Tag Archives: Superhero

CAPSULE: MYSTERY MEN (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Kinka Usher

FEATURING: Ben Stiller, , Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Tom Waits, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush

PLOT: Captain Amazing has been captured by the villainous Casanova Frankenstein, and Champion City is in danger. Do the Shoveler, Mr Furious, and Blue Raja have what it takes to save the day? The answer: not quite.

COMMENTS: It isn’t that strange that a star-studded action comedy would be directed by someone with a career in commercials—commercials and music videos (essentially commercials for music) often act as a springboard into “real” cinema. What is a bit strange is that Kinka Usher, the director of this muddled cult classic, remarked, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts than deal with all this nonsense.” This lack of passion makes Mystery Men incredibly uneven. But Usher brings with him considerable visual flair, so at least all this unevenness is interesting to look at and constantly in motion. Even as the many saggy sections sag, the viewer can take comfort in the fact that the storyteller will move on with due haste.

The action starts immediately… right after soaring pan over the retro-futuristic “Champion City”, accompanied by a Danny Elfman-esque score, established a “superhero” vibe. The Red Eyes, a low-rent gang of larcenous thugs, crash a senior citizens’ ball, robbing the guests of watches, diamonds, “wigs and toupés”, and even false teeth. Enter our heroes: the Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr Furious (Ben Stiller, who was in every other movie released in those days), and Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). After a display of middling skills, they fail just in time for Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) to save the day.

The script devotes more detail to Mystery Men‘s backdrop than to the characters themselves, and while this provides a grandeur to the superhero fun-poking, it also leaves the characters woefully underdeveloped. (It’s almost as if an entire comic book series doesn’t translate well into a single feature film.) The huge cityscapes, which hint at a world-culture smorgasbord, alternate with set pieces that play like sketch comedy bits strung together: the sub-heroes quibble in the diner, the sub-heroes host a recruitment barbecue, and so forth. Macy, Stiller, Azaria, et al. each seem to simultaneously hog the spotlight while also being spread too thinly.

This isn’t even a close call for our list, but the peripherals made it worth a look. The eccentric performances from Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Tom Waits all sync nicely with the tone that should have dominated. “Work-a-day super heroes”, though a cute premise, results in work-a-day personalities, and what Champion City (and Mystery Men) needs is a heavy dose of straight-faced absurdity. Kinnear and Rush play off each-other marvelously, and their scenes are a hoot. Waits needs only to be onscreen to give you a dose of strange.

Though failing at being weird is forgivable, failing as a comedy is less so. The biggest joke comes early, and works only because of meta-humor. Ricky Jay, as Captain Amazing’s agent, chides his client after the disappointing Red Eye bust, “Look, I’m a publicist—not a magician.” Some more self-awareness (and a little less Smash Mouth) could have saved Mystery Men from the “cult classic” film heap.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Mystery Men has moments of brilliance waving their arms to attract attention in a sea of dreck. It’s a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess, and every once in awhile it generates a big laugh.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times / Rogerebert.com (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chad, who called it “one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

Erekutorikku doragon 80000V

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Sogo Ishii [AKA Gakuryû Ishii]

FEATURING: , , voice of Masakatsu Funaki

PLOT: A boy who survives electrocution while climbing an electrical tower grows up to be “Dragon Eye Morrison,” a human battery and “reptile investigator” who tracks missing lizards and who can only control his violent impulses by playing his electric guitar. Meanwhile, “Thunderbolt Buddha,” a half-man, half-metal being who was also struck by lightning as a child, hears of our hero, and wants to test his electrical superpowers against his counterpart’s. The villainous Buddha provokes a high voltage showdown with Morrison on a Tokyo rooftop.

Still from Electric Dragon 80000V

BACKGROUND:

  • Sogo Ishii was an established director whose work was influenced by punk music and style. He was an influential figure for Japanese underground filmmakers, but his work is seldom seen outside of his homeland.
  • Industrial/noise band MACH-1.67, an occasional ensemble that included director Ishii and star Asano, provided the music. They subsequently performed concerts with this film playing in the background.
  • Composer Hiroyuki Onogawa said he had never written rock music nor worked much with the electric guitar before this project.
  • The movie was a cult success in Japan, running to packed houses in one theater for two months. Plans for a Part 2 were discussed, but never materialized.
  • Reports suggest that the film was shot in three days (other accounts say three weeks, and obviously post-production took much, much longer) and largely improvised.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’re going to go with the visage of the movie’s villain, a half-man, half-statue. (Beyond the fact that he was struck by lightning as a child, his alloyed origins are never explained.)

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Thunderbolt Buddha, TV repairman; pre-rage noise solo

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A team of Japanese industrial punks decide to made a surrealistic black and white superhero noise musical. If this sounds awesome to you, we won’t argue.

Original trailer for Electric Dragon 80000V

COMMENTS: We can dispense with any sort of search for deep Continue reading 4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

I think “jaw-dropping” is the only apt description for movies like and Herbert Tevos’ Mesa of Lost Women (1952) or ‘s The Wild World of Batwoman (1966): categories like camp, cult, et. al. simply cannot do them justice. 366 readers are, of course, familiar with Ormond and Warren as two z-grade (cough) filmmakers; that category fits for virtually everything the two produced.

While Mesa of Lost Women may lack the feverish WTF element of Ormond’s later , it is, as per the norm with this filmmaker, mind-numbingly godawful. How godawful is it? It’s so godawful that the first time I saw it, I immediately wondered whether those endlessly annoying Medved boys ever saw it. How could little Ed‘s sweet little opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, even compete with Ormond’s Mesa for title of worst film of all time? Of course, as the Medveds fancy themselves Christian critics, they might have been biased in not granting the title of “worst director of all time” to fellow fanatic Ormond; giving that award to our favorite transvestite director, to be frank, turned out to be an unintentional blessing for St. Edward D. Wood, Jr. (and to us).

Still, every weird movie lover owes it to himself or herself to see these masterstrokes of trash. While only Mesa is considered  “horror” per se, both are possessed with the zany queerness of the season and should perfectly serve any Halloween gathering.

Still from Mesa of Lost Women (1966)Mesa of Lost Women stars , somewhere between the golden locks of ‘s Kid and the chrome dome of Uncle Fester. Herbert Tevos’ script is narrated by , and the opening is priceless: “Strange is the monstrous assurance of this race of puny bipeds with overblown egos; the creature who calls himself ‘Man.’ He believes he owns the earth and every living thing on it exists only for his benefit. Yet, how foolish he is. In the continuing war for survival between man and the hexapods, only an utter fool would bet against the insect.” Talbot’s narration is utterly pointless, except for that fact that occasionally, and weirdly, he seems to be speaking directly to the actors—who then strain to hear what he is saying.

There is no actual mesa of lost women, only Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) and Coogan as stock mad scientist Dr. Aranya (that’s Spanish for spider, someone tells us) seeking to create a “super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain; a creature that may someday control the world—subject to my will.” Yes, Dr. Aranya is creating spider women, spider dwarves, and spider puppets. Naturally, Bland Hero objects (“It’s monstrous!”) Apparently, the production ran out Continue reading MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

JUDEX (1916)

Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is , who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take , the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.

As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.

One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.

Still from Judex (1916)The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.

Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.

For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.

Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and  informative booklet by  historian Jan-Christopher Horak.

BATMAN NINJA (2018)

Batman Ninja (2018, directed by Junpei Mizusaki) is an utterly bizarre hoot; the most refreshing take on the Batman character since 2014’s The Lego Movie. It’s about time that the Dark Knight got a face lift. Reportedly, fanboys are heading to drugstores by the busload, buying out all the Preparation H. From the reactions I scanned on IMDB, the general consensus is “Batman can’t be in Feudal Japan!” Uh, boys, do you remember the day mummy told you that the Jolly Green Giant wasn’t real? Ditto.

However, it’s more than concept alone that makes Batman Ninja a thoroughly enjoyable, off-kilter adventure. It’s also one of the most visually dazzling animation efforts I’ve seen (famed anime designer Takashi Okazaki practically has a kaleidoscopic, calligraphic watercolor orgasm onscreen, and its gorgeous). Additionally, Batman Ninja takes a nothing-is-sacred approach, which undoubtedly is the inspiration for the sound of exploding, angst-ridden batfundie heads heard all over social media.

Batman and Catwoman are having a  bit of a tiff with Gorilla Grodd (the old Flash nemesis) who has a time-teleporting thingamajig . Lo and behold; Batman is in feudal Japan. The film is hyper-kinetically paced. Within seconds, he is dueling with a small gang of Joker-faced samurai, which of course leads him to Lord Joker himself as well as Harley Quinn.

Catwoman arrives, too. She is a geisha with a kitty puppet, and she makes Dolly Parton look like an A cup. Oh, and she bought Alfred (not me, Bruce Wayne’s butler), too, and the Batmobile. Smartly, Misuski and company resist the boring temptations of Batman traditions. They get a new use out of the Batcycle, turning it into a suit of armor. When the battle begins, Batman has an arsenal of batninjas backing him up. Grodd, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Deathstroke, and sumo wrestler Bane (!) all exist in feudal Japan; each has his or her own territory, and they are fighting for control—a bit like the mafia in Godfather.

Batman needs all the help he can get, so several Robins come to save the day, including a red Robin, and one with a green mohawk who has a chimpanzee for a sidekick! Robin himself is no longer Robin: he’s lost his primary colors and become a gray clad-ninja called Nightwing.

The battles come fast and furious, including one in Joker’s castle, one at sea with a Joker clipper ship, metallic simians, magic bats, and Bane mantling George “Watch Out for That Tree” of the Jungle.

In addition to the anime style (which suits Batman well), Batman Ninja has its tongue-firmly-in cheek with purple dialogue: “I am no longer the Batman. I will be what the bat clan calls me. I will be their prophecy. I will be Sengoku Batman.” Batman as a samurai isn’t even half of it. He disguises himself as a monk and gets a tonsure hairdo—in the shape of the bat signal. Harley Quinn and Catwoman engine in pseudo-lesbian combat (busty lesbians, with groan-inducing dialogue, of course). In-jokes are aplenty, with wacky nods to Transformers, Planet of the Apes, War of the Gargantuas, For a Few Dollars More, Legend of the Seven Golden VampiresPower Rangers, and The Empire Strikes Back, to name a few.

This is the opposite of ‘s white trash take on super people, and of all the Freudian Batmans we’ve been inundated with since Frank Miller. Thankfully,  unnecessary character development  and formulaic writing go the way of the dinosaur, and with all that out of the way, Batman Ninja is a creative and surreal romp. After seeing a 70-year-old plus character go from camp to dystopian, and to just plain godawful, Mizusaki actually does something new with it. Sure, Hamburger Helper-variety batfans will probably keel over from seeing their pedestaled funny paper deity put through the wringer and their formula diet challenged, but the rest of us can invite our weirdest friends over for one helluva extra anchovy pizza party and Batman Ninja.

P.S.  Stay put for the credits.