Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FOR THEATERS (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Matt Maiellaro, Dave Willis

FEATURING: Voices of Carey Means, Dana Snyder, Dave Willis

PLOT: Animated TV characters based on fast food items (Frylock, Shake and Meatwad) accidentally assemble an apocalyptic exercise machine and discover their own origins.

Still from Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let’s face it: the Aqua Teens are lightweight, fast-food surrealism. We’re including this film mainly as a nod to the Cartoon Network’s influential “Adult Swim” programming, which brought a peculiar, hip-pop absurdism to the airwaves starting in 2001. Other, sometimes darker and weirder examples of this aesthetic are found in the work of awkward comedy duo and the standalone live-action experiments of and .

COMMENTS: “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” the TV show about animated fast food characters and their Italian-American stereotype neighbor interacting with 8-bit aliens from “Space Invaders,” has only been out of production for two years now, but it seems like something that should go into the “fondly remembered” bin. I think it’s because the show was so aggressively minor, going (often successfully) for the easy laugh, always settling for snark instead of satire, randomness instead of surrealism. It was the kind of thing that you used to catch flipping through channels at 1 AM, watch until the next commercial break, chuckle once or twice, then move on. Like any long-running series, however, it spawned a dedicated fan base, in this case one large enough to justify production of a widescreen movie “for theaters.”

Colon Movie doesn’t do much to orient newcomers to Aqua Teen‘s world—although to be fair, the series had little structure in the first place. There are three main characters: cool and competent Frylock, a flying pouch of french fries; Master Shake, an arrogant but stupid milkshake; and Meatwad, a wad of meat with low intellectual capacities but shapeshifting abilities. Their adventures are free-form, involving space travel, mad scientists, and other silliness. Colon Movie begins with a widely-praised prologue: a parody of the old “let’s go out to the lobby!” snack commercials with a heavy metal junk food band howling angry suggestions at viewers (“This is a copyrighted movie by Time Warner. If I find you selling it on E-Bay I will break into your house and tear your wife in half!”) We then begin the movie proper, which begins with a segment set in ancient Egypt, followed by a digression involving time-traveling Abe Lincoln. Yep, it’s sketch comedy a la an animated , with a stoner edge. The introductory tomfoolery fades out and the actual plot-based tomfoolery begins around the  fifteen-minute mark with the introduction of the doomsday exercise machine and the crudely-drawn aliens (and a mohawk-wearing time-traveling robot) tasked with saving humanity from the machine’s destructive power. This plotline goes on for some time until it’s replaced by our heroes’ encounter with one Dr. Weird and flashbacks to several conflicting, inconsistent origin stories for the Aqua Teens. Along the way they encounter a giant poodle, more aliens (including a watermelon alien teamed up with a shrunken Rush drummer Neil Peart), a Space Ghost cameo, and other sporadically entertaining nonsense. It’s all over in a brisk 80 minutes, although with only an hour or so of actual story it still seems a little bit padded. Still, fans anointed it awesome, although newcomers would probably be better served with a shorter form 11-minute episodes as an introduction to the Force (although, with the cancellation of the series in 2015, that format may be harder to access).

Ultimately, Colon Movie will probably be remembered most for a bit of trivia: as part of a guerilla marketing scheme, LED boards featuring the “Mooninite” aliens were placed in several cities, including Boston. Unfortunately, the advertising was enacted during a period of high tension in Beantown (there had been a bomb scare earlier that morning) and the signs were mistaken for improvised bombs. Despite widespread criticism of the Boston Police Department for overreacting to the incident, the Cartoon Network’s parent company Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the city 2 million dollars to release them from any liability in the matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the ATHF television show, Colon Movie Film seemingly delights in making as little sense as possible. Its absurdist scenarios serve as little more than a ramshackle frame for bizarre non sequiturs, stoned pop-culture riffing, and some of the weirdest gags ever to make it into a studio-released film… roughly equivalent levels of tedium and hilarity.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss [years before he became a contributor], who called it “unbelievably absurd, nihilistic, low budget animation filled with stony non-sequitors… I believe that it has weird potential all and all.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)

DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: Matthew Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE (1967)

Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: José Mojica Marins, Nadia Freitas, Tina Wohlers, Antonio Fracari, José Lobo

PLOT: “Coffin Joe” returns to town in the hopes of nabbing himself a perfect bride to match his perfect self so that they might together create a perfect son; trouble ensues when he kidnaps six townswomen and then later seduces the daughter of a local bigwig.

Still from This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marins has cleaned up his technique since At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), the first movie in the Coffin Joe series, but trace amateurism still does This Night no favors. Admittedly it’s a close-run thing: the bridal spider-test, Nietzchian diatribes, and a colorful visit to Hell are among a number of memorable bits of weirdness. But this is avowedly a straight “horror” movie—that’s no bad thing, it just makes it, in this case, no weird thing.

COMMENTS: Coffin Joe is at it again. His eyesight restored after a bout in the hospital and his freedom granted after a hearing at the local courthouse, he returns to his home village to terrorize the dismayed locals as he continues his quest to father a son. José Marins neatly resurrects his signature character in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse for another round of ominous behavior and philosophical ranting at no one in particular. Armed with the experience gained from making his first horror movie (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul), Marins now offers his audience more of the same, with a finer polish. Not being saddled by any other precedents (he was the only Brazilian horror filmmaker in the market), the director continues fashioning the yardstick by which Brazilian horrors would be measured.

Coffin Joe starts his machinations immediately, without any fear of the law or God. With his signature chapeau, charismatic beard, grotesquely long fingernails, and his hunchback henchman, Bruno (José Lobo), Joe captures six women and holds them in his funeral parlor, testing their mettle by releasing a swarm of fuzzy tarantulas on them as they sleep. One woman, Marcia (Nadia Freitas) passes this test, but alas for the would-be lucky lady, she ultimately doesn’t cut the mustard. A second (pregnant) kidnappee curses Joe before her snake-y demise. Undaunted, he lays eyes on the daughter of a local grandee. She is immediately smitten by the long-clawed mortician. Once again, Joe goes too far, and the peasants get a hankering for a lynching.

This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is a technically superior outing to the comparably long-titled At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Smoother editing, marginally superior acting, and more memorable sets (whipped up in an abandoned synagogue); all come together for a more professional feel than that which plagued (blessed?) Marins’ first outing. However, this works against This Night‘s weird qualifications, as far as we’re concerned. The film has a number of things going for it, but now that the director has started walking the fine line between amateur and professional, he abandons his beginner’s luck. In short, This Night is just a smidge too well made to have the flash of weirdness that a novice’s efforts might have provided. Still, a popcorn-snow Hell, spider-eroticism, and Joe’s Übermensch stance all make it a close call.

Marins reinvented horror for his homeland of Brazil, and makes a decent start. As remarked in the At Midnight review, he’s got the best character in town, and one who can hold his own among the other greats of horror film history. There is an undeniable charm (of sorts) to a diminutive undertaker who obviously relished the Cliff Notes of “Beyond Good and Evil” in school. Marins doesn’t go full tilt enough, however, to make This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse so mind-blowing or unsettling to bring it into the weird canon. Further investigation of this anti-hero may come, though, so there’s a chance José Marins’ brain-child may at least achieve the immortality that 366 Weird Movies can furnish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie itself has a real sense of surreal and jarring horror, but its main problem may be its lack of subtlety; the themes come across as blatantly obvious and a little too self-consciously articulated.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings (DVD)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PARENTS (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban

FEATURING: , Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky

PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.

Still from Parents (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTParents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise KingdomGosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.

COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die HardComing to AmericaRain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.

A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?

The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.

Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire

 

CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, Brianorndoff.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

CAPSULE: CLOSET MONSTER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:  Stephen Dunn

FEATURING: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Aliocha Schneider, Isabella Rossellini (voice)

PLOT: A closeted gay teenager who wants to be a horror makeup artist finds himself inhibited from the same-sex experiences he craves due to a traumatic hate crime he witnessed as a child.

Still from Closet Monster (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you want a coming out story, and you want it to be slightly weird, this is an option. If you want it really weird, you’d be better off with Der Samurai, however.

COMMENTS: In its short existence, the “coming out” film has already adopted certain cliches: the disapproving macho dad who fears a “wimp” son, the ambiguously homosexual/bisexual love interest, loss of virginity at an ecstasy-fueled rave. Closet Monster doesn’t throw away this boilerplate, but it does cleverly distract our attention from the usual structure with bizarre touches meant to evoke the troubled feeling of growing up different. Monster mixes in tropes from the horror movie (an appropriate import) and, in its most whimsical and salable touch, gives us Isabella Rossellini as the voice of Oscar’s hamster spirit guide (wittily, the pet is ambiguously gendered). A series of hallucinations, mostly stemming from a traumatic homophobic assault Oscar witnesses as a child, round out the weirdness.

Steven Dunn’s direction in his first feature is confident, although wen dreamy Wilder enters the picture the will-they-won’t-they second act does drag. The horror angle, which seemed like the film’s  hook, gets pushed aside for the type of dramatic development we’ve seen many times before. But the actors are universally competent, led by conflicted Jessup. Dad Abrams has a nicely complicated character: he is more of an all-around mess—well-meaning but impulse-control challenged—than the simple homophobe he might have been. The horror scenes return at the very end, when Oscar confronts his repressed longings, including hallucinations involving vomiting bolts and a gory impalement with an iron rod. It ends at one of the most marvelously idyllic locations in Newfoundland, a mystical modernist cabin set on a rock outcropping overlooking the sea. Closet Monster is not the whimsically surreal gay horror movie we’ve been waiting for, but it is a decent watch while we wait for someone to perfect the formula.

Closet Monster won the award for Best Canadian Film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. At the time of this writing you can catch it streaming on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Willfully weird tale of a gay youth in a world of confusion. Noisily off-kilter… the determined eccentricity of the entire conceit—liberally laced with moments of hallucinatory surrealism—weighs the movie down, creating an airless ambiance at odds with any youthful verve which might appeal to the viewer.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , Robert Duvall, , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)