Tag Archives: Action

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

Koroshi No Rakuin

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt adjective.  Any one of the following would be a Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Lance Mungia

FEATURING: Jeffrey Falcon

PLOT: In an alternate post-apocalyptic past, Elvis has died, and samurai musician Buddy races to Lost Vegas to make his claim the King’s throne—along with every other rock-and-roll outlaw prowling the wasteland.

Still from Six-String Samurai (1998)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: From the plot synopsis alone it should be clear that Six-String Samurai‘s weirdness isn’t in doubt.  Although it has an excellent chance to make the List down the line, something in me resists putting it on after the first ballot.  The mix of action and absurdity in Six-String Samurai is tempting, like a dish at a fancy restaurant that sounds mouth-watering on the menu; but when you order it you discover that, although the individual ingredients are of the highest quality, the flavors don’t quite blend properly. It’s satisfying and too good to send back, but you had hoped for much more.

COMMENTS: This is my second review of Six-String Samurai; a younger me reviewed the film when it first came out, in 1998.  With time, wisdom, and more weird movies under my belt, has my assessment of changed since then?  I reprint that review below, with my contemporary observations to follow.

“The mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal gives it one star.  The alternative free weekly City Life gives it four stars (out of five).  My interest is piqued; the kid in me wants City Life to win out, but my internal cynic is betting heavily on the Review-Journal.  Reading the plot synopsis—after nuclear war in 1957, Elvis, King of the City of Lost Vegas, has just died, and every guitar-picking, sword-wielding outlaw of the Wastelands, including Buddy Holly and Death himself, is heading to Vegas to claim the throne—it’s easy to guess that this will be a polarizing film.  But, once you get past the “I’m just hip enough to get this/I’m so hip that I’m way past this” dichotomy, it turns out that Six-String Samurai is a fairly engaging, sporadically irritating piece of entertainment.  Although it plays like an assignment from a class in postmodern film making—write a script which will serve to distance the author from charges of Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

BITCH SLAP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Jacobson

FEATURING: Julia Voth, Erin Cummings, America Olivo

PLOT: Three chesty babes fight punk interlopers, each other, and the screenwriters’

Still from Bitch Slap (2009)

over-infatuation with flashbacks while searching for a treasure in the desert.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s postmodern pretensions and post-Memento plotting show an ambition for the offbeat, but the producers ultimately understand that it’s cleavage shots and catfights that pay the bills.  An absurdly overdeveloped plot, exaggerated B-movie archetypes, and crazy flashback set pieces staged before unconvincing but imaginative green screen vistas turn Bitch Slap a slightly weirder, but not weird enough, version of a typical late night cable jigglefest.

COMMENTS:  A Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! homage made with a sub-Tarantino snarkiness, Bitch Slap plays fine if you go in with the right (i.e., low) expectations.  The three actresses do well and tackle their roles with relish—Olivo is particularly memorable as Camaro, the pill-popping psycho—but the metaphysically threatening sexuality of a Tura Satana is missing from this batch of castrating Amazons.  Great satire it is not, and at times too much winking self-awareness threatens to sink it, but in the end the correct spirit of silliness almost always  prevails.  It’s one thing when a sleaze rock anthem starts playing and the camera goes slo-mo and split-screen while zooming  leeringly on the ladies’ sweaty bosoms and provocatively cocked hips as they shovel in the desert dressed in tank-tops or tattered evening gowns.  It’s another level of goofiness altogether when the gals temporarily forget about the crime kingpin who’s hunting them down so that they can cool off by throwing jugs of ice water onto one another.  Back stories are revealed in frequent flashbacks, but these serve little function other than allowing the filmmakers to set up crazed green screen set-pieces.  There’s a magical realist scene where a sparkling angel-winged dancer takes stage as the strip club DJ improbably spins “Ave Maria,” a nunsploitation interlude, and a ridiculous shootout on the Las Vegas Strip (which plays Continue reading BITCH SLAP (2009)

CAPSULE: ALICE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Willing

FEATURING: Caterina Scorsone, Andrew Lee Potts, Kathy Bates, Matt Frewer, Colm Meaney, Philip Winchester, Eugene Lipinski, Tim Curry, Harry Dean Stanton

PLOT: Karate-instructor Alice finds herself in Wonderland, 150 years after her

Still from Alice (2009 miniseries)

predecessor of the same name; things have changed drastically, as the Red Queen now rules a totalitarian society with an economy that depends on a fresh supply of people from our world to keep the natives pacified.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alice is an imaginative, solid fantasy/adventure/comedy/romance, but it has only a few shadings of weird to it.  A SyFy channel production, it passes as “surreal” by basic cable standards, but this is the big time, guys.

COMMENTS: Tonally, Alice is only distantly related to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but at least the movie has a decent explanation for that: 150 years have passed since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole, in which time technological advances and two world wars changed our world’s landscape and psyche forever.  An equal length of time passed in Wonderland, and things there have changed for the worse, as well.  They’ve developed automatic weapons, for one thing; for another, the anthropomorphic animals have evolved into full-fledged humans, with complex motivations and back stories.  Most importantly, thanks to the Queen of Hearts’ tyrannical rule, the halcyon days of whiling away the time with wordplay, nonsense verse and tea parties have been replaced by a deadly power struggle between the Queen, who controls the populace through narcotizing potions of curious manufacture, and various underground resistance movements.  That synopsis makes Alice sound a bit darker than it actually is; in fact, there’s plenty of comedy and whimsy running about in this postmodern Wonderland.  Much of the silly fun is provided by Kathy Bates’ arrogant Queen (always a plum role in Alice adaptations), who reminds Alice that she’s “the most powerful woman in the history of literature.”   The most memorable comic performance; however, goes to Matt Frewer’s White Knight, a bumbling, mumbling relic with delusions of grandeur.  As we might hope in an Alice movie, the costumes and set design are a plus.  Instead of a castle, the Wonderland monarchy has set up shop inside a 1960’s mod casino that might have come out of an Austin Powers movie.  Weird notes are struck by an assassin with a Brooklyn accent and a porcelain rabbit’s head, and Alice’s hypnotic interrogation in “The Truth Room” by the Naziesque Drs. Dee and Dum.  All of the major characters from Carroll’s books are referenced, often in clever ways, and part of the fun of the movie is in catching the cameos and tributes to minor characters (the unexpected appearance of the Borogoves is a particular favorite).  Downsides to the production are cheap CGI (a disappointing Jabberwock), action sequences that often fall flat (karate instructor or not, it’s difficult to credit the sylphlike Alice repeatedly knocking grown men about like cardboard cutouts), and a grand finale that swiftly gallops from merely contrived to the utterly cornball.  The cameos by cult icons Curry (as Dodo) and Stanton (as Caterpillar) are short and disappointing.  Still, Alice‘s strengths overcome it’s weaknesses, and the movie delivers solid entertainment.  The adventure and romance threads are balanced with narrative skill, the comic relief generally works, and its three hour running time allows it to invest Wonderland and its characters with an impressive amount of detail without ever seriously dragging.

British director Willing specializes in the underutilized miniseries format.  He made a star-studded, straightforward adaptation of Alice and Wonderland for NBC in 1999, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, and Miranda Richardson, and others.  He also helmed Tin Man, a 2007 “re-imaging” that did for Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz what Alice did for Carroll’s books.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What ultimately sinks ‘Alice’ is that it is too normal. Carroll’s nonsense, anarchy and druggy weirdness always turned the tale into a fevered dream. Here, Alice disappears instead into a tired missing-father subplot.”–Randee Dawn, The Hollywood Reporter (TV broadcast)

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker

PLOT: 300 years in the future, an ex-special ops agent turned taxi driver must collect four stones and discover the fifth element to stop the universe from being destroyed by evil, with the help of a scantily-clad supreme being.

Still from The Fifth Element (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Fifth Element is unique and has its devoted fans, but although it’s much busier and more colorful than the average Hollywood space opera, in the end, it’s not so much weird as simply chaotic and overstuffed.

COMMENTS: You can probably gauge your tolerance for The Fifth Element according to your tolerance for antic comedian Chris Tucker and his amphetaminic falsetto.  Although he’s not a major player in the story, for better or worse his blond, over-coiffed, simpering talk-show diva dominates every scene he’s in, and is emblematic of the grotesquely overdrawn elements that populate Besson’s world.  Furthermore, his unnecessary presence is introduced through a senseless plot contrivance (the idea that this Oprah-on-a-galactic-scale pop icon would be obsessed with building a broadcast around a non-celebrity contest winner), which is itself symbolic of the way the script seizes any opportunity to shoehorn in any idea that occurs to it.  A few of those ideas include a future New York City grown up to the sky and jam packed with flying cars, Milla Jovovivh as a cloned carrot-haired “supreme being” wrapped in a tiny ace bandage, and Gary Oldman as a villainous comic-relief corporate honcho with a southern accent and a dedicated phone line to receive important calls from Ultimate Evil.  It’s insanely baroque, and the craziness itself is the glue that holds it together even as the wild story makes only a token gesture at sense, relying instead on the viewer to fill in the gaps through their familiarity with conventions of other blockbuster “save the universe” sci-fi epics.  Although it starts out looking like a Die Hard/Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid set in space, at approximately one hour in comic relief completely hijacks the movie when Oldman’s Zorg threatening meeting with a high priest ends with him choking on a cherry and frantically punching buttons for random automated tasks on his desk.  The comedy never looks back, and this reliance on humor is the film’s ultimate downfall, because it is not very funny.  It’s filled with characters comically fainting, or being shut inside a collapsible refrigerator as Bruce Willis frantically tries to entertain multiple guests in his shabby apartment, or Chris Tucker delivering yet another incomprehensibly high-pitched monologue.  The movie is messy as hell, bouncing back and forth from action to comedy to spectacle to apocalyptic mythology with an eight-year-old kid’s enthusiasm and attention span, and that lack of focus may make the movie come off as mildly weird to those used to more disciplined Hollywood epics.  The Fifth Element has one thing unconditionally in its favor: the costume and set design is masterful, keeping the eye busy and delighted even while the mind wanders off the plot.  The background characters are all so punked out that the few clean cut authority figures stand out as the weirdos.  Although The Fifth Element is a cult movie some people treasure precisely because of its idiosyncratic flaws, which make it unlike any other would-be blockbuster, I can’t count myself among them.

With it’s overwhelmingly American cast and genre, there’s little that’s distinctively French about this movie except its director, Luc Besson, who had previously scored arthouse and critical successes with the stylish La Femme Nikkita (1990) and Leon [The Professional] (1994).  Nonetheless, it was the most expensive French made film to date, surpassing the great weird fantasy The City of Lost Children [La cité des enfants perdus].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the great goofy movies–a film so preposterous I wasn’t surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he’s spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cannes premiere)