Tag Archives: Action

CAPSULE: THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967)

Csillagosok, Katonák

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Miklós Jancsó

FEATURING: Krystyna Mikolajewska, József Madaras

PLOT: During the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), the Reds and the Whites battle over a monastery on the banks of the Volga that keeps switching hands.

Still from The Red and the White (1967)

COMMENTS: The Red and the White begins with a regiment of horsemen, sabres and rifles raised, charging in slow-motion directly at the camera as a martial trumpet fanfare plays. This stirring sight creates an expectation of an epic about proud Hungarian volunteers coming to the aid of their Soviet brothers against the meddling, foreign-sponsored counter-revolutionary Whites. And that was, indeed, the propagandistic picture producers envisioned for this Soviet-Hungarian co-production, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But Miklós Jancsó instead delivered a virulent anti-war/anti-authority classic, with only the slightest ironic hints of patriotic sentiment. (Some accounts say the completed film was screened in Russia only in a severely edited form, while others report it was banned outright).

It’s hard to tell who is who in The Red and the White. The Whites’ officers have more elaborate uniforms festooned with medals and insignia, but that’s about it for distinguishing the two sides. Perhaps contemporary audiences were able to identify the rivals more easily, but there’s every reason to think that the lack of clarity is entirely intentional, and contemporary confusion only heightens the effect. The movie is told as a series of vignettes, which play out to an individual climax but then follow a new character into the next story (five years before The Phantom of Liberty). Sometimes, characters will return in later episodes, giving the movie a mild sense of narrative continuity, but the general effect is to immerse the viewer into the fog of war. Time often seems to expand within a single scene, and fortunes reverse in an instant: a Red officer goes to investigate why his sentry isn’t responding and is suddenly ambushed, and when the camera circles back the Whites now control the territory. The narrative style and lack of characterization is disorienting, but forces us to identify more with groups than individuals. Soldiers on both sides spend more time bullying civilians and prisoners of war than they do fighting each other. (At one point, POWs are set loose to play a round of “The Most Dangerous Game“). Jancsó particularly loves scenes where the ascendant side forces their captives to strip as a way of asserting dominance. (Although we see nothing, rape is suggested as an inevitable offscreen event.) Due to the lack of an identifiable protagonist, our sympathies are drawn to the innocent pawns in these power games as a group: local farmers, a band of nurses who tend the injured of either side, and the poor conscripts and Hungarian volunteers, who are constantly being captured and liberated in an endless reshuffling of pieces. The Reds play the same cards as the Whites, and Jancsó’s vision conveys an implicit message of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” that could not have been pleasing to Soviet authorities.

The scenarios are repetitive in their cruelty, but purposefully so.  Jancsó invests each anecdote with its own level of suspense (captives are arbitrarily toyed with and freed or toyed with and executed, so you can never be sure who will live and who will die). Occasionally the adventures travel into the absurd, as when one group of interrogees are led into a white birch forest to perform a waltz accompanied by a military band. The rest of the time, the audience enjoys the spectacular long tracking shots that brought Jancsó renown. The flowing camera reinforces the sense of constantly changing front lines on a battlefield where an individual soldier never knows what is happening meters away: one man is executed on the banks of the Volga, while we can see his comrade hiding nearby in the reeds. One battle sequence has the outnumbered Reds singing “The Internationale” before charging a superior White position, only to be mowed down. It’s a maneuver only slightly more effective than lining up against a wall to be shot, but it’s the type of scene that could be sold to the Soviet backers as a portrait of heroic sacrifice. In full context, however, it’s just another example of how the common man finds himself cast into a no-win situation in service to one camp or another of brutes more united by sadism than divided by ideology.

In 2022, Kino Classics re-released its Jancsó catalog on Blu-ray for the first time. The Miklós Jancsó Collection includes The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra My Love, along with a host of supplements and short films. About half of those had never been released on home video in North America, or were hard to find. If you just want the essential Jancsó, they released his two most popular films, The Round-Up and The Red and the White, in a separate 2-disc package, with the seven short films also included. Kino restored all six films in 4K for these releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…both masterful and absurdist, using cutting-edge cinematic techniques to show the chaos and pointlessness of war.”–Christopher Lloyd, Film Yap (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: PYSCHO GOTHIC LOLITA (2010)

Gothic & Lolita Psycho

Gosurori shokeinin

ゴスロリ処刑人

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DIRECTED BY: Gô Ohara

FEATURING: Rina Akiyama, Yûrei Yanagi, Misaki Momose, Ruito Aoyagi

PLOT: After the brutal murder of her mother, Yuki exacts revenge on the killers using a variety of deadly umbrellas.

COMMENTS: This movie was pretty stupid. Too stupid, alas, to nominate as Apocryphally Weird. But not too stupid (or, I suppose, stupid enough) to warrant my time. Having cut his teeth on the genre with Geisha Assassin, Gô Ohara leans into his strengths as a spinner of blood-spurty dreams with Psycho Gothic Lolita, an over-the-top vengeance tale of a young woman assassinating a series of criminals. (His third feature, An Assassin, forgoes any flowery title in favor of getting to the crux of what this guy seems to be about.) Blood spouts from severed limbs and heads; bad line deliveries spout from heads, too—sometimes even after they’ve been severed.

Yuki is on a rampage. On her birthday, she witnessed the gory and oddly ceremonial murder of her mother and the crippling of her father. Her father becomes wheelchair-bound; he also becomes (or, perhaps, was already) some sort of Christian priest. This covenant with piety and forgiveness does not stop him from putting together all manner of umbrellae for his daughter to employ in her crusade against the five nasties who did her mother in. Also, she trades her virginal-white, prim attire for an aesthetic of black lace and leather Victorian bondage gear.

Anyhow, Psycho Gothic Lolita. Er… Gothic & Psycho Lolita… Whatever this is, it’s strangely entertaining. Yuki’s battle with the second target involves levitation and a martial-arts mop. Right on the heels of that chuckle-fest, she picks a random fight with a gang beating up some beleaguered salaryman. How do we know they are beating him up? First, we see that they are doing so; and then we hear one of the goons threaten, “We’ll beat you up!”—twice. They are… very much beating him up. She throws a pair of bike handlebars to the ground near the fray, prompting one to turn and lament “My bike! That was expensive!”—twice. I briefly wondered if she was making a foray into vigilantism, but no: the salaryman was one of the Five, a safe-cracker hired to open the door to Yuki’s home. It’s after she dispatches (very non-compassionately) this rather apologetic lock-pick that she first encounters Elle. Ahhh, to be young, psychotic, and in love with firearms. Elle shoots appallingly badly, but revels in the joy of firing her bladed, twin-barreled twin guns.

Gô Ohara finishes in style with an ending that not only suggests that Yuki’s mom may have had it coming, but also that there may be more adventures for Yuki—especially now that she has discovered the full extent of her powers. A tip of the hat must be given to Ruito Aoyagi; not only for the longest villainous-laugh endurance test I’ve ever seen, but for playing a character dubbed “Viscous Man.” Let me assure you: he’s got a looooong reach with his electro-fist. When I reached the end of the film, I could not quite believe it; having now reached the end of the review, I still don’t.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The repulsive noodle-slurping has no real connection to the story’s plot. It’s a random touch, which feels more like a surreal art film flourish than like a genre exploitation trope. But that’s the reason to love genre exploitation crap... Freed from the tyranny of coherent plot or character construction, a lowest common denominator gore fest is committed to nothing but the next spectacularly vile gimmick.”–Noah Berlatsky, Splice Today

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY ( and )

FEATURING: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong

PLOT: Evelyn Wang is barely keeping it together, running a business and raising a family while the threat of an IRS audit hangs over her head; as if that wasn’t enough stress, just before a last-chance appointment with her stern auditor, a visitor from a parallel universe tells her the fate of the multiverse lies in her hands.

Still from Everything Everywhere all at Once (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Based on the trailer, I had originally assumed this was going to be Daniels’ mainstream popcorn movie: a sci-fi/action/comedy not likely to be significantly weirder than The Matrix or the latest Marvel Phase 4 offering. And while there were plenty of wisecracks, kung fu free -for-alls, sentimentality, and CGI frippery, the makers of Swiss Army Man  snuck enough genuine weirdness and unpredictability into the formula that, as the credits rolled, a young theater patron was moved to loudly announce “bizarre is the only word that describes that.”

COMMENTS: Evelyn is a hot mess: a hot mess in a quiet, middle-aged matron kind of way, but a hot mess nevertheless. Harried and constantly distracted, she vainly tries to balance running her laundry business with an overextended social life. She also has to deal with the family members constantly vying for her attention: neglected husband Waymond, lesbian daughter Joy and her new girlfriend, and disapproving, ailing father Gong Gong. It’s no wonder that Evelyn’s 1040 was selected for audit, and that she’s having enough trouble filling out the forms correctly and collecting the proper receipts and documentation that the business is in danger. And so it’s also little surprise that, when told by an interdimensional emissary that the fate of the entire multiverse depends on her, her response is an exasperated “Very busy today, no time to help you.”

But of course, help she reluctantly does. After the setup, the movie reveals its relatively complicated mechanics about infinite universes that branch off at individual’s decision points (i.e., marry Waymond or don’t marry Waymond creates a new universe, as does eating eggs for breakfast instead of noodles), all leading to a network of bubble universes that are visualized as nodes on a smartphone app. A helpful avatar of her husband from the “Alpha” universe explains the evil force threatening all existence (which involves a “bagel of everything”) and how Evelyn can access the skills and knowledge of versions of herself from parallel universes to counter it. So she does, with both badass successes and wacky failures along the way.

With its focus on branching realities, the Canonically Weird movie Everything Everywhere all at Once most resembles is Mr. Nobody (2009) rather than Swiss Army Man. In fact, it’s Nobody to the nth degree: where ‘s cult classic confined itself to three main alternate histories (with notable detours like the argyle universe), Everything attempts to live up to its title with dozens upon dozens of alternate realities, from simple ones where Evelyn is a martial arts expert or a movie star to bizarre worlds where she’s a piñata, a sentient rock, or (the audience’s favorite) a lesbian in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers. Adding to the eccentricity, the Daniels posit that it’s necessary to seed a jump to a new universe by performing an unpredictable action like eating an entire tube of ChapStick or—in another audience favorite scene—finding an unconventional use for a suggestively shaped IRS auditor’s award.

The script requires almost every actor to play multiple roles, and the ensemble acting is about as good as it gets. Everyone shines, although naturally it’s Yeoh who holds it all together with a performance that recalls (and references) her Hong Kong roots in wuxia films, as well as her recent turn to comedy with Crazy Rich Asians. And a special kudos have to be given to 93-year-old James Hong, for whom this would be an excellent cherry on the top of an incredible 450-role career (except that he still has more films coming out, and may be trying to hit 500 credits before he passes the century mark).

Ultimately, all the apocalyptic furor relates to events in Evelyn’s real universe—uh, the universe we started in, that is. My only slight reservation is with the ending, which gets a bit sappy in delivering its honorably intended “love yourself, faults and all” message. On the other hand, not everyone is a black-hearted cynic like me, and most audience members seemed as moved by the film’s pathos as they were invigorated by its action and amused by its comedy. In the end, this impressive feature comes pretty close to delivering Everything, with bizarre and imaginative conceits delivered at a hyper pace that does make it sometimes seem like they’re happening All at Once. Everything Everywhere all at Once is recommended for everyone everywhere as soon as you can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an explosion of creative weirdness that is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming…  It’s ground-breaking because it allows a new perspective, but it’s also just blatantly weird. It’s not glossy or careful; the film is an onslaught of visual and thematic ideas… In an era of sequels and remakes, something this outside the box is a welcome alternate reality.”–Emily Zemler, Observer (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RICKY (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Ngai Choi Lam

FEATURING: Siu-Wong Fan, Mei Sheng Fan, Ka-Kui Ho, Yukari Ôshima

PLOT: While in prison for murdering a gang of drug peddlers, Ricky defies the tyrannical authorities as he pursues his freedom.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: I’ll get to that; let me gather my severed thoughts first.

COMMENTS: For those hand-wringing types out there, the future will always be filled with violence, drug use, and bizarre minor-coding. Everyone else, take some comfort: this future is already past. Among the details I only gleaned after the fact, Riki-Oh takes place in 2001, in a world where prisons are privatized, and the preponderance of superhuman resilience leaves contemporary (whether now or at the film’s release) witnesses agog. The enthusiasm behind its narrative ambiguity is the very same which renders what could have been a joyless scrap of torture porn into an eminently silly (and occasionally giddy) ride through a dozen-odd stations of the cross, with Ricky as the unflappable messiah preaching justice, hope, and ultra-violence.

Wrongful imprisonment is a well-worn trope, but Riki-Oh demonstrates individuality the moment its hero is processed for triple murder. After some bureaucrats read his sentence, he passes through a metal detector, immediately setting it off. Manhandling Ricky to a nearby x-ray machine, guards discover the alarm was triggered not by weapons, but by five bullets lodged in the murderer’s chest. When asked why they remain, Ricky answers, in his petulantly bad-ass tone, “I wanted a souvenir.”

Riki-Oh has all the finely chopped ingredients for a z-grade gore-house martial arts revengeance nonsense: an evil warden and his flunky, abusive guards, shower fights, yard fights, crack-thwack sound effects, and gallons of blood. But three factors prevent this film from being tossed aside as derivative. First: the tiny oddities that gather to the point of toppling into fully fledged weird. The assistant warden is missing a hand—a cutesy touch, in its way. But in the next shot, what’s this? Why, he’s missing an eye, too. And he drinks from the cup where he stores the glass prosthetic. And, since it’s hollow, this is where he keeps his mints. Not to mention his flanking lapel scorpion cameos, or the tall shelf of pornography behind his work desk that is never mentioned. The second touch brings Riki-Oh more assuredly onto weirder ground: a twist in the final fifteen minutes reveals the evil warden’s backstory, without any hint of reason. I won’t give it away, but it does explain why the bastard is so nonchalant when staring down the prisoner who has dispatched countless prisoners and other goons.

And the third thing. Brief research clarified that Riki-Oh is closely adapted from a manga (no surprises here), and it may be simply mirroring themes from that source. However, the ardor of its twin social justice philosophies manages to outdo its over-the-top violence. Oddly for a martial arts blood piece, it has something to say about the societal evil of drug dealers (with sympathy for users), and has a whole lot to say about treating prisoners humanely. In its way, Riki-Oh advocates for penal rights as fervently as Nagisa Ôshima‘s Death By Hanging did—but instead of ratcheting up sociopolitical surreality into an absurdist climax, Riki-Oh climaxes with the warden ground up into a couple hundred pounds of hamburger. That said, perhaps they’re more alike than I had thought.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here… While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Horst,” who called it “An absolute must-see, really weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: NEW YORK NINJA (1984/2021)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: John Liu/Kurtis Spieler (re-dub)

FEATURING: John Liu, voices of Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Leon Isaac Kennedy

PLOT: When his pregnant wife is murdered by thugs, a TV reporter turns vigilante to take down the gang of abductors responsible for his misery.

COMMENTS: ‘s mega-opus, Hitler: A Film from Germany, with all its intellectual musings, puppets, and art-housery was a highly enjoyable single-sitting film throughout its seven-plus hours. ‘s three-hour epic of mumbling bleakness, Hard to be a God, felt like a breeze. Heck, even Béla Tarr‘s meandering two-hour ennui fest Damnation felt a pleasure compared to the leaden hour-and-a-half of Vinegar Syndrome’s re(ish)-release of New York Ninja. There are times when an opinion may be deemed incorrect, and I admit that what you are about to read will come across to many as woefully misguided. That proviso provised, New York Ninja is one of the most wearisome movies I’ve ever endured.

The film’s backstory and re-creation make for an interesting tale. Back in the mid 1980s, John Liu toppled his directorial career by bankrupting his film studio during the production of New York Ninja. Back in the early 2020s, Vinegar Syndrome came into possession of some eight hours-worth of footage that had been shot for the project, and recreated the story from scratch, calling in a bunch of voice-over/dubbing heavy-weights. I tip my hat to Kurtis Spieler (the re-director) for his chutzpah and enthusiasm.

However, the resulting film is a trial by tedium. The story is chock-full of silly elements (not a bad thing)—plucky reporter lady, random kid-cum-acolyte, and whimsically attired New York City goons; and eccentric elements (a better thing)—a mysterious, effete baddie collecting women, and his Plutonium-cursed ex-CIA henchman, only seen without his bitchin’ shades when dosing himself with radiation. But the (bad) dialogue timing is all off, the silliness falls in that awkward too much/not enough layer, and from the original and re-do only one actor makes it out with respectability intact. (This being Leon Isaac Kennedy, who voices the police detective played by…? Someone.)

It is never my ambition to rain on anyone’s parade, particularly if it’s a low-budget parade with its heart in the right place. However, I could not in good conscience advise that anyone waste their time with this experiment. Whether or not the original New York Ninja would have been watchable is a mystery to remain unsolved until, perhaps, the hereafter, where all unfinished whack-o gems may get their time in the Heavenly lime-light. And I respect Vinegar Syndrome, both for their mission statement (saving old, oddball films), as well as trying their hand at this great re-jigging effort. Their ultimate goal was to recreate 1980s martial arts cheese. But left to age for four decades, this cheese has gotten too moldy to consider eating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie packs in a lot of cult craziness: seemingly trying to bundle as much 80s movie madness into 90 minutes as it can…. It’s this manic energy and commitment to the absurd that makes ‘New York Ninja’ so much fun.” -Andrew Skeates, Far East Films (contemporaneous)