Tag Archives: Adventure

CAPSULE: DORORO (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akihiko Shiota

FEATURING: Satoshi Tsumabuki, , Kiichi Nakai

PLOT: A pickpocket follows a mysterious man on his quest to kill 48 demons—each of who

Still from Dororo (2007)

owns one of his body parts.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oft-enthralling adventure with a fairy tale flavor, but it’s not strange enough for the List. Much of what, to the Western viewer, seems “weird” in Dororo is simply culture shock from seeing unfamiliar Japanese folkloric creatures (yōkai) on screen.

COMMENTS: Despite being picked up by Universal for home video distribution, Japan’s Dororo has been slow to find an audience in the West; this is a shame, as this picaresque demon-hunting epic should be counted among the upper ranks of 21st century fantasy adventures. Adapted from a series by manga god Osamu Tezuka, the mythic setup involves a ruthless daimyo who offers forty-eight demons the body parts of his unborn child in exchange for victory over his enemies. After the spirits have extracted their pounds of flesh, the child—a limbless, eyeless torso—is set adrift on a river in a basket and is eventually discovered by a sympathetic herbalist. À la Dr. Frankenstein, the shaman builds the boy a new body out of parts he scavenges from corpses; à la Mr. Miyagi, he then trains him in the arts of combat. Once this fairy tale-style prologue is finished, the film settles into a new groove, as wandering warrior Hyakkimaru sets out to reclaim his stolen body parts from the scattered demons. Tagging along is Dororo, the self-proclaimed best thief in the world (even her name is stolen); she’s waiting to grab Hyakkimaru’s demon-slaying sword the moment he’s slain his last enemy. Many battles with creatively designed but questionably CG-ed creatures follow (how does the one that’s half walking tree, half cherry-blossom-spitting doll’s head grab you?), until the pair of travelers stumble across the evil daimyo, against whom both have sworn revenge. With shape-shifting spirits, crossed loyalties, and samurai duels, Dororo contains just about everything you would want in an Asian fantasy adventure. The New Zealand locations provide beautiful, timeless landscapes for the actors to play against. Some clunky SyFy-level CGI aside, Dororo features thrilling action scenes and fight choreography that makes restrained use of wire-fu. But it’s the Platonic chemistry between the stoic hero and his comic relief, hand-drum beating sidekick—and their obsessive devotion to complex notions of honor, and to each other—that makes the movie touch the heart as much as it milks the adrenal glands. It doesn’t hurt that the fantastic premise accommodates exotic set pieces, including a talking mouse corpse, fetus-like flying goblins hovering around a tank containing a boy’s submerged body, and a giant spirit baby composed of the restless souls of slaughtered orphans. Dororo may not be Weird with a capital “W”, but it’s offbeat enough to catch your eye, and lovely enough to keep it trained on the screen. And hey, in what other movie can you watch a samurai kill a winged demon while flamenco music plays?

With many of the demons Hyakkimaru needed to kill to regain his original body still left undefeated at the end of Dororo, the end credits promised sequels; unfortunately, nothing has materialized to date. One feature of Dororo (at least in the movie’s Netflix streaming incarnation) that is wholly unsuccessful is its experimental subtitles. Instead than appearing in the expected location at the bottom of the screen, they show up in the left part of the frame—and, even worse, they’re extremely tiny. If you don’t believe me, then look at the still accompanying this review: it contains subtitles. Can you find them?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘48 body parts taken by demons, 48 fights to win them back’ tagline may appear an introduction to little more than absurd sequential ultra-violence, but Dororo takes the time to effectively establish its premise, ensuring a surprisingly solid verisimilitude to the world it inhabits and the proceedings therein.”–Joe Green, Total Sci-Fi Online (DVD)

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

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

CAPSULE: COWBOY BEBOP: THE MOVIE (2001) [BLU-RAY]

AKA Cowboy Bebop the Movie: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

DIRECTED BY: Shinichirô Watanabe

FEATURING: Voices of , Unshô Ishizuka, Megumi Hayashibara, Aoi Tada (Japanese version); Steve Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee, Melissa Fahn (English dub)

PLOT: Based on the popular anime series, the film brings the core bounty hunting team

together for another mission, while adding a few new characters involved in an experimental super soldier program and a deadly virus outbreak on Mars.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For the most part, Cowboy Bebop is straight sci-fi, notable for its stellar animation, eclectic soundtrack, and fascinating characterization.  It’s got a few strange bits—especially the character of “Ed”, an androgynous child hacker who speaks in nonsense—but nothing especially out of the ordinary, especially in the world of anime.

COMMENTS: As a television series, Cowboy Bebop was a mix between comedy and drama, action and mystery, single-story episodes and an overarching plot.  Released after the initial 26-episode run, the film takes place sometime before the end of the show, and can stand on its own as a film for anyone unfamiliar with the series.  The titular “Bebop” is a spaceship that serves as home and headquarters to a bounty hunting crew.  Spike Spiegel is a laid back but highly skilled fighter with a shady past; Jet Black is a gruff and sometimes fatherly former cop; Faye Valentine is a wily, scantily-clad con artist with a gambling addiction; Ed is a brilliant and fanciful young hacker.  Of course there’s also Ein, their fluffy “data dog.”  While chasing after a low-level bounty on Mars, the crew stumbles upon a sociopathic killer and his massive plot to infect the planet with a new kind of virus.

The dynamics of the group (always shaky as it is) are explored as each goes off on his or her own mission at various points, chasing down personal leads and hunches.  Spike and Faye are content to be on their own, while Jet and Ed hope for a more familial camaraderie.  New characters Vincent—the soliloquizing killer with a tragic past–and Electra—a government agent with impressive martial arts skills and questionable motivations—further the film’s investigation of isolation and outcasts  The city they explore (the capital of Mars) is packed with crowds preparing for a big Halloween festival, but our protagonists wander alone through the throngs with the weight of the world on their shoulders, adding occasional philosophical and mystical mutterings.  Well, all except for Ed, who seems content to hop around dressed as a pumpkin.

The story is solid, combining mystery and crime drama with thrilling action sequences and a dash of comedic relief.  The animation is gorgeous and incredibly fluid, with exciting fight scenes and high-speed chases (usually involving a space vessel) packed with R-rated violence . The colors vary from soft to bold, with hazy backgrounds and intricate settings that include fun futuristic details and references to antique technology.  The sharp HD upgrade is a welcome sight after the TV-quality Cartoon Network reruns that introduced Cowboy Bebop to many American fans.  Aside from the luscious visuals, the film features a truly kickin’ soundtrack from inimitable composer Yoko Kanno.  The combination of syncopated jazz, kooky soul, and thumping rock perfectly suits the story’s changeable tone and offbeat pacing.

So it’s not weird, especially not by sci-fi anime standards, but Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (also known as Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) is a fun and involving film for longtime fans and curious newcomers alike.  It’s a little overlong but never boring, and the impressive action, set pieces, and ultracool characterizations are enough to keep everyone entertained!

BLU-RAY INFO: Unfortunately there are no special features for the US Blu-ray release. It’s a beautiful high-def transfer (1080p/AVC- encoded image), with Linear PCM 2.0 stereo sound. There’s a Japanese and English track (the English dub uses the same voice actors from the series, which I always liked).  Honestly, I think the visual upgrade is enough of a reason for fans to check this out on Blu.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This switched-on futuristic anime noir is visually stunning — and it makes a lot more sense than ‘Spirited Away’!” –Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)