Tag Archives: Comedy

122. BARBARELLA (1968)

Recommended

AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

“Barbarella, pyschedella,
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song

DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim

FEATURING: Jane Fonda, , Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, ,

PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.

Still from Barbarella (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist  (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
  • The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
  • Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
  • At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
  • The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
  • Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.


Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)

COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has Continue reading 122. BARBARELLA (1968)

366 UNDERGROUND: DEAR GOD, NO! (2011)

DIRECTED BY: James Anthony Bickart

FEATURING: Jett Bryant, Madeline Brumby, Paul McComiskey, Olivia LaCroix, John Collins, Shane Morton, Nick Morgan, Rusty Stache, Nick Hood, Jim Sligh, Rachelle Lynn, Jim Stacy

PLOT: The Impalers are a vicious motorcycle gang rampaging across the land indulging in drug trafficking and other antisocial behavior, like rape and nun killing. After a shoot-out in a strip club, they top off the party with a home invasion, whereupon their paths cross with a mad scientist, his daughter and associate. They plan a night of fun, with humiliation, rape and murder on the menu… but the scientist has something unexpected in the basement. Meanwhile, there’s something in the woods that’s killing animals and quickly working its way up the food chain…

Still from Dear God No! (2011)

COMMENTS: Dear God, No! (official site) is another throwback to the grindhouse flicks of the 1970’s, when political correctness didn’t exist. It goes balls to the wall with the 5 B’s of Exploitation Movies – Bikers, Bullets, Boobs, Blood, Beer – all of which are in ample supply… and adds another ‘B’ to the party – Bigfoot. Like most of the neo-grindhouse films, there’s lots of loving homage on display, and most of it is done very well. Unfortunately, DGN! falls into the same trap as most other trash throwback films do, that of overkill… everything is intentionally over the top, way too much to take really seriously or to really get offended by. There’s no real sense of transgression, which most of the actual 70’s grindhouse features actually had; and, most of the comedy and acting here is really labored. That said, on the technical side of things it’s good, solid low-budget work. It’s a fun ride, and it looks like the real thing—arrested adolescents will bow down in praise, feeling ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’ for over an hour. Afterwards, they’ll be wanting something a bit more substantial. So will you, probably.

LIST CANDIDATE: SOUND OF NOISE (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson

FEATURING: Bengt Nilsson, Sanna Persson

PLOT: A music-hating, tone deaf detective from a family of musical prodigies tracks down a

Still from Sound of Noise (2010)

gang of musical terrorists staging disruptive avant-garde percussion performances across Malmö, Sweden.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If David Lynch directed the Swedish cast of STOMP in an action-comedy, I think it might go a little something like this…

COMMENTS: Tummy drums. Banknotes in a shredder. Jackhammer. Bowed power lines. These are some of the instruments employed by Sound of Noise‘s anarcho-musical terrorists, who bang on the Swedish city of Malmö like a giant drum kit by staging surprise polyrhythmic concertos in emergency rooms, banks, and other public spaces. Hot on their trail is detective Amadeus Warnebring, the black sheep of a family of musical prodigies; he has a hearing disorder which makes the sound of music intolerable to his ears, so that attending a Haydn recital staged by his younger brother, a celebrity conductor, hurts more than his pride. Sound of Noise takes this outlandish setup as its base melody, then syncopates the beat into a thematic experiment that builds to a bizarro crescendo. An undercurrent of humor serves as a constant backbeat that keeps us from getting lost in the thematic noodling. This is a very funny film, from the way it parodies caper movie conventions as the criminal mastermind musicians recruit expert anti-establishment drummers from their straight day jobs to the moment the masked sextet breaks into a bank with the declaration “This is a gig! Just listen and nobody gets hurt!” Besides the comedy, the music itself provides pop appeal: each of the four movements of “Music for One City and Six Drummers,” the conceptual piece the detective is trying in vain to stop, is feisty, inventive, and catchy as hell. In the second performance, one musician bangs rubber stamps against a teller’s window while another taps the keys of a computer keyboard; his fellows accompany him with adding machines and paper shredders, stirring the soul by appropriating and reordering the mundane commotion of ordinary life. We can hardly wait to hear what the each succeeding movement will bring. The music the “terrorists” play is experimental and dangerous, but it’s not academic or obscure: in contrast to the chilly exclusivity of the symphonic musical establishment (Sound‘s main satirical target), these tunes staged in the public square aim to connect with ordinary people and set toes to tapping. The movie would like to advocate the same aesthetic mix of cutting-edge creativity and unpretentious appeal, but detective Amadeus’ storyline goes off-beat and heads into dissonant narrative realms. His back story is merely quirky, but it develops into something genuinely strange when he discovers that he can no longer hear the sound made by an “instrument” after it has been played on by the drummers. So, in discordant allegory, the percussionists progressive performances are helping antagonist Amadeus to achieve his dream of a music-free utopia of silence. Following this plotline to its illogical conclusion leads to an exceedingly odd and somewhat muddled finale where Amadeus’ selective deafness and his spiritual connection to Sanna, the female music theorist who leads the band, merge into a personal musical apocalypse. The movie’s competing rhythms of absurd comedy, police procedural, action (there’s a chase scene where a drummer tosses cymbals out of his van to slow down his pursuers), music, and surreal speculation don’t always merge perfectly, but the beats are original and high-spirited enough to keep you intrigued for the symphony’s short running time. Plus, I bet the official soundtrack is a blast to play at parties.

Sound of Noise is a feature-length riff on “Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers,” Ola Simonsson’s 2001 short film about six percussionists (played by the same actors) who break into an apartment to play music on the resident’s appliances while they are out walking their dog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re looking to fill out your weird quotient for the week, there’s no better option in town right now than this Swedish film doozy. Unique to a fault…”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT (1975)

AKA Moment to Moment; Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos; Jive

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elsie Downey

PLOT: None, although certain strands (such as the idea that someone has been hired to convey

Still from Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975)

two tons of turquoise to Taos tonight) recur throughout this series of brief sketches.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s actually too far out, man; it’s almost an hour of nonsense, but too randomly assembled to be any fun. The individual sketches aren’t carefully composed beforehand and they aren’t allowed to play out to their full potential, resulting in comedy that’s juvenile and ridiculous rather than cleverly absurd.

COMMENTS: If Robert Downey Sr. were James Joyce, then Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight would be his Finnegan’s Wake; the point where he took what had been fertile boundary-pushing experimentation beyond the limits of the audience’s tolerance, and ended up producing something so obscure and esoteric that it was of interest only to the author himself. It’s clear enough what he intended to do: make a movie with no beginning or end, one that existed only “moment to moment” (the film’s original title). The problem is that the individual moments aren’t very good and don’t link up to anything universal; there are too many sections of the film that are just montages of Elsie Downey wearing different outfits, or Downey family home movies that have been spliced into the film at random points. As for the individual bits, there are far too many moments when the actors look like they’re improvising while high as a kite, working without a plan and assuming everything they’re doing is hilarious. An example is the frankfurter scene, where a man and woman are sleeping on a park bench and the fella asks her to fetch him a frankfurter. He repeats the request over and over until she finally leaves the bench, then a couple of youngsters walk over—one of whom can’t say anything but “ri-ight…”—and strike up a nonsense conversation with the bum. The woman comes back sans hot dog and the man asks where his food is; the woman answers, “you’re lucky I got up at all.” Hilarious, right? Well, if you don’t like that one, at least there will be another gag in thirty seconds; the problem is it’s not likely to be any more amusing or interesting than the last bit. There are a few brief moments that shine through the general avant-garde dreck: a game of baseball played by men on horseback, a woman who donates her panties to a hungry man, and conventionally funny exchanges like the man who proclaims “I have a brain tumor,” to which his companion responds “It’s all in your head.” But, after watching a scene where a woman with an eyepatch and a cowboy snort cocaine and giggle inanely at each other’s babbling monologues, you might assume that large parts of this mess are just too autobiographical for comfort. Downey Sr.’s best work came when he had a clearly stated central theme (advertising in Putney Swope, religion in Greaser’s Palace) which he could play off of with his improvisatory absurdist riffs. Set him loose without any sort of structure and he’s like a bebop musician who just assumes that if he ignores the melody he can play the greatest, most out-there free jazz you ever heard. The result may be beautiful to his ears, but most folks will only hear a noise that sounds like a cat with a kazoo taped over his mouth and his tail caught in a blender.

Some of the dozens of investors who put up money to fund Downey’s mad vision and may have later regretted it included Hal Ashby, Norman Lear and Jack Nicholson. Taos was, essentially, Downey’s last experimental film venture; in the 1980s and 90s he would sell out, only to direct some horrible Hollywood flops (like the Mad magazine financed fiasco Up the Academy). Despite the fact that his wife Elsie Downey is featured in almost every scene, and the film basically plays like a love letter to her, the couple divorced the year this was released. Taos was screened at underground venues but understandably never got any real distribution; Downey has continued to tinker with the editing through the years. The version offered on Eclipse’s “Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.” disc is a recent re-edit that cuts 20 minutes off the running time (it’s still too long).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…taps the same welcomed vein of indulgent weirdo gags found in Soderbergh’s ‘Schizopolis’ or Rafelson’s ‘Head’…”–Aaron Hillis, IFC (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Arnold Johnson, Robert Downey, Sr. (voice), , Antonio Fargas

PLOT: Putney Swope, the token African American on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, is accidentally elected Chairman of the Board on a secret ballot; he renames the agency “Truth and Soul Advertising,” fires most of the whites and replaces them with Black Panthers, and catapults the firm into a major force in American life.

Still from Putney Swope (1969)


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Putney Swope retains a razor-like satirical focus while simultaneously dealing in jokes that, for the most part, are so nonsensical that Monty Python would have rejected them for being too oblique and absurd.

COMMENTS: After Putney Swope becomes chairman of a major advertising firm, he’s approached by Mark Focus, a freelance photographer looking for work. Focus shows Swope his portfolio; Swope says that he’s the best he’s ever seen and that he has a job for him, and asks how much he costs. Focus responds with a high figure, but Swope keeps talking him down: “it’s going in the New York Times, not an art gallery.” Finally, Focus agrees to do the job for free. “I can get anybody for nothing,” Swope says. “Take a walk.” The exchange is funny, but it’s not at all clear why. Did Putney just negotiate himself out of a deal by convincing himself that anyone willing to work for free was not worth hiring, despite the fact that he knew Focus was immensely talented? Or was the entire dialogue a set-up, a way for a bitter Swope to turn the tables and humiliate a white guy who’s at his mercy? Is Swope a genius, an idiot, or a just a shaggy dog? I’ll go with the last option. Consider the fact that Focus returns to the movie, this time while Swope is in bed with his fiancée, and delivers the exact same pitch; then, he shows up yet again and repeats the same spiel, only this time to the President of the United States (who, we should point out, is a pot-smoking German dwarf)!

Neither Putney Swope, the character, or Putney Swope, the movie, ever makes too much sense. The movie makes its point about the absurdities of power structures—whether corporate, political, social or racial–by presenting their players as absolute lunatics out of touch with reality. Swope was a giant leap forward for Downey in terms of technical quality, but when it was released, critics panned it, expecting to see a conventional satire and nonplussed by Downey’s bizarre sense of humor. Still, Downey could do straightforward comedy when he wanted to: the ad parodies, the only parts of the film that are in color, are often classic, especially the ad for “Face Off” pimple cream. An interracial couple sing a sweet and slightly obscene love song as they stroll hand and hand through a park in autumn; they gaze into each others eyes and croon touching lines like “A pimple is simple, if you treat it right; my man uses Face Off, he’s really out of sight—and so are his pimples.”

There is a vague plot, as the power Swope inherits threatens to corrupt him (he begins his career by promising not to pimp cigarettes, liquor or war toys, but he agrees to use a rhythm and blues singer to sell window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto). There’s also a Muslim brother who dresses like a sheik and plans to betray Swope, a President pressuring Putney to drop all his ad campaigns and push defective cars instead, and an assassination attempt, but none of these storylines are treated with much seriousness; the movie prefers to move from punchline to punchline rather than from plot point to plot point. Besides the unapologetically stereotyped racial humor, the one potentially divisive point is Downey’s decision to dub all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue himself, so that Putney Swope speaks like a Brooklyn Jew while everyone around him is talking in Harlem soul brother jive. The effect is surreal, but I found it more distracting than funny. Although Downey claims he did it because Johnson couldn’t read his lines properly, the dubbing comes off as a narcissistic stunt (couldn’t a black actor who wasn’t also the director have dubbed Johnson?) Still, Putney Swope hits the funny bone more often than it misses—it may not be Downey’s weirdest movie, but it is his funniest and most beloved.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote to Putney Swope concerns the curious case of Pepi Hermine, the German dwarf actor who plays the President here. The First Lady is played by Ruth Hermine, Pepi’s sister, which gives their bedroom scenes together a little bit of incestuous spice. Pepi’s only other movie credit came the very next year, when he played the Director in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. By retiring after making Swope and Dwarfs back to back, Hermine managed to keep his brief résumé 100% weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Robert Downey’s sense of the ridiculous is employed in a spotty, punchline kind of comic usage… less revealingly witty then merely clever.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (EUROPEAN EDITION) (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Moodysson, Patrice Le Conte, , Virgil Widrich, , Peter Mullian, Nanni Moretti, Jan Kounen, Roy Andersson, Juan Solanas, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jan Svankmajer, , Lars von Trier, Javier Fesser, Anders Thomas Jensen

FEATURING: Paddy Considine, Sten Ljunggren, , Isis Krüger, Thomas Wolff

PLOT: Comedies, dramas and experimental films are collected together in this anthology of sixteen award winning short films made by Europeans.

Still from My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117 ()

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations themselves aren’t eligible, and although some of the shorts here are quite weird, none of them are powerful enough to displace a feature film from the List.

COMMENTS: Short films have almost no commercial prospects: filmmakers generally make them as calling cards, for festival competitions where artistry is more important than marketability, and as a way to fiddle around with the medium of film. Experiments, whether visual or narrative, that might grow wearisome at 90 minutes can be refreshing at under 15 minutes, and directors can indulge their outré aesthetic impulses without fear of alienating audiences and distributors. There are, therefore, a higher proportion of weird works in the world of the short film than are found in the feature film universe: here, nine out of the sixteen offerings—more than half of the total—make at least a nod towards the strange, surreal, or fantastical.

Although we will run down all the films on the set, our primary interest here is in “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117,” provocateur ‘ first self-contained short film after years of making blackly absurd, boundary-pushing sketches for British television. Our interest in “Wrongs” stems both from the fact it’s likely the weirdest offering, and because a reader suggested it to us for review. Before we get to the unique films in this collection, we need to explain a little about the “Cinema 16: European Short Films” sets. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Cinema 16 released two different discs entitled “European Short Films,” one for the European market and one for the U.S. market.  The two editions share seven films in common. We reviewed the U.S. release previously, and mini reviews of the overlapping shorts will be found in that article. The seven repeats are:
Continue reading CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (EUROPEAN EDITION) (2007)