Tag Archives: Comedy

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, Hugh Herbert, 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)

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)

“Before movies, memory unspooled differently in the mind, trailing off in dust-blasted fade-out rather than spliced-together flashback…”–Steve Erickson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Don Hertzfeldt (narration)

PLOT: In the first chapter, “Everything Will Be OK,” delusions and hallucinations caused by an unspecified mental disorder impede the progress of stick figure Bill’s everyday life and leave him in and out of the hospital. Bill begins chapter 2, “I Am So Proud of You,” with flashbacks to his childhood, although his memories of his equally insane relatives are so strange that they may also be hallucinations. In chapter 3, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Bill is again recuperating in the hospital, now with major memory loss, but with an impulse to visit an address he vaguely recalls.

Still from It's Such a Beautiful Day (2011)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The is movie is a continuous progression of images… most of them of black and white stick figures, although they are often grotesquely entertaining stick figures with monstrous fish heads growing out of their skulls. The most memorable effects mix Hertzfeldt’s line animation with real life photography. We picked one of Bill standing on a mesa gazing at a sunset, but you might prefer the scene of he and his stick girlfriend lying in the grass looking up at a canopy of leaves, or when he walks down the street and the pedestrians flicker back and forth between flesh and blood people and line figures. These sequences suggest inadequate fantasy wrestling with flawed perception, one of the movie’s major themes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy brain tumor; snake-necked cosmic stickman; immortal schizophrenic

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Humble stick figure animation mixes with advanced experimental film techniques in this chronicle of the life of a character suffering from an unspecified mental illness. It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘s juxtaposition of the mundane and the cosmic caused some critics to hail it as a less pretentious, less humorless answer to The Tree of Life. Don Hertzfeldt would continue to examine the themes introduced here—the prominence and arbitrariness of memory, the mixture of sadness and wonder that make up life—in his next piece, the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow. I believe Tomorrow goes down as Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece so far—at 41 years of age, he still has a long way to go—but It’s Such a Beautiful Day is nearly its equal, and is a better fit for this List due to its feature-length, surrealistic humor, and far-out hallucination scenes that suggest the final moments of 2001 reimagined by a team led by and Charles Schultz.


Trailer for It’s Such a Beautiful Day

COMMENTS: Although It’s Such a Beautiful Day is technically a compendium of three short films developed over a period of five years, it Continue reading 334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

It’s very simple: if you love “Batman” (1966-1968), starring Adam West, you’re in the cool kids club. If you don’t, you’re clueless and need to go away. Only freaks are allowed here.

“Batman” is still the yardstick by which all other live-action superheroes are to be judged. There has never been another series like it. I’ll go even further: it’s not only a genre and cult yardstick, but it’s a yardstick for television, period.

Before we catapult into the Batcave, I’ll share a few childhood memories, of which I’m damned proud. Adam West’s Batman and ‘ Superman  were the epitome of cool (I’ll never forgive for turning them into caped white trash and making them go commando). I caught Superman in syndication and already knew that Superman had blown his brains out. For me, that was part of his appeal. (I was a tad off-kilter. In my defense, Superman was a more appealing martyr than the Pentecostal Jesus). Admittedly, however, Superman had bland villains, and his second Lois Lane was too June Cleaver-Protestant boring.

Then came Adam West’ Batman. I caught the last season in its first-run, then caught up in syndication. Of course, the show was mass-marketed. Among the most cherished mementos was Batman trading cards, which I would often lose. They meant so much to me that my poor Dad would have to drive all the way downtown to buy me replacement cards from the only store that carried them. I found my true rainbow pot of batgold, however, through a wedding. My cousin was getting married and wanted me for a ring bearer. The last thing I wanted to do was climb into a tuxedo in front of a church crowd, but when she promised to buy me a Batman suit AND a Batmobile to pedal around the back porch on, I begged Dad to call the tuxedo shop immediately so I could be fitted. For Christmas, my brother asked for a children’s Bible (he was such a suck-up). In sharp contrast, I asked for, and received, a Batman View-Master set. With all those bat-toys, I was indisputably the coolest kid who ever lived.

“Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” “Roger. Ready to move out!”

Since I’m hard pressed to come up with a single non-enjoyable episode, a “Best of Batman” list is bit of an oxymoron, although of course there are standout episodes. This is really more an exercise in cherry picking highlights, because by the time I could finish covering the entire series, we might be heading into 366 Weird Movies, the Sequel. So, without further ado, I have to start with the pilot, which features Batman dancing in a disco.

Still from Batman "Hey Diddle Riddle" (1966)On 12, January, 1966  “Batman” premiered with “Hi Diddle Riddle” (directed by Robert Butler, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr,) and, yes, that means… the Riddler () is our first dastardly criminal. He pranks the World’s Fair with an exploding cake and inspires Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) to dial the batphone. Alfred, the butler (Alan Napier) answers, and rescues Bruce Wayne Continue reading KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

333. TUVALU (1999)

“I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema. To discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life, and death. From another perspective, another angle, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place.”–Leos Carax

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea

PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.

Still from Tuvalu (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
  • The movie  was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.


Brief clip from Tuvalu

COMMENTS: Tuvalu borrows its style from the weird world of silent Continue reading 333. TUVALU (1999)

332. SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (2004)

“What is your function here?”–Hitman, Survive Style 5+

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gen Sekiguchi

FEATURING: , Ittoku Kishibe, Vinnie Jones, Kyôko Koizumi, Yoshiyuki Morishita, Jai West, Reika Hashimoto, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Hiroshi Abe

PLOT: A man has killed his wife, but she won’t stay dead. In an initially unrelated story, a foul-mouthed, short-tempered English hitman with a translator in tow is expanding his operations into Japan. Their plotlines intersect with those of a middle-class father who has a disaster with a celebrity hypnotist, trio of teenage burglars, and an ad exec whose absurd commercial ideas amuse only herself.

BACKGROUND:

  • This is Gen Sekiguchi’s only feature film. He has also produced two short films and an entry in the 2011 anthology film Quirky Guys and Girls. He comes from an advertising and music video background, where he collaborates with screenwriter Taku Tada. The pair won the advertising award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
  • Survive Style 5+ received little distribution (it garnered zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and has never been released on DVD in North America), but word of mouth on the Internet has made it into an underseen cult hit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: One character flying away on another, to the tune of “I Will Survive.” (Sure, fans already familiar with the movie may complain that this pick is a spoiler—but the new viewer will have trouble figuring out how things get to this point, right up until the very end.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Assassin with translator; pop as a microwave turkey; flying away

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Survive Style 5+ interweaves five stories–variously comic, absurd, supernatural, campy, and/or bizarre–including a series of surreal commercials imagined by one of the many oddball characters. It’s polished and stylish, yet consistently wild and unpredictable; an underground cult film that’s survived years of subpar distribution through enthusiastic word of mouth, and is just waiting to take off into the stratosphere.


Brief clip from Survive Style 5+

COMMENTS: Survive Style 5+‘s most memorable scene may be the Continue reading 332. SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (2004)

CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)

COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:

IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.

IN THE MOVIE: Some or none or all of the above happens. It is honest to God impossible to tell. If you ran the book through a blender Continue reading CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)