Tag Archives: Action

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE INVISIBLE FIGHT (2023)

AKA Nähtamatu võitlus

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

The Invisible Fight is currently available for VOD rental or purchae. Physical media debuts on 4/16/24.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Ursel Tilk, Kaarel Pogga, Ester Kuntu, Indrek Sammul

PLOT: A conscript is inspired to join a local monastery where he hopes to pursue his new dream of mastering holy martial arts after surviving a massacre at the hands of three kung fu masters who descend from the heavens.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Deeply informed by both Eastern Orthodox Christian theology and kung fu film lore, Rainer Sarnet’s fish-out-of-water comedy bubbles over with goofy slapstick, heavy metal, and ancient wisdom.

COMMENTS: The path toward enlightenment is traveled with humility—and preferably while listening to Black Sabbath. The Invisible Fight dives deeply into the past, with anachronistic layers coexisting as joyfully as its insouciance interweaves with asceticism. What could easily have come across as the height of judgmental arrogance—fun poked at holy traditions (brick pillow, anyone?), martial artistry (pierogi fight and sausage stand-off), and flippant dismissal of a sinister Soviet past—sublimates into a vapor of merry rumination as it zips from set piece to set piece, leavening its silliness with wisdom, and vice versa, as its main character grows from a blithe, metal-head mechanic into a blithe, metal-head Starets monk.

It is 1973, and our hero, a border guard named Rafael, witnesses the unlikely arrival of three kung fu fighters. Though his peers are murdered mercilessly—if quite stylishly—by this gang of heavenly warriors, Rafael is spared, with his commander’s dying words (“I guess God has other plans for you”) seared into his young mind as deeply as the transcendent run-in with the boombox-bearing bad-asses. Fast forward to life at home, where he rocks, and while rocking rocks long, rebellious hair, a shiny cross (in defiance of the Soviet authorities), and a dumb little red car that’s always breaking down.

Stylistically, The Invisible Fight owes its verve to silent comedy, classic wuxia, and the ubiquitous Black Sabbath classic, “The Wizard.” (This track is, appropriately, from the album “We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘N’ Roll.”) Cartoony blast-titles mark the chapters, with designations like “A Lesson in Humility”, “A Lesson in Humility Number 2”, “Shadow Fight”, “The Demon”, and so on. Sarnet plinks in Looney Tunes sound cues for winks, wobbles, whacks, and whiplash. Practical martial arts duels are liberally sprinkled throughout, whether they be between Rafael and a rival monk, or during a bout with a State Security agent on a holy road trip.

This film is, as you have sussed by now, silly to the core, and borders on giddy. But this renders the deep philosophy all the more remarkable and memorable. Christ’s many icon-ic gestures are correlated to martial moves; Rafael’s challenges, though often solved with kung fu, echo the trials and tribulations of holy men of yore; and the overarching—might I even say, fundamental—lessons of Christ’s philosophical teachings are constantly reinforced while never feeling preachy. Humility, forgiveness, and self-awareness elude Rafael. But by the end, under the benevolent tutelage of the elderly brother Nafanail, Rafael cruises his blindly-cheerful self to a form of Zen—introducing the monastics to the joys of Black Sabbath along the way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer-director Rainer Sarnet’s deliriously weird The Invisible Fight would be irksome if it weren’t crafted so lovingly and with a charming earnestness.” — Charles Lyons-Burt, Slant (contemporaneous)

Invisible Fight [Blu-ray]
  • Kung fu meets heavy metal meets Orthodox monks in this Estonian action comedy

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE SPIRIT (2008)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Frank Miller

FEATURING: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, , Jaime King, Dan Lauria, Stana Katic

PLOT: When the villainous Octopus terrorizes Central City in pursuit of an ancient elixir that will give him godlike powers, The Spirit–heroic guardian of the city–is there to foil his plans.

Still from The Spirit (2008)

COMMENTS: In the opening scenes of The Spirit, the central character delivers a monologue about his mission as he vaults through the city, a black silhouette swinging and somersaulting off the tops of the buildings, with only a pair of titanium white-soled Chuck Taylors and a rippling vermilion necktie to distinguish him. Here is that monologue in full:

“My city. She’s always there for me. Every lonely night, she’s there for me. She’s not some tarted-up fraud, all dressed up like a piece of jailbait. No, she’s an old city, old and proud of her every pock and crack and wrinkle. She’s my sweetheart, my plaything. She doesn’t hide what she is, what she’s made of: sweat, muscle, blood of generations. She sleeps, after midnight and until dawn, only shadows move in the silence. (checks his watch) Damn, I’ve got no time for this. My city screams! She needs me. She is my love. She is my life. And I am her spirit.”

This is but the first of at least half-a-dozen similar monologues scattered throughout the film, because writer/director Frank Miller wants to emulate the narration boxes found in the comic books that are his primary medium. This is not an unworthy goal, but the fact is that those words play better on the page than they do said aloud during a moment of action. And while it’s certainly possible that there’s an actor out there who could pull off reciting dialogue like this, it poses a tremendous challenge, considering that the prose might be best described as “too purple for Prince.” 

Suffice to say, future “Suit” Gabriel Macht is not the person to overcome the limitations of such dialogue. His every effort is labored, trying and failing to weave in elements as disparate as Superman’s moral purity, Batman’s righteous vengeance, Philip Marlowe’s world-weariness, and even a little bit of Han Solo’s roguish charm. But in fairness, with so many styles to play, Macht has the hardest job. The well-pedigreed performers surrounding him only have one style to ape, although they must contend with the same stilted dialogue. Consider Samuel L. Jackson, who is given leave to go full maniacal-laughter bad guy but isn’t given anything to be particularly evil about. (There’s some lip service paid to something about blood found on the Golden Fleece conferring godhood, but far more time is lavished on his role in The Spirit’s origin story, which honestly makes very little sense.) Miller’s screenplay provides little context for the rivalry between Spirit and Octopus, so we’re mainly riding on our goodwill toward Jackson doing his thing, lending some comedy to what would otherwise be gratuitously baroque.   

This problem is particularly acute for the ensemble of actresses whom Miller prizes for their beauty, and gives just enough characterization to get them off his back. Paulson is the stalwart and sexless love interest, Mendes is voluptuous and obsessed with jewels (the genuinely charming Seychelle Gabriel fares better as Mendes’ teenaged past), Vega is all tease and violence, and Katic provides gum-smacking 40s patois. And then there’s Johansson, whose presence here is baffling. She hints at a mercenary soul in a world of true believers, but mainly seems to be here exclusively so Miller can clothe her and Jackson in Nazi uniforms for no reason whatsoever. Characters don’t just lack an arc; they barely even bend.

Miller seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from his earlier outing, Sin City, where co-director Robert Rodriguez adhered religiously to the stark contrasts and sparse coloring of Miller’s original book. Miller holds no such reverence for his forebears, trading the vibrant and varied colors of Will Eisner for his own tinted monochrome and applying the same grittification that made his name in the Batman re-think “The Dark Knight Returns.” It feels like a bad match. The result is sometimes visually intriguing, but never compelling as a story.

The Spirit is finally a vanity project, Miller using his new-found access to moviemaking as a platform for his style. But while he bends film to his needs, he hasn’t let the demands of the medium bend him at all. So determined to make a movie look like one of his comic books, he’s made one where the story is convoluted, the characters are two-dimensional, the comedy is leaden, and the dialogue is obtuse. I hate to break it to him, but I have no time for this. My city screams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind… The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as ‘just plain damn weird,’ a phrase apropos of the movie itself.” – Chad Ossman, Thinking Out Loud

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

366 UNDERGROUND: EMESIS BLUE (2023)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Chad Payne

FEATURING: Voces of “Jazzyjoeyjr,” Chad Payne

PLOT: A soldier discovers a conspiracy involving respawning and a valium-esque drug that leads him to question the nature of his reality as he ventures through a series of violent encounters.

Still from Emesis Blue (2023)

COMMENTS: Several months back, we featured a Saturday Short based on characters from the combat-oriented “Team Fortress 2” video game universe. In 2012, the Team Fortress released a program called Source Filmmaker (SFM) that allowed users to create animations using game assets (characters, objects, environments, animations, maps, sound clips, physics rules) from their library, with the ability to adjust angles and lighting or add their own soundtracks. The gaming community responded by creating scads of short videos, usually absurd, featuring game characters like Heavy (a type) or the masked Spy turning invisible, going on missions to retrieve baby toys, or partying with Thomas the Tank engine. It was only a matter of time until someone sat down with the now decades-old (and reportedly clunky-to-use) software to grind out a feature-length film. What no one expected was that this trailblazing work would be a deeply weird psychological thriller—and passable entertainment for people (like your present reviewer) with no firsthand knowledge of the game.

Non-TMF2 players can orient themselves with this first-person-shooter-as-horror-movie-film-noir world through knowledge of the basic motifs of video games. We deduce that “Team Fortress” is played in combat between two teams, and that characters respawn when they die. Respawning is, in fact, a major plot point. The movie’s gaming-derived premise—what if the real world military-industrial complex developed a technology that could literally “respawn” soldiers on the battlefield?—suggests a truly hellish dystopia. After some introductory investigatory plot suggesting a wide-ranging conspiracy, Emesis Blue throws its main characters—the constantly and incongruously helmeted “Soldier” and the dour Teutonic “Medic”—through a dungeon crawl where they enter one infernal room after another to fight one infernal enemy after another, spiked with revelations about an elaborate ongoing plot involving, among other things, the kidnapping of a politician who may be partially responsible for the flawed respawning technology. The numerous fight scenes play quite well; this is, after all, a combat game. The characters lack expressiveness, but context can do a surprising job of turning an essentially blank expression into a look of uncomprehending fear. The video’s look is unceasingly dark, almost all shadowy interiors, with most of the outdoor scenes taking place during nocturnal downpours. On top of the sequential antagonists and masked torturers (led, perhaps, by a mysterious boss in a plague mask), there are zombies and other monsters, a briefcase MacGuffin (that kind of goes nowhere), and references to ‘s M and to The Shining, among other films. The unceasingly strange events all seem to result either from respawn errors, hallucinations caused by the title drug, or possibly a combination of the twain.

I understand that there are multiple Easter eggs to enjoy if your familiar with the Team Fortress and its characters. As for me, I was sometimes confused as to who was who, incorrectly assuming, for example, that “Spy” was a reskinned doppelganger of “Medic.” But Emesis Blue is by all accounts a non-canonical Team Fortress movie occurring in an independent alternate reality, and I am proof that it can be viewed and (reasonably) well understood by people with no background in the game (per Reddit, those thoroughly familiar with Fortress can be equally baffled by Emesis Blue‘s plot). The clues to unraveling Emesis‘ riddles, if they exist, are to be found within the story itself.

Obviously, this project was made with a particular audience in mind, and most of them eat it up. There are dozens of r/tf2 threads discussing the film (and fan theories as to what the hell the plot is all about), as well as an explanatory video on YouTube that’s longer than the feature itself. But to be honest, Emesis Blue is not that great as a movie. It’s dreary and repetitive, which can be blamed on the limited palette afforded by the SFM technology. Psychological thriller is perhaps too ambitious a genre to tackle in director Chad Payne’s first time out; the balance between ambiguity and explanation lists too far in the former hemisphere, and too many of the story’s rabbit holes end in cul-de-sacs. But what is unquestionably great about Emesis Blue is that it’s a movie at all: that’s right, it’s an honest-to-God, fully-plotted feature film made in video game editing software, and it’s more entertaining than a handful of movies released this year by major studios. Neither Red nor Blue may triumph in this phantasmagorical game of Capture the Flag, but Payne amasses a virtual shelf full of achievements.

Emesis Blue can be watched for free on YouTube.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you want a film that relishes in not just mystery but the macabre and horror of things you can’t or shouldn’t even begin to comprehend, there is one I can recommend… it gives off a ghastly mood, and you are drawn in by its clever use of cinematography and cryptic shots that can foreshadow or enhance the theme, and the weird, almost out-of-nowhere scenes that only raise more questions.”–Rasec Ventura, The Gothic Times (Newspaper of New Jersey City University) (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “anonymous,” who suggested it was a “Weird one to suggest…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TAOISM DRUNKARD [GUI MA TIAN SHI] (1984)

aka Drunken Wu Tang, Miracle Fighters 3

DIRECTED BY: Yuen Cheung-Yan 

FEATURING: Yuen Cheung-Yan, Yuen Yat-Chor, Yuen Shun-Yi

PLOT: A bucktoothed alcoholic beggar is ordered by his brother, a temple priest, to round up a group of virginal young men to defend against a powerful villain with supernatural abilities.

Still from Taoism Drunkard (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Chinese martial arts genre is rife with insanity, but even by those lofty standards, Taoism Drunkard is pretty zany. No character behaves with any respect to reality as we might know it, factors such as physics are disregarded at will, and the whole film is laced with an undercurrent of naughtiness. It’s consistently unexpected. 

COMMENTS: Taoism Drunkard follows multiple traditions at once. It is, of course, a martial arts film. It also joins the ranks of films utilizing the techniques of drunken boxing, the fighting style that mimics the movements of an intoxicated person to make every contact seem surprising and impactful. In particular, it carries on the tradition of Yuen Clan, the filmed output of actor Yuen Siu-Tien (who played Jackie Chan’s sensei in Drunken Master) and six of his children, including the legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. And significantly, it’s the third and final entry in the Miracle Fighters series, which gave the Yuen brothers a chance to perfect their blend of fighting, magical elements, and twisted comedy. It’s a lot to live up to, which maybe is why Drunken Taoism is so strenuous in its wildness; it’s almost desperate to stand out amongst so much product, so much tradition. 

Taoism Drunkard has only three of the brothers, but each play their appointed roles, like Chinese Marx Brothers (they even do the famous mirror routine). Cheung-Yan (wearing an absurd pair of buckteeth and pedaling around in his own rat car) is the perpetually inebriated screwup whose drinking fuels his fighting skill. Yat-Chor is practically the straight man as the immature but serious-minded love interest constantly struggling to impress his grandmother. (In drag, Cheung-Yan conveys considerably more dignity in that role.) And then there’s Shun-Yi, gloriously over-the-top as the malevolent Old Devil who exists only to fight and cackle maniacally. If you’ve seen any of their other films (particularly this one’s predecessor, Shaolin Drunkard), then you’ll feel right at home with these cartoonish characters. 

It’s where they put them that makes the difference. On the one hand, the brothers engage in fight scenes with extraordinary combinations of action and imagination. Characters fly, spin through the air like a corkscrewing missile, run up walls, and hurl objects that seem to have minds of their own. (One of the few women not treated as a joke is so skilled at combat that she can use the sleeves of her gown as weapons.) The fight scenes are like glorious dance numbers, casting realism aside, joyful in their inventiveness.

The counterpart to this breathtaking stuntwork is the dumbest of dumb comedy. Everyone behaves with an indignity that Benny Hill would find embarrassing. Fat jokes, shrewish women jokes, drunk jokes, jokes about butts and groins and boobs, a joke with very lengthy setup about drinking urine, and one joke of the literal “g-g-g-ghost” variety. Consider a funeral in which the reanimated corpse interrupts both a graverobber’s attempt to steal his golden upper plate and his widow’s intended assignation with another mourner. Or a confrontation on the street that is suddenly accompanied by a snippet of Howard Jones’ “New Song”, which is the only thing that plants the film in its time. (The 1984 production date is nothing short of astonishing; the ancient-looking film stock and even creakier misogynist mindset seem a decade older at least.)  As though made by 14-year-olds for 12-year-olds, it’s comedy of the most infantile strain, and staging it directly alongside the ridiculous-but-serious fight scenes creates a startling contrast.

Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Taoism Drunkard better than the craziest thing in it. Yat-Chor’s wise grandmother has created a kind of automaton fighting machine to defend the plot’s MacGuffin, and seeing it in action is unforgettable. The original subtitled release calls it the Banana Monster (a reference to its preferred target, its opponent’s genitals), while the English dub refers to it as the Watermelon Monster (due to its appearance). Whatever you call it hardly matters in the face of what it does. This smooth-skinned, razor-toothed Q*bert speaks in a childish voice, jumps about the room like a rabid frog, deploys spring-loaded satellite dishes that can only be called breast detectors, and snaps hungrily until it finally rolls back into its box. It provokes laughter the moment you see it, and yet the Old Devil’s fear of it is entirely appropriate. It’s utterly absurd, yet believably dangerous. It’s the film in a nutshell — or possibly a watermelon rind.

There’s a reliable streak of weirdness in the martial arts genre, but Taoism Drunkard stands out through its willingness to go bigger, to be sillier and more gross, and to push the boundaries of what makes for a compelling showdown. It has done its legacy proud, and possibly done it one better.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Taoism Drunkard is, dare we suggest it, their weirdest movie ever. A weird, wiggy explosion of talent and surreal brio….” – Subway Cinema

OTHER LINK OF INTEREST:

WriteUps – Banana monster aka Watermelon monster – This character page for the Banana Monster is useful for all your RPG needs.

(This movie was nominated for review by TheMooCow, who got sick of waiting for us to review it and reviewed it themselves in 2022. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FREAKS VS. THE REICH (2021)

AKA Freaks Out

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Freaks vs. the Reich is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gabriele Mainetti

FEATURING: Aurora Giovinazzo, Claudio Santamaria, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Franz Rogowski

PLOT: In 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome, Matilde, Fulvio, Cencio, and Mario are the stars of the Half-Penny Circus; Franz, a Nazi with oracular abilities, wishes to get all twelve of his fingers on the troupe of freaks in the hopes of averting disaster for the Reich.

Still from Freaks vs. the Reich (2021)

COMMENTS: In a world saturated with superheroes, I say, “bring on the Super Freaks.” Gabriele Mainetti’s sophomore feature has rip-rollicking adventure, charming humor, concerts, explosions, Nazis, swarms of bugs, and—and everything I’d be looking for in a big-screen period piece. Having been lucky enough to catch this at Fantasia last year, it nearly pained me not to treat it with the full writeup it deserves. My fond recollections of this film are best captured with my remarks jotted down immediately following the screening:

“Come one, come all, to the Half-Penny Circus. Witness the aerial insect artistry of Cencio the albino! Giggle at the pratfalls of Mario the magnetic clown! Behold the raw strength—and ample fur—of Man-Beast Fulvio! And delight in the electrifying acrobatic artistry of Matilde, who powers light bulbs with the touch of her fingers!”

Freaks Out deftly walks a thin tight-rope while simultaneously pulling off an impressive hat trick (I shall now dispense with the carnival metaphors). Mainetti quite obviously, and quite unashamedly, dips into several buckets of influence: superheroes, Nazi baddies, buddy comedies, and action movie razzle-dazzle. These are all reliable, if perhaps well-worn, sources, but the alchemical combination makes the concoction shine. Just in the opening scene featuring the Half-Penny Circus, we witness whimsy, true magic—and a shell-blast of stark, wartime realism as the performance is interrupted by the surrounding carnage. The four freaks all feel fleshed-out, and fresh, as they follow their mentor-cum-manager through the blasted streets and hillsides of Rome under Nazi occupation.

But the coup de grâce comes, as it so often does, from the villain:  mild-mannered, six-fingered, future-glimpsin’, ether-huffin’ Nazi Franz, who wants to save the Fatherland while simultaneously being denigrated by his countrymen’s allegorical stand-in, his older brother. Rogowski brings gravitas, tenderness (the performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by twelve-fingered piano-man is an early show-stopper), frustration, machination, and, against all the odds, sympathy to his performance. In one scene Franz liquidates “sub-standard” freaks, and in another mutilates his body to conform with the able-ist standards of Nazi knuckle-beaks.

I’m repeating myself from before, I realize, but my nostalgia for Freaks Out hit me to a degree I was not anticipating. That in mind, I will leave you with some words of advice, and hearty request. Stand by your friends, say “No!” to Nazis, and find the time to watch Freaks Out on the biggest screen and through the biggest speakers you can find. Mainetti has obviously set this troupe up as a franchise, so get the word out about Freaks Out. I want to see them smash the Nazis again. (And again…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange and complex muddling of X-Men and The Shape of Water, with an abundance of Nazi’s, Freaks Out will have you crying, laughing, wincing, and smiling as it tells its epic story of belonging and embracing your weirdness.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)