Tag Archives: Action

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: EEGA (2012)

AKA Naan Ee (Tamil), Eecha (Malayalam), Makkhi (Hindi), The Fly (English)

DIRECTED BY: S. S. Rajamouli

FEATURING: Kiccha Sudeepa,  Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Nani

PLOT: Nani pursues the beautiful Bindu, but the jealous Sudeep murders his rival; reincarnated as a housefly, Nani sets about exacting revenge.

Still from Eega (2012)

COMMENTS: Tone is a tricky thing. A film can have a consistent, unwavering emotional level, but can end up feeling bland or boring. On the flipside, a movie that lurches from wildly comic to intensely emotive can feel disjointed, even schizophrenic. It’s the mark of a special film that can find just the right mix of comedy and drama, of action and dialogue, of widescreen spectacle and closeup character study.

This is a long walk to tell you that Eega shouldn’t work. A musical romance that lurches into a revenge blockbuster, a goofy comedy laced with scenes of intense violence… the cavalier way in which the film regularly jumps tracks surely presages viewer whiplash. It’s a measure of the supreme confidence that director S. S. Rajamouli—years away from the global success of his epic RRR—has in his story that he doesn’t hesitate to vary the tone wherever he feels it appropriate. The strangest thing about Eega may very well be that a housefly is an action hero and a romantic lead, but the full commitment of the film to the bit ensures that it’s the most normal thing of all.

Because once Nani (the human character, not the actor) is murdered, he is not coming back, and we’re relying upon a CGI, nonverbal, lightly cartoon-ized Musca domestica to carry the movie, and I daresay he does. We get all the hallmarks of this kind of story: the training montage in which he devises his revenge plan and builds himself into a warrior, the confrontation scene in which he promises his opponent that he will prevail, the moment where all seems lost until the hero finds an inner reserve of strength and cleverness to win the day. And the plucky little guy at the center of all this is the very same creature you’ve probably thwacked with a swatter a time or two.

Some of the mental disconnect surely comes from its framing device: an unseen daughter pleads with her father to tell a new bedtime story, and this is the result. This might prime you to expect a jolly romp for the kids. However, the tale the father unspools kicks off with a scene set at a gun range in which villain Sudeep (the character, not the actor) shows off his skill with both his rifle and his gun, if you catch my meaning. That dichotomy is present throughout; at its heart, the story feels like it should be a Disney fairy tale, with songs and a cute anthropomorphized creature, but it’s balanced with intensely realized violence and adult situations not normally encountered in the genre. It’s the kind of movie where, after our hero housefly has used the liquid from his beloved’s tears to spell out his identity and to tell her who was responsible for his demise, her response is an immediate and definitive, “How do we kill him?”

There’s probably something to the fact that this is a product of the Tollywood system, and not cinema as it’s produced in the West or even in Mumbai. Think of the American approach to this idea. In a movie like, say, Home Alone, the villains are unquestionably bad guys, but their evil is leavened with a goofiness that sands off the edges. We have to believe that they are dangerous, but if they were too mean, too amoral, then their face-off with an adolescent boy would be intensely uncomfortable. In Eega, this is (and yes, I do truly regret saying this) a feature, not a bug. There is a part of Sudeep that is clearly masquerading as a man of power. When he absent-mindedly sets his own safe full of money on fire, or when he shows up to an important business meeting in a motorcycle helmet to keep his ears insect-free, he is appropriately ridiculous. But we have watched this same Sudeep brutally beat and murder Nani, and we will see him cold-heartedly slice open the throat of a close associate. He’s over-the-top silly and over-the-top nasty. Eega sees no contradiction.

A special note should be offered for one of the most intriguing aspects of the film’s production: the producers essentially shot two films at the same time, replicating every scene in both the Tegulu and Tamil languages with slight differences here and there. (Readers should be advised that I most decidedly did not go the extra mile for them, watching only the Tegulu edition with English subtitles. So, no cameo by brilliantly named screenwriter Crazy Mohan for me.) This isn’t unheard of; the 1931 production of Dracula utilized the same sets to film the classic during the day and a Spanish-language version at night. But it does show an unusually strong commitment to reaching a local audience.

At its most basic level, Eega is a pretty typical David-and-Goliath story. It doesn’t really advance the form significantly, except for the fact that it makes a little hero out of the damned housefly, to the point where he gets his own Indian-cinema style dance number to end the film. That exception is nothing to sniff at, though. Anytime a bug can make you put down the Raid and pick up the popcorn, it’s doing something special.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is completely insane, endlessly enjoyable, and absolutely unique. Eega is the best film about a man reincarnated as a housefly avenging his own murder that you will ever see… Every time I thought I had a handle on Eega, it threw me for a loop in the best possible way.”–J Hurtado, Screen Anarchy (contemporary)

(This movie, in its Hindi dub as Makkhi, was nominated for review by Elaine Little. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: INTERNATIONAL GUERILLAS (1990)

International Gorillay

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Mohammad

FEATURING: Ghulam Mohjuddin, Mustafa Qureshi, Saeed Khan Rangeela

PLOT: Salman Rushdie (portrayed here as a Bond-style supervillain) plots to destroy Islam by building casinos, nightclubs, and brothels to spread vice and corruption; three brothers band together to avenge their faith and kill Rushdie, who is hiding in the Philippines under the guard of the Israeli secret services.

Still from International Guerillas (2024)

COMMENTS: The publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 sparked a wave of intense debate and controversy that led to bans, riots, assassination attempts, and other violence. The affair, which became one of the major cultural events of the latter half of the 20th century, culminated in a fatwa issued by Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. International Guerillas starts from this context, but the plot summary above should tell you everything about the tone of the film. It’s safe to assume that the filmmakers were not passionate ideologues looking to contribute a propaganda piece in the fight against Rushdie, but rather businessmen who saw the recent controversy as an opportunity to cash in on the ongoing issue by slapping it on a generic spy/action flick plot. The producer would go on to admit that the film was a purely commercial, rather than artistic (or, shall we say, ideological) affair. Regardless, it should be noted that BBC originally intended to ban the film upon its release, a decision opposed by Rushdie himself, who appealed to the principle of unconditional artistic freedom (even if applied to works that portray him as a cartoonish villain) and feared that a ban would only increase the film’s popularity.

The register is not far from a typical B-movie, with some kinship to older Bollywood cinema (over the top caricatures, cheesy dramatics, sensationalist camerawork and score); nevertheless, the combination of general silliness, the inherent oddity of the backstory, and a fair share of eccentric choices along the way makes for a strange viewing experience, especially for the western viewer.

The bloated runtime of nearly three hours (!) allows for plenty of funny (or, depending on the viewer, tedious) moments, including a surprisingly detailed set-up (the main credits only appear past the 40-minute mark) where we witness the murder of the protagonist’s sister at an anti-Rushdie protest, and his gang’s subsequent vow of revenge. What follows is a more or less continuous flow of senseless action interrupted by long (5+ minutes) dance numbers and seemingly random narrative detours. At some point along their quest, our heroes show up donning Batman costumes for some reason (or, more likely, none at all). We’re treated to the activities of “Rushdie” in his Philippine resort where, of course, he lives a hedonistic lifestyle. Besides torturing and executing Muslims by hanging, beheading, crucifying, or dropping them off a helicopter (Pinochet-style), another method of torture appears to be reciting excerpts from his blasphemous book. He also turns out to have an interminable host of clones, guaranteeing a lot of additional screentime and endless fighting scenes. And, of course, there’s the famous ending where “Rushdie” is destroyed by three flying Korans that inexplicably appear in the sky, a quite literal deus ex machina.

The basic premise of Muslim fundamentalists (undisputed heroes in the comic book morals at play here) hunting down “Rushdie” (even if he bears no resemblance at all to his real-life counterpart, physically or otherwise) might make some viewers understandably uneasy. This may be even more pronounced in today’s uber-politicized world, especially since Islamist terrorism has become more common. The obvious cheekiness of the presentation, however, means most will struggle to take it seriously as a piece of propaganda. In any case, this cult curiosity is likely to please or at least entertain viewers familiar with “Turksploitation” movies, with which Guerillas shares similarities—mainly, the idea of appropriating a popular western filmmaking template while giving it a gloriously over-the-top “national” spin for a cheap and quick cash-grab that proves funny in some intended ways and in all unintended ones. Although it might prove taxing for some, anyone who had fun with the likes of 3 Dev Adam or the Turkish Star Wars should have a guaranteed good time with International Guerillas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hallucinogenically awful mish-mash of music, action, crude comedy, continuity screw-ups, and dreadful production values… One of the weirdest scenes has the trio dressing in baggy Batman costumes and tracking down a bunch of identical Rushdie impostors…”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE INVISIBLE FIGHT (2023)

AKA Nähtamatu võitlus

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The Invisible Fight is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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)

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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)

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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.)