Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: ODISSEA DELLA MORTE (2018)

AKA Valley of the Rats; Odyssey of Death

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Vince D’Amato

FEATURING: Jesse Onocalla, Momona Komagata, Lynne Lowry,  Tristan Risk

PLOT: A man has rented a limousine and travels around town talking with his associates as he tries to figure out who killed his girlfriend.

Still from Odissea Della Morte (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Amidst all the random shots of walking around, limo-bound conversations, and pseudo-BDSM, there is a quiet aura of nothingness going on. As there is virtually nothing doing in this movie, there is virtually nothing weird about it.

COMMENTS: With money, generally, comes a modicum of competence when it comes to filmmaking. The middle-to-big-budget movie you watch may not be particularly entertaining, but it’s at least technically well done. But low budget films are odd beasts. Some cost as much as a used economy car, and are unceasingly entertaining. Others, costing as much as a higher-end mid-budget sedan, are unceasingly tedious. To what end do I type all this garbled verbiage? My reason is twofold. First, I am somewhat frantically trying to think of what to write about Vince D’Amato’s Odissea Della Morte (translation probably not needed). Second, having begun the review in this stylistic manner, it occurs to me that it’s a fairly decent textual translation of Odissea‘s cinematic style.

Jesse (Jesse Onocalla) rides around in a limo, much to his friends’ bemusement, going on a bender while interviewing various people who saw his girlfriend (I don’t remember her name, it doesn’t matter) before she was murdered. While chewing over various evils of modern society in this mobile backdrop, various nonentities enter and exit the vehicle and make various unimportant observations. Intercutting these vignettes are shots of largely naked, occasionally gothed-out women doing ambiguously sexy things and photographing each other until the whole movie becomes this weird (!) and tedious dream thing that culminates in what is perhaps a twist.

I hope my record of reviews can attest to the fact that I am generally a very patient viewer who is eager to give every movie the fairest shake possible. The closest I’ve ever gotten to “cheating” for this website is with this movie. I did watch it, all of it, and even have some notes to prove I paid attention for portions of it. However, when your film’s two highlights are a brief conversation with an affable limo driver and some blandly cryptic remarks from an actress most famous for a small part in a movie known mostly for its theme song by David Bowie, your film is probably doomed, and no amount of T&A, canted angles, and color-to-black-and-white shifts can obscure that.

Forgive me, there was a third highlight: an aura of menace, a tied up woman threatened with a knife, and some beardo shouting, “I AM THE CITY!” in a way that made Jack Skellington‘s declaration of pumpkin-kingship seem altogether Shakespearean by comparison. That gave me a chuckle.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a love letter to the works of David Cronenberg and Jess Franco set to [D’Amato’s] unique take on the giallo film.”–Film Bizarro

CAPSULE: THE VELOCIPASTOR (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Brendan Steere

FEATURING: Greg Cohan, Alyssa Kempinski, Daniel Steere

PLOT: During a crisis of faith, Pastor Jones travels to China where he is cursed by an ancient dinosaur tooth; his newly found powers, and his crusade for righteousness, attract the attention of an international drug cartel with unlikely motives.

Still from The VelociPastor (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Steere’s campy intentions are clear throughout, and so it can’t fall into the “” category. The narrative is silly, the acting is silly, the effects are silly, and the priest is a were-velociraptor (which is silly). This movie feels like an audition video to join the production team.

COMMENTS: “Wild with fear, the Trachodon hurries toward the water. But its fat, hulking body can only move slowly. In two leaps, the King of Tyrants lands on its back. The giant’s head seems split apart as the great mouth opens and clamps shut on the Duckbill’s neck. The dagger-teeth crunch through bones and flesh like shears cutting paper. There is frantic thrashing for a time as the colossal beasts roll into the slippery muck. Then the Trachodon lies still. Its head hangs loosely, almost severed from the neck by six-inch teeth.” 1

There is a telling scene in The VelociPastor that distills the two things to bear in mind when (for whatever reason) you find yourself watching it. Attempting to learn about his condition, Pastor Doug Jones reads up on dinosaurs using Roy Chapman Andrew’s book, “All About Dinosaurs.” Originally published in 1953 (and read by yours truly in his more intellectual childhood days), this volume has absolutely nothing to say about velociraptors. When Doug’s mentor walks into the room to check on him, he covers the dinosaur book with the Bible, pretending to read that instead.

But as to those two things I mentioned: The VelociPastor is silly and pointless. I make no complaint that I’m out five bucks having rented this; at least its 70-minute runtime made it a quick bit of silliness. And, indeed, there were some funny lines. Coming to terms with his condition (through which, in case my oblique references and the title didn’t clue you in, he transforms into a velociraptor when angered), Pastor Jones talks to a hooker (who is, of course, working her way through law school), who encourages him to embrace his curse as a gift to help him rid the world of scum. She provides the caveat, “I know nothing about God.” He rejoins, “And I know nothing about dinosaurs.”.

The opening informational paragraph has been included to flesh out this review, as there isn’t much to say. VelociPastor is cute, but not great; it’s clever, but not very; and it’s good natured, but perhaps not worth $5 for 70-minutes. Some, I suspect, may have been hopeful (or fearful) that The VelociPastor might be nominated for Apocrypha status. Unfortunately, Brendan Steere has only proven that he can carry a premise most of the way through a minimal runtime. But I do feel I am on the hook for this franchise, I suppose: the promise of interminable, possible sequels concludes this ninja/samurai/drug-cartel/Catholic Church(?)/Methodist Church(?)/dinosaur saga. Frankly, I’m more curious as to whether the hooker finishes her degree.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pure ridiculousness on every level…  a bonkers film that never stops entertaining.”–Bobby Lepire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAD DETECTIVE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

FEATURING: Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin

PLOT: An insane detective with psychic abilities comes out of retirement to help with the case of a missing policeman whose gun has been used in several murders.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You’ll find the word “weird” thrown around a lot in regards to this movie; if you’re a longtime devotee of the genre, however, you’ll find Mad Detective resides at the low end of that scale. Once you get your feet under you and understand the rules of Detective Bun’s madness, you’ll find it to be little more than an entertaining police procedural/character study with a semi-supernatural gimmick.

COMMENTS: You would think that Detective Bun’s perfect record solving crimes using his psychic powers would make him an invaluable asset to the Hong Kong police department. Ultimately, however, his madman stunts, like attacking his fellow cops and cutting off his own ear as an impromptu present for a retiring superior officer, become too disruptive for the constabulary to tolerate, and he’s forcibly retired. But when a sticky case comes along, Bun’s preternatural sleuthing skills prove too great a temptation to resist, and a former partner tracks him down to pick his broken brain.

The underlying mystery in Mad Detective isn’t particularly convoluted; only the obscuring mist of Bun’s madness hides the solution. From the audience’s perspective, the confusing thing is that many of the characters that appear onscreen may only appear in Bun’s hallucinations, which can throw you off (at least momentarily, since the reality of the situation is almost immediately quickly resolved). You see, when Bun looks at someone, he sees not only their physical body, but also a manifestation of their personality made flesh. To add another twist, he also sometimes sees people who aren’t there at all. And his method of crime-solving requires him to spark his psychic abilities by recreating the crime in dangerous ways: if a victim was thrown down the stairs while packed in a suitcase, he zips himself up in a soft-sided luggage and has a partner throw him down a flight of stairs, emerging at the end with a “eureka!” Mad Detective works as a schizophrenic character study rather than a typical mystery or procedural—and it works exceptionally well. It even ends with a climax that manages to put a surreal new spin on the Lady from Shanghai-inspired hall-of-mirrors shootout. Good stuff.

Johnnie To (Drug War) is a prolific action director who’s one of the few remaining in Hong Kong to carry on the legacy of John Woo. Wai Ka Fai (who co-wrote the script) is better known as a screenwriter, but directs and produces films occasionally. I have no idea how the divided up the directorial duties here, but it seems likely that To handled the action-oriented set pieces. It’s a shame this movie didn’t start a franchise; To and Fai could have brought Bun back to solve an entire slate of bizarre cases (a la Detective Dee).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If the insanely inventive and entertaining ‘Mad Detective’ weren’t so weird — and in Cantonese — hordes of action geeks would be lining the block to see it.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by short film director Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LET MY PUPPETS COME (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Gerard Damiano

FEATURING:  Al Goldstein, , Viju Krem, Gerard Damiano

PLOT: A board room full of executives get into deep debt to a mobster named “Mr. Big,” so they decide to create a porno to earn the dough.

Still from Let My Puppets Come (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: After the shock of “puppet porn,” this movie runs out of steam really, really fast. It leaps off the platform of its premise and tumbles down the pit of mediocrity before it ever reaches for the trapeze swing to True Weirdness.

COMMENTS: A puppet porno, all mine to review? I cackled and sharpened my barbs. I prepared all my smart-ass observations: “When a puppet gets pregnant, why doesn’t the fetus fall out?” and “Technically, doesn’t all puppet sex count as a hand job?” and “How do you stay lubricated when you’re covered in felt?” Then I never got to use them, because this movie was just tragically unlucky. I don’t want to mock it, I want to treat it to an ice cream cone and pat it on the head and tell it “There there, it just wasn’t your time.” I rank “Making Puppets Edgy” right up there with “Perpetual Motion” and “Squaring The Circle” in the category of “Things That Never Work But People Never Stop Trying.” Between Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, the puppetry tag on this site alone goes on for three pages, which is two and a half pages longer than anybody needed. So of course you expect Let My Puppets Come to be a Feebles rip-off, until you find out that Puppets was, hot damn, the very first adult puppet movie! No really, wiki and weep. It even predated The Muppet Show, which debuted in September of that year. When you consider all this and view the movie in the context of 1976—Patty Hearst was on trial, Apple Computer was just founded, was still alive—Let My Puppets Come gets 100x bigger balls. Neutered ones, sadly.

The plot is a loose framework wherein three (puppet) business executives doing business things receive a telegram delivering bad business news: they owe a half million bucks to a mobster, “Mr. Big,” with no way to scare up the funds. The telegram delivery boy has a swell idea: make a groovy porn flick! The group speculates on what kinds of stories they want to do, with swirly transitions to fantasies. That’s the first thing to know about this movie: it’s a loosely connected series of sketches, even down to parodies of popular TV commercials of the time (a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, released the very next year). The structure makes it sleepy, despite the very first sex scene being between a puppet woman and her puppet dog, who seals the deal by reassuring her “I have all my shots.” (Hey, you bought a ticket to a puppet porn, it’s a little late to pretend you have standards now.) We swim along through more sketches, like a massage parlor and the canonical nurse-on-patient fantasy, all the porn standards. The gents frolic off to make their movie, recruiting from an adult toy shop clerk just so we can gawk at all the kinky novelties. There’s a Diana Ross stand-in, a Pinocchio stand-in, and a rip-off of the puppet character Madame.

All these scenes amount to exactly one lame joke each. A couple of them are funny, more of them are a groan, and the rest just die before they hit the floor. There’s random songs tossed in and multiple parodies of contemporary pop culture. The puppet sex is mostly puppet blowjobs, which take the form of clumsy duels between inflexible clam-shell lips and wobbly foam willies. I lost count after the third time the “William Tell Overture” was played over a sex scene to make it “funny.” There’s also original songs, all pleasant enough, but none of them show-stoppers. You get so used to looking at foam actors that when a real live go-go stripper shimmies onto the screen, it takes you a while to work out what’s wrong with her before it dawns on you that she’s made out of meat. In making a movie about characters making a porn movie, director Gerard Damiano gets in some good therapeutic role-playing to recover from the scandals around his infamous Deep Throat (1972). This extends right to the puppet directors being thrown into puppet jail for obscenity charges.  Damiano tastefully cuts his pillow-sobbing short to allow the movie an ending, which brings out Luis de Jesus as “Mr. Big,” and then wastes him.

Let My Puppets Come is not without its tacky, corny charm, but it’s a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. I am a proud supporter of pansexual freedom, and a dirty old pervert too, so I wanted to like this movie more. The puppetry is on-point, at least. Good puppetry takes time to film, which makes it all the sadder to see it go to waste. This movie is left without an audience. It’s too silly for Vanillas to consider sexy, and doesn’t get nearly freaky enough to arouse the kinky, despite the puppet-on-human spanking scene. It isn’t funny enough to work as a comedy, doesn’t have enough songs to qualify as a musical, and isn’t even campy enough to get a cult following when the opportunity is practically handed to it. The poor thing is so ambitious that it sabotages its own mission. Had Let My Puppets Come just relaxed and been happy with what it is, it could have been a cult classic.

For the record: There’s various cuts of the film with time-spans ranging from 40-75 minutes. The full, uncut version is now available on a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which means you’ll no longer have to resort to the low-res pirated version on PornHub (which is how I originally saw it). I love my career.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for [Damiano’s] 1976 feature film Let My Puppets Come, an XXX film where the main characters are puppets…. truly one of XXX cinema’s most unique films.”–Cliff Wood, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)

REPORT: MIDSOMMAR DIRECTOR’S CUT (2019)

First, the bottom line: if you saw Midsommar (review) in its original summer run, there’s no pressing need to revisit it so soon. In all likelihood you’ll barely even notice the new director’s cut material. If you missed it the first time around and a theater near you is showing it, however, this is a nice opportunity to catch the summer’s sunniest folk horror on the big screen. (Apparently, the only other way to see the extended cut will be via Apple TV beginning on September 24, where it will screen exclusively—for the time being, at least.)

Midsommar (2019) Promotional imageAs far as what’s new: twenty five minutes of restored material is not a lot, but it pushes the overall runtime to a taxing 2 hours 50 minutes. The additions change nothing significant, and maybe in one case blunt the film’s impact. Some of the early scenes, such as the trip from Stockholm to the Hårga commune, are extended for character development purposes. Christian, Josh and Mark all come off worse.  There are also a few additional scenes of pagan rites.

The most noteworthy departure occurs when the commune stages another pageant, but this time set during the few hours of midsummer darkness. The ritual itself is effective, playing with our expectations, but will only surprise those who didn’t see the theatrical cut. It’s followed by an explosive argument between Christian and Dani, which I think was too on-the-nose, and likely a minor mistake. The movie works better when we glimpse the rift between them as just a hairline for as long as possible, making the final crack more devastating. I appreciate the appearance of a nighttime scene, which dramatically breaks the film’s sunshine motif, almost exactly at the film’s midpoint; but the payoff doesn’t justify such a dramatic formal departure.

Overall, I think the extended version proves that the cuts the studio requested of writer/director were wisely chosen. Given the choice, I’d save twenty-five minutes and watch the shorter theatrical cut.

The bigger question, I think, is why did A24 bother to re-release Midsommar to theaters at all? They aren’t going to squeeze enough juice out of this specialty berry to pass Avengers: Endgame in the all-time receipts race. I think it signals one of two things: either Aster’s two hits for the studio have given him enough pull to dictate programming strategy (maybe he made the extended theatrical release a condition for accepting the requested cuts); or, A24 thinks that they have a long-shot awards season contender on their hands (Florence Pugh), and want to keep Midsommar fresh in the minds of critics. I’m going with the second explanation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Most of the additional footage serves to reiterate or unpick points that landed better as hints and asides.”–Ryan Gibley, The Guardian

“…the newly released Extended Cut expounds on the misery felt by both members of the couple and allows a deeper glimpse into the alien culture they are drawn into.”–Brad Gullickson, Film School Rejects

CAPSULE: DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964)

Démanty noci 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera

PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.

Still from Diamonds of the Night (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the . Nemec would deliver better films.

COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”

This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).

The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.

In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.

Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IRON SKY: THE COMING RACE (2019)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lara Rossi, Kit Dale, Vladimir Burlakov, Tom Green, Renate Richter, Udo Kier

PLOT: In 2047, humanity’s last survivors cower in the crumbling Moon base after nuclear holocaust; to save the species, Obi must journey to back to Earth to find a mystical power source.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Hitting about a ten on my ridiculosometer, Vuorensola’s follow-up to his unexpected 2012 hit digs deep into a bag of outlandish premises; it’s often hilarious, and quite fun, but not weird. Just… silly. Really, really silly.

COMMENTS: Whatever other qualities Timo Vuorensola has, he’s a great salesman. With his not-quite-debut Iron Sky, he made a pitch to investors that a movie about Moon Nazis was a viable project. Having established his own universe to play around in, he tops himself thematically and financially with the sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Not content to rest on his laurels and just have the Nazis regroup, he dives into the “Hollow Earth” myth and concocts an origin of species theory whose only time-spanning equal might be Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus.

Renate Richter’s daughter Obi (Lara Rossi) works tirelessly to keep a decrepit Moon base operational while a Steve Jobs cult hoards the facility’s scant resources. Led by their charismatic preacher, Donald (Tom Green, with scene-stealing deadpan), the Jobsists demand the perfection of a “closed system.” Obi’s mother is an acolyte, but she is dying —and her cure lies in an unlikely place. Crazy-Russian-Stereotype Sasha (Vladimir Burlakov) literally crashes onto the scene with some Earth refugees and his ship enables Obi to go on a mission at the behest of the erstwhile Mondführer (Udo Kier, again) to retrieve a powerful vessel containing “Vril-Ya”. And so, with Donald, Sasha, and beefcake Malcom (Kit Dale), Obi rigs the Russian’s clapped-out vessel for a final journey … to the Center of the Earth!

I’ll spare you more plot rehashing to segue now into just what it is Vuorensola is trying to do here: everything he can. There are explosions, chase scenes, cults, backstabbings, and Vril-Hitler on an allosaurus. Whatever enthusiasm Udo Kier lacked in the first movie, he makes up for with his double role as a pair of ancient alien brothers who… ah, but that’s some more plot. There’s just so much plot in this movie, and while the rational part of my brain knows that this isn’t a good thing, the softer side of my brain laughed loudly very regularly. This movie pokes fun at everything: iPhone advocates (the send-up of the iconic “1984” Apple commercial is a treat), conspiracy theorists, blockbuster classics (including, but not limited to, The Planet of the Apes and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade), Vladimir Putin… Like a young Mel Brooks with half the talent but twice the sense of urgency, Vuorensola just does not stop.

I wouldn’t want to risk this site’s credibility by slapping a ” label on this, but I haven’t had so much fun watching a movie in quite a while. A caveat, though, is that I can easily turn my brain off as the situation demands: if you go into this movie thinking, you’ll think I’m some sort of idiot for enjoying it. But Tom Green was great as a silly-sinister cult leader, Kit Dale somehow managed to make his “red shirt” death wish boy scout both funny and charismatic, and Udo Kier just felt right as dinosaur-riding Hitler. Of course there’s a set up for a third installment, and I look forward to seeing what nonsense they get up to on Mars. Catch you on the Red Planet, comrade.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This better-funded, more lavish sequel seeks to be equally engaging and wacky, but the result is an incoherent if well-made mess that will find most favour with the more fervent devotees of ‘trash’ cinema.”–Dave Aldridge, Radio Times (contemporaneous)