Tag Archives: Recommended

27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

“I think the movie is fun.  It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’  Who cares.  It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener

PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling.  When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant.  He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.

Still from Synecdoche, New York

BACKGROUND:

  • Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade.  His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
  • Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.  Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
  • Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGESynecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Charlie Kaufman.  More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution.  Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd.  The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.

Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York

COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an Continue reading 27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS: On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2. Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope. Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead II, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of ‘s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance. Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film. After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…

Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Clip from Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Continue reading 23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

CAPSULE: WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Goran Dukic

FEATURING: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits

PLOT:  In a special afterlife reserved for suicides, three lost souls hit the road: Zia is

wristcutters_a_love_story

searching for his earthly lover, Mikal is convinced she’s here by mistake and is looking for the People in Charge, and Eugene is along for the ride because he has nothing better to do.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the sunglasses-snatching black hole that’s taken up permanent residence under the passenger seat in Eugene’s old beater, Wristcutters never really crosses the shaky border into the land of the weird.  A few magical realist touches decorate this otherwise conventional, indie-flavored road movie/love triangle that’s best described as “quirky.”  (If you know of a review that doesn’t use the word “quirky” to describe this movie, please contact the proper authorities; the writer needs to have his or her critical credentials yanked).

COMMENTS:  Adapted from a story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters is a romantic comedy disguised as a black comedy, a conventional movie disguised as a bizarre movie, and a shamelessly hopeful movie disguised as a bleak movie.  None of those disguises are particularly hard to penetrate.  “Who could think of a better punishment, really?  Everything’s the same here, it’s just a little worse,” newly deceased wristcutter Zia realizes soon after he gets a pizza delivery job in the afterlife.  In Wristcutters, new suicides wake to discover a Great Beyond that’s not so great: in fact, it’s set in the middle of the Mojave desert where everything is so run down and recycled, even the automobiles are held together mostly by duct tape.  Furthermore, in the most dreadful dissimilarity to the living world, its denizens find themselves unable to smile, a restriction that makes the sympathetic performances of the young principals all the more impressive.  Still, the movie always has a hopeful sense that the main characters can find a way out of their existential predicament, and it doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a happy ending (though some may consider it a cop-out).  Although Wristcutters sometimes reeks of missed opportunities to explore deeper themes and blacker comedy in a more mystical landscape, it’s also apparent that director/scripter Dukic has hit exactly the lightly offbeat tone he was aiming for, and he has the good sense to wrap the story up quickly after his world runs out of new Purgatorial quirks to offer.  A couple of tunes by Tom Waits (who also offers up a memorable turn as ramshackle but wizardly guiding spirit Kneller) and Gogol Bordello bump up the cool quotient considerably.

After this successful debut, Croatian director Dukic is poised between worlds: he could use this feature as springboard to do something even more conventional, or push his offbeat impulses to their logically weird conclusion.  We’ll keep an eye on him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes it work is that the performers, trapped in a weird movie about a weird place, underplay their astonishment.”–A.O. Scott, New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays.  He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to Continue reading 19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

SHORT: GREEN PORNO – FLY (2008)

Recommended(episode & 1st season series)

DIRECTED BY: Isabella Rossellini & Jody Shapiro

FEATURING: Isabella Rossellini

PLOT: A fly bides its time explaining to us how it escapes being swatted by humans, lands upside down on the ceiling, and spits into its food to dissolve it, until it sees a female and rushes to mate.

Complete short film, Green Porno: Fly.  (Requires Adobe flash player).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The reproductive processes of insects are strange and sometimes gruesome, but Rossellini describes them in deadpan fashion with a sly and detached wit that accentuates their alien-ness even further.

COMMENTS:  The first “Green Porno” series of eight short films ran as bumpers on the Sundance Channel in 2008.  Each approximately two minute film describes the morphology and exotic mating habits of a different bug—spiders, flies, earthworms, snails, bees, praying mantises, dragonflies, and fireflies.  Rossellini wrote, performed and co-directed the entire series.  Fly is one of the better episodes, although they are all similar in quality.  Although the films ostensibly have a documentary bent, the elegant, often childishly simple sets, costumes and art direction reveal that the series is inspired as much (if not more) by the theater as the classroom.  Rossellini’s performances can be subtly hilarious: note the big smile she flashes while copulating, and the abruptly disconcerting way she ends this episode with the image of her severed head accompanied by her proud fatherly proclamation, “Our babies grow up in cadavers.  They are called—maggots!”   She also seems to recognize that seeing a former sex symbol turned grandmotherly matron of the arts gleefully humping a model fly is going to look a little weird, and takes to the task with relish.  Although the films are meticulously clinical and entomological, depictions of insect beheadings, penetrations and S&M rituals among snails can be unnerving.

The entire series can be viewed on The Sundance Channel website.  A second season, covering sea creatures like the barnacle, starfish and limpet is airing currently on the channel and can also be viewed at the website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…defying all existing categories previously known to any species Rossellini has embarked on an affectionate, raw when not surreal, often tongue in cheek and intermittently lusty exploration of creature erotic appetites.”–Prairie Miller, Newsblaze

CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

17. TIDELAND (2005)

“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird.”–Terry Gilliam

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher,

PLOT:  Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies.  When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices.  She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and a childlike mentally retarded man who also lives in his own fantasy world.

tideland

BACKGROUND:

  • Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
  • Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005).
  • Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.
  • According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage.  But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain.  The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World,” and, though unacknowleged, also from the 1990 film The Reflecting Skin (which had an almost identical look as well as an eerily similarly child protagonist). Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world.  This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gilliam has described the movie as a cross between “Alice in

Original trailer for Tideland

Wonderland” and Psycho, which sounds weird enough on its own terms.  He pushes the envelope of weirdness even further with his trademark visual flair for phantasmagorical set pieces, for example, with a gloriously imaginative sequences of Jeliza-Rose falling down a rabbit hole full of tumbling syringes.  But even if the audience wasn’t planted firmly inside the skull of the 9-year-old heroine, peering out onto this grotesque world through her child’s eyes, the scenario would have been weird, as the world of Tideland is peopled by grossly exaggerated lowlifes who live out their lives on the lonely fringes of plausibility.

COMMENTS: Tideland is a misunderstood film, which is not automatically the same thing Continue reading 17. TIDELAND (2005)

13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)

AKA Kung Fu, Kung Fu-sion

“It’s good to go over the line.  It’ll be boring if it doesn’t.  Following reality is not refreshing for me.”–Yuen Woo-ping, fight choreographer for Kung Fu Hustle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chow

FEATURING: Stephen Chow, Qui Yuen, Wah Yuen, Siu-Lung Leung

PLOT: The Axe Gang, hatchet-wielding hooligans garbed in black-tie evening wear, terrorizes Shanghai in the 1930s. Only the poorest areas avoid falling under their thumb—neighborhoods like Pig Sty Alley, a tenement building where every other resident seems to have one-in-a-million kung fu powers.  When an incompetent ersatz gangster tries to extort protection money from the residents of Pig Sty Alley, he accidentally sets in motion a series of events that brings the Axe Gang into conflict with the poor fighters, with explosive results.
Still from Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Stephen Chow worked his way up from the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry, starting in television (including a stint as a children’s TV host). He became one of Hong Kong’s most popular comedians, specializing in a verbal style of comedy called “mo lie tau” (roughly, “nonsense”), which relies heavily on puns, wordplay, incongruities and non sequiturs. He began directing in 1994.
  • Chow’s previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001), was supposed to be his breakthrough film in the West, but distribution was botched by Miramax and the picture became only a small cult hit on DVD.
  • Chow coaxed many older actors from the kung fu’s heyday out of retirement to star in major roles in Kung Fu Hustle. Qui Yuen (who played the part of “Landlady”) was one of the few female martial arts stars of the 1970s and had a small non-speaking role in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Wah Yuen (“Landlord”) has over one hundred acting credits, mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was at one time Bruce Lee’s stunt double. Siu-lung Leung (“The Beast”) was at one time considered third only to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as a martial arts star, and had been retired from the film business since 1988.
  • Kung Fu Hustle was the most profitable feature in Hong Kong cinema history. In its US theatrical run it opened as the #5 movie in the country and became the highest grossing foreign language film of 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many memorable images in Kung Fu Hustle that it’s impossible to determine a consensus favorite.  The vision of two harpist assassins who strum their instruments to summon swords and warriors is a strong candidate, because their poetic menace draws a strong contrast to the lighter and less serious tone of the rest of the film.  Other contenders include the Axe Gang’s Broadway dance number, the Landlady’s whirling Road Runner legs, and a beatific Buddha in the clouds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDKung Fu Hustle begins with a brutal and atypically

Foreign distribution trailer for Kung Fu Hustle (under the title Kung-Fusion)

realistic gangland slaughter on the neon-washed streets of Shanghai, and to celebrate gaining control of the city, the Axe Gang breaks into a carefully choreographed Busby Berkeley style fox trot, waving their tomahawks in the air.  From this moment, the viewer realizes that they are in the hands of a maestro for whom reality is almost infinitely malleable, and who’s willing to switch cinematic styles at the drop of a hatchet to produce the effect he needs.  Chow’s direction drives the movie through numerous stylistic incarnations, from absurd visual comedy through a ballet of breathtakingly beautiful and unreal violence, while quoting everything from Wong Kar Wai to The Shining and The Untouchables to Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes,” yet never loses its grip on the story or alienates the viewer with its madcap diversions.

COMMENTS:Kung Fu Hustle is likely to be the most commercially successful, mainstream Continue reading 13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)