CAPSULE: BIG RIVER MAN (2009)

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DIRECTED BY: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch

FEATURING: Martin Strel, Borut Strel

PLOT: Slovenian Martin Strel is 53, overweight, and a functional alcoholic; he’s also the world’s greatest endurance swimmer, and this documentary follows his attempt to set a new world record by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River.

Still from Big River Man (2009)

COMMENTS: I’ll save you a quick trip to Wikipedia: as unlikely as it seems, Martin Strel is real. Watching Big River Man, you may assume it must be a mockumentary; it doesn’t seem possible that such a character could exist. For one thing, how can he maintain his magnificently paunchy physique while swimming ten hours a day? (Two bottles of wine per night helps, as do healthy servings of horseburgers, when he can get them). Nevertheless, the record books show that Strel, who took up endurance swimming in his forties, has swam the length of the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, in his crowning achievement, the world’s second-longest river, the Amazon, as chronicled here.

Unknown to most of the world outside of swimming circles, Strel is a huge celebrity in his native Slovenia, where he’s so famous that (according to Borut, his son and publicist) the cops let him drive drunk. Before taking up swimming, he was a professional gambler, and when not swimming he teaches flamenco guitar, does ads for McDonalds, acts in Slovenian action movies, and buddies around with his pal, America’s ambassador to Slovenia (who looks the other way when Martin tells Borut to steal a bag of dinner rolls). Also, should he ever give up competitive swimming, he would to have a promising career as a competitive eater. Martin is bigger than life; he tests the limits of the widescreen format.

Documentaries are tough sells as weird movies. By necessity, they are always based in reality. The best they can do is to explore an eccentric topic, and sometimes play around with the form. Big River Man definitely profiles an odd subject in Martin Strel, who is even stranger than he sounds on page. There’s a sense that he’s not all there even when we first meet him, and he only gets odder as he progresses downriver. He has to deal with the pounding Amazon sun, which forces him adopt an Elephant Man-style mask; parasites, including a fish that purportedly swims up the urethra; and, most significantly, his own deteriorating health, both physical and mental. He hires an amateur navigator, who gets infected by Martin’s insanity and assigns the swimmer a messianic status. Meanwhile, Borut tries to hold the expedition together and keep his father alive. The co-directors capture a bit of Martin’s madness with some well-crafted montages, and even include a dose of psychedelic imagery, something rarely seen in documentaries. Also of note is an eclectic soundtrack that steers away from South American music in favor of classical selections and a sprinkle of tracks from the gravelly voices of and Howlin’ Wolf. The result is a trip downriver that often feels like a real-life version of a jungle fever epic. You’ll be left to wonder: is Martin Strel an inspiration to humanity, or just a man swimming away from his demons as fast as he can?

If you can’t get enough of Martin and Borat, the Indiepix DVD includes almost a half-hour of outtakes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strel is one strange duck, and you can only wonder that Werner Herzog, with his fondness for captivating weirdos, didn’t get to him first.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Rory,” who said it was “definitely worth a shout – horse-eating Slovenian alcoholic loses mind whilst trying to swim the length of the amazon. Even if it’s not weird enough it’s a must-see.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A SHIP OF HUMAN SKIN (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, Ike Duncan, Cameron McElyea

PLOT: Jeanie, an aimless young woman, is arrested after she murders a man with an axe; a cult of personality forms around her after a prison guard claims to see her levitating.

Still from A Ship of Human Skin (2019)

COMMENTS: I always appreciate it when an independent film is aware of the limitations of its budget, and opts to make use of those limitations to enhance its atmosphere and themes.

Such is, for the most part, the case with Richard Bailey’s A Ship of Human Skin. The film is very minimalist in its presentation; the cast is small, and the sets are limited (the film gets a great deal of mileage out of some gorgeous shots of the Texas landscape, and a fifteen-minute sequence that covers several months of Jeannie’s life is shot entirely in a single room). However, this minimalism lines up well with the narrative, which follows a pair of young women who feel isolated and frustrated by their monotonous lives in “the boonies.” By confining these characters to a sparse handful of backdrops and surrounding them with only a small group of people, the film directly evokes the protagonists’ sense of seclusion, and of having been “handed over from birth into emptiness.”

Of course, thanks to its constrained budget, there are also aspects of the film that feel underdeveloped. Ship suggests that Jeannie has amassed a cult-like following. However, its limited resources mean that it can only convey this mass fascination through a few scenes of a small number of secondary characters discussing her supposedly mystical nature. While we’re frequently told that Jeannie is as a messianic figure, it’s an element which doesn’t feel substantial. Instead, the central focus is on studying Jeannie as a character, as well as the environment in which the murder she commits takes place. We examine her dispassionate attitude to societal convention that ultimately leads her to an unhappy life of prostitution and dope-dealing; and we’re shown how, despite her lack of education, she is sharp-minded in her own way, with opinions on such matters as personal identity and the internalized significance of particular words. It’s an overall engaging look at a character who, neglected by society, is forced to channel her considerable intelligence into seeking meaning in abstract concepts and alternative belief systems, which leads her down a path of paranoia that ultimately drives her to violence.

Of course, a character-driven film depends upon a strong cast; but A Ship of Human Skin is middling in that regard. The cast consists mostly of unknowns, and a good number of them carry their roles well (Hannah Weir, in particular, does a largely excellent job of bringing out the meek and rather simple, yet fiercely loyal personality of Jeannie’s close friend Saribeth). However, Hilly Holsonback, who plays Jeannie—while not a bad actress by any means—does not quite exude the fierce charisma and conviction that Jeannie is treated as possessing. Nevertheless, she bears through the film’s emotional climaxes relatively well, and manages to convey the character in her more subdued moments.

The film plays fast and loose with its presentation, alternating between styles of a documentary and a theatrical narrative. All the way through, however, it maintains a deliberately slow pace and dreamlike atmosphere, further emphasizing the slow and monotonous existence that the main characters endure—which, in turn, inspires their drug-fueled search for significance in the abstract philosophies that they create for themselves. Much like the secondary characters who introduce us to Jeannie, we are made to feel very much like curious outsiders looking in on Jeannie’s life, knowing only vague details at first, and slowly piecing together the mindset and circumstances that drove her to violence. Truth be told, the ultimate explanation for Jeannie’s actions ends up anticlimactic and mundane in comparison with the strong air of mystery that the film builds around it; but nonetheless, it is set up well, lending the film an unusual combination of surrealism and logical progression.

A Ship of Human Skin is first and foremost a character study. It does an admirable job of balancing a haunting atmosphere of dreamlike minimalism with a refreshing look at the path that intelligent but disaffected young women like Jeannie can be forced down. There are aspects that could have been built up or ironed out; but overall, Richard Bailey’s feature-length directorial debut shows a resourcefulness and a talent for evoking a strong atmosphere that will surely serve him well in any future forays into weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Problem is, these girls cannot act and it comes off as unintended comedy… Before we get to them, the film starts off in cheesy poetry done by a weird G-Man impersonation…  if you are a fan of fun-bad movies like The Room, or more closely, Fateful Findings, you will have ‘Decent’ enjoyment with A Ship of Human Skin. For everyone who wants to watch a good thriller about drug abuse, there’s a million better options out there, trust me!”–Pond’s Press (festival screening)

AMAZON PRIME WATCH PARTY POLL

Here’s the poll to vote in our first weird Amazon Prime watch party, scheduled for Saturday, July 18, at 10:15 PM EST. If you plan on virtually attending, please vote for the movie we’ll be watching below. We’ll screen the movie that gets the most votes. Your host, Gregory J. Smalley, will personally break any ties. Note that unlike our other polls, you can only vote once. Poll closes at midnight EST on Thursday, July 16. You may vote for multiple movies, but not for every movie (because that would be pointless).

Now vote!


CAPSULE: HEARTBEEPS (1981)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: Bernadette Peters, Andy Kaufman, Randy Quaid, Kenneth McMillan, and voices of Jack Carter and Ron Gans

PLOT: Two humanoid robots from the “GM” factory get distracted by the view of the outdoors seen from their storage repair bay, and head out to explore the woods.

COMMENTS: There is an insurmountable, glaring problem with the movie Heartbeeps, in the form of an animal designation by “Val” (Andy Kaufman). Ostensibly a stocks/bonds/accountant-bot, he misidentifies a forest predator that any stocks/bonds/account-bot (human or otherwise) would know: a bear. There is a bear, in a bear cave. Stocks/bonds/accountant-bots would know what a bear is: they would be programmed with the knowledge of a “Bear Market,” and as such have an awareness of the underlying animal. But, no: Val identifies the bear as a “camel.”

Were it not for this glaring flaw in the scriptwriting, Heartbeeps would… still be utterly terrible! My word, I cannot express how drawn-out this movie felt at only seventy-eight damn minutes. I have always been suspicious of Bernadette Peters (who played “Aqua”, the lady-bot), so now if anyone waxes eloquent about her in my presence, I’ll finally have some tangible ammo. I’d be hard on Andy Kaufman, too, but considering much of his shtick was pushing the audience to hate him, I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.

Let me see, let me see…something worthwhile in this wreck of robot-isms, family creation/bonding, junkyard nerds, and a psychotic ED-209/Dalek hybrid law-enforcement “Crimebuster” tank-bot… Ah yes, almost something: every time the synth music cranked up for the Crimebuster robot, it almost sounded like it might segue into ELO’s version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” But it never quite did, and so I was left disappointed—much like I was during the rest of the movie.

All right, there was one actually worthwhile element: Randy Quaid was pretty good, despite being limited to the secondary pursuit-of-wandering-robot-family story line. So, maybe eight salvageable minutes. But being 10% bearable is too low a bar; or as Val might say, “camelable”.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heartbeeps… is a three-minute television sketch stretched to last nearly 90 unbearable minutes and fitted out with enough futuristic hardware to stock a short trailer for a science-fiction film.” -Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “John,” who, perhaps facetiously, called it “strongly recommended.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

AMAZON PRIME WATCH PARTY #1: INTEREST CHECK & NOMINATIONS

With the announcement that Amazon Prime is joining the Watch Party bandwagon, the catalog of available movies for us to communally screen just grew significantly. In our streaming service interest check poll, Prime even slightly beat Netflix, so we’re going to try it out. Since not everyone has both services, we won’t be abandoning Netflix; as of now, we’re provisionally planning to alternate weeks between the two.

The procedure will be the same as with our Netflix parties: we’re looking for five people (not counting your host G. Smalley) to comment on this post if you are interested in attending. Likely attendees may also make a nomination from the Amazon Prime catalog for a movie to watch. After we cross the five attendees threshold, we’ll put up a poll with all the nominations and start voting to select which film we’ll screen. The Watch Party will tentatively be scheduled for Saturday, July 18 at 10:15 PM ET; feel free to suggest a different time in the comments.

Amazon Prime’s catalog of movies is larger (and less exclusive) than Netflix’s. Ed Dykhuizen’s availability spreadsheet is a good resource to check for Canonically Weird movies (look for ones marked “free w/ Prime” in the “Amazon” column). Or, do your own research and come up with a title from Amazon. Eligible movies will have a “watch party” button on their Amazon page. You must be a Prime subscriber; you don’t have to download an extension or additional software.

We will not provide tech support; you’re on your own. Help each other. Since this is our first try with this service, there may be bumps in the road.

When the party is set to begin we’ll announce it in three places:

  • On this site (if you’ve signed up for regular email alerts via the sidebar you’ll also get a notice that way)
  • On our Facebook page
  • On Twitter

Now, RSVP and make your nominations in the comments below.

366’S NETFLIX PARTY, “WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY,” STARTS IN 15 MINUTES

As the title states, our latest Netflix Party—Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)—starts in fifteen minutes.

Please install the Netflix Party extension if you haven’t already. You must have a U.S. Nextflix account (we think) and a Chrome-based browser (including Brave) to participate.

There will be no pausing or rewinding except for technical reasons.

We are offering no technical support, so help each other out if needed.

Here is the link to join: https://www.netflix.com/watch/60020949?npSessionId=6abaf7d863ee67f9&npServerId=s65

Be sure to click on the red Netflix Party icon to sync up and join the chat room.

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