Tag Archives: 1987

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

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

CAPSULE: THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Rees

FEATURING: Voices of Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, , Thurl Ravenscroft

PLOT: A forgotten appliance and its fellow overlooked mechanicals set off on a journey to find their long-lost master, and encounter many perils along the way to their surprising reunion.

Still from The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie has a rough charm that comes from its modern setting, fresh characters, and willingness to flirt with bleakness in its darkest moments. That distinguishes it from what we’ve come to expect from animated films ostensibly aimed at children. But it’s not much different from the purest forms of fable, where danger and derring-do culminate in an important lesson.

COMMENTS: Disney’s rejection of The Brave Little Toaster is the stuff of animation legend: an enthusiastic animator thought Hugo-winner Thomas M. Disch’s “bedtime story for appliances” would be the perfect material for the studio’s first all-CGI feature. However, the cost-conscious House of Mouse had been burned before, taking a bath on the computer-live action hybrid Tron, and the notion of inanimate objects with hope and fears was strange and off-putting to the Disney execs who were about to be overthrown by Michael Eisner. Mere minutes after the animator completed his ambitious pitch, Disney fired him. That luckless wannabe-pioneer’s name? John Lasseter. So that all worked out.

The Brave Little Toaster that did emerge (hand-drawn, produced independently but with Disney financing) is a likeable modern-day fairy tale pitting Toaster and Friends against powerful forces that could easily destroy them, including nature, mass consumerism, and jealousy. Three of the film’s four songs (composed by Van Dyke Parks, none especially catchy) feature our heroes being threatened with destruction. Appliances are broken, electrocuted, submerged in raging rapids, vivisected for their parts, and thrown into a kind of abattoir for machines. At one point, a character’s fear of being short-circuited takes the form of a nightmare vision of a sinister clown firefighter. Toaster pulls no punches, which is bracing and shocking in this day of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

The film is helped immensely by its appealing cast. Beginning with Oliver, who has a good blend of overconfidence that matures into selflessness, the casting is solid all the way through, catching Groundlings veterans Lovitz, Hartman, and Tim Stack right before they would leap into television, presenting voiceover legend Ravenscroft (he’s grrrreat!) in a wholly new context, and even crafting an appealing performance from child actor Timothy E. Day. Toaster also boasts an unusually strong roster of behind-the-scenes figures from the impending Disney renaissance: Kevin Lima (Tarzan and Enchanted), Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little), Chris Buck (Tarzan and Frozen), and Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) are all on the payroll. The most important credit is undoubtedly that of screenwriter Joe Ranft, who would go on to become the soul of the early Pixar films. In fact, Lasseter’s interest in the story and Ranft’s role in shaping it point to the biggest problem in judging Toaster on its own merits, and that problem rhymes with Shmoy Shmory.

The parallels between Toaster and the adventures of Woody and Buzz accumulate quickly: the young master whom the appliances revere, the tension between old-but-functional and new-and-shiny technology, the bespectacled nerd who exploits the heroes for financial gain, the terrifying climax in a junkyard, even the protagonist’s redemption and sacrifice for friends and cohorts—the echoes are strong, and perplexing to anyone who doesn’t know which one came first.

Disney may have been terrified of talking kitchen implements then (a fear they overcame with the enchanted accoutrements of Beauty and the Beast), but audiences proved quite capable of handling that particular level of strangeness, leaving us with a small but charming film that deserves at least a little light, sitting as it does in the shadow of what-might-have-been.

Besides, if you’re looking for true off-the-wall, WTF weirdness, may I direct your attention to one of this movie’s direct-to-video sequels, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, in which the gang journeys to the titular Red Planet to rescue a baby from the clutches of a fascist refrigerator (voiced by Alan King!) Along the way, they meet a cluster of balloons who were let go by children and now float aimlessly through space, a group of appliances purposely designed poorly to further a planned-obsolescence scheme and who now harbor visions of an anti-human jihad, and the Viking I lander (voiced by DeForest Kelley!!!), who has a codependent relationship with a Christmas tree angel. How can a mere clown firefighter even hope to compete?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a warped, weird tone and perspective that, even a quarter of a century later, doesn’t quite resemble anything else. It’s kind of like a kid’s film, except with narrative ambiguities and shading that no kid could possibly be expected to pick up; it has the usual litany of musical numbers that, in the ’80s, were the exclusive provenance of cartoons, but its songs go to some decidedly odd places in the orchestration, and utter bleakness in their staging – one number is sung by sentient cars as they’re being crushed to death.” – Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jess Harnell, who said, “The film features mental illness, conspiracy theories, mutilation, suicide, murder, terrifying nightmares, desecration, fatalism and the nature of mortality, all done in a children’s film about talking appliances.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, , Victor Wong

PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.

Still from Prince of Darkness (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.

COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.

That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”

Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…an endearingly odd, consistently creepy film… met on its own bonkers terms, Prince Of Darkness proves satisfying.”–Keith Phipps, The Dissolve (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE FARTISTE (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Ruggio

FEATURING: Michael Pataki

PLOT: A fake documentary about the rise and fall of the (real life) “flatulist” performer Le Pétomane, who narrates his story from Purgatory.

Still from The Fartiste (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This long-unreleased one-hour mockumentary is a curiosity, nothing more.

COMMENTS: I’m going to hold my nose and resist the urge to say The Fartiste stinks. (To be fair, I’m not going to claim “it’s a gas!,” either). There’s a reason that The Fartiste was never released after being completed in 1987, and it’s not because the subject matter was too outrageous. The truth is that one hour, while too short for a feature presentation, is too long for an extended fart joke, leaving The Fartiste in no-man’s land. Despite the fact that the historical Le Pétomane (real name: Joseph Pujol) was able to pack audiences into the Moulin Rouge for his concerts in a pre-talkie era, today, audiences are able to sate their curiosity about his peculiar talents in a Facebook post (“a guy who used to pack audiences in to hear him fart? That’s awesome! Oooh, now there’s a baby goat on a trampoline, how cute!”) Stretching this material into an hour’s worth of entertainment proves beyond The Fartiste‘s abilities. With a Pepe le Pew accent and a stage mustache (which disappears in some scenes, replaced with greasepaint), character actor Michael Pataki is acceptable in the role, but never makes Le Pétomane into a truly funny presence. Basically, the movie follows a typical showbiz narrative trajectory, with too much early success leading Le Pétomane into vice and arrogance. Near the end there’s a somewhat amusing slapstick duel with a hotshot bowel jock who wants to unseat the Fartiste. Flirting with fatal flatulence, the combatants drink cabbage juice before the showdown—generic cabbage juice, for extra foulness. The duel is one of the few “action” sequences in The Fartiste, which mostly proceeds as a series of talking head interviews with people whose paths crossed Le Pétomane’s, including famous late 19th/early 20th century figures like Freud, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Enrico Caruso. (Some of this has a grain of a historical basis—for example, Freud was said to have attended a Fartiste performance, although he probably never diagnosed the Frenchman as being trapped in the anal stage). Given that much of Le Pétomane’s career overlapped the silent film era, we also see lots of faux-silent movie footage (especially at the beginning), supplemented by real movies from the public domain. There is a shot of the chandelier crash from Phantom of the Opera (in this alternate reality, the collapse is brought about by a vindictive Pétomane poot) and scenes from Nosferatu illustrate the Fartiste’s early life. The mix of archival footage and fake footage never looks convincing, but that doesn’t matter much—the movie, originally shot on 1980s era TV video and transferred from the sole surviving element, doesn’t look very good overall. Anyway, visuals aren’t the point of The Fartiste. The movie’s greatest asset may be it’s short running time; the whole thing is as light and airy as a whiff of methane. I was actually more impressed with the DVD’s bonus feature, a modern silent one-reeler starring “Harlem Hank” and “Flatbush Frank” entitled “That Voodoo You Do.” Set in a funeral parlor, it’s got cleavage jokes, an undead body, a voodoo priestess in drag, a barrelhouse piano score, mugging in pancake makeup, and it ends on a groaner—it’s a lot of fun, and even shorter than the feature!

The Fartiste (1987) is not to be confused with “The Fartiste,” an unrelated 2006 off-Broadway musical that is occasionally revived. played Joseph Pujol in a 1983 Italian biopic, and there was also a 1998 French documentary on le Pet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s short, sweet, stupid, and utterly bizarre…”–Mondo Digital

DISCLAIMER: A copy of this movie was provided by the distributor for review.

CAPSULE: STREET TRASH (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Muro

FEATURING: Mike Lackey, Jane Arakawa, Bill Chepil, Vic Noto, Mark Sferrazza, James Lorinz

PLOT: In a junkyard ruled by a sadistic gang of hobos, bums endure a plague of rotgut that makes them melt.

Still from Street Trash (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Probably the major inspiration for the slicker and more self-parodying Hobo with a Shotgun, Street Trash is a trashy trip through a junkyard full of deranged derelicts engaging in bad behavior like drinking, raping, mutilating, and smelling bad. It’s often strange and largely plotless, wandering from one absurd and blackly comic vignette to another; but it’s so mean-spirited and grossout-oriented that it ranks no higher than a guilty pleasure.

COMMENTS: Budding screenwriters will want to avoid studying Street Trash carefully. It’s full of scenes that make you wonder, “why is this in the movie?” Consider longish scene of a minor hobo character shoplifting at the local grocery store, stuffing frozen chickens down his pants. He’s caught, but escapes by putting a paper bag over his head and crashing through the storefront window. The scene lacks any sort of obvious purpose or resolution, and it’s in no way connected to the putative plotline about expired booze causing bums to melt into fluorescent lumps of goo. But it’s typical of Street Trash, which doesn’t care too much about standard plotting or logic; instead, it’s a spoofy fantasy survey of a nihilistic junkyard society of outcasts. The aimlessness of the story actually reflects the lives of the characters, who while away their days scrounging for dollars and cheap thrills until the bottle eventually gets them, and the lack of direction is all part of Street Trash‘s design. The longer the movie goes on, the less sense it makes, and the better it gets. Although it is filled with weird details—the chief baddie’s femur-knife, a ‘Nam flashback-hallucination sequence, a guy running around with his penis cut off–Street Trash‘s agenda is more to gross you out than to weird you out. Therefore we get jokes about castration, gang rape and necrophilia. The problem with these gags is not so much that they’re tasteless as that they’re mostly not funny: they’ve got all the humor of kids sneaking peeks at dirty pictures during recess. A gang of bums playing keep-away with a severed penis is something you don’t see everyday, but the scene isn’t structured as a joke—it’s a premise without a punchline. The few instances where Street Trash proves it does have a sense of humor—the moment when a cop passes up the obvious chance to piss on his beaten adversary in favor of a more creative humiliation—make the fact that the movie usually settles for just being disgusting a disappointment. The “melt” scenes, where derelicts condense into mucilaginous mutants splattered in tie-dye colors, are impressive, though, especially considering the tiny budget. They will prove the major attraction for many. Like a dollar bottle of wine, Street Trash hits hard, is dizzying fun for a while, and may send the neophyte running for toilet.

Poorly distributed (because of its content), Street Trash became something of a minor VHS legend. Even among gorehounds, few had seen it. That obscurity made it a shock when, in 2006, Synapse released the movie in a Criterion-quality 2-disc edition, complete with two separate audio commentaries and a 2-hour making of feature (!) All these extras were ported over to the 2013 Blu-ray edition, which even includes a sticker allowing you to make your own makeshift Tenafly Viper wine bottle.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the history of splatter there hasn’t been a movie quite this Kodachromatic and crazy. It’s a true Technicolor yawn, a sprawling spree of cinematic surrealism set against the dirt and grime of an ugly urban cesspool.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who asked, “What was that movie based off a Kurosawa flick? It had poorly written dialog, it was the only film directed by a special effects man, it had derelicts melting from tainted rum…oh yeah. Street Trash (1987).” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)