Tag Archives: Comedy

LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell

FEATURING: , , Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb

PLOT: Doc Sportello‘s grand-son, Sam, is going to be — wait, no. Disheveled loafer Sam is going to be kicked out of his apartment in five days for (criminally overdue) back-rent. Instead of fixing his domestic problem, he becomes embroiled in perhaps the biggest cover-up that has ever bamboozled the Golden State.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A serial dog murderer, a conspiracist ‘zine drawn to life, a map in a box of “Space Nuggets,” Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, palatial tombs, the Owl Woman, symbolic Chess moves, the Homeless King, and a mysterious Songwriter all come crashing down on a shiftless 30-something loser with a knack for crypticism. Barking women, Purgatory parties, and one bad cookie lock Under the Silver Lake into a realm of supreme strangeness reminiscent of that beach dream you had after reading Pynchon.

COMMENTS: Call it poor form of me, but I felt obliged to skip a second screening to hustle back and write about David Mitchell’s newest film. During the movie, variations on what to call it skipped around my brain, but ultimately I reckoned that Inherent Goonies best encapsulates the mood. This bizarre crime drama on barbiturates; this ambling post-Slacker comedy; this magnificent quest—somehow the director weds the listless protagonist with the adolescent adventure-stylings of “The Hardy Boys.” Jammed throughout are enough threads to sew yourself a nice cardigan to protect you from the sun while you’re strolling through the over-baked landscape of sorta-now-ish California.

Perched on his apartment’s balcony, Sam (Andrew Garfield) has a good view of his attractive older neighbor—a constantly topless bird fancier. Suddenly, a young beauty (Riley Keough) with a dog and a boombox catches his eye. They meet, they get high together, and then she disappears mysteriously in the middle of the night. Quietly curious and uncannily focused, Sam pursues the mystery at his own ambling pace, encountering an underground ‘zine artist (Patrick Fischler) who sets him on the right path and a coterie of über-hipster musicians whose songs are encoded with secret messages, before meeting the benevolent Homeless King (David Yow) by the grave of James Dean. What follows is an odyssey of unpleasant discovery as Sam finds that, for the rich, the world  is a very different kind of place than it is for everyone else.

I’ve already mentioned the Inherent Vice connection, and even if it were only Andrew Garfield’s Joaquin Phoenix-channeling performance, Under the Silver Lake would still be an odd duck. But David Mitchell keeps shoveling on more ducks at every turn. I don’t know where else I’d find cryptography and Hollywood history so intertwined. I don’t know where else I’d find the Purgatory club—the kind of place you might hang out between the Black and White Lodges. And I don’t know where else California’s bright lights  and beautiful people could find themselves crashing so violently into luxuriant subterranean twilight. Mitchell even drops some suggestions that Sam could be a burnt-out, alternate time-line Peter Parker.

Fortunately for us, our knight-errant keeps it together on his perilous mission seeking the maiden fair. The movie is epic in length and epic in scope, unveiling new side roads for Sam to shuffle along: sometimes in jeans, sometimes in pajamas. When an ultimate truth is discovered, Mitchell isn’t satisfied, and somehow manages to unveil an even ultimater truth. For reasons beyond my understanding, Under the Silver Lake was poorly received at Cannes. Perhaps it’s just not their kind of movie. Thank the heavens above for Fantasia: Mitchell’s latest effort found just the right kind of people there. With Under the Silver Lake, we fly very close to the sun; but unlike Icarus, we manage to crash comfortably on to our hot neighbor’s bed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] glib, weird hybrid comedy rife with conspiracy theories… what first seems a goofy light foray into pop culture slackerdom with a hefty added dose of voyeurism, becomes a down-the-rabbit-hole exploration of the fantasy geography of an L.A. undermined by subterranean caverns and tunnels, and inhabited by cultists, theorists, ethereal female escorts, and homeless shamans, as coyotes roam freely.” -Barbara Scharres, RogerEbert.Com

CAPSULE: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Stephen Plunkett,  Charlie Korsmo

PLOT: While starring in a low budget period horror film, Mabel makes the acquaintance of some affable “freaks” brought on set for authenticity; while the main cast and crew’s away, the freaks pass the time making their own movie vignettes.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made as a rejoinder to the infamous Freaks (1932), Aaron Schimberg’s movie is non-exploitative, clever, funny, and professional. While the meta-narrative gets a little odd at one point, Chained to Life really boils down to being a feel-good comedy in the very best possible way.

COMMENTS: I found something very odd about my viewing experience of Chained for Life, and it wasn’t the subject matter. After the brief introduction by the soft-spoken director, I was feeling nervous, for some reason. Admittedly, I’ve had difficulty coping with the sight of deformity (in person and otherwise), but having thought about it—and having now seen the movie—it was the wider critical interpretation that I’d read beforehand that made me apprehensive, and afterwards made me confused. I’ll talk about what other critics saw later; me, I saw a charming, character-driven comedy.

When a busload of disabled people show up at the shoot for a period horror film, there is a hiccup of apprehension on the part of the “normals” already present. The leading lady, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays the movie’s movie’s leading lady, a woman blinded by some unexplained accident who is promised to be cured through radical surgery. However, Chained for Life focuses primarily on the actors and crew involved, in particular on the blossoming friendship between the physically self-conscious Mabel and the physically self-accepting Rosenthal (Adam Pearson). While primary filming progresses by day, the “freaks” lodge in the hospital by night, eventually deciding to play around with filmmaking themselves. One twist leads to a cute reveal after a ways, but the story is pretty simple.

That’s not to say it isn’t well done. By using the pretentious “art-house” nonsense being filmed by a hyper- stand-in (billed only as “Herr Director”) as a counterpoint to the day-to-day scenes of people interacting with people, Aaron Schimberg crumples up any fear of “the Other” by focusing on the lighter side of the banality everyone faces. There are also moments of considerable hilarity scattered throughout. At one point, Herr Director demands Rosenthal “emerge from the shadows”. When asked the simple question, “What am I doing in the shadows?,” Herr Director goes off on a lengthy, increasingly impassioned tangent concerning The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ epic quest, and the big reveal of . This handily reveals the director’s obsessions without providing Rosenthal with any good reason why his character would just be kicking around in the dark, while also nicely linking the two phenomena together: as Schimberg remarked in an interview, whenever there’s a big reveal (chair swivel, shadow emergence), it’s either a celebrity or a “freak”.

But what of those other critics? One used the term “black comedy” , and the only interpretation I can make of that being any comedy involving these kinds of people must be subversive somehow. Another’s mind was blown by a modest twist found in the final act; it was as if he watched a far more complicated movie than I had. But despite the unsettling undercurrents discovered by other reviews, I found Chained for Life to be as pleasing as it is witty. As the credits appear, they spool over one long take on the bus of the variously disabled actors after the in-movie movie shoot. After so deftly undermining preconceptions about disfigured people, this stunt pays off handsomely. What do we see when we watch them on the bus? Totally normal people being totally, normal, bored. It was an excellent flourish and a perfect way to underline the film’s thesis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream.”–Callum Marsh, The Village Voice (festival screening)

341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my Continue reading 341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

LIST CANDIDATE: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley

FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover

PLOT: When telemarketer Cassius Green learns to use his “white voice,” he shoots up the corporate ranks, becomes a “power caller,” and is asked to compromise his principles in a shocking way.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9. And it gets bonus points for using the word “weird” as a selling point in its marketing campaign.

COMMENTS: Struggling to find a job that will pay the rent on his meager garage apartment and provide gas money for the rustbucket hand-me-down car his uncle gave him, Cassius Green stumbles into the sleazy entry-level sales world of telemarketing. An idealistic co-worker (Steven Yeun) wants to unionize, but when Cash learns to use his “white voice” to make sales, he’s promoted to a “Power Caller” instead, and sent (in a golden elevator) to the top floor to hawk Faustian inventory to multinational corporations for top dollar. His success causes friction with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (sexy and sassy Tessa Thompson), who embraces the new luxurious lifestyle briefly before deciding she misses the soul Cash sold, and letting her eye wander towards a more romantic target with more integrity.

That synopsis sounds like a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy, and Sorry to Bother You successfully orients its audience in that familiar genre before springing surprise after surprise as the plot gets deeper and weirder. We’re eased into the strangeness with magical realist comedy sketches: still wearing his headset, Cash appears in the flesh at his cold calls’ dinner tables, among more intimate settings. Then there’s the uncanny “white voice” (explained in a revealing cameo monologue by Danny Glover). By the time Cash is high on cocaine watching a claymation corporate propaganda film hosted by a topless ape woman, you’re totally immersed and invested in an anything-can-happen world very different from where we started. A company pimping out contractual slavery, Detroit’s confrontational earrings, a character whose name has been redacted, a performance of a monologue from The Last Dragon, and a badly improvised rap are just a few of the cleverly absurd gags that help distract us the nightmare scenario at the center of the film. It works on two levels; genuinely funny, at times even hilarious, the laughs keep the audience hypnotized in their seats while the message seeps into the brains. Just like any good ad campaign.

Sorry to Bother You‘s world is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but askew enough off that the satire never seems like a facile paint by numbers allegory. There are no obvious characters from the current administration, but there is a reality TV show called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and it’s possible to become a 15-minute celebrity by having a video of you being brained with a coke can make the rounds on YouTube. The movie addresses issues of racial identity, carnivalesque cultural depravity, and the working class’ financial treadmill with a touch that’s light but firm. It’s a sneaky sucker punch square in the zeitgeist’s gut. Thank you, Sorry to Bother You, for bothering me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley’s see-it-to-believe-it feature debut as a director, goes from agreeably strange to weird to surreal, but its brilliance lies in how it never stops feeling real, genuine, lived-in.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RELAXER (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Arin Bechdel,

PLOT: Abbie is a perennial failure at life, but he makes one final attempt to turn things around by accepting his brother’s challenge to beat the unbeatable Pac-Man score, all while never moving from his seat on the couch.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Starting with a “gallon challenge” and ending not-quite-apocalyptically, the ordeals of a seated young man unspool without him ever leaving the couch, nor us ever leaving the room. All the thirst, sweat, and odors pile on as our entrapment goes on. And on. And on. Until something cosmically mystical occurs.

COMMENTS: It seems almost a rule that the most mild-mannered directors are the ones that come up with the most eccentric movies. has his very British affability; has been a Midwestern swell-guy since childhood; and now there’s rising star Joel Potrykus with his laid-back hipster self, who is somehow responsible for the giddily grinding post-slacker comedy, Relaxer. “Gross-out comedy,” now that’s a genre I’m familiar with. But a “charming gross-out transcendental comedy”? I can only presume that Relaxer is the first of that ground-breaking genre.

Oh my dear Abbie (Joshua Burge). We only ever see him covered with sweat (and more) cowering on a couch. From the start, he’s enduring a sickening challenge, one of many put to him by his brother, that soon becomes literally sickening. The boy fails to keep the gallon of milk he’s consumed inside after a… well, best not say what he added to the mix in a bit of bathroom desperation. His brother Cam (a wonderfully nasty David Dastmalchian) leaves in disgust, but not before giving Abbie one last ultimate challenge: the Pac-Man thing. The impossible Pac-Man thing. Abbie cannot—and does not—leave his greasy spot on the leather couch during a six month ordeal in which things grow as strange as they grow unhygienic.

Among the venerable sources Potrykus hijacks ideas from are Buñuel, Kubrick, and, I swear, even the New Testament. The first is obvious, and the director even admitted to ripping off a lot of The Exterminating Angel in his remarks to the audience after the screening. Unlike our heroes therein, however, Abbie makes the wrong choice of what pipe to burst open for water—wonderfully fusing gross-out with the surrealism. 2001: A Space Odyssey necessarily comes to mind toward the end, as Abbie breaks the sequence and rises to a higher plane as the masses outside seemingly cheer him on. As for the third reference, I’m possibly stretching things, but over his ordeal Abbie grows to look like a shaggy Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene makes a cameo in the form of Arin (Adina Howard), a friend who helps Abbie on his path toward the divine. What locked it for me was the final scene when Abbie-Jesus seemingly rises from the dead to be greeted by his long-sought Father.

Potrykus stated without shame that he made Relaxer for himself, but its elements suggest that this bizarre slice of late ’90s throw-back might reach more than expected. There’s comedy, there’s cinematic dexterity (the camera stretches to most every available piece of the room without looking like it’s trying too hard), and even an epic feel to Abbie’s journey from Novice couch potato to Master couch potato. Skipping surreptitiously from Clerks-style comedy to an outer-zone of awareness, Relaxer reaches for the impossible—typically with the aid of a grabber-arm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film takes on an element of magical realism as the days and months pass, framing Abbie as a martyr with superhuman endurance … That Relaxer is structured as a countdown to Y2K suggests that Potrykus is offering a period-specific diagnosis of technologically dependent delusion, of the hallucinations of omnipotence that spring in the minds of marathon gamers. Fuzzy as this hodgepodge of signifiers may seem, there’s a pronounced critique at the heart of Relaxer clearly aimed at young people who are perilously glued to their screens, though it’s one that feels somewhat passé alongside the meaty class commentary of Buzzard.–Carson Lund, Slant Magazine (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966)

DIRECTED BY: George Axelrod

FEATURING: Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, , Lola Albright

PLOT: From his prison cell, preternaturally wise high schooler Alan Musgrave recounts his efforts to transform bubbly teenager Barbara Ann Greene into a star, as well as the insanity and destruction that trailed his efforts along the way.

Still from Lord Love a Duck (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lord Love a Duck is an angry satire, casting aspersions on the modern obsessions of society alternately with a raised eyebrow and a hoarse scream. This can manifest in odd ways, from sarcastic jabs at timely fads to a blatant disregard for internal logic. It’s plenty strange, but at this point in our listmaking, the end product is ultimately too disjointed to work well, even on its own terms.

COMMENTS: Lord Love a Duck is the kind of movie that makes you pity marketing executives. Faced with a story that calls out America as a place of grotesque ambition and blithe idiocy, particularly in the form of its teenagers, the promoters clearly decided to lean into the thing that the movie purports to loathe, namely a wacky teen sex comedy. Which, to be clear, Lord Love a Duck is decidedly not.

How else to explain hiring George Axelrod, the screenwriter behind the acidic thriller The Manchurian Candidate, to transplant Al Hine’s novel about witless Iowans to that famed black hole of self-obsession, Hollywood? Axelrod wastes no time in savaging the misguided priorities of this society, starting with a high school that resembles a bank office tower and taking aim at every entity it can find. Basic school subjects are renamed to sound easy-going. The police are whiny and needy. The only movies this movie-drenched culture makes have the word “bikini” in the title. The local house of worship joyfully proclaims itself “The First Drive-In Church of Southern California” (a thinly-veiled swipe at the real-life progenitor of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral). Our world is morally bankrupt, this movie says. Look upon thy works and despair.

If this sounds more like a dark tragedy than a goofy farce, Lord Love a Duck‘s response is, “Why can’t it be both?” The film’s tone swings between extremes: the same motion picture that puts Barbara Ann and her estranged father in a taboo-teasing, orgasmic fantasy of fruit-themed cashmere sweaters has no problem turning around and watching the girl’s mother spiral downward into drinking and suicidal depression. This cinematic whiplash applies to characters, too: Martin West’s Bob, whom Barbara Ann will marry in a misguided burst of sexual desire, declines from sly allure to misplaced uprightness to outright blissful incompetence. (“He’s a total idiot,” says his own mother.) Lord Love a Duck is whatever movie it needs to be in the moment, logic or continuity be damned.

By all rights, this should be Barbara Ann’s movie, especially given Tuesday Weld’s powerhouse performance. We are given an early clue to her character when she tells Alan that she fears switching to a new high school will destroy her hard-won popularity and status: “Everybody has got to love me,” she pleads, both fierce and desperate, and without the obviousness that could easily accompany the line. But her character shows very little agency in feeding her insatiable lust. No, that all falls to Alan, who promises to fulfill her every desire, and schemes to deliver.

Which leads to the strange hole in the center of the movie: Alan, or as he alone calls himself, Mollymauk. What does it mean to cast 36-year old Roddy McDowall, with his lilting English accent and prissy demeanor, as the smartest kid in high school, conqueror of muscle-bound quarterbacks, outwitter of adults, and ostensible sole voice of reason in a vulgar world? (And why always white pants?) The cognitive dissonance of his casting is magnified by the utter vacancy of his character. Alan is impossible: plotting blackmail against the principal, installing himself as a resident in Ruth Gordon’s house, establishing “inadvertent” connections with Hollywood producers. He’s a walking deus ex machina, able to supply whatever is needed to advance Barabra Ann (and the plot) forward. And for what? He seeks no personal gain, gainsays his own confession, and even manages to go back and graduate high school after years’ worth of action has transpired. If we hadn’t seen him interact with others (and possibly murder four people), he might easily be mistaken for her Tyler Durden. As it stands, Alan is a cipher, the supporting character somehow sitting at the film’s center.

Some satires are missiles, homing in their targets with precision and righteous anger. Lord Love a Duck is a grenade, spraying shrapnel anywhere and everywhere it can reach. The rage is real, but impotent. The filmmakers want you to be as angry as they are at the state of this pop culture-obsessed world. And like Barbara Ann, who ends the movie with a fame of dubious quality and longevity, they have no idea what to do once they’ve gotten what they wanted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Axelrod described it as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove, and while that’s apt, no soundbite can do justice to the scope and breadth of its warped vision…the film’s all-encompassing satire and comic density suggests he might have used up all of his ideas in one place. If so, he went out in a blaze of glory, with one of the weirdest, most brilliant teen movies ever made.” – Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

(This movie was nominated for review by Joseph. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) AND THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

, , the , the Three Stooges (well, the ones with Curly, although I prefer Shemp), , , and Mae West are among the few comedians of yesteryear who have withstood the test of time. There are far more who haven’t. Examples of this are Martin and Lewis (who never made a  good film), (who perhaps made two good, but not great films) and … Wheeler and Woolsey. Who? See what I mean? Briefly, they were the hottest pair since peanut butter and jelly. For the most part, they deserve to be forgotten… with few exceptions, one being the comedy Diplomaniacs (1933, directed by William A. Seiter), which is one of the most jaw-dropping films of the 1930s. Possibly the most racist movie since D.W Griffith set the world on fire, it’s also about as straight as a flaming bunny and, in spite of itself, funny and weird as hell. Apart from one element, it could also serve as a banner film for MAGA fans.

Although Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made a few films apart, it was only their work together (21 films in 8 years) that was successful. The teaming only ended with Woolsey’s premature death in 1938 from kidney failure. Their last film was 1937’s High Flyers, but with their risqué humor, the spot-on consensus is that their pre-code films are superior. Unlike other comedy teams, their films were not revived on television, which undoubtedly has contributed to their being largely forgotten. Still, it’s easy to see why their appeal hasn’t lasted. Their routines are stage-bound, both having come from vaudeville. Physically, Woolsey reminds one of George Burns. Wheeler is the skinny curly-haired boy.

Still from Diplomaniacs (1933)Diplomaniacs came out the same year as Duck Soup and bears a similar, surreal anti-war message. The difference is in the latent homosexuality of their characters, which is a far cry from the raging hetero libidos of the Marx boys (that’s the one element MAGA boys have to get past, but they should, because there is plenty here for them).

Wheeler and Woolsey are barbers on the Adoop reservation, which doesn’t make for good business since red man can’t grow beard. Yup, every blatant stereotype about “Injuns” is intact. Naturally, the Native Americans are WASPS in face paint. The college educated chief can help the boys out financially with a commission to represent his tribe in the Geneva Peace conference.

Time for a song: “The red man was the big man and then came the great big white man and the white man is the right man. The whites Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) AND THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

“The expanse of humour in American life has historically shown the health of the democratic system in its ability to absorb criticism and analysis, even in their most pointed, satiric, sardonic, or absurdist forms, or when cast solely as entertainment.”–Russel Carmony, “The rise of American fascism — and what humour can do to stop it”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, , Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Lewis Howard, Shemp Howard, Richard Lane, Elisha Cook Jr.

PLOT: The film begins with the projectionist (who will play an active role in the story) loading a reel of film: a musical number set in Hell. That scene ends with the arrival of “our prize guests,” Olsen and Johnson, who are in turn interrupted by the director who objects to their series of gags and demands that they have a story “because every picture has one.” The director presents them with a script for “a picture about a picture about ‘Hellzapoppin”, which loosely revolves a love triangle among socialites who are also staging a play (with disastrous results).

Still from Hellzapoppin' (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hellzapoppin’ was the film version of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s stage variety show, which opened on Broadway in 1938. The show had no running plot, but consisted of a collection of comedy sketches, musical numbers, and audience participation routines that played off current events and would change from performance to performance. Olsen and Johnson often improvised their routines. With 1,404 performances, it was the longest-running show on Broadway up until that time.
  • The original show closed on December 18, 1941; the film debuted on December 26, 1941. Olsen and Johnson revived the show many times, and it went on road tours (with rotating casts, often without Olsen and Johnson) throughout the 1940s.
  • One of the few bits that was recycled from the play for the movie is the man who wanders through the scenes carrying a potted tree, which grows bigger as the production progresses.
  • Hellzapoppin’ received an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Song” for “Pig Foot Pete.” The song “Pig Foot Pete,” however, doesn’t appear in Hellzapoppin’.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The rapid pace of the visual gags makes this one almost impossible to pick. The opening seven minutes in Hell alone could probably yield half a dozen respectable candidates. We’ll go with the moment that Olsen (I think) blows on his diminutive taxi driver, transforming him in a flash of smoke into a jockey on a horse (with, for some reason, a tic-tac-toe game stenciled on its side). The fella is immediately launched from his saddle on a trip into Hell’s sulfurous stratosphere—but that’s already another image altogether.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Canned guys and gals; Frankenstein’s monster hurls ballerina; invisible comedian hemispheres

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A staircase collapses, dumping socialites into Hell where devils with pitchforks do somersaults off trampolines and juggle flaming torches. Women are roasted on spits. Farm animals tumble out of a taxicab like it was a clown car. The projectionist runs the film back and plays a scene again, to a different conclusion. And that’s just the first five minutes! “This is Hellzapoppin’!”


Fan-made trailer for Hellzapoppin’

COMMENTS: I can’t tell which one is Olsen and which one is Johnson. This may seem like a small point of confusion in a movie in which Continue reading 336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

CAPSULE: ZACHARIAH (1971)

DIRECTED BY: George Englund

FEATURING: John Rubinstein, , , Country Joe and the Fish

PLOT: The title character is a young gun on a quest to become a gunslinger in the old west, championing his way through the stock trials of a western shoot-em-up, complete with a sidekick; several rock bands come along along for the ride.

Still from Zachariah (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a pity, but after you get past it being a comedy-western with great rock bands of the era in it, this movie ends up being a standard period piece of hippie tomfoolery, made to accompany a six-pack of brewskies and a well-packed bong… but a long ways from being weird, despite being connected to half the movies on this site.

COMMENTS: It’s hard not to get your hopes up when you check out the credits of Zachariah. First, there’s Don Johnson and the band Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish—famous for the Woodstock “Fish Cheer.” Other bands include James Gang, White Lightnin’, and the Julliard-trained New York Rock Ensemble. Then you find out it was written by Joe Massot and the members of the legendary Firesign Theater, and that at some point even George Harrison discussed producing this movie on ’ Apple label. On top of that, it’s adapted from Herman “Steppenwolf” Hesse’s seminal Zen novel “Siddhartha,” and is also an acid western that’s not named El Topo (another Beatles-entwined production). Did we mention it has an early song from Michael Kamen, who would go on to contribute to soundtracks for movies such as Brazil? This movie has a lot of promise to live up to as “The First Electric Western.” Does it deliver? Well… yeah, kinda/sorta, but it turns out a lot closer to a three-years-earlier Blazing Saddles than a one-year-later El Topo.

And speaking of deliveries, that’s how our protagonist, Zachariah (John Rubinstein), gets his gun, in a mail-order package eagerly ripped open in the dirt while a nearby band in the middle of the desert plays our opening number. While practicing his butterfingered quick-draw skills, he encounters a “wanted” poster for an outlaw gang called “the Crackers,” and just like that, he has his first quest. But his first stop is to his blacksmith friend Matthew (Don Johnson) to order some custom-made bullets. No sooner are they fooling around with the gun than they chance upon the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish), a singing band of robbers. Zachariah gets into his first duel with a gruff bar patron, bolstering his nerve enough to join the Crackers, who handle music better than outlawing. They’re best put to use distracting a town with a concert while Zachariah and Matthew make away from the bank with big canvas sacks with dollar signs on them. Soon the two young guns will part ways with the Crackers, and other gangs, eventually splitting apart themselves, only to meet again for a showdown when Zachariah is out to pasture and Matthew is now top gun of the west.

The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it could have taken itself even less seriously and been a whole lot more fun. The Firesign Theater distanced themselves from this project later, and you can almost see the gaping holes where their best jokes must have been cut out by some killjoy. You may find yourself thinking of funnier westerns as you watch this, wishing for somebody to punch a horse or take themselves hostage. The closest we get to weird is the corny cardboard set of Belle Starr’s cabaret, where a whole band serenades live in the bedroom while our hero gets his spurs polished. Fortunately, the tepid pace of the film doesn’t detract too much from the musical showcase, giving us moments that say “Holy crap, that’s Elvin Jones, the legendary jazz drummer!” and “Wait, was that Joe Walsh?” Zachariah has Heavy Metal syndrome: watch the movie once, but play the soundtrack until it wears out your iPod.

That being said, this film is to be accorded respect as the cultural museum piece it is. When Zachariah was in theaters, the musicals “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were all the rage, the Vietnam War had yet to play out, and you could still get hassled for being a male with long hair in the wrong neighborhood. Musically, it captures the moment when country-and-western calved away from mainstream rock, doing so with such perfect timing that it’s a wonder the Flying Burrito Brothers or at least the Byrds didn’t manage to sneak onto the set somewhere. It’s often called the last gasp of the ’60s, on the cusp of ceding the old guard of comedy to the new ’70s era of Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, and Carol Burnett. There’s an attempt at symbolic meanings when the story gets serious; ponder that “Zachariah” is one of the final minor prophets of the Old Testament, while “Matthew” is the first New Testament disciple, and you catch a film seemingly aware of the turning page of history. It even hints at homosexual love amongst cowboys a long time before Brokeback Mountain raised the subject. Perhaps time has not been kind to this film; but then, The Monkees’ Head is three years older, and hasn’t lost a twinkle of its shine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An oddity then, certainly, but an enjoyable one.”– Anthony Nield, “The Digital Fix” (DVD)