Tag Archives: Mockumentary

366 UNDERGROUND: WINNERS TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Channell

FEATURING: Zane Crosby, Joshua Lively, and Chris LaMartina

PLOT: The exploits of a hyper-low-budget ’80s horror duo are chronicled in the form of a public access television “documentary”.

Still from Winners Tape All (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Winners Tape All is a cheeky dissection of the various failings (and unlikely successes) of the straight-to-VHS horror phenomenon that gripped (?) the nation back in the 1980s. While some of the fake movies “discussed” in this mockumentary would easily be Certifiable contenders, Channell’s homage to one of the stranger pop-genres stands as a straightforward, well-made, and very funny bit of fare.

COMMENTS: Today’s big-name directors would do well to learn a lesson from some of the novices that have sprung up in recent years: your movie should only be as long as it has to be. Winners Tape All stands as a testament to the fact that a movie less than an hour and a half long isn’t less of a movie for its efforts, but can be much more. This breezy mockumentary clocks in at a sweet sixty-seven minutes. It is brief, but uses every moment well, exploring the fictional history of two crummy film-makers from West Virginia in a manner that is both hilarious and, somehow, a little touching.

Within the framework of an “Eye on the Cinema” public access TV episode, Channell tells us about the Henderson brothers. These step-brothers are a lens through which Channell explores the genre. With only two movies to their credit (Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club), they represent what cinephiles regard as all that’s wrong with amateur auteurs. The narrative, however, makes clear that guys like these were instrumental in propping up a genre that, though lacking perhaps in quality, made up for it in mind-numbing quantity. That distributors can’t be bothered to transfer so many of those shot-on-video rental horror movies with titles like Scream Dream and Mad Mutilator to cheap-o DVDs suggests that those “50 Classics of Horror” compilations out there barely scratch the surface.

Zipping back and forth between interviews with Richard Henderson (Joshua Lively), a laid-back surfer of a movie maker, and Michael Henderson (Zane Crosby), a pony-tailed gore fan with a hick accent, we also get to see snippets of the two awful horror movies that made them “rich” (Curse of Stabberman‘s popularity on the rental circuit was unexpected) and then bankrupted their distribution label (Cannibal Swim Club was more of the same coming out a little too late). Scattered throughout are interludes with perhaps the most die-hard fan ever made, Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina). While part of me feels Jacoby’s awkward zeal compromises the movie somewhat, another part acknowledges that he is in all likelihood an accurate representative of militant bad-horror enthusiasts.

Little jokes and asides come and go, sometimes stacking on each other. Michael addresses the phenomenon of “walk time” for Curse of Stabberman (used to fill out a movie’s time clock when plot and dialogue are wanting); later, Richard echoes the idea with “swim time” when discussing Cannibal Swim Club, giving a “see what we did there?” kind of look to the camera. I’m no expert in the genre being ribbed here, but I’ve seen enough to know that Channell’s distilled all the very worst parts of it into these guys and the two movies they made. While I’d be loath to watch either of the films from the Henderson’s oeuvre, it was a very enjoyable experience to see those two brothers done justice (of sorts)—or, more accurately, to see justice done for all those amateur directors, writers, and actors who, despite the theme of their chosen genre, were never ones to say die.

Winners Tape All is available exclusively from IWC Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s always fun to see straight-faced depictions of made-up things which are just plain ridiculous.”–Jesse Skeen, DVD Talk (DVD)

WOODY ALLEN’S ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983) finds in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.

Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like ). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.

Susan Sontag informs us: “Zelig was the phenomenon of the 20s,” and that “according to Saul Bellow, Zelig was amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they did not want to be touched.” It is not surprising that Allen casts a critical Freudian eye on social conventions of America’s past. As a character, Leonard Zelig literally mirrors Western neuroses. As a compositional image—and this film is about image—Zelig is the guy with the vacant stare in the photograph’s bent corner. A non-personality, Zelig becomes the film’s co-personality. The eternally underrated Mia Farrow gives comic zip to both Zelig and “The Changing Man” film housing him. The film’s most animated scenes are on the therapy couch, where she becomes Zelig’s reflection, peeking through the corner of her glasses with a “you want to go to bed with me? But, I’m not pretty” look as she adjusts herself at the edge of the seat.

Allen compares Zelig to a character out of Kafka (along with Freud, another obsession). Indeed, Zelig’s transformations are more sepia insect than Technicolor chameleon, and the community’s response to him is one of initial curiosity, followed by reaching for the insecticide.

Still from Zelig (1983)Zelig leaps from hobnobbing with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin to becoming an anonymous speck in the Nazi machine. After he is cured, Zelig becomes the provocative intellectual hated by American working class heroes. Naturally, he is rehabilitated after his fall from grace, rendering his idiosyncratic, celluloid promenade as an archival blueprint for precision in poignancy.

Allen is hardly a model of American filmmaking. He is New York, not Hollywood, and never attended film school; but his body of work stands as a unique immersion into the study of film. In his studies, he avoids the pratfalls of being too sentimental (Chaplin) or too glacial (). Once Allen made it clear that he would not be contained by our “funny man” category, he composed his own parties, showing up in a plethora of hats and suits: warm, beautifully bleak, elitist, anti-elitist, nostalgic, and modern. Like Zelig himself, Allen revels in his own contradictions with individualistic conscientiousness. In other words, Allen is always authentically Allen. Zelig is a testament to that.

CAPSULE: FUDGE 44 (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Jones

FEATURING: A series of interviewees, each of whom speak for less than a minute

PLOT: Dozens of residents of a Japanese suburb are interviewed about a series of sightings of little men, in a story that gets progressively wilder with every new detail that is revealed.

Still from Fudge 44

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd experiment in how to make a film with almost no money down, but there’s not really enough texture or action here to merit a general recommendation.

COMMENTSFudge 44 might have made a good short story; it’s almost entirely composed of narration by talking heads, with very little cinematic illustration to catch our interest beyond the faces of the interviewees. There is occasional music, but far more noticeable is the audio tape loop which runs for about 10 seconds, ending in a pair of clicks, which accompanies the entire film. This hard-to-explain audio affectation could give the film either a hypnotic or an annoying aspect, depending on your outlook. (I sort of liked it). The plot-heavy nature of the project makes it difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that it begins with reports of sightings of tiny little men in a Japanese suburb, and a backstory is gradually revealed that is as consistent as it is bizarre, bringing in a bank robbery, a puppet show, and a gang of “multicultural assassins.”

The story of Fudge 44  is far too absurd to fool you into believing it’s true; rather, it tries to fool you into believing that other people might believe it’s true. And why not, in a world where people believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions? Despite its minimalist format, Fudge 44 has a lot on its mind. It’s a parody of cryptozoological documentaries, and the opening quote suggests that it’s a criticism of the way Western media views Japan through a series of stereotypes. At its core, it’s a whopper, with the trappings of a hoax; and, by the end, it becomes a sort of melancholy elegy for the passage of our childhood ability to believe in such tall tales. “She knew the difference between imagination and reality, but maybe this didn’t fit into either category,” muses one interview subject when describing a child’s reaction to an encounter with the little creatures. It also could be a slogan for Fudge 44, an oddity that doesn’t really fit into any category.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story becomes more and more convoluted as it unfolds by including a bizarre tale of a pair of boys who came up with a secret recipe for fudge and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”–Matt Exile, “Japanese Hollywood File”

193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

“What happens, by accident, is that the way you choose to lie, because it’s coming from you, has something of the truth in it. Whatever you’re saying is something that’s intentionally coding the truth. And then somehow that coding gets worn down the more you retell it until finally you might as well just be telling the truth—under oath, and on sodium pentothal. It’s disguised somewhat but it’s as true as, say, Homer is true, the “Odyssey,” and the great literature is true. None of the surface is true, but… So in this case I started with a mostly true surface, and the more mischievous I tried to get about it… I just found myself returning to my way of thinking about the world, or my place in it, which involves laps and subterranean things. So it’s not like I was structuring the story so that things would rhyme or echo with each other, or belong in one piece, it’s just that they came from one place—me—and ended up in one sort of cohesive place—the movie My Winnipeg.”–Guy Maddin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Guy Maddin (narration), , ,

PLOT: “Guy Maddin” narrates a documentary about his hometown, Winnipeg, mixing fact with outrageous tall tales. In the course of the film he hires actors to portray his family and recreate scenes from his childhood. Maddin states his intent is to escape Winnipeg by “filming my way out;” but one of the running themes of the documentary is that no one ever leaves Winnipeg.

Still from My Winnipeg (2007)
BACKGROUND:

  • My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel.
  • The film is the third part of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy,” three partly autobiographical but fictional films all starring a character named Guy Maddin, which also includes Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006),
  • During festival screenings the film was shown with live narration, usually performed by Maddin but sometimes rendered by guest narrators including and .
  • Ann Savage, who specialized in femme fatale bad girl roles in the 1940s, had not acted in 16 years (her last role was a bit part in an episode of “Saved by the Bell”) when Maddin called upon the then 86-year old actress to portray his mother in My Winnipeg. Savage died one year later.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The eleven horse’s heads, distressed mouths filled with frost, flash-frozen in the Red River after they stampeded while fleeing a stable fire. The view is so romantic and astounding that (according to Maddin) young lovers used to picnic among the icy mares’ heads.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The Documentary Channel commissioned a documentary about the city of Winnipeg from renegade director Guy Maddin, and instead of a recitation of local facts, they got an icy plunge into the frozen lake of the director’s psyche. The mockumentary form turns out to be a perfect match for Maddin’s prankster temperament. Like the subterranean rivers the First Nations say flow with mystical power underneath Winnipeg’s surface rivers—“the forks beneath the forks”—he exhumes (or invents) fantastic myths about his hometown to try to get at deeper truths about himself.


Original trailer for My Winnipeg

COMMENTS: Relentlessly subjective, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is Continue reading 193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

LIST CANDIDATE: GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom

DIRECTED BY: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A pair of modern day Italian filmmakers visit the antebellum American south to make a documentary on 19th century slavery.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians Jacopetti and Prosperi partly to address accusations of racism in their previous movie Africa Addio (Goodbye Africa), is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity.

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their helicopter over the cotton fields as slaves and their white overseers wave at them, Goodbye Uncle Tom is one unusual movie. Much of the dialogue spoken is taken from actual pro- (and anti-) slavery texts, including the works of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, pseudoscientific and pseudoreligious justifications for racism, and an economist who criticizes the “peculiar institution” as inefficient. What is more memorable, however, are the parade of degrading scenes (that are based on real historical practices) depicting the harsh realities of the slave trade: teeth being knocked out for force-feeding, mass enemas, and castration. There are acres of naked brown flesh on display, as human chattel is herded from place to place; especially unforgettable is a scene of hundreds of nude extras, newly arrived from Africa, battling each other to eat slop from a trough. These scenes feature nudity on an epic scale that’s rarely been achieved in the movies.

The parade of atrocities is hard to watch and hard to stomach, but the case can be made that the filmmakers are simply recreating history in its full horror. What calls the high-mindedness of the project into question, however, are the unhealthy number of sequences devoted to the prurient sexual practices of the antebellum South. Uncle Tom depicts the plantation as a giant brothel. There are multiple rape scenes (scored to searing acid rock music that sounds uncomfortably triumphant), scenes of slaves and mulattos of both sexes used as prostitutes, and breeding scenes where “virile” slaves are kept like animals and put out to stud with terrified pre-teen females. The most disturbing bit involves a girl, introduced as thirteen years old, seductively begging a white man to take her virginity (and offering him a whip) so she will be spared losing it to a well-endowed slave. This is a pure sick male fantasy rendered in pornographic detail, and it’s far too direct to work as satire. Jacopetti and Prosperi were capable of getting their point about the sexual politics of slavery across with subtlety and wit—there is a brilliantly ironic scene where oblivious Southern belles discuss the unthinkable prospect of miscegenation, while the camera dwells on the impassive faces of house servants who clearly have partially Caucasian features—which only highlights the gratuitous sleaze of the pure titillation scenes. Like Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi’s bloody previous documentary on post-colonial political turmoil in Africa, Uncle Tom somehow manages to be  condescending and progressive, cynical and humanistic, all at the same time. One scene may cause a Klansman in the audience to stand up and clap, while the next minute it’s a Black Panther who’s cheering. The documentary as a whole arrives about 150 years too late to expose the evils of slavery, but there is a brave and surreal coda in which a modern black man reads passages from “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and imagines the bloody massacre of a white suburban family.

This review is based on the original theatrical release of Goodbye Uncle Tom (known on DVD as the “English language version”). The version of Uncle Tom reviewed here was taken from Blue Underground’s “Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature Set,” where the disc sits alongside Africa Blood and Guts (Africa Addio) and the Jacopetti/Prosperi documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. The Uncle Tom disc includes about 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by cameraman Giampaolo Lomi. There is also a “Director’s Cut” of the film that takes a more obvious contemporary political stance. This alternate edit of the film cuts out about 30 minutes of plantation scenes, such as the bizarre sequence with a swaddled veterinarian examining newly arrived slaves, and replaces them with then-contemporary footage of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., including footage of black comedian Dick Gregory’s 1968 presidential run. Some consider this to be a more politically relevant, less exploitative presentation of the film. To our knowledge it’s only available in the 8-disc “Mondo Cane Collection” set from Blue Underground (buy), which includes both cuts of Uncle Tom along with Mondo Cane and Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, two different versions of Africa Addio, and The Godfathers of Mondo.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tally Isham, who called it a “jaw-droppingly bizarre and offensive pseudo-documentary.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FARTISTE (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Ruggio

FEATURING: Michael Pataki

PLOT: A fake documentary about the rise and fall of the (real life) “flatulist” performer Le Pétomane, who narrates his story from Purgatory.

Still from The Fartiste (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This long-unreleased one-hour mockumentary is a curiosity, nothing more.

COMMENTS: I’m going to hold my nose and resist the urge to say The Fartiste stinks. (To be fair, I’m not going to claim “it’s a gas!,” either). There’s a reason that The Fartiste was never released after being completed in 1987, and it’s not because the subject matter was too outrageous. The truth is that one hour, while too short for a feature presentation, is too long for an extended fart joke, leaving The Fartiste in no-man’s land. Despite the fact that the historical Le Pétomane (real name: Joseph Pujol) was able to pack audiences into the Moulin Rouge for his concerts in a pre-talkie era, today, audiences are able to sate their curiosity about his peculiar talents in a Facebook post (“a guy who used to pack audiences in to hear him fart? That’s awesome! Oooh, now there’s a baby goat on a trampoline, how cute!”) Stretching this material into an hour’s worth of entertainment proves beyond The Fartiste‘s abilities. With a Pepe le Pew accent and a stage mustache (which disappears in some scenes, replaced with greasepaint), character actor Michael Pataki is acceptable in the role, but never makes Le Pétomane into a truly funny presence. Basically, the movie follows a typical showbiz narrative trajectory, with too much early success leading Le Pétomane into vice and arrogance. Near the end there’s a somewhat amusing slapstick duel with a hotshot bowel jock who wants to unseat the Fartiste. Flirting with fatal flatulence, the combatants drink cabbage juice before the showdown—generic cabbage juice, for extra foulness. The duel is one of the few “action” sequences in The Fartiste, which mostly proceeds as a series of talking head interviews with people whose paths crossed Le Pétomane’s, including famous late 19th/early 20th century figures like Freud, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Enrico Caruso. (Some of this has a grain of a historical basis—for example, Freud was said to have attended a Fartiste performance, although he probably never diagnosed the Frenchman as being trapped in the anal stage). Given that much of Le Pétomane’s career overlapped the silent film era, we also see lots of faux-silent movie footage (especially at the beginning), supplemented by real movies from the public domain. There is a shot of the chandelier crash from Phantom of the Opera (in this alternate reality, the collapse is brought about by a vindictive Pétomane poot) and scenes from Nosferatu illustrate the Fartiste’s early life. The mix of archival footage and fake footage never looks convincing, but that doesn’t matter much—the movie, originally shot on 1980s era TV video and transferred from the sole surviving element, doesn’t look very good overall. Anyway, visuals aren’t the point of The Fartiste. The movie’s greatest asset may be it’s short running time; the whole thing is as light and airy as a whiff of methane. I was actually more impressed with the DVD’s bonus feature, a modern silent one-reeler starring “Harlem Hank” and “Flatbush Frank” entitled “That Voodoo You Do.” Set in a funeral parlor, it’s got cleavage jokes, an undead body, a voodoo priestess in drag, a barrelhouse piano score, mugging in pancake makeup, and it ends on a groaner—it’s a lot of fun, and even shorter than the feature!

The Fartiste (1987) is not to be confused with “The Fartiste,” an unrelated 2006 off-Broadway musical that is occasionally revived. played Joseph Pujol in a 1983 Italian biopic, and there was also a 1998 French documentary on le Pet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s short, sweet, stupid, and utterly bizarre…”–Mondo Digital

DISCLAIMER: A copy of this movie was provided by the distributor for review.

CAPSULE: THE WICK: DISPATCHES FROM THE ISLE OF WONDER (2013)

The Wick: Dispatches from the Isle of Wonder can be seen in its entirety (for free) at the movie’s home page.

DIRECTED BY: Tom Metcalfe, John Rowley

FEATURING: Tom Metcalfe, John Rowley

PLOT: A documentary on the London neighborhood of Hackey Wick, which claims to have a higher per capita concentration of artists than anyplace in the world (1 in 7 residents), and simultaneously a comic mockumentary about two bohemian filmmakers making a documentary about Hackney Wick.

Still from The Wick (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: An odd and noble no-budget effort, but one of the weirdest movies ever? No, but nice try.

COMMENTS: John and Tom, the filmmakers behind The Wick, have a framed photograph of hanging on the wall of their dingy Wick flat. You might view that fact as either a hopeful sign of experimentation to come, or a warning of impeding narrative incoherence. Both guesses would be somewhat correct. This strangely conceived project, which somehow manages to come across as improvised and carefully planned-out at the same time, will appeal to a very narrow audience. It’s obviously aimed at the art crowd and most emphatically not at the mainstream. Viewers will lean something about the run-down neighborhood of Hackney Wick, its struggling artists, and the effect that the Olympics had on the area, although all of those subjects ultimately get slighted. John and Tom demonstrate the spirit of the Wick by doing rather than by telling, and the biggest audience for this film is anyone interested in DIY art, the creative process, or the pains and passions of microbudget filmmaking. There are two, or maybe even three or more, movies embedded in The Wick, and they don’t always play together nicely. It begins with a series of nearly silent sketches featuring John (the one with the handlebar mustache and occasional pipe) and Tom (full beard, long hair, umbrella) going about their daily routine in the Wick, which consists of sneaking onto a rooftop to listen to weather reports on a beat up radio. At night they sleep foot to head in a single bed; Tom reads a copy of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” each night before turning in. They have a series of note cards pinned to the bedroom wall, the first of which reads “scene one” and the last “epilogue,” with a dozen or so blank cards in between. The two are waiting for inspiration to strike, which occurs after twenty minutes have passed when Tom has a dream of becoming a naked giant and striding across the urban sprawl. Mild pantomime comedy bits (e.g. the guys forget their keys and have to go back to the flat) relieve these early bits, but this overextended opening, unfortunately, is easily the weakest part of the movie. John and Tom finally decide to create a documentary on the Wick “in the framework of an avant-garde adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest.'” “John describes it as an attempt to undocument the documentary,” Tom explains in voiceover. “I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I believe it sounds suitably provocative.” Studies of a half-dozen residents of the Wick follow, including a photorealistic portraitist, several conceptual/performance art weirdo types, an author who gives historical background on the area, and a young Australian man who’s shipped over to work on Olympic security detail while seeing the world. There’s about thirty to forty minutes of documentary footage altogether. The final segment of the film consists mostly of short comic scenes of John and Tom camping out in a pup tent (they’ve rented out their flat to Olympic tourists), eating beans over a portable stove, editing the movie on a laptop, and even doing the Foley work for the feature. There are a few more ambitious and planned-out bits strewn about here and there, including a farcical audio tour of the Wick that provides the movie’s biggest chuckles (“once home to Percy Dalton’s peanut factory, Hackney Wick is an area steeped in history…”) and a running subplot about Tom’s desire to impress his mother with the movie (“pray be lenient mum, for we tried, and surely that counts for something.”) As for the “Tempest” references, they are indeed spread throughout the movie, although to what purpose is never exactly clear. The Wick itself is Shakespeare’s island, we can guess, and as the orchestrators of this mirage, John and Tom share duties as Prospero (although most of the time they act more like the comic relief characters Stephano and Trinculo). But where are Miranda, Ariel and Caliban, and who is it that’s shipwrecked upon the Wick? The “Tempest” conceit never really gets going, while the realistic documentary portions feel out of place, and the mockumentary sections are only sporadically funny. Still, even when it’s not quite working as entertainment, there’s an inherent likableness to the movie, mostly because John and Tom (their personalities aren’t that distinct, and they almost function as a single character) come across as the kind of mates you’d like to buy a pint for, just so you can listen to them talk about their love of movies. Barely speaking or even moving for much of the run time, they nonetheless radiate a passionate confidence and belief in their strange little work that is endearing and humorously self-deprecating. If you can get past the dry opening, you may find lots to like in The Wick, and even a little to wonder at.

“Isles of Wonder” was the name of the production of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…without a doubt one of the oddest independent films I’ve watched, period. It’s also, in an acquired taste kind of way, quietly brilliant. And mad. And very, very odd.”–David Ollerton, The London Film Review

CAPSULE: THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971)

Must See

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

FEATURING: Lawrence Pressman

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

Still from The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

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

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

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

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

CAPSULE: TROLLHUNTER [TROLLJEGEREN] (2010)

DIRECTED BY: André Øvredal

FEATURING: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen, Urmila Berg-Domaas

PLOT: Three journalism students traipse about the Norwegian countryside following a

mysterious poacher, only to discover he is a government-funded troll hunter trying to contain an outbreak of monsters in the mountains.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though a troll-themed found footage horror/comedy sounds like a novel concept, for the most part TrollHunter is a straightforward and predictable—and enjoyable—horror flick.

COMMENTS: Building slowly up to its fantastical pay-off and composed of edited footage purportedly sent anonymously to a news station, TrollHunter begins with Thomas (the reporter), Johanna (the sound woman), and Kalle (the rarely-seen camera operator) driving through the Norwegian mountains after suspected bear poacher Hans. There’s something fishy going on with this guy, as evidenced by his strange, solitary habits and tricked-out hunting truck, and they aim to find out exactly what’s up.  When they finally catch up with him, they learn firsthand that he’s an honest-to-goodness troll hunter, employed by the government to protect humans from troll attacks.  An entire troll subculture is explored and explained matter-of-factly; they’re like a typical woodland animal species, only ten times bigger and wholly improbable.  They’ve been breaking out of their contained areas and wreaking havoc lately, so it’s up to Hans and his new camera crew to determine the cause.

Hans’s gruff and fed-up line deliveries coupled with the students’—especially Thomas’s—befuddled reactions make for much of the film’s cheeky comedy, but they rarely elicit big laughs, keeping an understated atmosphere for most of the running time.  Of course, when the actual trolls come into play, action and thrills take precedence.  Director Øvredal makes good use of unseen monsters and intense sound effects, injecting the affair with fear of the unknown more than anything else.  The trolls are well CGI-ed, kept primarily in dark lighting; the effects showcase several different monster designs.  The shaky-cam vérité style can be taxing at points, but overall the first-person camerawork is incorporated effectively.

TrollHunter is the kind of genre mash-up that doesn’t lean to any one side.  Many will think it should be much funnier, or much scarier, or both. Personally, I appreciated its low-key approach.  The story and characters are interesting enough to keep the momentum going, and the gorgeous Scandinavian scenery and multiple gruesome troll bouts are entertaining to the eye.  Some of the specifically Norwegian references are likely lost on outside viewers, but this look into Norwegian folklore is never abstruse or alienating.  For the most part, it’s just fun!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With impressive technical credits, stunning fjord and forest locations and a winking ownership of its own absurdity, ‘Trollhunter’ manages to be at once spooky, satirical and endearing.” –Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)