Your faithful correspondent has returned from the field with reports on two offbeat festival films…

Still from The Last Circus (2010)Alex de la Iglesia bolsters his already fine cult film résumé (Acción Mutante, The Day of the Beast) with this b-movie styled action/melodrama that’s also an allegory for the Spanish Civil War. The movie’s best sequence is the prologue, where the Republican army conscripts a circus troupe into emergency action (“a clown with a machete—you’ll scare the s**t out of them”!) Flash forward to 1973, when the embittered son of one of the Shanghaied carnies embarks upon a career as a “Sad Clown,” but is immediately smitten by a beautiful trapeze artist. Unfortunately for him, the acrobat Natalia is the personal property of the “Happy Clown,” a psychotic, drunken woman-beater who just happens to be great with kids. The two mountebanks’ working relationship quickly turns sour as they take turns beating the greasepaint off each other in a brutal rivalry that eventually leaves both of them mutilated and insane. Which mad harlequin will Natalia choose? The Spanish Civil War angle is simplistic and neither adds nor subtracts from the narrative, which starts as a tawdry carnival melodrama and morphs into an action movie with a high-flying, clown-mauling showdown atop a giant cross. A few Sad Clown dream sequences–he keeps seeing his dead father and archival footage of Spanish pop singer Raphael singing a vintage ballad in clownface—add nominal weirdness, but these touches aren’t pervasive enough to raise the film above the level of aggressively offbeat. Still, there are those who are going to want to check out any film where an insane jester uses lye, an iron, and some clerical vestments to improvise his own clown costume, then steals a cache of automatic weapons and walks the streets of Madrid armed to the teeth with homicidal gleam in his eye. One final note: my movie-going companion was disappointed in the lack of variety in the clown-on-clown violence; he had been hoping to see a wide variety of Bozos brutalizing each other in an all-out melee. So be forewarned—if you consider two killer clowns too few, this Circus is not for you.

THE LAST CIRCUS [Balada Triste de Trompeta] (2010). Dir. Álex de la Iglesia, Featuring Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, .

Rainbows EndIf The Last Circus is edgy, Rainbows End occupies the opposite end of the offbeat spectrum—it’s whimsical. Ostensibly a documentary about six east Texas eccentrics on a road trip to California to pursue a motley assortment of dreams, it’s also one of the funniest movies yours truly has had the privilege of checking out in 2011. It’s the characters who drive the bus in this episodic feature—and in this case that bus needs a push start, leaks radiator fluid, and at times is literally held together with duct tape. Psychobilly band Country Willie and the Cosmic Debris, headed to San Francisco to record with their idol the Legendary Stardust Cowboy on instruments made out of salvaged parts from exploded space shuttle Columbia (for that “spacey” sound), make up the core of the traveling companions. Filmmaker Eric Hueber is the drummer and wisely keeps himself out of the limelight in favor of his more, ahem, “interesting” companions. Bandleader Country Willie is obsessed with space country punk music, and seems legitimately nonplussed as to how kids can play baseball when they’ve never heard of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He’s not quite as odd as guitarist Zack, though, a green-haired Johnny Rotten-type admitted into the band based on his ability to smash guitars. Zach’s also a math prodigy who lectures us on Hilbert spaces. But these two aren’t as strange as the three cockamamie roadies. Peter, a self-proclaimed one-man-band—basically a karaoke singer with no sense of pitch or rhythm and a mild speech impediment—failed his audition as a vocalist for the Cosmic Debris, but was invited to tag along and perform as the opening act. Elderly gay baton twirler Audrey puts his parade experience to work entertaining at the shows; he’s heading to LA to take free Internet classes at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. And while Audrey is strange and endearing, it’s driver/mechanic “Birdman,” an unexpectedly charming cockfighter with a gift for gab and an ambition to place a couple of his killer roosters in Hollywood productions, who steals the spotlight. Most of the monologues are so relentlessly funny (helped along by Don Morrow’s ironic narration: “cockfighting: a sport now considered barbaric by people who eat chicken”) that you assume this is a scripted mockumentary, but Hueber insists that it’s all for real. I could buy that, except for the fact that the movie Birdman is hoping to get his battling bantams cast in is called Cock Heat and concerns a Nazi plan to breed a super-race of rooster assassins. That bit of excessive tomfoolery tips their hand, to me. Officially, the movie is listed in press releases as a “documentary-narrative hybrid” or as a story told in a “documentary style;” I suspect it’s a legitimate doc with some embellishments (one online estimate posits a mix of 95% documentary, 5% tall tale—but I hope it really is true that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is the only recording artist ever to have his music banned in space). Whatever the accuracy level, Rainbows End at the very least rates a “win” for giving us a fighting-bird handler who’s even more unforgettable than Warren Oates in Cockfighter. It’s not “100% weird,” as the Dallas Film Festival synopsis implies (amateurs should never try to read the notoriously tricky Weirdometer—Rainbows End barely noses over the 55% mark), but as an unexpected comic gem and a warmhearted celebration of human eccentricity, it’s worth your attention. Here’s hoping it gets a distribution deal.

Rainbows End (2010). Dir. Eric Heuber. Featuring Hueber, Brian “Birdman” Birdwell, Audrey Dean, Peter Guzzino, “Country” Willie Edwards, Zach Jones

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