Tag Archives: Hollywood

284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”

“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michell Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito,

PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor and by Batman’s alter-ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Bruce and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989),  was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
  • Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
  • Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.


Original trailer for Batman Returns

COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Continue reading 284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

Hugó, a Víziló

“If you accept a strange story told to you as true,

Then a certain enlightenment comes to you.”

Hugo the Hippo theme “It’s Really True” (as sung by Marie Osmond)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bill Feigenbaum, József Gémes

FEATURING: Voices of , Burl Ives, Ronnie Cox, Robert Morley

PLOT: The Sultan of Zanzibar kidnaps a herd of African hippopotami and relocates them to Arabia to defend his harbor from sharks. After the shark menace is ended and the city prospers, the citizens forget about the hippos, until one day the hungry herds’ excursion to eat local farmers’ crops leads the Sultan’s evil Vizier Aban-Khan to organize a slaughter of the beasts. Only the youngest, Hugo, escapes; he flees to Dar es Salaam and makes friends with the local children, but Aban-Khan continues to hunt him out of pure malice.

Still from Hugo the Hippo (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is inspired by an actual hippo nicknamed “Hugo”, who ate farmers’ crops before being adopted by the real Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam.
  • The film was a Hungarian/U.S. co-production. All of the animation was done on the cheap in Hungary. It was released dubbed into both languages.
  • Hugo the Hippo is co-writer/director Bill Feigenbaum’s only film credit. József Gémes went on to direct many Hungarian animated features.
  • Young Marie and Jimmy Osmond perform most of the songs on the soundtrack, along with two songs by Burl Ives and two numbers by jazz/funk session bands.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be something from the wild vegetable hallucination montage: the apple samurai? Jorma and Hugo climbing onto the space butterfly and sailing through the fruity cosmos? We selected the Dalí-esque shot of three massive monolith potatoes triangulating and transfixing our heroes with the magical beams that shoot from their literal eyes as our take-home image.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cigarette-smoking shark; cloud massacre; sliced apple ninja

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hugo the Hippo was released to widespread indifference. Contemporary reviewers were bored and strangely dismissive, failing to catch the undercurrent of weirdness here, but a generation of youngsters scarred by the hippopotamus massacre kept Hugo‘s underground legend alive. The combination of kitschy songs, psychedelic animation, bizarre plotting, tone shifts, hallucinatory episodes, and the inimitable Paul Lynde as an evil hippo-hating vizier blend to create a children’s film gone awry in all the most delightful ways.


Short clip from Hugo the Hippo

COMMENTS: We might adopt the lyrics from the opening Continue reading 281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

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

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener

PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.

Still from A Cure for Wellness (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness is going to be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.

COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there’s even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing  both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.

It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of the these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of waffling than of artistic dementia).

When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies an doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the previous minutes eerie events and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take it’s silly conclusion so darn seriously.

It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the ian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)

“An adequate song score album for a movie that utterly failed to live up to its weird potential.”–Steven McDonald, reviewing the soundtrack to Nothing but Trouble

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Demi Moore

PLOT: Four carefree travelers go for a drive in New Jersey. They get pulled over in a small backwater town for running a stop sign and have to be escorted to the local judge. They are then imprisoned in a haunted-house like mansion that shares premises with a junkyard.

Still from Nothing But Trouble (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dan Aykroyd’s background probably destined him to make at least one weird movie. Both of his parents were Spiritists, and he’s had a fascination with the occult since childhood that inspired him to create Ghostbusters, among other hits.
  • This is Aykroyd’s sole directing credit (he also wrote). Canadian-born Aykroyd was once pulled over for a speeding ticket while on his motorcycle in the States, and had to be escorted to a courthouse in a small town. Legend has it that this movie was inspired by that event.
  • The movie had a budget of $40 million and only pulled in $8.5 million. Critics panned it, including Roger Ebert, who declined to review it in written form. It also got nominated for the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress (John Candy in drag), Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay, though it “won” only for Worst Supporting Actor (Akroyd).
  • Digital Underground worked their cameo in this movie into a music video for their 1991 single “Same Song,” which entered MTV rotation. It still shows up periodically on cable music stations.
  • After the movie flopped, Akroyd wrote an apology letter to the cast taking full credit for the film’s failure.
  • Pete Trbovich‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie with no shortage of contenders, the scenes everybody leaves raving about are the ones with the Mr. Bonestripper ride. This is a backyard roller-coaster in which victims are given a final ride before being dumped into a leering cartoon maw with mechanical teeth which grind the victims down to shiny, polished bones, which are then ejected out the back towards a bullseye target painted on a metal fence. It even has its own theme song, courtesy of the band Damn Yankees. Are we having fun yet?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Model train dining; subliminal penis nose; mutant junkyard fatties

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nothing but Trouble invents its own genre, hereby known as Industrial Gothic, which plays on the horrors of Americana. These extend to labyrinthine freeway exits, small town hicks, Rust Belt ghost towns, corrupt law enforcement, class struggles between disenfranchised Main Street and out-of-touch Wall Street, welded-together death machines, compulsive hoarding, and a lack of mental health care. Take a Canadian-born comedian who’s had a scary run in with American law enforcement and let him make a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie, and this is exactly what you get.


Original trailer for Nothing but Trouble

COMMENTS: To be a fan of weird movies, your expectations must Continue reading 269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Created by Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange was an authentically odd character in the Marvel universe of the 1960s. Aptly, he debuted in the “Strange Tales” comic. The character almost perfectly encapsulated Ditko’s idiosyncratic, surreal pencil work, even more so than his better known co-creation, Spiderman. Complementing Ditko’s art, Stan Lee scripted the character as a hybrid mixture of Jungian archetypes with a theosophist cocktail of Eastern mysticism and Egyptian mythology. When other artists took over Doctor Strange after Ditko’s departure, it never had quite the same texture, and quickly became bland before descending into parody as the good doctor could be found in superhero team-ups with the likes of Hulk and Spiderman (!)

A pulp mystic, the character hardly seemed like a viable nominee for big screen treatment, and when Doctor Strange (2016) was announced as the next Marvel movie, the prospects didn’t look hopeful, considering director Scott Derrickson’s execrable resume.  Surprisingly,  Derrickson and his co-writers went straight to Ditko and Lee’s original source material, delivering an entertainingly psychedelic production, which is helped by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, , the ever reliable , and .

Still from Doctor Strange (2016)As much as embodies Iron Man, Cumberbatch does the same for this surgeon with the Trump-sized ego. However, an accident leaves Doc’s precious surgical hands mutilated, prompting him to seek enlightenment via the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, filling in for ), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Before you can say Expecto Patronum, Strange sees the light and transforms into Chandu the Magician heading to the next Hare Krishna meeting. Despite the here-we-go-again St. Paul conversion myth, it plays out much more uniquely, viscerally, and tongue-in-cheek than one might expect.  As Strange perfects his new metaphysical trade, the CGI actually enhances the narrative, as opposed to distracting us from it—and, yes, see it in 3D, because that’s the best route for trippy 60s symbolism. Derrickson and company faithfully recreate and expand upon Ditko’s peculiar brand of surrealism and the havoc they wreak with illusionary imagery from the mirror universe is refreshingly off-kilter.

In a rarity for something churned out by Marvel, the director and team have been given room to play outside of conveyor-belt dictates. The fun they have is contagious, but such a subject can only be as good as its villain. Fortunately, they have one in the outlaw mystic Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) who engages in a phantasmagoric battle with Strange on the streets of New York (aided considerably by Michael Giacchino’s galvanizing score). Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius could very well be his astral, Dark Dimension, bony version of Hannibal Lecter (and shame on those who missed that late series, which rendered the /Jonathan Demme version obsolete), delivering his hocus-pocus dialogue with such aridity, he scares the hell out of you just by speaking. Mikkelsen is cast well (although underused) against Cumberbatch’s in-the-know remote wit. Likewise, McAdams is smartly cast as Strange’s ex-girlfriend who literally assists in his physical and metaphysical healing. The actors, coupled with visuals blatantly inspired by MC Escher, give Doctor Strange an all too uncommon individuality. This is not the Avengers taking turns pounding away at big shiny black, metallic thingamajigs. Rather, the good doctor, with his cloak of levitation, takes his battles to the realm of pop nightmares, which makes the late hint to an inevitable Avengers tie-in all the more disappointing. Is it weird? Nah, but it’s an empyrean burlesque and, for this studio, that is a surprising treat.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Novelist Ransom Riggs and should have been an ideal match, but Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016) is yet another verification that this director is at the end of his tether.

Burton can’t take the sole blame. He shares that honor with screenwriter Jane Goldman, who previously scripted two of the better X-Men sagas. This is part of the problem: they treat the material as if it’s the initial entry in a new and potentially profitable X-Men-styled franchise. For a director who has long made claims to specializing in films for the peculiar, Burton shows no genuine enthusiasm for his newest project and, with Goldman, sucks all the peculiarity out of its source material. This has been Tim Burton’s modus operandi for a long time, apparent to almost everyone (the director’s zealous, in-denial cult excepted). Burton likewise neutered all the surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Disneyfied Barnabas Collins, Sweeney Todd, and Willy Wonka. Even Disney itself, teamed with Bing Crosby, was more adept at interpreting Washington Irvin’s Ichabod Crane. There’s a problem when two paragons of artistic conservatism have a better feel for the kooky-souled than a self-proclaimed specialist.

Burton came closest to a return to form with The Corpse Bride (2005), which he co-directed with Mike Johnson, along with Big Eyes (2014), the story of Margaret Keane. Despite being a personal project, the latter film eventually faltered in focusing on a kitsch suburban artist who simply wasn’t as interesting as the working relationship between the world’s worst director and one the worst ham actors of all time in Ed Wood. Still, this is the director who took a pre-existing pulp character (Batman) and managed to produce two comic book-inspired masterpieces stamped with highly personalized weirdness (especially Batman Returns, which really should be one for the List). He probably would have done the same for Superman, or at least that appears to be the case from the fascinating documentary Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? (2015).

With his latest misfire, however, Burton is yet again crippled by his own brand crutch, producing a caricature of himself that imitates imitator’s imitations of Tim Burton, with Riggs’s narrative ending up a casualty. In addition to borrowing from his own past “hits,” Burton throws in a sink-full of other sources, including Groundhog Day,  Back to the Future, X-Men, and Harry Potter, but this Burton is not the Burton of the Eighties and Nineties, nor is he a Robert Zemeckis, Harold Ramis, , or even journeyman David Yates. By now, Burton heading a project is an almost as guaranteed a recipe for disaster as is hiring .

There are a few plusses, including a campy in the title role. As the shape shifting matriarch of her orphanage for misfits, adorned in Coleen Atwood’s goth costuming, Green demands our attention (and gets it). Samuel L. Jackson also has fun hamming it up as the antagonist Barron. However, despite some good moments amidst impressive set pieces, Jackson’s Barron is a vague character. Supporting actors Chris O’ Dowd, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, and Allison Janney are virtually  wasted. Asa Butterfly, as Jake, turns in an off-colored and ultimately two-dimensional performance, which can be blamed on Burton, since the actor has done good work for others (i.e. Boy in the Striped PajamasHugo). Best is Ella Purnell as Emma, who embodies an atmospheric sense of nostalgia in a star-making performance.

Still from Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)As expected, there is CGI aplenty (including a floating ghost ship, an ode to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work, and post-production botox for actor Terence Stamp, something like to a roughly sketched version of Big Fish‘s Ed Bloom). Additionally, the physical space is well-utilized, even more so than in his previous few films. Even at his most fatigued, Burton still manages to produce a pretty package.

Unfortunately, the package is an empty box. Over-written, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is woefully complicated, cram-packed, emotionally bankrupt,  poorly-paced, and far too narcissistic in its mythology-building and exposition, feeling at times like lost footage from alternative production of ‘s Dune. Perhaps he and Goldman should have watched Rankin and Bass to learn how to convey a world of misfits more simply, or rewatch his own Batman (1989), which was comparatively underwritten (and it didn’t matter one damn bit).  With Riggs’s array of misfits, one can easily imagine the appeal, but Burton’s (undeniable) strengths are slurped up by executive production demands as wholly as the Barron devours his eyeballs, which can be summed in a finale that has to be his most painfully obvious and dumbest since Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes.