Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ed Spiegel (Hellstrom sequences), Walon Green (producer and principal photography), David L. Wolper (executive producer)

FEATURING: Lawrence Pressman

PLOT: The fictional Dr. Nils Hellstrom explains the evolutionary advantages of insects and

Still from The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

concludes they are biologically superior to humans, leading him to predict dire consequences for the future of our species.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Documentaries don’t come much weirder than this, but even the orgies of insectoid sex and violence and Dr. Hellstrom’s flaky mad scientist rants about the inherent superiority of spiders, termites and centipedes can’t raise this to the level of the truly bizarre. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the goods to rank among the weirdest movies of all times, however, it’s still a beautiful abnormality that’s well worth your attention.

COMMENTS: The Hellstrom Chronicle contains a lot of curiosities, but the heart of the movie are the amazing images captured through (then miraculous) micro-photography: a caterpillar developing from a fertilized cell to a larva in the space of a minute, a shot of beetles locked in a death struggle that widens and pans to show a human couple cuddling on the lawn, individual brightly-colored butterfly scales glowing in the sunlight like Lite Brites. As that last image suggests, there is a psychedelic character to much of this parade of fantastical bug-tography, one that the filmmakers play up as they segue from those super-closeups of wings to shaky cam scenes of fields of butterflies flying through a forest, as Lalo Schifrin’s electronic free-jazz symphony soars ecstatically. From sequences like this we realize why this documentary was so popular on college campuses in the 1970s; you can almost see the clouds of pot smoke rising up in front of the five-foot tall black beetles with their jutting horns silhouetted against the sunrise, and hear the low murmurs of “far out, man.”

With its dissonant sitars, electric pianos dithering over waves of cymbals, and waveform synthesizers wavering in the background, Schrifin’s remarkable score evokes not only midnight trips but also conventional sci-fi giant insect cues, which is appropriate because much of the Continue reading CAPSULE: THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971)

CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Celine Danhier

FEATURING: Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, ,

PLOT: This documentary examines the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film

Still from Blank City (2010)

movements and their connections to performance art and punk rock in New York City circa 1977-1985.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely a supplemental feature for your weird movie education, giving background information on a significant underground DIY film movement.

COMMENTS: “It felt like our lives were movies,” says Debbie Harry early on in Blank City. “It was very cinematic.” Perhaps this explains Celine Danhier’s choice, which earned her criticism in some quarters, to place the focus more on the filmmakers than the films in this documentary. Based on the No Wave film clips which illustrate the story, this was the correct angle to take on the material. Most of the “greatest hits” Super-8 highlights consist of grungy hipsters smoking cigarettes in grainy black and white, or walking around dirty East Village streets in washed-out, home-movie color. By contrast, the Bohemian lifestyle the filmmakers fondly recall—sharing $50 apartments in burnt out tenements with cockroaches, shooting on the street on the spur of the moment whenever they could assemble a crew, sneaking into locations to film without permission or permits, and heading off to CBGB’s after a hard day of scraping together footage to drink and dance the night away while a pre-fame Blondie or Television played on stage—is a lot more interesting. The No Wave scene flourished during New York City’s downbeat phase, when the burg was deep in debt, full of abandoned buildings, and riddled by crime and heroin abuse (basically, the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The city in the late Seventies was nasty and dangerous, but for nouveau-beatnik types it offered cheap rent, cheaper Super-8 film stock, and the company of like-minded free spirits. Although it grew out of the ashes of the previous New York avant-garde exemplified by and Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith, movement godfather Amos Poe explains that this wave rebelled against the Continue reading CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, , Charles Gray, Ruby Wax,

PLOT: A young married couple end up in a town that’s actually a giant television network; Janet is groomed as a celebrity, while Brad becomes a mental patient in a hospital show.

Still from Shock Treatment (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shock Treatment is a cult film even among the tiny subset of cult film enthusiasts. This “sequel” was rejected as a confounding disappointment by most fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but is still vehemently defended by a segment of that fan base. It’s a peculiar exercise in wacky musical satire, for sure, but it lacks the kind of résumé necessary to place it among the most significantly weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: What would you get if you took The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stripped out Tim Curry‘s domineering performance as the mad scientist transvestite dominatrix, leaving behind only the theater-rock musical numbers and campy supporting players? (On the off-chance you don’t see where I’m going yet, the answer is Shock Treatment). Whereas Rocky Horror was a theatrical flop that organically grew into a cult movie, Shock Treatment was pitched as a deliberate cult movie, but became an instant flop. This delayed follow-up is full of amped-up ideas and energy, but it comes off as cocksure; it’s so convinced its madness is entrancing that it forgets to ground us in its quirky universe. The (confusingly executed) idea is that the entire town of Denton, U.S.A. is a TV studio, with the audience as regular citizens, the stars and staff as sorts of metro officials, and the sponsors as big-money villains manipulating studio politics behind the scenes. The movie throws so many colorful eccentrics at us that every character turns into a minor character, even the leads. Janet (not necessarily the Janet Susan Sarandon played in the previous movie) and Brad (again, a character with the same name but little connection to the original) enter the town’s audience, for unclear reasons, and wind up on a marriage counseling show run by a blind Austrian in an orange thrift-store tuxedo. He hands Brad off to a brother/sister pair of psychiatrists (writer Richard O’Brien, wearing uncomfortable- Continue reading CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

CAPSULE: THE IRON ROSE [LA ROSE DE FER] (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Françoise Pascal, Hugues Quester (as Pierre Dupont)

PLOT: Young lovers go mad when they are trapped in a cemetery overnight.

Still from The Iron Rose

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Iron Rose‘s wonderfully funereal setting and muted weirdness isn’t powerful enough to overcome its lack of events. The slow-paced visual poetry here is hit-or-miss, resonating strongly with some viewers while boring others stiff. I’m in the latter camp, I’m afraid; I believe there are brisker, more agreeable vehicles to represent Jean Rollin on the List.

COMMENTS: To many fans, La Rose de Fer represents the distilled essence of Jean Rollin: trancelike atmosphere, poetic visuals, and quiet, dreamy symbolism. With its couple making love all over a graveyard, rolling around in passion amongst the skulls and femurs, it’s also the most blatant example of the director’s desire to play matchmaker between Eros and Thanatos. And, while it’s correct to say Rose is pure Rollin, the very integrity of vision shown here exposes the director’s flaws even more than his virtues: his seeming indifference to character and story, his stilted faux-Symbolist dialogue, and, especially, his tortoise-influenced method of pacing. Rose begins on Rollin’s famous beach that appears in almost all of his movies; Françoise Pascal, the stunning and exotic half-Mauritanian actress/model, finds the titular mineral flower washed up on shore. She then walks through a field and a deserted French town; six minutes later, the plot begins as a young poet toasts her at a wedding reception with a ditty about death. The two arrange for a date and, after hitting it off quickly, end up in a magnificent French cemetery for a picnic and a little lovemaking inside a tomb (despite the girl’s initial reticence). The boneyard is almost deserted except for a few odd visitors, including a clown in full makeup who places flowers on a grave. When they emerge from the crypt in post-coital bliss, they find that night has fallen early, the boy has lost his watch, and the path they came in on appears to be missing. Although the scenario sounds like an promising blend of Freud and the Twilight Zone, it takes thirty minutes of plodding setup to reach this point, and when we finally do, Rollin offers us too little payoff for our patience. The boy Continue reading CAPSULE: THE IRON ROSE [LA ROSE DE FER] (1973)

CAPSULE: PINA (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders

FEATURING: Pina Bausch

PLOT: A selection of modern dances from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch, interspersed

Still from Pina (2011)

with tributes from the dancers who worked with her and presented in 3D.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pina Bausch invented weird dances, but filming them (even in 3D) doesn’t make a weird movie, just a movie about people performing weird dances.

COMMENTS: German choreographer Pina Bausch died unexpectedly just before Wim Wenders began principal photography on Pina; whatever profile of the working artist he might originally have planned, the film became instead a eulogy. Because Bausch believed that movement was itself a language that could express emotional truths impossible to say with language, it’s fitting that almost none of her words remain in the film but that her life is instead told through her abstract dances. (What quotes we do have are mostly platitudes for the comfort and inspiration of her dancers: “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”). It begins with a semi-conventional staging of Stravinsky’s still-shocking “The Rites of Spring,” with pagan maidens anxiously swaying in nude-colored nightgowns until the high priest selects the unlucky gal destined to dance herself to death to ensure a good harvest. That’s as comfortably classical and representational as things get. When we move into Bauch’s own imagination, we encounter a dreamlike café where blind women crash into the walls, a ballet performed in the pouring onstage rain beside a giant craggy rock, and a woman who walks onto a train cradling a pillow and silently connects with a passenger wearing donkey ears. Next to a muddy lake, a hunched woman bears a sleeping man on her back, while further in the background another lady marches along with a tree growing out of her spine. Limp dancers manipulated like puppets by others are a repeating theme; for example, there’s one sequence where a man carefully positions two comatose lovers, placing the woman’s arm around the man’s neck and then hoisting her into his arms, but she always slips off and he repeats his manipulations over and over, performing the futile ritual faster and faster each time until he’s almost a blur on the screen. Dances from four of Bausch’s major works are recreated; Wenders sometimes pours the action out of the theater and into the streets of Wuppertal. A few shorter pieces were created for the film by her disciples in Pina’s surreal style. The stagings and costumes are minimalist but always evocative and interesting; color schemes are intense and dramatic. The musical accompaniment is tasteful, eclectic and melodic, ranging from the expected classical chestnuts (Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky) through jazz (Louis Armstrong) and Portuguese fado to moody modern avant-rock and electronica. I didn’t go into Pina as a fan of modern dance, and I didn’t come out one; but, even though the non-narrative feature did become a bit repetitive at 100 minutes, I’m glad I spent the time getting to know the woman and her craft. I don’t think Pina will spark the same interest in its esoteric subject as Wenders’ The Buena Vista Social Club did in Cuban music, but it’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the grace, dedication and creativity of the dancers, or by the love and respect that went into composing this tribute to Pina’s life work.

Though sometimes promoted as the first 3D documentary, fellow German  beat Wenders to the punch (at least by release date) with his equally weighty Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). When I watched Cave on a flat screen, I was convinced that, by not having seen it in 3D as intended, I was missing out on crucial visual textures. But (although I know I’ll be in the minority here), having caught Pina in a theater in all three of its intended dimensions, now I’m not convinced that 3D technology can ever add anything to a film’s visuals but a touch of novelty. The human brain automatically adds depth to a flat image, making 3D effects superfluous. Pina‘s dancers didn’t seem richer or more real to me simply because they were superficially curvier and stood out a bit from the background. In fact, they looked artificial and unnatural, in that peculiar way only modern computer-generated effects produce. The ersatz hyperreality of 3D may perform a weirdening function by enhancing the oddness of Pina’s otherworldly compositions, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Pina’s power comes from the way Wenders uses that illusion of living, flexing proximity to immerse you in Bausch’s dreamlike, emotionally vertiginous world. Watching Pina is like being inside one of Bausch’s surreal pieces.”–Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE (2012)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, , Twink Caplan, , William Atherton

PLOT: Two filmmakers in debt to their patrons take over management of a run-down shopping mall, hoping to make back the money they owe and lose their fake Hollywood attitudes.

Still from Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Heidecker and Wareheim’s recently-ended television series Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! was one of the outright weirdest shows on air, but their short skit format doesn’t translate as well to a feature-length film. There are various hilarious and strange moments, but as a whole it’s a disappointment compared to the show.

COMMENTS: Formatting itself as a film-within-a-film—which allows for several fourth wall-breaking moments and sarcastic plot breaks—Billion Dollar Movie is essentially a combination of several sketches dragged out into a clumsy, broken narrative feature. It opens with a series of infomercials of products to improve your viewing experience, segues into a fake 3-minute film starring a Johnny Depp impersonator, then finally brings us to our unflappable stars Tim and Eric, casting themselves as over-tanned Hollywood hacks who wasted a billion dollars on an unsellable movie that doesn’t even really star Johnny Depp. In debt to the Schlaaang Corporation who funded them and distraught over losing their extravagant lifestyle—which included the employment of personal guru Jim Joe Kelly (Zach Galifianakis)—the guys take a job as mall managers under the belief that they’ll receive a billion dollars for it. Their financial backers assume they’ve skipped town and go to violent lengths to track them down.

The mall itself is essentially a building-size set-up for several typical Tim and Eric characters and short sketches, only with more recognizable supporting cast members (which means fewer of their more disarming amateur regulars, though James Quall and few others make appearances). There’s the Top Gun-obsessed mall owner (Will Ferrell) and his sickly nephew of an indeterminate age (John C. Reilly), a man (Will Forte) who gets paid not to sell swords from his sword store, a mysterious cult leader (Ray Wise) promoting enlightenment through “Shrim”, a woman (Twink Caplan) who somehow is sexually attracted to both Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, and a proud seller of used toilet paper who passively allows his son to be unofficially adopted by a stranger. Oh, and don’t forget the man-eating wolf. He’ll get ya.

Flush with weird, unsettling jokes and plenty of gross visual gags, Billion Dollar Movie offers the type of humor and characters anyone familiar with Tim and Eric’s output might expect. There are moments that seem to blend horror and comedy in such an uncomfortable way as to produce only confused, visceral reactions (a feeling surely recognizable to fans of their work). There are moments that are truly bizarre and hilarious, including Jeff Goldblum’s introduction (as “Chef” Goldblum), the ridiculous digs at Hollywood culture, and the whole Shrim thing. Then, there are moments that just don’t work. Considering their brand of non sequitur, gross-out weirdness is hit and miss in short formats, it’s no surprise that a feature-length film doesn’t really suit Tim and Eric’s skills. There’s no driving force, with a flimsy plot structure and haphazard script that plods along from good joke to bad joke and boring segments in between. Even at its weirdest moments it seems tame compared to some of the sketches in the show, probably because everything is given more context and presented in more familiar terms.

For fans of the show it will likely be a disappointment, but it’s also hard to resist seeing for yourself. Just be ready for surprising amounts of nudity- even for them. I saw a lot of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim that I didn’t expect to ever see.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cult weirdoes Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim define their small-screen oeuvre with delirious excess and unrepentant weirdness, but their cult television shows look positively austere compared to their cinematic directorial and starring debut, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” –Nathan Rubin, The Onion AV Club (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BRIDE OF FRANK (1996)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steve Ballot

FEATURING: Frank Meyer

PLOT: Frank, a mentally challenged old man with a speech impediment, kills various people he

Still from he Bride of Frank (1996)

meets as he searches for true love from a woman with large breasts.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an authentic piece of goombah outsider art, The Bride of Frank is actually weird, but it’s also bad. And I mean real bad, not “entertaining” bad.

COMMENTS: The movie begins with a toothless old man tricking a five year-old girl into getting into his big rig, trying to get her to kiss him, then crushing her head under the wheel of his truck after she calls him a “dirty bum.” If that scenario sounds like can’t miss comedy gold to you, then you’re The Bride of Frank‘s target audience. All others will want to observe that “beware” rating. That opening scene of child molestation played for laughs does have the virtue of driving away most of the audience before the film can even get started; anyone who continues on past that point can’t pretend to be surprised by the senseless killing, simulated defecation, and sexual perversion that follows. Tonally, the opening, which makes us want to destroy Frank with fire, is a huge problem because it’s out of character with the way the rest of the movie wants to portray him—as a hideous-looking but childlike outcast, a la Frankenstein’s monster, who only kills bad people after they insult and reject him. To wit: Frank decapitates a nerd and relieves himself inside the corpse after being insulted at his birthday party, rips the face off a transvestite who tricks him into a sexual encounter, tears the eye out of a 300 pound exotic dancer and violates her corpse because she’s a tease, and so on. Yawn. Are we jaded yet? More conventional comic relief comes from the poetically obscene homoerotic/homophobic repartee between two of Frank’s coworkers, which is slightly amusing, but nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve ever worked with Jersey teamsters on a loading dock. Frank, the weatherbeaten, dim, ex-homeless killer whose speech impediment is so thick he’s often subtitled, is played by real-life ex-homeless man Frank Meyer. Frank is like regular Edith Massey, except he’s not in on the joke. He’s not acting, he’s simply Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BRIDE OF FRANK (1996)