Tag Archives: 1983

CAPSULE: OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Williams

FEATURING: Raúl Juliá, Linda Griffiths, Donald Moore, Maury Chaykin

PLOT: Computer technician and cinephile Aram Fingal gets a forced vacation from his body as punishment for poor productivity; when the conglomerate loses his body, they transfer his mind to the mainframe, where Fingal wages war within the company in an effort to be restored.

Still from overdrawn at the memory bank (1983)

COMMENTS: The impulse to make Overdrawn at the Memory Bank was borne out of a good idea. At the dawn of the 80s, someone at PBS noticed the revolution in science fiction entertainment that had exploded upon the scene in the wake of Star Wars, and saw a lane for the public broadcaster in adapting some of the more literary works of the genre. The first attempt, a low-budget, high-concept take on Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, was an unexpected success. Thus emboldened, producers turned their attention to a John Varley short story about an office drone who finds himself trapped inside the mainframe of a supercomputer. And that is where all the good vibes surrounding this project ran out.

The film that resulted, captured on video and exemplifying the 80s in all its chroma-key glory, was a notorious bomb, remembered today primarily because of its appearance in an episode of.” That’s unfortunate, because while the production is undeniably poor, the idea at its center is still intriguing.

The basic story feels like a more optimistic riff on a theme of , with his ongoing interest in unknowable reality and the helplessness of the individual against colossal and uncaring forces. In addition, the burgeoning revolution in personal computers (which had  been named by Time Magazine as “Machine of the Year” only months before) was making the yet-unlabeled landscape of cyberspace into a more accessible backdrop for storytelling. Like the previous year’s Tron (with which Overdrawn’s plot is surprisingly similar), this is an early attempt to see the inside of a computer as a stage for intense drama.

It is here that this film’s producers run up against the gulf between aspiration and resources, which is in this case immense. The most successful science fiction manages to make the unreal seem real. Overdrawn comes nowhere close to clearing that hurdle. We’re barely two minutes in before the video toaster credits and synth-heavy score kick in, bringing a vibe that is just so very, very 80s. What follows is a parade of scenes set amidst re-dressed modern architecture, pages and pages of technobabble-laced dialogue, and multiple examples of green-screen special effects that seem to have come directly from the Action News Weather Desk. The production is SO much more ambitious than the abilities of the filmmakers can support, and it ends up coming across like some sort of fan film from another place and time.

The movie does have an ace up its sleeve, though: star Raúl Juliá. A famously talented actor, he’s a game performer and pulls off a much better Humphrey Bogart impression than a Shakespearean actor from San Juan has any right to accomplish. But his presence ends up working against the project. Every opportunity to help him fit in better is bypassed. Did his name have to be the decidedly Eastern European “Aram Fingal”? Might the actress playing his mother not have looked quite so Scandinavian? Could he have been a passionate fan of Zorro or Rudolph Valentino, rather than try and make him fill the shoes of Rick Blaine? (The attempt to replicate the setting of Casablanca—one of the most beloved films in the history of cinema—only accentuates the production’s shortcomings.) On the other hand, it’s possible that Bogie himself could not have pulled off an internal monologue delivered over stock footage of a baboon. But Juliá was clearly not the guy to overcome that particular hurdle.

Most of what makes Overdrawn at the Memory Bank odd is the spectacle of seeing such lofty concepts presented in such a lo-fi manner. But while it’s an amusing sight, it renders any attempt to take in the story on its own terms utterly impossible. What was inspired seems silly and what already looked dated is now ridiculous. This account is closed for insufficient funds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Those who complain about how bad the effects are, or how they have a hard time sorting out all the complexities of the plot, or how little sense this or that element makes, are missing the point here:  this film should not exist.  It’s strange, it has far too many ideas, it’s complicated, it actually adapts a story by a real science fiction writer, it’s way too ambitious for the money they had, and for goodness sake, it’s a science fiction film on PBS! No one would ever have made something like this. And yet they did…  Anything this strange deserves to be seen.” – Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster

(This movie was nominated for review by “Michael,” who argued “The movie is terrible, but is also so weird and unique as to be entertaining.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)  

CAPSULE: THE HUNGER (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Scott

FEATURING: , Susan Sarandon, David Bowie

PLOT: When her lover of many centuries begins rapidly aging, vampiress Miriam Blaylock seduces a gerontologist to revive him.

COMMENTS: Catherine Deneuve. Susan Sarandon. Ann Magnuson. David Bowie. When your movie features some of the most attractive people around, it can’t help but look beautiful. Tony Scott’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot Eurotrash-style drama whose only parallel to his smash-hit sophomore effort is, perhaps, that it has some flying things: in The Hunger, there is what I dubbed “the Dove Room”, teeming with white birds; in Top Gun, there are some flying machines (and a character named after a bird). There the similarities just about stop—but not entirely. Though Scott’s oeuvre would lean heavily toward action-thriller after he was harvested by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, a romantic sappiness pulsates through his first two films.

The advertising featuring David Bowie is a bit misleading, seeing as his character dies (well, mostly) by the halfway mark. This is really the story of Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve, gloriously vague in a European kind of way), a vampire who originated at least as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Her man-squeeze John (Bowie, young and sexy, until he very quickly isn’t) seems to have lost the knack for eternal youth—a fate suffered by Miriam’s innumerable lovers beforehand. However, their final hedonistic days of early ’80s New York City party-fun-time do slow down enough to allow them to make the acquaintance of Doctor Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon, doing a wonderful job as the smoky-sexy scientist), whose research may relate to the sudden trouble suffered by hapless John.

The Hunger starts in a nightclub, with the camera focused on a goth singer and his band performing behind a caged stage. Intercut with his exorbitantly vampiric lyricising are shots of Miriam and John picking up some gothed-out groupies and draining them dry. The pastiche of club life excess, luxury car excess, and sanguino-sexual excess nicely sets the mood, and acts as an early filter for the audience. If this is not what you want to be watching for the next eighty minutes, then The Hunger is not the movie for you. What follows is a semi-tragic romance, rapid aging in a doctor’s office, and some softcore lesbian sex (if you’re into that sort of thing). Ultimately, Scott’s movie reveals that perhaps the greatest hunger is a hunger for companionship…

This is all very flip, but it’s hard not to be that way when discussing something as cheesy and stylishly overwrought as The Hunger, whose stylized nonsense and hyper-vampire-sexuality predates Interview with a Vampire by about a decade. (On film, anyway: apparently that bit of fluff-core had been in development since the early ’80s.) The only truly impressive element to be found is the make-up work on David Bowie; by the time you see John Blaylock morph from 30-something Bowie into just-about-decomposing Bowie, you’ll understand why Dick Smith’s credited with “make-up Illusions.” Otherwise, this film merely demands you grab some of the butteriest popcorn and reddest wine you can find and marvel at its wet dreaminess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dreamily photographed by Stephen Goldblatt and cryptically edited together by Pamela Power, nothing in The Hunger makes sense… like in that ludicrous advertisement for Britney Spears’s Curious perfume, sexual desire simply provokes postmodern psychotropic episodes.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)

363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

AKA The Meaning of Life

“The task I’ve been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.”–Ashleigh Brilliant

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam (“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” and animated sequences)

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam

PLOT: An introductory short appended to the main feature describes a mutiny among older workers at an accountant firm. Then the feature begins as a tank of fish with human faces ponder the meaning of life. The movie promises to explain that mystery in a series of comic sketches beginning with birth and ending with death (and the afterlife).

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monty Python comedy troupe began its life in 1969 in the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” The show lasted three seasons, ending in 1974, after which the Pythons embarked on a series of three feature films, of which Meaning of Life was the last.
  • The Pythons refused to show distributor Universal Studios a script, instead providing a poem summarizing the film. Knowing the crew had a built-in audience, the studio approved the project.
  • Terry Gilliam’s segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” was originally supposed to be a sketch in the film, but it grew to such length that it was eventually included as a separate short film introducing the feature.
  • The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix (a prize second only to the Palm d’Or) at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Well, it’s obvious what the average person will remember most about this movie: that nauseating mountain of gluttony, Mr. Creosote, vomiting gallons of minestrone onto the waitstaff at a swanky French restaurant to make room for his evening meal (including one final “waffer-thin mint”). Due to our particular biases, however, we picked a shot from the “Find the Fish” sequence instead: an elephant in a tuxedo, a man with extended arms, and a punk transvestite with water faucets attached to his/her nipples.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy Python chorus; nipple spout punk; Christmas in Heaven

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Monty Python were the pioneers of modern surreal comedy; without the groundwork they laid, there would be nothing to show on . Python is too important to weird culture to go unrecognized on a list like this, and The Meaning of Life is their weirdest big screen work, the equivalent of an R-rated “Flying Circus” episode with nudity, blasphemy, grossout humor, absurdity, and, of course, fish.


Original trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

COMMENTS: Their rambunctiously silly and absurd style of comedy Continue reading 363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

Recommended

Mi ni te gong dui; AKA Dragon Attack

“If it sounds ridiculous, that’s only because it was.”– Jackie Chan on Fantasy Mission Force (quoted in Keith Bailey, “The Unknown Movies”)

DIRECTED BY: Yen-Ping Chu

FEATURING: , Brigitte Lin, Yu Wang (Jimmy Wang Yu), Yueh Sun, David Tao, Jin Fang, Shiu Bu Lia, Ling Chang

PLOT: Four Allied generals have been captured by the Japanese. Mercenary Don Wen is hired to liberate them, and recruits a team which includes “Old Sun,” escape artist “Greased Lightning,” two kilt-wearing soldiers, con man Billy, and Lilly, Billy’s bazooka-toting on-and-off girlfriend who tags along when she hears about the cash reward. Tailed by rogues Sammy and Emily, the team encounters Amazons and a haunted house on their way to a surprisingly bloody showdown with the kidnappers.

Still from Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Yen-Ping Chu (sometimes credited as “Lawrence Full” or “Kevin Chu”) is the director of sixty-five (mostly kung fu and comedy) films; this is his only effort which is marginally well-known in the West.
  • According to persistent but unconfirmed rumors, a Triad-connected movie mogul ordered a hit on Jackie Chan when he decided to change studios. Jimmy Wang Yu intervened to settle the dispute, and as part of the deal Chan agreed to lend his growing star power to two of Wang’s movies (this being one).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An ambush by ribbon-shooting ninjas? Bloody ghost hands waving wads of toilet paper? Assault of the Road Warrior-Japanese-punk Nazis? Your opinion on this one is as good as ours, and it’s likely to change many times during the movie as some new amazement pops up. We’ll just go with any shot of the assembled team: Old Sun in his top hat, Brigitte Lin in black leather with a bazooka, Billy in his white suit and Elvis sideburns, the kilt-wearing pair of misfits… as weird a group ever formed to fight an anachronistic battle against fascist kidnappers somewhere in Canada, Luxembourg, or Taiwan.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Scottish/Chinese mercenaries; toilet paper ghosts; Japanese Nazis in Chevys

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Packed with kung fu, shootouts, flying ninjas, hopping vampires, and slapstick comedy reminiscent of Benny Hill, Fantasy Mission Force is one of the only commercial entertainments ever released where you can honestly say you have no idea what will happen next. It’s a pulp surrealism masterpiece, set in a previously undiscovered movie universe at the conjunction of the Shaw Brothers, , and the Three Stooges.


Original Cantonese trailer for Fantasy Mission Force

COMMENTS: Although some reviewers are reluctant to discuss the Continue reading 301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

Mo

“Any way you slice it, The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is a massive experience. For some, it’s massively unpleasant. For others, it’s massively bizarre. And for adventurous horror fans craving intensity, it’s massively entertaining.”–Stephen Gladwin, liner notes to the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Boxer’s Omen

DIRECTED BY: Chih-Hung Kuei

FEATURING: Kao Fei [AKA Phillip Ko, Phillip Kao], Bolo Yeung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong

PLOT: Chan Hung, a gangster, sees his brother paralyzed in a kickboxing match with a cheating Thai fighter. Later, he is rescued from a rival’s ambush by an apparition of a Buddhist monk. Chan Hung travels to Thailand to challenge the evil boxer, but while there he discovers that a local Buddhist temple has prophesied that he will defeat a black magician who has waged a longstanding war against the holy sect.

Still from The Boxer's Omen [Mo] (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio made a fortune in the 1970s with their cheaply produced, widely-distributed kung fu films, and came to dominate the local film industry. By the early 1980s the kung fu fad had died out, however, and the studio started losing ground to competitors who came to represent the “Hong Kong new wave.” The Boxer’s Omen comes from a period when the studio was searching for a new cash cow; horror films were a natural candidate. Expensive (by the Brothers’ standards) spectacles like Omen did not help stop the studio’s slide, however, and in 1986 the Shaws stopped making feature films altogether and segued into television production.
  • “Black magic” films had been a popular Shaw Brothers subgenre since 1975’s Black Magic. They were set in East Asian countries like Thailand (exotic locales to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong set) and involved evil spells that required gross-out ingredients like pubic hair, human milk, and vomit.
  • Mo (The Boxer’s Omen‘s Chinese title) is actually a sequel to Gu (1981), a film that is seldom seen in the West.
  • This was the second-to-last film in the career of director Chih-Hung Kuei, who had a “respectable” exploitation movie résumé that included “Brucesplotation” hits like Iron Dragon Strikes Back (with Bruce Li), the creature feature Killer Snakes, and the women’s prison sleaze of Bamboo House of Dolls. After retiring from directing in 1984 he immigrated to the United States and opened a pizza parlor (!)
  • This film was legendary, but almost never seen in the U.S. until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Covered in maggots which buzz like bees, a nude woman is magically birthed from the sealed corpse of a crocodile after an elaborate and disgusting ritual involving (no joke) a regurgitated chicken rectum.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eel vomiting; flying-head strangler; nude crocodile zombie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDThe Boxer’s Omen is pure Shaw Brothers desperation and delirium, an excessive black magic oddity that holds nothing back, with gratuitous nudity, kung fu, rough sex, vulgar Buddhist mysticism, and ample viscera.


Original trailer for Mo

COMMENTS:If you’re looking to take a break from “deeper” weird Continue reading 236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

WOODY ALLEN’S ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983) finds in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.

Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like ). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.

Susan Sontag informs us: “Zelig was the phenomenon of the 20s,” and that “according to Saul Bellow, Zelig was amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they did not want to be touched.” It is not surprising that Allen casts a critical Freudian eye on social conventions of America’s past. As a character, Leonard Zelig literally mirrors Western neuroses. As a compositional image—and this film is about image—Zelig is the guy with the vacant stare in the photograph’s bent corner. A non-personality, Zelig becomes the film’s co-personality. The eternally underrated Mia Farrow gives comic zip to both Zelig and “The Changing Man” film housing him. The film’s most animated scenes are on the therapy couch, where she becomes Zelig’s reflection, peeking through the corner of her glasses with a “you want to go to bed with me? But, I’m not pretty” look as she adjusts herself at the edge of the seat.

Allen compares Zelig to a character out of Kafka (along with Freud, another obsession). Indeed, Zelig’s transformations are more sepia insect than Technicolor chameleon, and the community’s response to him is one of initial curiosity, followed by reaching for the insecticide.

Still from Zelig (1983)Zelig leaps from hobnobbing with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin to becoming an anonymous speck in the Nazi machine. After he is cured, Zelig becomes the provocative intellectual hated by American working class heroes. Naturally, he is rehabilitated after his fall from grace, rendering his idiosyncratic, celluloid promenade as an archival blueprint for precision in poignancy.

Allen is hardly a model of American filmmaking. He is New York, not Hollywood, and never attended film school; but his body of work stands as a unique immersion into the study of film. In his studies, he avoids the pratfalls of being too sentimental (Chaplin) or too glacial (). Once Allen made it clear that he would not be contained by our “funny man” category, he composed his own parties, showing up in a plethora of hats and suits: warm, beautifully bleak, elitist, anti-elitist, nostalgic, and modern. Like Zelig himself, Allen revels in his own contradictions with individualistic conscientiousness. In other words, Allen is always authentically Allen. Zelig is a testament to that.