Tag Archives: 1999

CAPSULE: TERROR FIRMER (1999)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alyce LaTourelle, Trent Haaga, Lloyd Kaufman

PLOT: A serial killer picks off members of a film crew making a -style movie.

Still from Terror Firmer (1999)

COMMENTS: once said, “It’s easy to be shocking, but it’s hard to be witty and shocking.”

I’m not sure Terror Firmer, and Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma output in general, wants to be either shocking or witty. In a movie that begins with a baby ripped out of the womb inside the first minute, it seems easy to make a case for the former. But since everything is played as a joke in the very broadest terms possible—e.g., when a man’s hand is cut off, he takes a bite of his own bloody stump, for no conceivable reason—the impact of the shock scenes is greatly diminished. It’s not as taboo-busting as Pink Flamingos (although it does have a number of rape jokes, which, besides racist and homophobic jokes, are perhaps the last real taboos left in existence.) Troma may poke at political correctness, but they don’t really take a stand behind any of their offensive ideas, playing them off as toothless gags as quickly as possible. What they really aim at is not to be shocking so much as to be simply gross—thus, the rivers and rivers of bodily fluids and waste, from director Lloyd Kaufman blindly peeing all over a fornicating couple to the killer puking voluminously over a couple of Frenchmen. As a grossout spectacle, Terror Firmer reaches a pinnacle that even John Waters couldn’t have dreamed up (though a few frat parties I went to in the 80s might have approached it).

As for witty… I’m not sure that was a big point of emphasis in the script. Yes, there are a couple of clever film industry jokes at the expense of self-important targets like Stephen Spielberg, “Cahiers du Cinéma” and Penny Marshall; and, for fairness’ sake, jokes at the expense of Troma’s own lack of taste, quality, and continuity. But in general, Lloyd Kaufman’s instinct is to go lowbrow, and to go for quantity above quality. The comedy calculus seems to be: if they can fit in four jokes a minute, that’s almost five hundred gags in the movie, and at least three or four of them will land. Terror Firmer isn’t witty, but it’s busy. Take, for example, a random but representative scene involving the shooting of the movie-within the movie from the middle of the picture. It’s set at a vegetarian rally and in the space of a minute it brings in protesters in bikinis, a surly script supervisor with a mohawk, a honking crotch sound effect, a piece of liver on a string, and a man in a cow suit with a functioning udder that leaks greenish milk; it ends with a scatological eruption. The result of such scenes, packed with chaotic, trashy punk mise-en-scène, is a movie that’s better in its tiny details than it is in its grand design. The movie’s frenzied parade of freaks and outrageousness keeps you from getting bored even when the juvenile jokes aren’t carrying the lame plot. It’s a Tromatic as any movie has ever been.

Bottom line: Terror Firmer is gross and busy rather than shocking and witty. But you can’t say that a movie with prosthetic hermaphrodite genitals, a naked fat guy running through the streets of New York City, and a puppet crucifixion (complete with dangling severed hand) isn’t going all-out for your attention.

The cast is huge. Will Keenan, who also starred in Tromeo & Juliet (1996), may be the closest thing to leading man material to appear in a Troma film. He reminds me a little of a slightly less handsome with slightly better acting chops (his impression isn’t too bad). Alyce LaTourelle does a decent job as the only straight character in the madness, but was never seen again after this. Kaufman is as goofy as one would expect; his lack of comic timing is itself a running joke. Trent Haaga got this part (his film debut) by publishing positive reviews of Troma movies; he later wrote screenplays (The Toxic Avenger IV, Deadgirl) and fashioned a career as a character actor. supplies most of the eye candy. Ron Jeremy and Lemmy from Motorhead have cameo roles (Lemmy’s is funny).

Dedicated fans may want to pick up 2020’s “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray release, but it’s arguably no improvement over the original 2-disc DVD release, whose special features it mostly recycles. Troma’s grimy visual style doesn’t really scream out for high definition. This print has also been reformatted to a widescreen presentation, when the original was deliberately shot in a 4:3 ratio intended to fit 1999 television screens. A new introduction from Kaufman and a fifteen-minute reunion featurette are the only bonuses not found on the original release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic wallows in bad puns and good bods and evinces a gung-ho approach that’s either refreshing or tiresome depending on one’s age and IQ.”–Lisa Nesselson, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MYSTERY MEN (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Kinka Usher

FEATURING: Ben Stiller, , Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Tom Waits, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush

PLOT: Captain Amazing has been captured by the villainous Casanova Frankenstein, and Champion City is in danger. Do the Shoveler, Mr Furious, and Blue Raja have what it takes to save the day? The answer: not quite.

COMMENTS: It isn’t that strange that a star-studded action comedy would be directed by someone with a career in commercials—commercials and music videos (essentially commercials for music) often act as a springboard into “real” cinema. What is a bit strange is that Kinka Usher, the director of this muddled cult classic, remarked, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts than deal with all this nonsense.” This lack of passion makes Mystery Men incredibly uneven. But Usher brings with him considerable visual flair, so at least all this unevenness is interesting to look at and constantly in motion. Even as the many saggy sections sag, the viewer can take comfort in the fact that the storyteller will move on with due haste.

The action starts immediately… right after soaring pan over the retro-futuristic “Champion City”, accompanied by a Danny Elfman-esque score, established a “superhero” vibe. The Red Eyes, a low-rent gang of larcenous thugs, crash a senior citizens’ ball, robbing the guests of watches, diamonds, “wigs and toupés”, and even false teeth. Enter our heroes: the Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr Furious (Ben Stiller, who was in every other movie released in those days), and Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). After a display of middling skills, they fail just in time for Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) to save the day.

The script devotes more detail to Mystery Men‘s backdrop than to the characters themselves, and while this provides a grandeur to the superhero fun-poking, it also leaves the characters woefully underdeveloped. (It’s almost as if an entire comic book series doesn’t translate well into a single feature film.) The huge cityscapes, which hint at a world-culture smorgasbord, alternate with set pieces that play like sketch comedy bits strung together: the sub-heroes quibble in the diner, the sub-heroes host a recruitment barbecue, and so forth. Macy, Stiller, Azaria, et al. each seem to simultaneously hog the spotlight while also being spread too thinly.

This isn’t even a close call for our list, but the peripherals made it worth a look. The eccentric performances from Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Tom Waits all sync nicely with the tone that should have dominated. “Work-a-day super heroes”, though a cute premise, results in work-a-day personalities, and what Champion City (and Mystery Men) needs is a heavy dose of straight-faced absurdity. Kinnear and Rush play off each-other marvelously, and their scenes are a hoot. Waits needs only to be onscreen to give you a dose of strange.

Though failing at being weird is forgivable, failing as a comedy is less so. The biggest joke comes early, and works only because of meta-humor. Ricky Jay, as Captain Amazing’s agent, chides his client after the disappointing Red Eye bust, “Look, I’m a publicist—not a magician.” Some more self-awareness (and a little less Smash Mouth) could have saved Mystery Men from the “cult classic” film heap.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Mystery Men has moments of brilliance waving their arms to attract attention in a sea of dreck. It’s a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess, and every once in awhile it generates a big laugh.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times / Rogerebert.com (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chad, who called it “one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, , Christopher Walken

PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.

COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.

After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.

With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.

Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.

Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)

348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”–Zen koan

Must See

DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A yuppie actuary with chronic insomnia  becomes obsessed with going to self-help groups for ailments he doesn’t have. At one, he meets a woman who shares his obsession, but resents her for infringing on what he thought was his unique form of self-therapy. Later, he meets and is befriended by a soap-maker named Tyler Durden; together, they form a “fight club” where men reassert their masculinity with bare-knuckle fighting, but the group’s activities grow into a cult.

Still from Fight Club (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel of the same name. The genesis of the novel came when Palahniuk got into a fight over the weekend. When he returned to work with two black eyes, he was surprised that no one asked what had happened; instead, everyone avoided looking him in the face. He theorized that if you looked bad enough, no one would ask what you were doing in your free time, because they’d be scared to find out the answer.
  • Pepsi provided product placements for this anti-consumerist movie. Fincher also claims to have hidden a Starbucks cup in every scene.
  • Budgeted at $63 million, Fight Club lost money in its theatrical release, but quickly became a cult film and recouped its cost on video.
  • Fight Club placed #5 in Rolling Stone‘s poll of readers’ favorite movies of the 1990s, #17 on Empire‘s readers’ poll of the best movies of all time, while American Movie Classics named it the 20th best “guy movie,” among other lists the film made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one (any) of the many scenes of brutal bare-knuckle boxing, overseen by a shirtless, cigarette-smoking Brad Pitt, oozing sweat, blood, and raw liquid testosterone.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: D-cup dude; penguin spirit animal; subliminal Durden wang

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Yes, it’s possible to be popular and weird. Often misunderstood as a simple adolescent anti-consumerist message movie aimed at impressionable young men, Fight Club is actually a movie-length hallucination about the painful process of becoming a man.


Original trailer for Fight Club

COMMENTS: How do you talk about Fight Club? I first saw it in a Continue reading 348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

333. TUVALU (1999)

“I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema. To discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life, and death. From another perspective, another angle, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place.”–Leos Carax

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea

PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.

Still from Tuvalu (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
  • The movie  was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.


Brief clip from Tuvalu

COMMENTS: Tuvalu borrows its style from the weird world of silent Continue reading 333. TUVALU (1999)

CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)

COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:

IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.

IN THE MOVIE: Some or none or all of the above happens. It is honest to God impossible to tell. If you ran the book through a blender Continue reading CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

294. TITUS (1999)

“Why makest thou it so strange?”–Demetrius, “Titus Andronicus,” II, 1.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew RhysAngus Macfadyen, Osheen Jones

PLOT: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returns from conquering the Goths; he imprisons the queen Tamora and her three sons, killing the eldest boy as a sacrifice to the gods. Back in Rome, the emperor is dead and the popular Titus averts a civil war by supporting Saturninus for emperor against the rival claim of his brother; once on the throne, Saturninus surprises Titus by taking Tamora as his queen. Tamora and her secret lover, the Moor Aaron, then set about plotting revenge against Titus and his entire family.

Still from Titus (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written in the style of the Jacobean revenge tragedy, “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and perhaps his most disliked by critics; some even went so far as to speculate that the play must be misattributed to him, as Shakespeare could not have written such trash. Harold Bloom scathingly called it “a howler” and “an exploitative parody” and suggested Mel Brooks would be the director most suited to the material.
  • Julie Taymor adapted this film version from her off-Broadway stage production. Titus was her debut film, although she had achieved fame, and won a Tony award, for her 1994 Broadway stage production of “The Lion King.”
  • Taymor chose production designer Dante Ferretti because he had worked on one of her inspirations for Titus‘ look: Fellini Satyricon.
  • An orgy scene had to be edited (reportedly, to excise male genitalia) to earn the film an “R” rating.
  • Reputed auto-fellator Steve Bannon served as one of the executive producers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For this adaptation, Taymor fashioned four short, digitized dream sequences that she calls “penny arcade nightmares.” We selected the one where Lavinia remembers her own rape, imagining herself as a doe (with a deer’s head and hooves) menaced by ravishing tigers. Trip Shakespeare, for sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Paper bag brat; those are twigs that were her hands; Shakespearean video games

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Julie Taymor gives Shakespeare’s least-respected, bloodiest play an anachronistic avant-garde treatment, with fascist emperors riding in convertibles, Roman orgies, “penny arcade nightmares,” and all of the rape, dismemberment, and people-eating that we associate with the Bard’s work.


Original trailer for Titus

COMMENTS: “Shakespeare was a drive-in kind of guy.” I don’t think Continue reading 294. TITUS (1999)