Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: SERENITY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Knight

FEATURING: , , Jason Clarke

PLOT: A crusty commercial fisherman entertains an offer from his ex-wife to kill her current husband, an abusive alcoholic multi-millionaire.

Still from Serenty (2019)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a noir/mindscrew oddity that inspires a reaction of “huh” more than anything else.

COMMENTS: “Serenity” is the name of Baker Dill’s fishing boat and, one presumes, the state of mind to which he aspires. “Justice” is the name of the tuna (!) he obsessively pursues. A game Matthew McConaughey plays the role of Baker broadly and brashly—although not quite reaching levels of transcendent camp. He exhibits remnants of post-Iraq PTSD, has a psychic connection to the son he left behind, pulls a knife on his own fishing tour customers, acts as a part-time gigolo and cat-catcher when not trawling for tuna or slamming shots of rum, and shows off his taut butt every chance he gets: swimming nude, showering, or rising from bed for a smoke after pleasuring Diane Lane. Femme fatale Anne Hathaway (temporarily blonde for this role) saunters in at the end of the first act to swerve the narrative into noir territory. There’s also a bespectacled man with a briefcase bumbling around on Baker’s trail, always missing him by a few seconds. The action occurs on Plymouth Island, a small scenic isle in—the Caribbean? The Florida keys? (It was actually filmed in the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius, a paradise of translucent blue seas.) The locals are rugged individualists given to saying things like “You fish for the tuna. That’s a tuna that’s only in your head.”

And then comes that twist. It’s weird, yes, but somewhat telegraphed, and revealed in its entirety by the halfway point. You can see why audiences felt cheated by this sudden switch to the metaphysical. It’s not just that it’s unexpected; it’s unsatisfying. (“Preposterous” is a less flattering term that comes to mind.)

You won’t be confused about what happens in Serenity, but you might be puzzled as to why this strange script was greenlit. That’s not to say it’s terrible, exactly, it’s just… un-Hollywood. Director Steven Knight, the writer of the hits Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises and co-creator of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” had enough credibility to get a studio to back this commercial folly; when McConaughey and Hathaway signed on, it was a go. Unfortunately, their gamble on Serenity won’t do anybody’s career any favors; the film is already showing up on “worst of 2019” lists.

It’s not that bad; at least Serenity takes chances and is never boring, although neither does it ever exactly work as intended. The sunny postcard setting makes for balmy viewing, and McConnaughey’s gruff, committed performance is fun, if a bit fishy. That said—oh, that twist! It troubles our Serenity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you like seeing authentically unusual movies, then ignore the haters: In its fusion of disparate genres, its sentimentality, and its weirdness, Serenity is actually worth watching.”–Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Mike B, who speculated “…it smells like a potential candidate. So far, the reviewers have no idea what the hell to make of it, which is usually a good sign.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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)

CAPSULE: HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Andy Sidaris

FEATURING: Ronn Moss, Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Cynthia Brimhall, Harold Diamond

PLOT: Several pairs of breasts, which happen to be connected to DEA agents, have an adventure with diamond smugglers and a toxic snake.

Still from Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)

WHY TIT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You got me there: this is without a doubt the most psychedelic episode of Miami Vice ever filmed. But that’s damning with faint praise on this site. We can’t put this movie on the List because it’s too tame to fend for itself and the other movies would eat it alive.

COMMENTS: I draw a distinction between what I deem to be “stupid movies” and “brainless movies.” A stupid movie thinks it’s smart, but it’s actually all drooling duh-hurp dumb. A brainless movie is dumb, knows its dumb, revels in its dumbness, and tries to have as much fun as it can anyway. I can’t hate a brainless movie too much, because at least it’s trying to entertain, in its own way. So here’s Hard Ticket To Hawaii, from the gloriously brainless, but entertaining director Andy Sidaris, making another of his movies destined for a “Girls, Guns and G-Strings” box set. Sidaris, through Cthulhu knows what Faustian bargain, managed to arrange a life for himself where he got to film in Hawaii all the time surrounded by naked Playboy models. With his wife’s help as production assistant, no less. Sidaris even does a cameo in his own movie, where he is seated at a Tiki bar and burrows his beak into the epic cleavage of yet another scantily-clad female while uttering the immortal line: “I’ll have a pair of coffee.” Settle in for a cheesy good time!

Just don’t suffer too much trying to keep track of the plot, because heaven forbid that’s what you should concentrate on. There are these DEA agents named Donna and Taryn, stationed in Hawaii for some undefined purpose, who accidentally intercept diamond smugglers. The smugglers were inept enough to try to transport their precious cargo via remote-control helicopter though, and land it right in front of the agents, so whose fault is that? Before examining the find, the gals opt to hop in the Jacuzzi because “I always do my best thinking there.” Yes, trained law officials always handle evidence while wet and topless. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, a wooden crate loaded with a live, giant, hazardous snake was boarded on their plane. It manages to break out of its box and is now slithering all over the island. This is bad news, because the warehouse owner in charge of snakes gets on the phone to warn them that the snake has been exposed to toxins, so it’s now too dangerous to have around because it’s a giant, hazardous toxic snake.

At least, I think it’s meant to be a snake, and everybody calls it one. You could literally sculpt a more convincing prop out of Play-Doh using only one color, but we have to settle for what we can get here. The snake apparently eats the half of the script that would have made sense, so the movie runs out of plot and settles for running around doing random stuff. The girls are joined by both male and female agents doing vaguely detective-ish, action-ish stuff, in between boffing on the beach like randy alley cats. The smugglers come after the agents, intent on getting their diamonds back and willing to torture them for the gratuitous thrill of it. Confrontations between smugglers and agents take the shape of a skater-punk toting a blow-up sex doll attacking agents who blow him and the doll away with a bazooka—separately, just to be sure the doll is neutralized as well. Or, people getting their throat slit by the blade of a killer Frisbee, much like the kind Oddjob from Goldfinger would have played with on his day off. Just when you think too hard about the plot or the action sequences, tops come off and boobies jiggle. All of our hopes are pinned upon Team Titty to bring the B-list smuggling gang and the toxic snake to justice.

Honestly, what do you expect for 1987? Look, there was a dog running around selling people beer, and everybody loved him. It’s a good thing Hard Nipple Ticket To Hawaii is so busy mashing mushmelons in your face, because otherwise you’d notice that the story, dialogue, and acting are all in the range between Ed Wood and the late-night softcore movies that earned a certain cable channel the nickname “Skinemax.” There’s even Jerry-Warren-type scene-to-scene continuity errors, like a trunk two guys carry out to a jeep and leave in the parking lot, then next scene there’s clearly no trunk in the jeep. However, this movie is quality brainless entertainment for cheese-lovers everywhere. To this movie’s credit, they don’t skimp with stock footage. When they fly a plane around Hawaii, by Jove, you get original footage of a plane and Hawaii. That cocaine money within the budget isn’t going to launder itself, you know. This is a lousy movie to see alone, but becomes exponentially better the more drunk friends you add to the experience. The ruder and cruder the better.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s some bizarre stuff in this film. The guy on the skateboard, his love doll, and a bazooka, for example. (‘He must be smokin some heavy doobies!’ says one of our heroes. Is he referring to the writers?)”–Bill Gordon, The Worst Movies Ever Made

CAPSULE: RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Milorad Krstic

FEATURING: Voices of Iván Kamarás, Gabriella Hámori, Zalán Makranczi

PLOT: Ruben Brandt is a psychiatrist for a group of skilled art thieves who show their appreciation by stealing thirteen masterpieces in an effort to help their therapist conquer his nightmares.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ruben Brandt, Collector is weird, in a way, but not the way we’re looking for, and not the way you might expect.

COMMENTS: It begins with a heist gone wrong: Mimi (Gabriella Hámori) has been hired to steal a priceless diamond from the Louvre, but gets distracted by a beautiful Egyptian hand-fan halfway through the job. The ensuing chase through downtown Paris with Detective Kowalski (Zalán Makranczi) in pursuit is cleverer and better paced than most anything in modern action films. Dreams pile in references to the classics as Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) copes with ever-worsening nightmares. Mafioso scumbags are dying to break into the art market, and there’s a “Cold War Café” frequented by ex-CIA and KGB spooks. The big-hearted looters assembled by Brandt include a thief with an overeating problem who is also handily (and literally) two-dimensional. The Art-Deco/Cubist world of Ruben Brandt, Collector is nothing short of amazing to look at.

But there is an issue looming over all of this: is this hyper-stylized, incredibly erudite cartoon weird? Every frame is arranged for maximum impact, and the tips-of-the-hat to famous artworks are innumerable. (Well, perhaps not innumerable: the end credits indicate that over fifty pieces are explicitly referenced within the movie, in addition to the ten or so nods to movies ranging from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Rambo: First Blood.) It is an odd and beautiful movie to behold, but the script compromises the atmosphere, making it feel at times as if it’s intended for a child audience. “Humorous” exchanges between the characters and the closing heist sequence are reminiscent of cartoons I’ve watched with my young niece. Still, I was happy to just sit back and soak in the glorious visual feast before me.

This imbalance is forgivable, and also makes perfect sense: Milorad Krstic is first and foremost a painter. By branching out into narrative cinema, he proves he can carry a visual motif for a whole movie. He also has an ear for music, with unlikely rock classics (like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “L’il Red Riding Hood”) and novel pop covers (Haley Reinhart’s version of “Oops, I Did It Again” turns it into a cabaret classic) augmenting Collector‘s off-kilter alternate reality. If Krstic ever pairs his work with a compelling script, we’d be certain to have the animated film of the decade on our hands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an action thriller as surreal as it is familiar.”–Jared Mobarak, Buffalo Vibe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KEOMA (1976)

AKA Django’s Great Return; The Violent Breed

DIRECTED BY: Enzo G. Castellari

FEATURING: , Donald O’Brien, William Berger, Olga Karlatos

PLOT: A half-breed gunslinger returns to his home town after serving in the Civil War to find it overrun by an outlaw gang.

Still from Keoma (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you remove the infamous soundtrack, this movie is a candidate for a standard, artful, but pretty ordinary spaghetti Western. Grim as Hades’ gruel and dark as midnight, yes, but not weird. The soundtrack, moreover, qualifies less as weird and more as a hate crime against eardrums.

COMMENTS: What chance does a Western have on this site? In the category of weird Westerns, there is El Topo, and the buck pretty much stops there. Nobody else need bother applying. It scored #10 on March Movie Madness out of the whole 366 List. Sure there’s a few more weird Westerns on the List, but by and large, Westerns are the most conservative, vanilla genre out there. I know some fans will be ready to thrash me for saying so, but I hate this genre. It’s BORING! The same horses, the same guns, the same hats, the same saloon fight. Show me an establishing shot of an old ghost town with a tumbleweed blowing by and I’m yawning already. El Topo is my favorite Western, Blazing Saddles my second-favorite, and every other one is tied for last place, spaghetti Westerns included. Yes, I will grant, there are many well-done Westerns—don’t think I don’t appreciate them—but I can only stare at the same paint on the same wall for so long, even if Picasso painted it. Even worse is another Django (1966) knock-off (albeit starring the original Django). During the copycat Western period, all cowboys were Django, the way all Mexican Luchador wrestlers are Santo.

So, in the boring, boring west, Keoma (Franco Nero) comes home from the Civil War to find his home town overrun by outlaws. Team Bad Guy–cackling evildoers of the Snidely Whiplash variety—is led by Caldwell (Donald O’Brien), who doesn’t tie screaming damsels to train tracks but might as well, since he solves a plague epidemic by hunting the victims down like dogs. Worse yet, Keoma’s half-brothers despise him because he’s a half-breed Indian and have thrown in their lot with Caldwell. Keoma’s only allies are his father and a few town stragglers, so together Team Good Guy is going to solve this with lots of fighting, featuring saloon punch-outs and gunfighter duels at the O.K. Corral. Notice how this plot flies right through your brain without hanging onto any details? Horses are ridden, oats are eaten, honky tonk pianos are played, poker cards are dealt. The most original element is an old crone who observes Keoma’s progress and advises him from time to time.

Let’s talk about the dead, stinking elephant in the room: The Worst Soundtrack EVER! Keoma has the bad luck to be famous mainly for its cursed music. It’s as bad as every review says it is, and worse. The female vocals sound like Tiny Tim doing a falsetto after inhaling helium, and then the male accompaniment comes in sounding like what everybody swears to God is Arnold Schwarzenegger with a head cold. But wait, there’s more! The music sings the entire narration, an invisible Greek chorus punctuating every major scene in operatic detail. And not only that, the music is not at all Western, but sounds more like an amateur Renaissance Fair ballad. This takes what should have been the grand finale of the spaghetti Western genre and turns it into excruciating torture to sit through. Nails on a chalkboard, a cat-fight on acid, your ears will throw up. You want so badly to appreciate the dramatic moments but the manic chipmunk with croaking frog accompaniment just WILL NOT SHUT UP.

Notwithstanding this one crippling handicap, Keoma is hailed by many as a spaghetti Western classic. Even the most rabid genre fans will admit it’s derivative, but this came out in the twilight years of Prego horse operas, so it’s unavoidable. Director Castellari at least keeps the camerawork interesting, peeking at the action through barrel knotholes and from between the spokes of wagon wheels. Reportedly, the script was written on the fly while filming, which is impressive because lines of dialogue hint at spirituality and a Zen view of the world, and snippets have Shakespearian aspirations. But sadly, Westerns have been so spammed in cinema that even the Taoist ones are a dime a dozen.

The defining feature of Keoma, music aside, is grimness. This film takes place in a world that’s just a big sack of crap for everybody, where they’re all damned souls struggling to kill each other in the most sadistic ways possible on the shores of Hell. Which, even if you love Westerns, makes it hard to give a damn about anybody here. The only thing you care about after it’s over is sticking your head in the microwave on high to see if that purges the soundtrack from your memory.

Arrow Video released a deluxe special edition Blu-ray in 2019, newly restored and with a host of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Aside from the peculiar mismatching of Nero and his role, the movie’s almost random collection of elements gives it an appealing recklessness and energy that sells it. The main drawback is the music…”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: TOP KNOT DETECTIVE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

FEATURING: Toshi Okuzaki, Mayu Iwasaki, Masa Yamaguchi, Des Mangan

PLOT: Mockumentary describing a bizarre Japanese cult TV show about a ronin detective who fights samurai and giant robots and eventually travels through time, and the mystery behind its sudden cancellation.

Still from Top Knot Detective (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s cute, but minor; an affectionate and entertaining 90 minutes for exploitation movie fans. “Reboot” the fake TV series and we’ll talk about weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: In our first introduction to “Top Knot Detective,” we see the black-robed title character menaced by a ninja; our hero quickly plays a reed flute, which summons a shark. It bursts through the ground and flies through the sky to completely swallow the bad guy (and squirt liters of blood from its mouth). That may be the craziest moment in the fake series: or it might be when the detective literally catches lightning while playing electric guitar in a thunderstorm. Or the product placement for Suttafu beer. Or the late-series introduction of the detective’s armored, time-traveling, baseball-bat-wielding sidekick. Or the cheaply-designed penis monster (with the actors’ arms poking out of the sides of the pink rubber suit). You can pick your own WTFiest moment, but all of this “archival” material is presented on low-definition, mock-multi-generation-VHS stock, complete with the occasional vertical hold artifact.

Seeing outrageous clips delivered without much regard for the show’s chronology, we don’t get a real sense of how the plot arc of the series works, but that’s by design. The conceit is that “Top Knot”‘s creators pretty much made up the show as they went along—and that anything could happen from episode to episode. About all we learn about the overall plot is that “Deductive Reasoning Ronin” is searching for the man who killed his master, a poorly-motivated villain who sends ninjas, giant robots, and (apparently) penis monsters after the detective. Presumably, the detective solves mysteries in between sword fights, marking his triumphs with a heavily-accented and often inappropriate cry of “deductive reasoning”!

The movie’s real plot is the fictional backstory of the making of the TV show, told through interviews with the alleged cast, all of whom exclusively speak Japanese. The filmmakers introduce Takashi Takamoto, the dissolute narcissist and self-appointed genius behind the series, and Suttafu, the conglomerate trying to make a buck of the show’s sensationalism, along with a bitter rival and a J-pop love interest. In stark contrast to the campy re-enactments, this archival material is produced with a totally straight face, so that anyone who came in in the middle would be forgiven for thinking that “Top Knot”  was a real television show. The story of love affairs, Takamoto’s unhinged appearances on a talk show featuring an animated kitty, and tabloid scandals of a sort peculiar to Japan all ends in a murder. Like “Top Knot”‘s interrupted plotline, this crime isn’t fully resolved… although I have my theories. But while you ponder the mystery, stay tuned for another mind-boggling (fake) trailer post-credits.

If there’s one complaint to be lodged against Top Knot Detective, it’s that it plays up the whole damn-Japanese-TV-is-incomprehensibly-weird stereotype, encouraging cultural mockery rather than cultural engagement. But the project is presented with such genuine love and affection for the genre that this seems like a minor criticism indeed.

The grindhouse revival trend sparked ten years ago by and played itself out in the U.S. fairly quickly, but is still going strong in the underground Down Under. They definitely put their own odd, Aussie spin on the phenomenon. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a documentary celebrating the island’s homegrown exploitation industry, arrived in 2008. (who appears here as a talking head) made the Grindhouse-style fake “Italian Spiderman” trailer in 2007, and went on to co-write the insane Hitler-hunting TV series “Danger 5” (one season was done in the style of 1960s men’s magazines, the other as an 80s action movie), which graced TV screens in 2011 and 2015. Narrator Des Mangan is a real Australian television cult film presenter (and screenwriter of the campy 1993 throwback Hercules Returns, which scooped the revivalist genre by a couple decades). In other words, Australians know and love their outré exploitation, and appreciate it precisely for the qualities that make it weird. As one talking head sums up the appeal of “Top Knot”: “….the whole thing doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. When you watch a lot of media, watch a lot of movies and TV, you get bored, you get jaded, you’ve seen the same stuff over and over again, and you’re praying for some kind of weirdness, some kind of real lunacy to just grab you and shake you up and show you something new.” A better manifesto for the trash-oddity subgenre would be hard to script. These are our kind of people, folks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“McCann and Pearce make their feature directing debut with a wonderfully bizarre and almost mind-bogglingly complex meta-treatment on not only the delightful weirdness of ’70s Japanese cinema, but also the culture of rabid fandom that eats this stuff up.”–J. Hurtado, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)