CAPSULE: DEATH NOTE [Desu nôto] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shusuke Kaneko

FEATURING: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama

PLOT:  A law student finds a notebook (deliberately dropped by the God of Death) that

Still from Death Note (2006)

allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it; soon, criminals across the world start dropping dead, while, with the aid of super-detective “L,” the police race to stop the mysterious vigilante.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Death Note has a unique premise and execution, particularly in the way it mixes the fantasy and detective genres, and has potential as a cult film even beyond its existing magna/anime fanbase.  The presence of apple-munching Ryuuk, a lurking angel of death whose motives for making Light his emissary are never explained, gives this film a small tinge of weirdness, but other than that it abides by its own internal rules with such rigid consistency that it registers no more than an “offbeat” on the Weirdometer.

COMMENTSDeath Note begins with a potentially interesting premise, but spends most of its first reel setting up that premise in such a routine way that I feared it was going to be just another uninspiring Ringu variation.  Studying the law with the intention of becoming a district attorney, young Light magically gets the power to dispense capital punishment.  He targets only the vilest unrepentant criminals who have escaped justice.  The anonymous vigilante who slays with a stroke of the pen is anointed “Kira” and is applauded by legions of Internet groupies.  For a while it looks like we’re headed towards a depressingly obvious morality tale, with Light destined to fall from grace, abuse his power and accidentally execute an innocent man.  The first twist comes when we meet Ryuuk, a god of death and the source of Light’s new-found power; his motives are unknown and he proclaims himself neutral as to whether Light uses the Death Note or not.  Ryuuk constantly hangs around Light, apparently because he’s fallen hard for the earthly pleasure of the humble apple and Light has become his produce pusher.  The angel of death is an interesting character, but his idiosyncrasies take a while to unfold, and he’s a disappointment on other terms: he looks like an artist’s black and white rendering of Heath Ledger’s joker with bat wings attached, badly animated for a cheap video game.  He even moves like a game character, hovering slightly in the air with a stock expression until the game cursor hovers over him, at which point he jerks back his head and delivers his dialogue with a cartoonish cackle.  It’s to the script’s credit that despite the cheap animation, Ryuuk’s role is interesting enough that we eventually get used to him and forget about his distracting appearance.

The second wrinkle comes with the arrival of another oddball character, the anonymous sleuth “L,” who first appears as nothing more than a voice on a laptop.  Faced with a worldwide pandemic of accused murderers dropping dead from heart attacks after juries acquit them, the baffled police turn to the techno-detective, who cleverly narrows down the list of suspects from the entire population of the world to a small pool of Japanese students using pure deduction.  But the story doesn’t really take off until the halfway point, when Light turns his attentions from criminals to those tracking him down and new rules are introduced for the Death Note allowing him to write out elaborate scenarios to cause his victim’s demise, rather than unceremoniously dropping dead of a heart attack as they had previously.  Light needs his victim’s name in order to off him, and the anonymous L, driven by his own amoral sense of sport, seeks to discover Light’s identity as well.  The cat-and-mouse games between the two masterminds turn complicated, clever and thrilling, with L playing the part of a high-tech Sherlock while Light becomes a mystical Moriarty.  The story is spread over two feature films; this picture wraps up one story arc, but ends with Light and L at a stalemate to be broken in Death Note: The Last Name (2006).

Death Note has become a small franchise: based on a popular magna, it had previously been adapted as an anime series, it has spawned not only the of-a-piece sequel but a spin-off movie featuring L.  It’s also destined for a horribly uninteresting Hollywood remake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Light’s goaded into his kill spree by the God of Death; a lolloping CGI ghoul in rock star clothes, who appears out of nowhere and offers advice while munching on apples. Weird, huh?”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films

SATURDAY SHORT: NACHTMAHR GEISTERGANG

This week’s short, Nachtmahr: Geistergang, (Nightmare: Ghost Trail) was written by another fan of ours, Kacper Radecki.   This is visually and aurally one of the stranger shorts I’ve come across.  Each scene is quite unique. There’s a creature (which took an entire week to make the costume for) dancing in the forest, a series of ruins, a pipe scene, and a bug trying to escape a jar. All of which, along with the whispers and screams in the background, make it true to it’s title; a nightmare.

Kacper is a self-taught photographer and director who plans to study film in the United States in 2010. Our best wishes go out to him in furthering his passion for film.

For a look at Kacper’s photography visit this link.

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 9/11/09

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

9: Mainly of interest do to the involvement of Tim Burton as producer, this feature by Shane Acker was expanded from a short film.  Early word is the visuals are spectacular; the story, far less so.   9 Official Site.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Ink: At critics has compared this visionary thriller about a father entering the nightmares of his daughter to save her to the work of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; the official press release compares it to Brazil, Dark City and Donnie Darko, among others.  Opening this week in Los Angeles, and currently booked in only a few scattered US theaters the week after, this looks like it’s trying to position itself as the cult film of 2009 (although, of course, we’ll be the ultimate judge of that!)  Ink official site.

SCREENINGS (NEW YORK CITY, MUSEUM OF MODERN ART):

Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly (2008): The feature debut of the Indonesian director known as “Edwin” is a surrealist-influenced series of interwoven stories on identity, using the identity of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia as a launching pad.  Stevie Wonder’s mediocre hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is the glue that binds these disparate stories.  Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly Official Site.

NEW ON DVD:

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009):  This deliberately ridiculous popcorn film about an action hero who must constantly recharge his battery-operated heart by sucking on electrical wires escaped our notice on its theatrical release, but subsequent reports lead us to believe this could just possibly be just demented and over-the-top enough to be considered weird. Buy from Amazon.  Also on Blu-ray.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Requiem for a Dream (2000):  Although there may be a few hallucination sequences, there’s nothing in the description of Requiem, a bleak and depressing story about drug addiction, that implies it’s truly weird (though, not having seen it yet, I could be wrong).  It’s mentioned here because it’s visionary director Darren Aronofsky‘s sophomore followup to the his (recently reviewed) weird debut Pi. With Ellen Burstyn, and Jennifer Connelly in a (reportedly) graphic and disturbing sex scene. Buy from Amazon

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

REQUIEM FOR TIM BURTON & JOHNNY DEPP

Apparently Pee Wee’s Playhouse: The Movie is actually in production and is slated for a 2011 release.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between avant-garde and outsider art. In 1985, Tim Burton and Pee-Wee Herman brilliantly thumbed their noses at any pretense of tension between the two with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Herman and Burton seemed refreshing fresh air to a relatively young medium that was dangerously growing stale with mass manufactured Hollywood product.

Pee Wee's Big AdventureOf course, Herman went on to produce what was possibly the best television program in the last twenty years with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, that is until some uptight Florida cops busted him when they caught him pleasuring himself in an adult theater (which is bit like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500, one would think). This was during the heyday of the now practically extinct video store. Panic ensued and everyone from the Blue and Yellow Giant down to drug stores yanked every Pee Wee video from the shelves. Oddly enough, not too long after O.J. Simpson was accused of decapitating two people, those same video chains were in a panic trying to get every O.J video into their stores, which is quite a commentary on American mores: Hmmm, let’s see, it’s much worse to masturbate than to kill people. Now would I rather my child grow up to have a healthy sex life, or be a mass murderer?  (PS: On September 12th, 2001 those same corporate video chains were hustling to get all the Nostradamus videos in, feeding off American paranoia).

Meanwhile, Burton showed much promise.  The flawed Beetlejuice and Batman lived up to that early promise. Despite the absurd Hollywood fight ending, Edward Scissorhands was a Continue reading REQUIEM FOR TIM BURTON & JOHNNY DEPP

36. PI (1998)

AKA π; π: Faith in Chaos

“Very much like the universe itself, the more technologically advanced we become and as out picture of π grows larger, the more its mysteries grow.”—From “Notes on π” on the Lions Gate Pi DVD

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

PLOT: Max, a reclusive mathematics genius, searches for a pattern that will help him predict the stock market with the assistance of a supercomputer he has built in his apartment.  He also suffers from terrible migraines which cause him to hallucinate, and believes (sometimes correctly) that people are stalking him.  As he gets closer to locating a certain 216 digit number that may have mystical predictive qualities, he finds himself caught between the machinations of a large corporation and a mystical sect, both of whom want the knowledge inside his head and will stop at nothing to get it.

Still from Pi (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pi was made for a mere $60,000, financed largely by $100 contributions from friends and family.  Each of the cast and crew worked for an identical salary and a share of the film.  Pi eventually grossed over $3 million domestically.
  • The movie was shot in high contrast black and white reversal film stock (usually used for still photography).  In his DVD commentary Sean Gullette says that Pi was the first feature length fiction film shot this way.
  • Pi won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize (losing to the now largely forgotten Slam).  It won the main prize at several smaller film festivals.
  • Aronofsky also created a graphic novel called “The Book of Ants” that presents a slightly different take on the story of Pi.
  • This was the first soundtrack scored by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, who has now become an in-demand Hollywood composer.
  • Aronofsky went on to further critical success with the bleak addiction parable Requiem for a Dream (2000); the weirdish science fiction/romance The Fountain (2006); the straightforward drama The Wrestler (2008), which earned Oscar nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; and five more Oscar nominations (with a statuette for Natalie Portman) for Black Swan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A brain crawling with ants that shows up in the strangest places, including on a subway staircase and in a sink.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Math wiz Max’s frequent migraine induced hallucinations give Pi


Original trailer for Pi

all the weird cachet it needs, but even without them, the hermetic world created by the mix of grainy high-contrast monochrome photography, rapid-fire montage editing, a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and ideas too grandiose and metaphysical to be completely described would have created a movie seething with weirdness.  It also features a tough, streetwise gang of devout Hasidic Jews, which by itself gives it an extra weird point.

COMMENTS:  “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun.  So Continue reading 36. PI (1998)

CAPSULE: NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

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

DIRECTED BY:  Godfrey Ho

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Bruce Baron, Richard Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

And of course, this immortal exchange:

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

“Not the wine, my nipples, you jerk!”

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

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