More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Size Matters Not…in the Philippines

Full disclosure: I have a mild obsession with this subject. See my article, “The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow.”

13Several great films have employed little people to play crucial roles. Unfortunately, little people have been largely reduced to playing mythical dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, Oompa Loompas, ewoks, jawas, and various other creatures. It’s not everyday they get to be Time Bandits (1981), take over a mental institution like in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), or act out a whole western a la The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is rare that a little actor gets to achieve singular notoriety like Verne Troyer (Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island, The Forbidden Zone), or Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, Harry Potter, Life’s Too Short), and even more elusive are the serious, juicy roles like Peter Dinklage gets (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones).

And how often do little actors get to use kung-fu, slide across the floor, umbrella-parachute out windows, or jet-pack to the rescue? The answer: not often enough.

Hi. Have we met?

Hi. Have we met?

Filipino actor, Weng Weng, got that rare opportunity to star in his own James Bond-style action movie. At 2′ 9″ Weng Weng enjoyed not only playing the shortest super-fly secret agent to ever don a leisure-suit, but he also got to be chased by several women and do a lot of pretty great stunts in the oddball cult classic For Y’ur Height Only (1980). Although most of his films are still unavailable in the United States, this particular little golden nugget can be found on DVD.

OK, so it’s still a bit of a circus role with most of the more interesting plot elements revolving around the fact that the main action star is less than 3 feet tall, but you still gotta respect the little guy.

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Everyone looks so uncomfortable. The transition from the 70s to the 80s was awkward for everyone.

The story for this B-grade critter is incredibly thin. Bad guys—who (at least in the English dubbed version) readily acknowledge their negative roles and openly declare that they are opposed to all that is good—are hiding bags of drugs in loaves of bread. The good guys (really just a guy in an office, but I guess it’s implied he works for some benevolent government agency) send not-so-secret* Agent 00 (Weng Weng) to stop the bad guys. It’s as simple and awkwardly handled as that and really it’s already more than it ever needed to be. Most of the plot is fairly incomprehensible and ludicrous, but if you are a true connoisseur of schlock cinema and/or bizarro entertainment then none of its quirks or foibles can deter you and you know it!

Sometimes I like my movies to look and feel like they were made by babies.

If you enjoy kung-fu movies and James Bond movies, you already know it’s not about the story. It’s about the action and mayhem and, I gotta say, For Y’ur Height Only delivers. Perhaps its the unfamiliar novelty of seeing a man knee-high to R2-D2 scaling walls and fighting guys and wooing chicks, but this film takes the throwaway rip-off concept that might have otherwise been forgettable and makes it something unique. Because Agent 00 is so small the action has to be choreographed with a bit of imagination…and some upper body strength on the part of the people attacking him (as Agent 00 frequently flips over them).

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Jet pack! Don’t look at the string.

Weng Weng uses his small stature to his advantage by sneaking between people’s legs, sliding on the floor whilst firing his gun, hiding in crevices, and, as I have aforementioned, umbrella-parachuting out windows.

One of my favorite things this movie does is incorporate the 007 Q gadget exchange, but instead of specific instructions, this Q gives the vaguest guidance and seems astoundingly oblivious. 00 gets an amulet thing for correspondence with the agency’s plant and a solid gold ring that can detect any poison. There’s also a pen that shoots poison darts or something, an Oddjob murder-hat (only remotely controlled), and, yes, a jet-pack. By far the greatest gift bestowed upon Agent 00 by ripoff Q are the giant sunglasses that allows the wearer to see people with their clothes off.

The action isn’t exactly at Bruce Lee status, but it is pretty great. Perhaps a bit gratuitous on the kicks to the groin, but it’s all in good fun. And the outfits are spectacular. You will never see more obnoxious combinations of plaid blazers, pastel neck scarves, pinky rings, and super big collars. No style of combat is out of place in this movie. Guns, swords, darts, martial arts, murder-hat, and even a scary one-on-one fistfight with a slightly larger dwarf are all featured.

Mr. Big

Mr. Big

The women, both established characters and random walk-ons enjoy copious amounts of smooching from the pint-sized hero. Weng Weng, although painted extra silly by way of the hilariously abysmal dubbing, demonstrates a playfully mischievous aura throughout the film. The absurd size juxtapositions and the twinkle in Weng Weng’s eye make this a lot more fun than your average Bond knockoff. One thing this movie really taught me was that putting drugs in bread is worse than killing scores upon scores of people. 00 absolutely destroys these guys. The bad guys kill maybe 2 or 3 people, while hero 00 straight up murders at least 100 dudes. The whole spectacle is about as odd and awful as lunch at Jollibee’s,** only way more aimless and much more fun.

Kamusta, baby?

Kamusta, baby?

The acting is not good, the dialogue is about as clever and articulate as a 3 year old telling a story, the dubbing is terrible (seriously, worse than any Godzilla movie), the logic and physics of bullet trajectories is psychotically ill-informed, and it’s all absolutely wonderful. And what if watching a dusky dwarf wearing a plastic sparkler-spewing jet-pack suspended over rocks by a clearly visible wire is my idea of entertainment? What then? I liked the silly action and how the nonsensical plotline sort of meandered about waiting for the feature-length mark. You really have to like your cinema to be out there to appreciate this thing. Revisiting this movie for the first time after several years was a truly special treat for me.

See the advantage? No crouching.

See the advantage? No crouching.

So maybe you might blast movies of this ilk for their cheap production quality and dismissive character development, but you know what else was filmed in the Philippines because it was cheaper there? Apocalypse Now. Boom. Chew on that. God help me, I love this movie. For Y’ur Height Only is a masterpiece of strange. Check it out and see the amazing Weng Weng in his natural habitat: in hand to hand combat and necking ladies.

Cheap foreign midgetsploitation James Bond knockoffs don’t come much better than this.

The DVD distributed by Mondo Macabro also features knockoff Bruce Lee star, Bruce Le, in the ludicrous kung-fu flick Challenge of the Tiger. Longest scene in the movie: Bruce Le fighting a bull with his hands.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

*He tells everyone he’s a secret agent.

**Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but I never found Jollibee’s eclectic menu particularly appetizing. It gleefully includes spaghetti and yam boba.

Top 10 Reason to See For Y’ur Height Only

1. What’s up with that title? For “y’ur”? “Your”?

2. Two words: jet-pack.

3. How many movies are Filipino James Bond knockoffs with little people?

4. Two more words: murder-hat.

5. In one scene Weng Weng is affectionately compared to (and I kid you not) a potato.

6. He pulls his body over a gun to flip-kick a guy in the face and then proceeds to pummel him with the butt of the gun.

7. Two more words: umbrella-parachute.

8. “There’s a lot of dough in this dough: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…” actual line muttered by a bad guy in reference to the drugs hidden in the bread.

9. You’ll wanna dress your baby up in a leisure suit.

10. Two final words: Weng Weng

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 4, 2011