Tag Archives: 2001

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: KUNG POW: ENTER THE FIST (2002)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Oedekerk

FEATURING: Steve Oedekerk, Jennifer Tung, Leo Lee

PLOT: The Chosen One, raised by rodents to become a talented martial artist, seeks revenge against the assassin who murdered his family when he was an infant.

Still from Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)

COMMENTS: TV Tropes calls it a Gag Dub: take an existing film and record new dialogue to completely change the meaning of the film, ideally with amusing results. Comedy troupes from The Firesign Theater to the L.A. Connection have mined old movies for laughs, while more recently Bad Lip Reading and Brad Neely’s “Wizard People, Dear Reader” have conjured up demented versions of pop culture favorites. The Citizen Kane of such projects is certainly ’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which new dialogue turned a Japanese spy thriller into the hunt for the world’s best egg salad recipe. 

Steve Oedekerk—the storytelling mastermind behind such box office smashes as the Ace Ventura movies, Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films, and Patch Adams—decided that he had something to contribute to this proud tradition, grafting a new script onto the 1976 Chinese martial arts flick Hu He Shuang Xing (Tiger & Crane Fists). Oedekerk adds a 21st century twist, however, inserting himself into the film through a combination of judicious editing, digital replacement, blue-screen insertion, and new footage featuring replicated sets and spot-on doubles for the original cast. That idea is the funniest thing about Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, and Oedekerk throws himself into the effort with gusto, gamely acting like a complete fool and enduring the indignities of both repeated punches and gushes of fluids in the pursuit of laughs. Beyond the initial concept, though, there aren’t many to be found.

The film certainly tries. Most of the characters have silly names, and groups of marching soldiers or fighters-in-training conduct inane conversations. Oedekerk does nearly all the voices, usually with an exaggerated accent as the entire joke: the narrator speaks with a Chicano vocal fry, a street vendor screams like Dick Vitale, henchmen range from Southern hick to , and the leading lady sounds like a bad impression of Miss Piggy and ends nearly every sentence with an off-putting “wee-oo-wee” noise. Meanwhile, random Easter eggs are thrown in for good measure, from a whale to a CGI alien to the RMS Titanic. It’s the kind of humor you would call “sophomoric,” only because there’s no word for freshman-level comedy. Or lower.

Every now and then, Oedekerk hits on an amusing idea, like a boombox-toting henchman whose tastes run from late-90s hip-hop to the glurgy ballad “The Morning After,” or a pair of speaking characters who never open their mouths but sing about their jobs as ventriloquists. But more often, Kung Pow is not content to let the joke speak for itself. For example, we could probably surmise that Oedekerk is going to fashion a set of nunchucks out of a pair of gophers, but the dialogue gives us a full play-by-play, refusing to leave it to chance that we’ll get it. Similarly amusing is a run of characters who have a touching dying moment only to be revealed as not quite dead—but once the joke is told, the scenes go on, stretching to fill time.  

Redubbed wuxia gets the audience in the seats, but Oedekerk doesn’t really have a plan after that. Rather than subverting the usual themes of the genre, Kung Pow adopts them with a plot centered around revenge for wrongs done long ago. The characters become clownish, but their stunts and expressions keep their original context. So after a while, Oedekerk has to invent other things to happen, culminating in a lengthy milk-drenched battle with a CGI cow that includes two separate parodies of The Matrix.

A central problem is Oedekerk himself. A fairly bland actor on his face (he looks like a blend of Ben Stiller and Scott Bakula), he becomes something else as the Caucasian hero in a film whose Chinese cast is turned into buffoons. He has no independent personality or history with an audience, so by literally replacing the hero with himself, he unwittingly strolls into a minefield of cultural appropriation. Kung Pow may not be actively offensive, but it definitely has issues to deal with.

Kung Pow is actually a technical marvel, with roughly half of the movie consisting of new scenes slotted into the original film seamlessly. But those skills are being applied to 3rd-grade-level jokes, which makes you wonder if you wouldn’t be better off just watching Tiger & Crane Fists. Part of the appeal of the Gag Dub is that the biggest part of the job—making the actual movie—has already been done. Kung Pow demonstrates that you still have to do the hard work of comedy in order for your new thing to stand on its own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…there’s a raft of unfunny Matrix references and an ongoing battle to see who can perform the most bizarrely inappropriate dubbing job. It’s incongruously humorous to see the off-kilter lip-synching that dazzles the funnybone in some of those old Shaw Brothers’ semi-epics of the mid-Seventies that spawned the whole Hong Kong chopsocky market, chiefly because the erratic dubbing and clueless subtitles were unintentional mistakes. Parodying those golden moments successfully, however, is virtually impossible to do, as Oedekerk proves throughout this film’s 81-minute runtime.” – Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

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

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: UN PERRO LLAMADO DOLOR [A DOG CALLED PAIN] (2001)

AKA El artista y su modelo [The Artist and His Model]

DIRECTED BY: Luis Eduardo Aute

PLOT: A series of vignettes about seven legendary Spanish-speaking painters and their relationships with their models, united by a dog which shares a name with Frida Kahlo’s beloved pet.

Imaged from "A Dog Called Pain" (2001)

COMMENTS: No doubt you’re all familiar with the Barbershop Harmony Society and the annual international barbershop quartet competition it hosts. Well, have I got news for you: just this past week, video of the 2023 finalists’ performances in Louisville earlier this year was posted online, so you now have the chance to see what the coolest kids in a capella close harmony are up to. In particular, you might want to check out the work of this year’s champion Midtown, who clinched the crown with a 12-minute mashup of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the old “Spider-Man” cartoon theme, a performance which turns out to consist entirely of inside jokes. It’s so deep down the barbershop rabbit hole that the explanation merits its own playlist. And if the crowd’s response is any indication, the aficionados are eating it up with a spoon.

Now, why am I subjecting you to this bizarre-even-by-our-standards digression about an arcane and nearly forgotten musical subgenre? Because for weeks, I have been reckoning with what I think of Un perro llamado dolor, Luis Eduardo Aute’s hand-crafted fantasia on the lives and artistic stylings of some of the most famous painters who ever lived, and hearing this professional and utterly impenetrable barbershop performance proved to be a fitting analogue: it’s exceedingly skilled, breathtakingly beautiful in moments, and so far up its own ass that it threatens to cross dimensions.

Aute possessed a variety of talents, from composing chart-topping songs to headlining art shows across Europe to not only writing successful poetry but inventing new forms to increase the challenge. After a while, he began to combine his talents, uniting his artwork, songs, and poems around joint themes and even expanding into film, a medium he encountered early through a job he landed as a second A.D. on ’s Cleopatra. So here is a chance for all of his skills to come together.

It’s a mammoth undertaking. Aute created over 4,000 drawings in pencil and charcoal, often aping the styles of the greats he intends to honor. His assembly is barely animation (save for a couple computer-assisted shots late in the film, Un perro unfolds at a rate of about 3 seconds per drawing), but it flows smoothly through seven different portraits united only by the subjects’ profession and the titular dog. The dog is a curious companion. Named Pain (supposedly like one of Frida Kahlo’s actual dogs, although hers were Xoloitzcuintli and not the generic hound seen here), his presence hints at the constant agony all artists seemingly feel, but he is a loyal friend, protecting his masters and their models against all sorts of villains who would do them harm.

The dangers of both the making of art and the judgment of others seem to be foremost in Aute’s mind. We watch as crowds of celebrities (especially comic filmmakers) look on at Picasso’s Guernica like a Hollywood legend, but the artist himself needs reassurance from Man Ray that he’s done something worthwhile. is portrayed as unusually vulnerable, and his model even chops off one of his hands. Francisco Goya is attacked first by flying demons, then firing squads. Aute suggests that to be an artist is to endure trauma.

But maybe not. Divining Aute’s point is purely a guessing game. If you’re not an art historian, Un perro is a baffling collection of surreal images that convey the hauntings of a troubled soul but offer little interpretation. Even if you recognize Goya and his Maja desnuda, or intuit that it’s Leon Trotsky whom Diego Rivera stabs in the head with a Soviet sickle, there’s nothing to tell you why Aute brings them together. And those are just the artists I recognized. I found myself stopping the film frequently to peruse quick biographies of the subjects of Aute’s portraits in hopes of gleaning more insight into what was going on. (I have to confess that I was not familiar with Joaquín Sorolla at all, and his story in the film remains lost on me.) It’s the purest artist’s trope: let the work speak for itself. But what the work seems to be saying here is that it’s too smart for you.

My best hope for understanding comes from the title cards, which describe Un perro llamado dolor as a “libertarian fantasy based on the work and events of the lives of the artists portrayed.” It’s a curious label, given that the main characters in the film are in no way free. They are trapped by their obsessions, helpless in the face of fantastical fears, and able to defend themselves only with pencil or paintbrush. Aute may intend his film as a celebration of their persistence and fortitude, or he may seek to make them seem smaller, more human and fragile. It’s hard to know.

The obtuse nature of the film makes it a strange viewing experience, because it feels like it’s trying hard to push you away. Aute crafts something beautiful, but the experience locks you out, rather than inviting you in. Watching it in a room full of Spanish art historians would make for a very unusual experience. Much like being in an audience of barbershop quartet enthusiasts who laugh uproariously to drive home the point that they get all the jokes… and you don’t.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The seven ‘portraits’ of assorted artists and their (usually nude) muses, starting with Goya and ending with Velasquez in no apparent chronological order, bear enigmatic titles like ‘There are no witches, but they do exist’ and proceed with a loopy, angst-filled dream logic that defies exposition.  A difficult, arcane film… will prove a hard sell outside the fest circuit, particularly since some of its profiled Spanish artists are virtually unknown here.” – Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: AMNESIA (2001)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Koolhoven

FEATURING: Fedja van Huêt, Carice van Houten, Sacha Bulthuis, Theo Maassen

PLOT: After receiving a call that his mother is ill, a photographer returns to his family estate (“AmnesiA”) to face his gangster twin brother and a traumatic childhood memory.

Still from AmnesiA (2001)

COMMENTS: You will seldom see a film where you will be as uncertain if the characters really exist as in AmneisiA. The base story of Alex returning to his old, abandoned homestead—improbably and tellingly dubbed “AmnesiA”—can be seen as nothing more than a symbolic depiction of Alex wrestling with the unresolved internal conflict of a seen-in-choppy-flashbacks childhood trauma. And although that is an extraordinary event, it is far and away the most believable thing you’ll see.

It’s not that anything truly impossible happens in AmnesiA. It’s just that no one in the movie acts in ways that make sense, but rather in ways that are unnerving or absurd. After an efficient, if ominous, setup, things start to feel off when Alex discovers pretty Sandra stowing away in his car. She refuses to explain who she is or what she’s doing there, and rather than panicking or throwing her out, Alex lets her tag along, and doesn’t correct his mother when she assumes the girl is his fiancee. Twin brother Aram brings home an even stranger companion, Wouter; the two have just returned from a bungled robbery, and Wouter sports a massive gut wound, acquired under mysterious circumstances. Every now and then someone will comment that he really should see a doctor, but basically everyone ignores the fact that he’s bleeding all over the furniture. Although the house receives other visitors, this fivesome takes up the bulk of the screentime. We are privy to many perversions along the way—disrespectful urination, a son turning into his father in unhealthy ways, and cucking twins—but introspective psychodrama, rather than shock value, remains the focus.

Fedja van Huêt is excellent in his two roles; even without their slightly different hairstyles and dress, we would never confuse the brooding Alex for the simmering Aram, or vice-versa. Carice van Houten (who would later find international stardom in “Game of Thrones”) is simply lovely, and really gives the sense that she doesn’t know what her character is doing at Alex’s childhood home (not in uncomplimentary sense, but by design; we aren’t supposed to know what her character is doing there, either). Mother Sacha Bulthuis and wounded thug Theo Maassen provide comic relief—bloody comic relief, in the latter case.

AmnesiA received positive reviews on release, but for reasons unknown never made it onto DVD in North America. Cult Epics rescues this nearly forgotten (heh heh) feature with a pristine DVD/Blu-ray release, featuring a moderated commentary from the director and star and supplemental interviews with Koolhoven and van Houten. The double Blu-ray release also includes two of Koolhaven’s two previous made-for-TV movies, Dark Light (1997) and Suzy Q (1999), made with some of the same cast. Kudos to Cult Epics for putting this overlooked, surreal Dutch psychothriller in front of more eyeballs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The hoary myth about identical twins — that one is good and the other evil — must tap into some primal notion of the divided self in which the two halves claw at each other’s throats, each seeking dominance. The concept gets a weird but intriguing workout in ‘AmnesiA,’ a surreal Dutch film that carries the comic menace of a play like Harold Pinter’s ‘Homecoming’ to the brink of horror.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.

Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.

HOTEL (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

FEATURING: Saffron Burrows, , , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong

Still from Hotel (2001)

PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.

COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.

The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s Continue reading CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

CAPSULE: HUMAN NATURE (2001)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Miranda Otto

PLOT: A scientist and a woman cursed with hirsuitism discover a feral man living in the woods and train him to live in civilized society.

Still from Human Nature (2001)

COMMENTS: Human Nature feels a bit like—and was certainly interpreted by contemporaneous critics as—an unpublished script that was dusted off and polished up to capitalize on the unexpected success of Being John Malkovich (1999). In fact, the script had originally been optioned way back in 1996, when it was circulating together with Malkovich, although it’s not clear which screenplay Kaufman completed first. After his 1999 hit, passed on directing Human Nature; he served as a producer instead, and recommended the already-established music video/commercial director Michel Gondry for the job.

That partnership was also destined to bear fruit in the future, but the team did not immediately meet with success. Human Nature didn’t live up to its immediate predecessor in either the originality of its premise or in its bizarre humor; critics who loved the first movie were generally disappointed, while those who never bought in to Kaufman in the first place relished the opportunity to proclaim that the newly crowned Emperor had scanty clothing. Twenty years later, seen outside of Malkovich‘s immediate shadow, Human Nature looks much better: smart, easy to watch, and wispily Freudian in its depiction of sexual conflict between the superego and id.

Human Nature begins by divulging its three main characters’ eventual fates: Lila is imprisoned, Puff is testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, and Nathan has a conspicuous hole in his head. Flashbacks explain how we got here: Lila, cursed with simian body hair, becomes a famous nature writer but decides she needs a man and so undergoes extensive electrolysis before being introduced to Nathan, an inhibited prude of a psychologist who’s work involves using electrical shocks to train lab rats to use the correct salad fork. They form a desperate, co-dependent relationship until discovering a feral man (later dubbed “Puff”) in the woods, whom Nathan decides would make an even better test subject for his behavioral modification studies than the mice—unlike rodents, he can train the ape man to read “Moby Dick” and discuss Wittgenstein, and to refrain from humping every woman he comes across. Predictably, things go awry, with everything further confused when various competing romantic axes and rivalries start to develop between this threesome and Nathan’s assistant, Gabrielle.

Quirky highlights include an incongruous, Disneyesque strolling-through-nature song where Lila embraces her hairiness (“my new friends, these split-ends…”); early whimsical “Gondryeqsque” sequences of white mice seated at a dinner table (done with a combination of puppetry, stop-motion, and trained animals); and Gabrielle’s contextually inexplicable accent. These bits combine with the oddness of the comic scenario and the movie’s arch approach to sexual repression to create an intelligent and off-key chamber piece effectively poking fun at our civilized foibles (“apes don’t assassinate their Presidents, gentlemen!”), while falling well short of the existential weirdness of Kaufman’s debut. By conventional Hollywood standards, Human Nature is fairly odd; by Gondry/Kaufman standards, it’s an attempt at a completely mainstream movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Written by Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), this superficially surreal film is in fact a surprisingly straightforward fable… overall the film feels forced and awkward, as though it’s trying too hard to be weird, culty and profound..”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by Nick Gatsby, who said it was “perfect for this list. I’m deathly surprised it’s not on here already.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)