WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/21/2019

Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Madame Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club (2017): An aging temptress brings one final date to her feminist cannibal club, but starts to fall for her prey. A rare Israeli horror-comedy that SyFy Wire’s Kirsty Puchko calls “deliciously deranged.Madame Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club official site.

NETFLIX (debuts 6/21):

“Neon Genesis Evangelion”: The original 26 episodes of Japan’s mind-shredding TV broadcast anime featuring giant robots, the apocalypse, crippling teenage angst, and psychedelic mind trips, on American televisions for the first time. Also included are the feature films Evangelion: Death True2 (a reworked version of Death and Rebirth) and the Canonically Weird Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997). If you’ve never seen this fascinating, frustrating series, now’s your chance! It’s not what you expect. On Twitter, fans are already complaining about every word change in the new dub. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” on Netflix.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

The Beach Bum (2019): ‘s first feature film since 2012’s Spring Breakers stars as a hippy beach bum sentenced by a judge to finish his novel. Looks fairly conventional by Korine standards. On DVD, Blu-ray, or VOD. Buy The Beach Bum.

Thirst [Bakjwi] (2009): Read our capsule review. Chan-wook Park‘s take on Western vampires, Japanese-style, is interesting and lovely, if not exceptionally weird. Now on Blu-ray for the first time. Buy Thirst.

Under the Silver Lake (2018): Read Giles Edwards’ List Candidate review! An L.A.-based conspiracy theory neo-noir reminiscent of Inherent Vice; one funny, and encouraging, negative Amazon reviewer complained, “I usually like weird, but not THIS weird.” The usual options: DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. Buy Under the Silver Lake.

“Universal Horror Collection: Vol.1”:  Four where bothand appear: The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Black Friday (1940), all topped off by the Canonically Weird The Black Cat (1934). Shout! Factory licensed these titles from Universal for Blu-ray release and included lots of bonus features, including two new commentary tracks for Black Cat alone. On Blu-ray, priced for dedicated collectors. Buy “Universal Horror Collection: Vol. 1”

“Wakaliwood Supa Action Volume 1: Who Killed Captain Alex? + Bad Black“: Read Giles Edwards’ festival mini-review of Bad Black. Two microbudget action/comedies from Uganda’s homegrown hero, Nabwana I.G.G., who makes campy epics in the slums of Wakaliga for peanuts. Something different on Blu-ray from American Genre Film Archives. Buy “Wakaliwood Supa Action Volume 1: Who Killed Captain Alex? + Bad Black”

CERTIFIED WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). We won’t list all the screenings of this audience-participation classic separately. You can use this page to find a screening near you.

FREE MOVIES ON TUBI.TV:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990): Read the Certified Weird review! The film adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s play where two minor characters from “Hamlet” take center stage is now listed as “leaving soon,” so check out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now before they really are dead (on Tubi). Watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead free on Tubi.tv.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: If you hadn’t noticed, our first three Apocryphally Weird titles are set, thanks to you. In ascending number of votes, they are Singapore Sling (1990), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). Look for full write-ups of those three to appear in the next indefinite time period. Next week, Simon Hyslop will suggest another possible addition to that supplemental weird movie list with the philosophical 1977 animated film The Mouse and His Child. Gregory J. Smalley will then reflect on Serenity (2019), which flopped in theaters but made it into our reader-suggested review queue. Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

CHANNEL 366: “CATCH-22” (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras,

FEATURING: , Kyle Chandler, Daniel David Stewart, Grant Heslov, George Clooney

PLOT: In the Italian theater of World War II, terrified American bombardier Yossarian seeks any way he can find out of the Air Force, but his commander continues to find an excuse to raise the number of required missions every time he gets close to being discharged.

Still from Catch-22 (2019 TV miniseries)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you adapt Joseph Heller’s absurd novel literally, you might make the List, but you’ll never get George Clooney to sign on to the project. If you make it literal and not absurd, you can get it on Hulu for six commerical-funded episodes, but it will never make our List. It’s a Catch-366!

COMMENTS: A recommendation on an off-topic sports forum described Hulu’s 2019 version of “Catch-22” as “like M*A*S*H*, but darker.” That nails it for anyone not familiar with the original source material. The M*A*S*H* book/movie/TV series franchise, while witty, was an ersatz, popularized Catch-22, where the existential absurdity of war as a grand metaphor was pre-digetsed into a parade of wisecracks and hijinks, counterculture pacifist slogans, and simplified bureaucratic satire for the anti-Vietnam crowd. Funny, still, but no longer profoundly so.

It would be tempting to assume that every reader is intimately familiar with both Joseph Heller’s novel and (canonically weird!) 1970 movie adaptation, and spill a lot of digital ink in listing and critiquing each plot detour the new adaptation takes. But that would be of little interest to the casual reader. Nevertheless, even for those unfamiliar with the source material, discussion of the changes the writers made will give insight into their mindset and the tone they were going for—and give a sense of what may be missing that made the original so revolutionary. In the extra features (available to watch on Hulu alongside the episodes), the writers are forthcoming in explaining that they wanted to simplify the story to aid viewers’ comprehension. The most crucial change is that they take Heller’s disorienting, jumping-about-in-time narrative and rewrite it so it occurs chronologically, “so that the characters can have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end,” to bypass Heller’s “dense, kaleidoscopic chaos.” They also sanitize Heller’s relentless, repetitive, circular wordplay, scripting most exchanges as realistic, natural-sounding dialogue. In other words, they felt duty-bound to conventionalize everything.

These decisions makes the tale easier to follow, sure, but at what cost? Heller’s “chaos” was a deliberate thematic choice, reflecting his attitude to both his protagonist and the world, and toying with it inevitably changes the story. Sometimes it does so in minor ways: it seems to me that Major Major is a funnier character before his backstory is revealed (the movie didn’t even bother to go into  Major’s personal history, and the character worked just fine). A poignant reveal about the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent is destroyed by telling the tale front-to-back. On a more serious note, a rape that was only implied in the novel and movie becomes an unnecessarily graphic and unpleasant scene in episode 5, a giant misstep in tone; then, the outrageous aftermath of the atrocity (one of the great ironic moments of the novel and film) is played so realistically that it barely registers on the black comedy scale. (The victim is also different, which is the first indicator that Heller’s ending has been scrapped.) The rejiggering of the plot does allow for a greatly expanded (and funny) role for George Clooney as Scheisskopf, the boys’ original parade-obsessed flight instructor, who is now more bully than fool, and as vindictive as incompetent. The book’s finale is completely changed; to be fair, the ending they came up with makes for a great image that comes across better onscreen than it would have on the page. It’s also more in the spirit of Heller’s hilarious nihilism than much else in the film.

It would have been hard for this series to match the movie’s classic cast: , , Bob Newhart, , Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin. Clooney supplies the lone star power here, with veteran character actors filling out the officer brigade, while fresh faces do well as the hapless cannon fodder. As Yossarian, Christopher Abbott lacks the befuddled outrage of Alan Arkin, but he grows on you. Arkin’s Yossarian was a principled coward, a holy fool who made self-preservation his preeminent moral value. Abbott’s yellow streak is both darker and more pragmatic; the characterization is more believable, but less meaningful.

The series looks good, with a color palette that might be described as “Mediterranean sepia.” The soundtrack is nostalgic contemporary swing that often has an ironic tinge.

Paradoxically, a realist take on an unreal novel is, in its way, brave and unexpected. While those of us who are fans of Heller’s masterpiece may struggle to hold back our resentment, newcomers for whom this is their first exposure to the book (and/or movie) will dig it just fine, and will have better things to look forward to from Catch-22 in the future.

“Catch-22” can be viewed free by Hulu subscribers, or downloaded digitally from Amazon and other streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Heller’s protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, [the creators] respond to the crazy ambition of Heller’s novel by choosing not to engage… Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: MANGOSHAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Chiu

FEATURING: Matias Rittatore, Jessica McKnight, Ian Sheldon, Philip Silverstein, many others

PLOT: A group of young people hang out in the suburbs running a stand that sells mango shakes, until a rival sets up a stand selling chow mein.

Still from Mangoshake (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too far down the production ladder. If you make a movie for $0, it needs to be ceaselessly and relentlessly weird to make our List. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see Mangoshake if you get the chance, of course, but realize it’s aimed primarily at no-budget movie fans rather than weird movie fans.

COMMENTS: The most important exchange of dialogue comes at the end. Mangoshake entrepreneur Ian (occasionally pronounced “Juan”) confesses to Spaceboy (the nerd who obsessively documents this lazy summer in his diary, hoping to make sense of it all) that his entire enterprise has not been about building a sense of community, as he publicly claimed, but about getting laid. (How giving away free mango shakes was going to get him laid is one of the many absurdities Mangoshake lays out without explanation). “All of this was just to try to have sex?,” objects Spaceboy. “No, I won’t accept that, it was more than that.” Ian responds, “It’s not. It’s just straight up not.” He pauses. “Look, if it was more than that for you, no one can take that away from you.”

With dozens of thinly-sketched characters (actors clearly in their twenties but acting like teenagers), Mangoshake is a nearly plotless experiment evoking a certain summer slacker ennui through comic vignettes that err towards the goofy side of absurd. It’s sort of a sunny combination of Clerks and that sets out to subvert teen cliches. The comedy is uneven, often relying on gambits like characters suddenly wearing fake beards and reciting dialogue in funny accents, or pitching dumb movie ideas—“clowns crushed by gravity!”—resulting in mock hilarity. There is a whiny monologue from a discarded pizza crust and a pretty good musical number, though. The best bit, which involves a black market fruit dealer named Nancy, could stand alone as a Youtube short. It ends with a food fight where a couple of the actors sort of break character and crack up, but they just keep rolling.

Filming on unforgiving equipment one step above an iPhone, Chiu uses simple techniques—jump cuts, subtitles, upside-down shots, and a crashing-skateboard cam—in an attempt to create visual interest in the bland suburban setting. As is often the case with low budget productions, sound can be an issue, making it hard to make out some dialogue. As a joke, one shy character is always subtitled, but the whole film might benefit from close-captioning. Adding to the proudly amateur aesthetic, the actors have such blank deliveries that you sometimes wonder if Chiu is trying to translate into mumblecore. There are a few moments of genuine melancholy sincerity as the characters awkwardly attempt, and generally fail, to connect with each other on a deeper level than just “hanging out.”

Mangoshake is the DIY coming-of-age-film for people who hate coming-of-age films, a mission it announces up front. Mainly, it seems to be cynical about the possibility of romance. People don’t hook up, or they don’t hook up meaningfully, or they don’t hook up with the person they want to hook up with. The nerd doesn’t get the hot girl, but neither does the douchebag; the hot girl doesn’t get the nice guy, or the cool guy either. The lesbians do seem to do OK. The best thing about Mangoshake may be that it might convince you that you can make your own movie, which would be in line with the director’s intent. From his “mission statement”: “The philosophy is taking nobody-filmmaking to a raw place that can challenge the inclusivity of the cinematic language, and to communicate a story that have-nots could’ve made and could connect with. Regardless of if one thinks this works or not, what could matter more is if it gets across what it could represent. If it could be an honest expression of nobodies putting together a feature-length movie that holds resonance.” Call it a nonifesto for “nobody-filmmaking.”

Mangoshake plays tomorrow at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn; its fate thereafter is unknown.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealist comedy of late-summer ennui… This breed of absurdism, however, will only appeal to an audience who will truly appreciate the pleasure of surrendering yourself to the most primitive and instinctual of delights…”–Gary Shannon, The Young Folks (festival screening)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/14/2019

Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Mangoshake (2018): No-budget absurdist spoof of coming-of-age films, featuring a group of “teens” who open a stand selling mango shakes, and a jealous rival who hawks chow mein. Talk about “limited release:” this is only playing at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, for two more nights: June 14 (tonight!) and 17. We’ll have a rare Sunday afternoon review of this one. Mangoshake at Spectacle Theater.

IN DEVELOPMENT:

“The Deadly Ten”: Halloweed Night & Necropolis: Legion: As we mentioned previously, Full Moon Studios has a unique promotional gimmick for their next ten films: they’ll be live-streaming behind-the-scenes footage as the movies are being produced. The first title, the stoner horror/comedy Halloweed Night, has already begun filming (although it appears the live-stream promotion won’t begin until after midnight tonight at 12:30 AM; some archived content is available). When Halloweed is in the can, next up is Necropolis: Legion, described as “a surreal, Eurotrash-tinted companion film to the classic 1986 Band-produced Empire Pictures exploitation film.” That sounds potentially up our alley. If your curious, sign up for the streams at Deadly Ten.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie (1975): A crazy sounding Dutch sex-horror about bisexual nude models who may also be vampires. The script boasts five writers, including producer/Eurosex pioneer and (Malpertuis); Cult Epics’ Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes three sexy period shorts. Look for a review in the near future. Buy My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie.

CERTIFIED WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). We won’t list all the screenings of this audience-participation classic separately. You can use this page to find a screening near you.

NEPOTISM CORNER: There’s a reason Alfred Eaker has been late covering his summer blockbusters (and other movies) this year: he’s been at hard at work putting the finishing touches on his upcoming novel, “Brother Cobweb.” It’s the hallucinatory story of a young man raised in a restrictive Pentacostal denomination, haunted by the metaphorical title character. It now has an approximate release date: Easter season, 2020. The novel will be followed by a limited release book of Alfred’s art and a graphic novel adaptation/spnoff, “The Brother Cobeweb Chronicles.” More info as we get closer to release date. Alfred made the official announcement on his Facebook page, with previews of the artwork (by Alfred and Todd Coe).

Brother Cobweb promotional

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: As mentioned above, next week we’ll start with a rare Sunday review of Mangoshake (for the sake of any Brooklyners who might be interested in catching its final screening at Spectacle Theater). We’ll follow that up with some small screen coverage, as Shane Wilson brings you a review of Netflix’s “Russian Doll” and Gregory J. Smalley does the same for Hulu’s new “Catch-22” miniseries adaptation. And of course, we’ll announce the first three titles in our new list of Apocrypha movies (there’s still time for you to vote for your picks until Wednesday). Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!