoleil was a Haight-Ashbury musician who came under Anger’s influence during the Summer of Love.  After his falling out with Anger the musician joined Charles Manson’s “Family.” He murdered music teacher Gary Hinman in 1969 over a drug deal gone wrong, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Anger contacted him to create the music for Lucifer Rising, and he wrote and recorded the score from prison.  The band heard on the soundtrack is comprised of his fellow inmates.
  • Lucifer Rising was completed with funds from the National Film Finance Corporation of Great Britain, prompting some controversy about state funding of a “devil film.”  Anger also received financial assistance from the Germany’s Hamburg Television and the U.S.’s National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Anger did not complete the editing on the final cut until 1981, a decade after work was begun.
  • In one of the film’s final scenes there is a long shot of the Colossi of Memnon in Upper Egypt. If you look hard you can see a puff of smoke rising in the distant background. According to Anger, this came from him ceremonially burning the film’s script because the work was now complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The orange UFO flying over the crumbling columns of the Temple of Luxor, then peeking over the shoulder of the colossal ancient statue of Ramses II.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Egyptian gods and goddesses frolicking through a magickal psychedelic landscape, summoning Lucifer and flying saucers.


Trailer for “The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2 (including clips and music from Lucifer Rising)

COMMENTS:  A shaggy-haired man in a robe of many colors caresses a stone column. A Continue reading 102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)