CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

In the late 1950s movie star Errol Flynn owned a movie theater in Havana. Not the beautifully chiseled Flynn from The Adventures of Robin Hood, but a fat 50 year old has-been, yellowed with cirrhosis, eaten up with syphilis and dodging numerous creditors, including the IRS, with his latest teen age girlfriend: fourteen year old Beverly Aadland. Flynn, probably feeling his self-fulfilled hour (which predictably came shortly after) wanted to sow his macho oats one last time in the thick of the Cuban revolution (clearly, he wasn’t up to it).

Flynn, with Producer Victor Pahlen, made this pseudo-documentary about Flynn’s meeting Castro, although this meeting is only seen in photographs.

The film proclaims Flynn a sympathizer with Castro’s Batista Regime (paradoxically, he was also posthumously charged with being a fascist sympathizer during WWII). Most likely, this was a feeble effort, on the part of Pahlen and Flynn, to cash in on being in the right place at the right time.

Cuban Story [AKA The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution] was only screened once, in Moscow, and disappeared until Pahlen’s daughter released it the early 2000s. This utterly bizarre film begins with Flynn drunkenly narrating (more like a strained slur), from a cheap office, something about “freedom fighters.” Flynn, with long cigarette hanging from his mouth, picks up a globe to show viewers “‘where Cuba is” and then throws the globe off camera. It can be heard bouncing off the wall. The remaining film narration (credited to Flynn, although it clearly is not) is frequently incoherent, pro-Castro, and pro-terrorist.

According to Pahlen’s film, Flynn made his way through the heart of the revolution to meet Castro, but the only footage of the extremely soused, dissipated Flynn is of his escorting women into one of George Raft’s casinos, to gamble with them and Beverly. The rest of the film is a collage of seemingly unrelated, and often shocking, but historically valuable footage. Silent images of slain “comrades” and the savage killing of young men in the streets as Batista police casually observe are unsettling.

Cuban Story is redeeming in its historical value and its unintentional strangeness, both in Continue reading CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

CAPSULE: GRACE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Solet

FEATURING: Jordan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Stephen Park

PLOT: A mother gives birth to a stillborn baby girl after a car wreck leaves her young family dead. The baby, however, comes back to life shortly after she is born. Unfortunately, the infant girl, with her proclivity to attract flies and drink human blood, is far from what her mother expected from parenthood.

Still from Grace (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are sequences in Grace that approach a state of uncomfortable strangeness, but too often the movie subverts itself and stews in its own conformity by sticking to horror conventions. By the time there’s a chance for a chance for what might have been a truly remarkable climax, the film has devolved into a maternal instincts cat-and-mouse thriller of sorts.

COMMENTS: Out of the gate, Grace has a strong concept that needs to be applauded. The undead-baby market has been virtually untapped, and I’m glad someone finally “went there.” The indie horror circuit has buzzed about writer and director Paul Solet as the next big thing, and this, his feature-length debut, is a notable entry amidst the middling horror releases this year. This is a strong film that is fresh, fairly terrifying, and smarter than one might think.

Grace’s complicated spirit masks itself in familiar trappings. It has an intellectual mindset, full of surprisingly difficult questions about a myriad of issues: veganism, lesbianism, midwives, maternal instincts, and coping with loss. And while we don’t always know where the filmmakers stand on said issues, posing the questions is intriguing enough. The ideas revolve around the modern family, and its new-found complexities in the 21st century coalescing with the timeless trials of parenthood. We witness complex relationships where people are intertwined in ways that are hard to understand, and at times hard to take; this is a movie where a woman asks her husband to suck her breast like he was a baby out of maternal grief for her dead son!

But in the end, it chickens out quietly and ends up being a horror movie like all the rest. The plot untangles rather quickly as we shift from a particularly nasty mother-daughter relationship to a thriller involving a mother-in-law off her rocker. In a brief 87 minutes, we’re back to basics, with only a hint of weird lying around as a memento in the form of Grace, a somewhat zombified child. What could have been something remarkable is instead just good, and while it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, I was really looking for something more from a film that proposed such interesting ideas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a horror movie but not a simple genre widget. That it’s rooted in reality gives its strange images the power to disturb. Even its environment is unusual, informed by women’s studies and alternative medicine.”-Michael Ordona, LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Uwe Boll

FEATURING: Jonathan Cherry, Ona Grauer, Clint Howard,

PLOT: Teenagers go to the Isle of the Dead for the “rave of the century,” but ravenous killing machines from somewhere within the zombie genus spoil the party.

Still from House of the Dead (2003)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Uwe Boll’s weirdest idea is to periodically insert brief, totally unrelated clips from the “House of the Dead” video game into fight scenes in the House of the Dead movie. It’s not enough of a gambit to make this into a truly weird experience, but combined with the film’s transcendental, comic dumbness, it’s enough to make it an interesting curiosity.

COMMENTS: I think the people who have voted House of the Dead into the IMDB bottom 100 movies are too hung up on little things like believable characters, continuity, acting that doesn’t embarrass the performers, and dialogue that respects the intelligence of the target audience. Those are fine qualities in, say, a movie about a poor seamstress who falls in love with a consumptive poet in 19th century England, but they’re just window dressing in a movie about pumping as many bullets into the heads of as many zombies as possible in 90 minutes. Uwe Boll understands this, and, with an honesty that proved too brutally revealing for the 2003 movie watching public to handle, he delivered an experience in House of the Dead that’s the equivalent of sitting in front of a video game screen for an hour and a half, watching blood spatter, without even having to frantically press buttons for the gory payoff. I could say many uncharitable things about the inessential technical qualities of House of the Dead, but I can’t say that I was ever bored watching it, or that it reminded me of any other film in existence. The unbelievable seven minute centerpiece alone should save it from being listed among the worst movies of all time. Set to a relentless rap/metal metronome meant only to pump adrenaline, not generate suspense, it features photogenic, scantily-clad teens grabbing a cache of automatic weapons and slaughtering legions of living dead extras while Boll experiments with Matrix-style “bullet time” effects. Blood spatters; heads explode; college girls in low-cut, skintight American flag jumpsuits reveal ninja-quality melee skills; grenade blasts fling bodies through the air; guns inexplicably change from rifles to pistols in the blink of an eye. All the while, video game footage flashes onscreen, complete with health bars and “free play” notices.

There’s an energy and misplaced love of brain-dead action moviemaking here that’s brilliant, in its own way. It’s as effective a parody of the first-person shooter mentality as will ever be committed to celluloid. Add in shameless gratuitous nudity and pepper with headscratching verbal exchanges (“You did all this to become immortal.  Why?” “To live forever!”) and you have a movie that is unforgettable in its stupidity.

If you gave this exact same material to a competent hack like Michael Bay, he would work it over, smoothing out the rough patches of dialogue and continuity errors and polishing it to a dull, marketable, mediocre sheen. Given a modicum of acceptable storytelling and a surface appearance of competence, audiences wouldn’t feel so insulted—although the joke would be on them, since at bottom the result would be just as dumb. I much prefer the rough-hewn, all-too-human character of Boll’s work, which is at least interesting in its flaws.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cheese of the purest stripe, bafflingly bad to the point of being oddly charming in its brain-dead naivete.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: POWDER (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Victor Salva

FEATURING: Sean Patrick Flanery, , ,

PLOT: A supernaturally gifted teen misfit fights against the grain when he is forcibly integrated into a backward community.

Still from Powder (1995)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  A strange blend of fantasy and drama, Powder has shadings of The Enigma of Casper Hauser (1975), Carrie (1976), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

COMMENTS: In a situation reminiscent of Casper Hauser’s enigma in the 1975 film, Jeremy Reed (Flanery) is discovered sequestered in his grandmother’s basement upon her death in a podunk Texas town. A bright, sensitive boy, he has been raised without contact with the outside world, with which he is acquainted only through books. He happens to be albino, and not just like Edgar Winter—he is mime white.

Additionally, he is hairless. Because of his unsettling appearance he attracts the unbecoming nickname “Powder.”  He also attracts static electricity. His father rejected him because of his appearance; his grandparents sheltered him. Contact with the outside world is novel and very troublesome for Powder, and for those who meet him.

The film opens with his premature birth after his mother is struck by lightning. This turns out to be foreshadowing: concepts of electricity and energy are dispersed throughout the film. Powder’s body exudes an interactive electromagnetic field. Wristwatches run backward when he’s upset, televisions overload with static, electronic devices run haywire. In a discussion with his teacher, the instructor tells Powder that Einstein allegedly said he wasn’t sure death exists, because energy never ceases to exist, and that if man ever reaches a point where he can use all of his brain, he would be pure energy and not need a body. This catches Powder’s attention.

Powder is still a minor, and not exactly the picture of conformity. Ideally, he needs to be in a progressive, tolerant environment; so, of course, the local authorities lock him up in a violent rural boys’ home that’s more reform school than orphanage. As one can imagine, he is welcomed with open arms by the crude, hostile ruffians. Well, not exactly; they harass and torment him incessantly, with murder in their collective eye.

While he is a ward of the state, two staffers played by Steenburgen and Goldblum try to help him. Powder takes aptitude tests. His unusually high scores indicate that he has a profound intellect, but nobody believes it. His test results are challenged by a panel of  hostile state goons. Meanwhile, the bullies in the state boys home discover that he can defend himself with telekinetic electromagnetic powers.

Like a faith healer, Powder cures a dying woman. This development adds a religious element to the film that complicates efforts to comprehend Powder’s true nature. While his in vitro exposure to lightning bestowed him with electromagnetic powers, he has other abilities as well, including psychic ones. Difficult to classify and out of his element, Powder is like a stranded alien.

As Powder and the confused, disturbed locals continue to clash, the chasm between them grows wider. Many are awed by and fearful of his unusual talents. All Powder wants to do is go home and live in seclusion. He escapes the group home and tries to return, but his family property has been foreclosed upon. Some town officials encourage him to run away, others want him back in the boys’ home.

Near the end of the story there’s a suggestion that Powder is just too unique for this world; he’s portrayed like a Christ figure. It is dubious that this is really what the filmmakers had in mind. Powder is a science fiction fantasy about nonconformity and social rejection, not a religious allegory.

Like the title character of ‘s Carrie, Powder is gifted and different, ostracized and misunderstood. Powder, however, does not take a spectacular revenge based on his seething resentment. Instead, he strives and strives to escape somehow, always trying to find a away to transcend his dilemma.

The conflicts, uncertainty, tension and turmoil come to a flashpoint when a huge thunderhead approaches the town and Powder rushes into the storm. In a spectacular cinematic sequence, many uncertain elements of Powder’s riddle merge in an unexpected way that is unconventionally conclusive and magical.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine Edward Scissorhands under the control of a mainstream director rather than someone offbeat and eccentric like Tim Burton. The result would have been just another motion picture about a prototypical misfit trying to find his niche — a movie with a lot of manipulation and too many easy answers. Powder is such a film.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

What’s up with Netflix?  They tell me the #1 movie in my queue, Ink, which I desperately wanted to review for next week, is available NOW.  Then, they send me the #2 movie in my queue instead.  So, you won’t get that Ink review this week.   Instead, you’ll get a review of Powder, as well as that great double-feature that gets to the heart of Havana soul, Cuban Story and Cuban Rebel Girls.  Throw in some mix of reviews of Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, Absurdistan, Richard Kelly’s The Box, and the undead baby flick Grace, and you’ve got yourself a week.

As for the weirdest search term used to locate the site this week, we’ll go with “www.doctor.assess.movies.com.”   I can only guess that the searcher was looking for a very specific website of film reviews by a M.D.; sadly, it doesn’t seem to exist.  Hope you liked our site instead.

In related news, we’re proud to say that last week we came up #1 on Google for the popular search term, “weirdest sex movies.”  Surely people searching for that phrase are hoping to find descriptions of Lucia y el Sexo and Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay.  It marks a refreshing change from all the people who accidentally stumble on the site looking for porn.

Here’s the depressingly long reader review queue: Greaser’s Palace (substituted for Institute Benjamenta), Waking Life, Survive Style 5+, The Dark Backward, The Short Films of David Lynch, Santa Sangre, Dead Man, Inland Empire, Monday (assuming I can find an English language version), The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Barton Fink, What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams), Meatball Machine, Xtro, Basket Case, Suicide Club, O Lucky Man!, Trash Humpers (when/if released), Gozu, Tales of Ordinary Madness, The Wayward Cloud, Kwaidan, Six-String Samurai, Andy Warhol’s Trash, Altered States, Memento, Nightmare Before Christmas/Vincent/Frankenweenie, The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gothic, The Attic Expeditions, After Last Season, Getting Any?, Performance, Being John Malkovich, The Apple, Southland Tales, Arizona Dream, Spider (2002), Songs From The Second Floor, Singapore Sling, Alice [Neco z Alenky], Dark Country, Necromania (1971, Ed Wood, unless the original requester gets back to me to clarify what he or she meant), and Hour of the Wolf.

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