Tag Archives: Fantasy

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MAD FOX (1962)

Koiya koi nasuna koi; AKA Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tomu Uchida

FEATURING: Michiko Saga, Hashizô Ôkawa

PLOT: An apprentice astrologer, betrayed and driven mad, flees to the countryside where he meets both the twin sister of his lost beloved and fox spirits.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Mad Fox opens as a medieval Japanese epic with a  folkloric spin and then suddenly goes mad, turning into kabuki theater and ending on a flying flame.

COMMENTS: The Mad Fox begins on a grandiose note when a “white rainbow” portentously appears in the sky. The Emperor summons the court astrologer, who predicts doom for the kingdom. Before the sage can divulge a remedy suggested by the astrological scroll that holds the answers to the future, he is slain by bandits. Only his chosen successor can read the scroll, but the astrologer died without officially choosing between his two disciples. Much scheming and intrigue follows, and the first act ends with Yasuna, the good and faithful disciple, fleeing to the countryside after the death of Sakaki, his beloved and the astrologer’s adopted daughter.

This first section of the film is a sumptuous Technicolor spectacle that plays out on lavish courtyard sets with characters kneeling about in embroidered silk robes, a mise-en-scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an period piece. Things shift precipitously towards the abstract once Yasuna’s insanity hits, however. The exiled apprentice finds himself in a sea of glowing sunflowers while butterflies on visible strings flit by and a traditional Japanese singer warbles a warning to “never fall in love.” After this Expressionist interlude, act two begins when he stumbles upon Sakaki’s twin sister and, in his madness, believes her to be his lost love. Things get further complicated when the noble Yasuna rescues a wounded fox, transformed into human shape. The fox spirit’s granddaughter falls in love with him and when Yasuna is later wounded, she assumes the likeness of Sakaki and appears to him and licks his wounds clean. It’s a shade of Vertigo, but with the madman desperately falling for two separate specters of his lost love. As Yasuna and the fox build an illusory family, the final act leaves realism even farther behind, turning into a kabuki performance played out on an obvious stage set.

For some reason, synopses and reviews often stress that the movie is “hard to follow.” Although a few details of Tokugawa era society might be unfamiliar to Western audiences, this concern is greatly overblown; I had no more trouble following this than I would a Shakespeare play. The more common complaint among the movie’s rare detractors is that the stylistic transitions Uchida employs are jarring, which I consider to be an asset rather than a liability. The second half of the film, when we follow Yasuna into his delusions, are consistently more engaging and moving than the realist set up–at least, for those of us who value deep imagination over shallow authenticity.

Though respected in his native Japan, Tomu Uchida never broke through to international audiences, for reasons that probably have more to do with bad luck than anything else. The Mad Fox was seldom exhibited outside Japan. Arrow Academy rediscovered and restored this minor classic in 2020 and released it on Blu-ray, where it can now be experienced by the adventurous cinephile with moderately deep pockets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there reaches a point at which the movie just goes off the rails in terms of strangeness; Uchida throws anything even resembling logic out the window and begins offering up increasingly oddball elements – including musical numbers and animated sequences – before the entire thing transforms into a filmed play (literally!) that even Max Fischer would find overwrought.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP AND OTHERS” (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Yōsuke Hatta, Park Myung Hwan, Norikazu Ishigōoka, Mami Kawano, Hiromichi Matano, Masato Nakazono, Shingo Natsume, Kazuo Nogami, Keiichirō Saitō, Katsuya Shigehara

FEATURING: , Saori Oonishi (original Japanese); Michelle Roja, Morgan Garret (English dub)

PLOT: The spirit known as Boogiepop fights a succession of “enemies of this world.”

Still from Boogiepop and Others (2019)

COMMENTS: If you enjoyed the enigmas of “Boogiepop Phantom” and want to dip deeper into the lore, “Boogiepop and Others” will scratch that itch. You’ll learn more about the Towa Organization, the Manticore, Nagi Kirima, and Boogiepop herself. If you’re looking for an introduction to Boogiepop, however, I’d recommend starting with “Phantom”; the darker and more mysterious presentation in the 2000 series plunges deeper into the franchise’s dark psyche.

Compared to “Phantom,” “Others” is more conventionally structured, although it still hops about in time in a way calculated to disorient newcomers. This eighteen-episode series is split into four separate arcs, with Boogiepop facing off against the Manticore, the Imaginator, rogue psychiatrist Dr. Kisugi, and the King of Distortion.  (Not to mention sub-boss “Spooky E,” who at least has his DJ name already picked out for when he retires from his job manipulating mankind’s evolution for the Towa Organization). This structure gives the series a kind of “villain of the week” quality. The stories mostly center around one particular antagonist’s effects on regular high school students; we also get a sort-of origin story for the series’ namesake in the “Boogiepop at Dawn” arc. “Others” spends time explicitly spelling out mysteries that were left to the viewer to decipher in “Phantom.” Boogiepop is depicted more as a superhero than an enigmatic interloper from some netherworld. There’s a deus ex machina feel to each arc’s resolution, with Boogie hanging in the background, swooping in at the climax to banish another “enemy of this world.” In at least one episode, our shinigami could be accused of kill stealing.

The simplified narrative is, perhaps, an understandable concession, but more disappointing is the fact that the visual look here is completely ordinary. Gone are “Phantom”‘s dark, muted palettes, replaced by sunny skies and colorful toons with big eyes. Boogiepop, once a brooding presence, now has a bright, almost Hanna-Barbera quality to go with her increased verbosity.  (On the plus side, “The King of Distortion” episodes do feature a patchwork kaiju birthed from a kid’s dream, which is a delight.) The immersively strange sound design of “Phantom” is also nowhere to be found.

While it’s difficult to describe a television show as complicated as “Boogiepop” as “dumbed-down,” there can be no doubt that Madhouse’s followup series is less ambitious and artistically inferior to their first take on the character, aimed at an audience more interested in the series’ plot mechanics than its otherworldly mood. Nevertheless, fans of “Phantom” may want to investigate this alternate take for the way it expands your understanding of the universe and the overall plot. There’s still plenty of strangeness to chew on.

Funimation released the entire “Others” series to Blu-ray in 2020. Currently, the entire run of “Boogiepop and Others” is available for online viewing for free at crunchyroll.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enigmatic, confusing and weird.”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM” (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Takashi Watanabe

FEATURING: Voices of Yuu Asakawa, , Rakuto Tochihara (original); Rachael Lillis, Debora Rabbai,  Jessica Calvello (English dub)

PLOT: A Japanese high school is the epicenter of odd events involving a pillar of light, a series of serial killings, and whispers of sightings of the mysterious spirit known as Boogiepop.

Still from "Boogiepop Phantom" (2000)

COMMENTS: Certain features of “Boogiepop Phantom” remind me of “: the limited setting (this time, a Japanese school rather than an insular Northwestern U.S. town); the dark, sometimes soapy melodramatic subplots from a large cast of interconnected characters; possession by supernatural entities that are actually allegorical renderings of psychological traumas. The world of “Boogiepop” is more logical and tightly connected to its fantastical central conceits, however; it lacks the free-floating surrealism and quirky humor of its American cousin. There’s still plenty of weirdness to soak in, though, and enough confusion to keep your mind whirling for a while, trying to sort it all out.

Plotwise, “Boogiepop Phantom” deals with a plague of strange “evolutions” or mutations in Japanese teenagers, including a boy who sees bugs in people’s hearts (and eats them), and another who dresses like a kiddie Pied Piper and causes vulnerable people to disappear by convincing them to revert to childhood. Is “Boogiepop,” an apparition who appears in a  dark billowing cape, tall Cossack hat, and a bizarre starched collar fastened with a yin-yang pin, responsible? Each episode focuses on a different character who plays a part in the saga; each installment jumps about in time, sometimes within the same episode.  The same event may appear in different character’s storylines, and the second occurrence may shed light on the first.

Visually, “Boogiepop”‘s palette is muted, deliberately drab, although frequently filled with bright glowing objects like cellphone screens or magical butterflies. The action is also enclosed in a circular iris that dims into darkness around the edges. This effect makes each episode feel like a faltering memory. Even more notable than the visuals is the sound design: distorted background static and electronic glitches, mysterious chimes, Gregorian chant, with the main theme from “Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Boogiepop’s signature tune, floating through the entire series. At the end of each episode, a cacophony of overlapping dialogue from the next installment whets your appetite (and furthers your bewilderment).

One time through the series may not be enough to understand what’s going on. I watched the entire thing without ever grasping who “Boogiepop Phantom” was (the name kept appearing in the closing credits as a separate character from Boogiepop herself). It’s particularly challenging to keep track of the large cast of characters, and to figure out how each fits into the whole. If you’re also confused, you may want to supplement your viewing with a quick peek at Wikipedia or other online guides. Or, you could just watch the series a second time, taking notes. This kind of elaborate worldbuilding tends to create a devoted fanbase of decoders, and such is the case with the “Boogiepop” franchise. With its theme of alienated teenagers neglected and betrayed by their parents’ generation, “Boogiepop Phantom” is aimed at bright juveniles, but the artistry of the presentation will draw in adventurous older viewers, as well.

“Boogiepop Phantom” was adapted from a series of light novels by  Kouhei Kadono (the series has fourteen entries; “Phantom” is an original story, but relies on established characters and events from the novels). It was written by Sadayuki Murai (who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue) and produced by Madhouse, who animated all four of ‘s movies, along with many other classic anime series and films.

The Nozomi English-language Blu-ray release features the series’ entire 12-episode run. It includes numerous small extras, like the “clean” openings and closings beloved of anime fans, and, more substantially, an English-language commentary track from a couple of Americans who worked on the dubbed version. (Recommendation: as always, turn off the English dub and listen to the Japanese with subtitles. The English voice acting is uneven.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am not going to lie, Boogiepop Phantom is a weird experience… the anime might be dark, atmospheric, strange, and confusing but when you reach the final episode, you end up understanding everything and feel some kind of achievement…”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Avi Nesher

FEATURING: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Harrison Muller

PLOT: Two brothers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland go off on a quest to rescue their kidnapped sister, meeting a menagerie of mid-grade antagonists along the way as a million flavors of all hell breaks loose.

Still from She (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What a tragedy that She (1984) is so obscure, its title so Google-unfriendly, and its competing versions so better-known. If not for these handicaps it might have squeezed onto the List. It is a gonzo anything-goes claptrap of nonstop action with costumes, sets, and indeed whole scenes made out of whatever the filmmakers had lying around. If weird movies are a flea market, She rolls in Crazy Glue and runs through the bazaar, buying whatever sticks.

COMMENTS: The first rule of She (1984) is that it sets out to break every rule of filmmaking, and the second rule of She is that it circles back to break the first rule again. The goal of all this seems to be to make film reviewers look like fools; so allow me to draw the roadmap for the twists and turns ahead. She starts out bluffing with a trite and cliched approach, then steadily gets friskier along its run-time, until by the end it has become a completely different movie. It’s like the whole crew grew up over the course of shooting, or else they just improvised and got lucky. It starts out as a tired post-apocalyptic action clunker in the same vein as Mad Max and Tank Girl, only way less interesting than either of those. Somewhere between shooting the beginning and the end, the crew must have discovered—I’m guessing—Monty Python, Mel Brooks, something in that vein. It’s like they tried to make a serious Road Warrior-ripoff, but gave up after twenty minutes and decided their budget was better suited to making a campy satire; but, rather than withering away the fun, as you’d expect, they discovered they happened to be really good at comedy. Whatever happened, they sure as hell chucked the source material. This is allegedly an adaptation of “She: A History of Adventure,” but if you’re expecting anything to do with H. Rider Haggard‘s typical Victorian adventure universe of Allan Quatermain and King Solomon, you’re queuing in the wrong line.

After elaborate animated credits which also have nothing to do with the movie, we’re plopped “year 23 after the Cancellation.” Siblings Tom, Dick, and the sister Hari pilot a barge to a post-apocalyptic flea market selling cereal and chess sets, when a warrior tribe of “Norks” (composed of Clockwork Orange droogs, bikers, quarterbacks, Roman centurions, and Nazis) raid the market and haul Hari away screaming. The brothers now have a convenient plot: they have to go rescue Hari! If you liked that fight scene, you’ll look forward to the rest of the movie, which has one noisy brawl after another. The defining characteristics of post-apocalyptic people here are that they’re all Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)