Tag Archives: 1987

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURE OF DENCHU-KOZO (1987)

Denchû kozô no bôken; AKA The Great Analog World

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: N. Senba, Nobu Kanaoka, , , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: Young Hikari is bullied because of the electric pylon growing out of his back, but he’s got a time machine; after using it to impress a girl, he finds himself twenty-five years in the future in a land plagued by cybernetically enhanced vampires.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Seeing as how Tetsuo: the Iron Man is Certified and this film has all the same weird ingredients–and then some–it would be remiss if this did not elbow its way into the growing Apocrypha crowd.

COMMENTS: For those with a smattering of Japanese, the title explains the premise: this movie is about the adventure of “electric rod boy”. Within the movie, he is given the more formal (and heroic) title by a mysterious servant of the time-tunnel: The Electric Pylon Boy! (“The” added for saga-worthy emphasis.) When the most normal character in a time-travel-cyber-vampire story has a metal rod growing out of his back, you know you’re in “weird” territory.

Of course, we’d expect nothing less from Shinya Tsukamoto. Two years before he graced the world with his chef d’oeuvre, Tetsuo: the Iron Man, he put together this pint-sized sci-fi epic that, visually at least, laid quite a bit of groundwork for his more famous tale of technological transmogrification. Not content to merely be the writer, director, and nearly every other role behind the camera, Tsukamoto puts in a turn as one of the doomsday vampires with a performance that fully develops his “fetishist” character in Tetsuo.

Back to The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo. Our hero, Hikari, is the butt of jokes—not just because he’s a nerdy weakling, but also because of the strange, prominent (and totally, totally non-phallic, I swear) growth on his back. He’s beaten up, because “boys will be boys,” but said boys get thwacked themselves by the protective Momo, ever armed with her stick. Thanking his savior, Hikari says, “I’ve got a time machine”, and before you can say, “Are you sure this is a good idea…?,” he zaps himself into the future!

What ensues after that involves a lot of wires (growing and otherwise), some highly self-consciously silly montages, and vague allusions to the explosive substance “Adam Junior” (not to be confused with “Atom…”) whose explosions block out the sun sufficiently for the Shinsemgumi vampires to emerge from hiding and conquer humanity. There’s also the first glimpse of the notorious drill-bit penis that everyone knows and loves from Tsukamoto’s follow-up, as well as plenty of that stop-motion/high-speed character movement that I personally can’t get enough of. And just in case you didn’t think this movie was serious, it also takes La Jetée-esque logic into consideration.

But no, this movie is not remotely serious. Denchu-Kozo‘s respect for coherent time loops is fused with so much random crazy metal junk (figuratively and literally) that any pause for intellectual or emotional reflection is almost immediately derailed by synthesizer-backed action platitudes, pylon bonking humor, or Tsukamoto’s character hamming things up even beyond the main course of Ham with Ham. Incidentally released the same year as science fiction classics RoboCop and Bad TasteThe Adventure of Denchu-Kozo nicely bridges their respective tones of cyber-science-fiction and silly-savage-slapstick.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“….[an] insane forty-six minute short… For such a brash and often perverse effort, it is curious to note that it is sweetly naive: it’s really a child’s story, a superhero origin story, wrapped up in a post-Apocalyptic nightmare, only with violence, nudity, and a woman turning into a doomsday machine.” -Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1987)

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DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Norman Boyd, Michael Lake, Rhys Davis

PLOT: A drifter is escaping his pursuers by heading north, but a vertical mountain range blocks his path;  he encounters an eccentric pair of siblings, and the trio plan to head beyond the pass in a homemade flying machine.

Still from Spirits of the air, gremlins of the clouds (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Surreal music-video visuals combine with stage-like theatrics in this odd little story of a crippled inventor, his child-like sister, and a stranger on the run. The post-apocalyptic milieu is both sand-swept and candy-colored, and the claustrophobic atmosphere feels about to burst into the wild blue yonder.

COMMENTS: Judging from the natural backdrop in Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, Australia’s outback is a combination of desolate sand and technicolor hues. As such, it’s custom-designed for post-apocalyptic wasteland movies, and Proyas takes advantage of this nigh-unreality to great effect. But not satisfied with a vision of lifeless wind and dust, he places eccentrics lifted straight from David Lynch onto his barren stage, in the process creating one of the most eccentric and eerie melodramas to spring forth from celluloid.

The remnants of humanity are, it seems, scattered about like so much paranoid dirt. When a wanderer dressed in black (going by the name “Smith”) appears on her homestead’s outskirts, Betty Crabtree (dressed in dime-store Kabuki regalia, and playing an over-trinketed two-string violin) seeks her brother to warn him of a coming devil. Brother Felix sports the wild hair of a mad inventor or a crazed hermit, and is confined to a wheelchair seemingly designed by Tim Burton during his “blue period.” Felix is eccentric, but also a genius, and is eager for Smith’s company and assistance. Betty is having none of this newcomer, and makes her hostility increasingly clear: first with adamant Bible quotations, then with a hand-scrawled note reading, “Leave now, or you die!,” and finally with a painted message covering the homestead’s workshop exterior, “Go home or burn in Hell.” Smith does not go home; instead, for reasons of his own, he agrees to help Felix build the impossible.

The Crabtree compound is like a survivalist’s Bible camp. The pair have stocked their basement with countless shelves of Heinz baked beans (the company received a shout-out in the credits) and hung crosses from every wall and support beam (we learn that the siblings’ father is he used to be religious—but then stopped). Other unlikely touches convey this future reality. Felix’s prized possession is a history of early flight, and he wistfully calls attention to the trees in the photographs’ backgrounds and the “nice, clean clothes” everyone wears. The Popol Voh-style soundtrack and dissociative camera tricks offset this grounding in reality. Proyas interrupts medium shots of action—such as the strange meal (of baked beans) that follows Smith’s arrival—with altogether too-close close-ups. And it seems that he intermittently removed frames of film, creating a stilted, jagged appearance in the flow of machines and people.

With a cast of three people, Proyas creates a grounded human world. With a solitary household as a location, he shows this world to be foreign to our experience. Like Felix with his mad dream to fly, Proyas (all of twenty-four when he made this) defies the doubters. Using practically nothing, he firmly establishes himself as a cinematic visionary. There is certainly something personal in this tale of staggering success against oppressive odds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a genuine shame the melding of big budgets and Proyas has never really gelled, possibly because the larger the budgets got, the more Proyas discovered what he couldn’t do with them out of responsibility for making the film as palatable to general audiences as the studio demanded. Because, dammit, Proyas has an amazing eye, one evident from his first feature film…Proyas’ eye for imagery is in fine form, and it’s not difficult at all to find the line that connects SPIRITS OF THE AIR to DARK CITY..” -Jon Abrams, Daily Grindhouse

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: STRAIGHT TO HELL (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love

PLOT: Three gangsters, with a pregnant girlfriend in tow, blow an assignment, rob a bank, and hide out in a Central American village ruled by a band of coffee-addicted desperadoes.

Still from Straight to Hell (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This silly, violent and absurd attempt at a Western comedy made by non-comedians doesn’t really work, except as a curio.

COMMENTS: The story behind Straight to Hell is that filmmaker Alex Cox had assembled a number of punk bands for a concert in Nicaragua, which had to be canceled due to political turmoil. With his schedule involuntarily cleared and time on his hands, he sat down with a guy named Dick Rude (!) and scratched out a movie script in three days, using the musicians and whoever was available on short notice as actors. The result is a silly spoof, made on the spur of the moment, with punk rockers trying to be comedians. There’s a party vibe, and it’s clear that the cast and crew had a blast farting around in the desert. It’s equally clear that you will never have as much fun watching it as they did making it.

Sy Richardson (whom Cox had worked with before on Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) was one of the few actual actors available for the project on short notice, so the prolific character actor gets a rare featured role here, and makes the best of the opportunity. (Because he’s cool, black, and wears a suit and tie while brandishing a gun, he’s often pointed to as a precursor to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in Pulp Fiction). The Clash’s Joe Strummer is second-in-command, while Rude takes the role of the youngest and jumpiest of the gang. Courtney Love is Sy’s shrill, preggo girlfriend, who’s so effectively annoying that they effectively write her out of the script after the setup. Besides the main cast, Eighties underground culture aficionados can keep an eye out for cameos by the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, , and even .

And yes, it is weird, although more in the vein of a spectacularly drunk Mel Brooks than of . The credits list a “sex and cruelty consultant” (a bit tongue-in-cheekly, since there’s not terribly much of either). What you do get it some attempted slapstick from musicians trying to be comics, scenes spoofing Once Upon the Time in the West and Cool Hand Luke, hard-to-understand accents (not only from the rotten-toothed Shane MacGowan), a Western hot dog vendor, a butler who serves coffee to desperate killers, a barrelhouse piano version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” a musical number (including “Danny Boy”) or two, and a long conclusory shootout to prune the cast (including a few extra bodies like Jarmusch who show up at the last minute to get mowed down). Perhaps the oddest touch of all are two brief shots of Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons: a wolf who howls at the moon and a human clutching a knife between its teeth. It’s like Cox bought a few seconds of unused footage from a Charles Band production and shoehorned them into his movie at random. Whatever charm Straight to Hell possesses comes from the fact that you seldom have any idea what will happen next.

The story is supposedly based on the Canonically Weird Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot!—Cox went so far as to secure the adaptation rights—but the similarities between the two films are completely superficial. Remastered with new digital gore effects and re-released in a director’s cut in 2010, Straight to Hell is obscure, but Kino-Lorber’s 2018 edition with director’s commentary is actually its third appearance on DVD (it was released by Anchor Bay in 2001, and by Microcinema DVD under the title Straight to Hell Returns in 2010). The film is also available on Blu-ray or streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a very weird vibe, and it requires one to not only accept, but also embrace, boredom. If the movie has one theory, it’s this: if you stare long enough at a certain spot, something weird and cool is bound to happen.”–Jeffery M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

CAPSULE: SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Barbara Millicent Roberts, Ken Carson

PLOT: The dizzying rise and tragic fall of the honey-voiced pop star is dramatized in the context of the ailment that killed her, as embodied by inanimate plastic fashion dolls.

Still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The use of dolls to perform a celebrity tell-all while simultaneously deconstructing the societal conditions that lead women into eating disorders is unusual in and of itself, without even getting into the strange collage of tones packed into 43 minutes. But the film’s legal unavailability and overall student amateurishness land it just shy of our list.

COMMENTS: Todd Haynes is earnest. It’s a quality that is remarkably out-of-step with our postmodern, irony-chasing, take-the-piss-out times. Who is this weirdo who insists on taking people at face value? In films like Far From Heaven, Carol, and even the recent Wonderstruck, he trusts in his characters to be open and honest even when they are being deceptive, a quality which is somehow more distancing to a modern audience than a detached remove.

Superstar demonstrates that he possessed this quality all along. In this, his M.F.A. dissertation film, Haynes takes on all the tropes of the celebrity biopic without a trace of irony. Like a soft-rock Esther Blodgett, innocent Karen is plucked from behind the drum kit to become the voice and face of The Carpenters, launching the sibling act into the pop music stratosphere. Just as quickly, the insecure girl falls prey to her own flawed self-image and heaps of abuse from her family, leading her to an equally meteoric crash.

At first glance, it seems like a parody of a Lifetime celebrity TV movie, but there’s Haynes’ earnestness again. Karen is a truly pitiable character, seen here as particularly ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom, despite her perpetual smile. Nearly everyone in her life is either carelessly or viciously cruel to her, and no one is more villainous than the version of Richard we meet here. Vindictive from the start (“I’ve found your singer,” Mom says, only to be met with Richard’s bitter rejoinder, “And lost me my drummer”), he browbeats his younger sister, bellowing at her about the damage she is doing to their career, harangues that are set to the impossibly rich harmonies of the siblings’ songs. So it’s hardly a surprise that he would set out to squash the film—successfully.

And then there’s the other story Haynes wants to tell: the tragically overlooked problem of anorexia itself. The movie gets pretty strange as Haynes starts to weave in a somewhat amateurish documentary about the disorder. The footage is ham-handed, with man-on-the-street interviews straight out of a 7th grade health film. But the facts themselves are horrifying, as we peel back the panoply of societal pressures Karen endured. It’s as if two very different movies were competing for the screen, and that’s even before Haynes goes in for an indictment of society at large, juxtaposing Carpenters songs against footage of Nixon, Vietnam, and even the Holocaust. It’s kind of pretentious, in that way that only young people who’ve just discovered a really impressive idea can be. But Haynes consistently gets away with it, thanks to his pure commitment.

On top of all that, let’s talk about the Barbie dolls. Like the lamest of puppets, these fashion dolls are propped up and posed to the accompanying soundtrack, standing perfectly still even as we’re supposed to imagine them belting out some of the biggest hits of the 70s, and damn if it doesn’t work. Barbie ends up being a perfect stand-in for Karen Carpenter: an impossible standard for beauty who is (literally) manipulated by everyone around her. Todd Haynes feels deeply for this put-upon, disfigured piece of plastic, and so do we.

Although Richard Carpenter’s legal action turned Superstar into a banned treasure (he cannily sidestepped any charges of over-defensiveness by going after the film’s liberal and unauthorized appropriation of the band’s songs, rather than its ruthless assassination of his character), the film has never completely gone away. Bootleg videos, occasional surprise museum screenings, and the electronic frontier have all kept the movie close enough for anyone who really wants to see it. A simple Google search should lead the curious to a lo-fi version of what is already a lo-fi production.

In the final scene, real hands take over for the doll extremities we have seen so far, and one fleeting image of the real Karen flickers in and out, like her life. We often talk about art as a way to get at a more substantial truth. Superstar manages to go one better, using extreme artifice to get at the heart of one very real, very broken human being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… daringly peculiar… The film’s tragedy works in tandem with its tastelessness for a nightmarish effect not too far removed from one of David Lynch’s explorations of concealed horror…” – David Pountain, Filmdoo

(This movie was nominated for review by Kelsey Osgood, and then unknowingly seconded by Lovecraft in Brooklyn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

CAPSULE: AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, Robert K. Weiss

FEATURING: “Lots of Actors”, including Arsenio Hall, , , Steve Forrest, David Alan Grier, B. B. King, , Steve Guttenberg, , Kelly Preston, , , Andrew Dice Clay, Griffin Dunne

PLOT: A collection of sketches parodying late-night TV content, anchored by a specific parody of goofy 1950s space operas.

Still from Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The sketch film has always been rare enough to merit a double take when one appears in cinemas, but this particular example of the form isn’t especially unusual, with nothing particularly outlandish or shocking, and the majority of sketches being of the one-joke variety.

COMMENTS: Although anthologies have been a recurring genre since early cinema, the heyday of the “sketch film” variant was the early 1970s: The Groove Tube, TunnelVision, and king-of-the-form Kentucky Fried Movie all parodied television’s challenge to attention spans. The form was also fairly economical, providing quick work to underemployed actors and aspiring comedy writers alike. None of these were box office bonanzas, though, so when Amazon Women on the Moon came along more than a decade later, it was fair to ask if it was a bold attempt to refresh the formula, or a last gasp for a format that had never truly lived.

Let’s go with B. First and foremost, Amazon Women is a comedy, but while it has quite a few solid jokes, it reveals time and again that it doesn’t have much else. Let’s consider one of the film’s best sequences, a vivid re-creation of 1930-era Universal horror movies starring Ed Begley, Jr. as the son of ’ Invisible Man. The black-and-white atmosphere is rich, and Begley even gets to repeat the famous bandage-removal scene. The catch: he’s not invisible at all. It’s a funny joke, as he obliviously cavorts about the room in the nude. The problem is, the sketch has another two minutes to go, and so we get more variations on the same joke, searching for an end.

This happens a lot. Scenes have a funny premise at their core, but then they have to keep going to justify their presence in a Hollywood motion picture: David Alan Grier sings in a super-white way—then he does it some more. A funeral turns into a Catskills roast—and we get the whole roast. Other sketches are shorter, but their jokes are smaller, too, and the scenes still feel stretched and padded. Amazon Women on the Moon has a tight five minutes; it gets an hour-and-a-half.

The film is not without its charms. The parodies have a clever eye for their sources, such as a 30s-era scare propaganda film that subtly re-dresses the same set over and over. Several performances capture the desired anarchic spirit, such as Griffin Dunne’s incompetent doctor and Carrie Fisher’s gullible ingénue. And every now and then, the film manages to tap into something sublimely silly; my personal favorite is an In Search Of/Unsolved Mysteries amalgam that manages to mashup the sordid deeds of Jack the Ripper with a more supernatural tale. But Moon’s a film that earns smiles more than laughs.

Ultimately, Amazon Women on the Moon is “Saturday Night Live” with slightly better production values: the jokes are hit and miss, and there’s a lot of work to get to the end of each sketch. It’s not the worst of its kind (that would be the execrable Movie 43), but it’s far from the finest. That honor probably belongs to Kentucky Fried Movie, and the filmmakers know it; references to fictional producer Samuel L. Bronkowitz mark Moon as Movie‘s spiritual sequel. But bad news, Sam: Amazon Women on the Moon is no Fistful of Yen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Amazon Women on the Moon is everything that Movie 43 wished it could have been, trenchant, hilarious, weird, and just plain fun.” — Sean Patrick, Geeks

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