Tag Archives: Comedy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DARK STAR (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle

PLOT: A tiny crew of astronauts is on a maintenance mission to wipe out unstable planets, while contending with beach-ball shaped aliens, megalomaniac AI smart bombs, toilet paper shoratges, and their own petty disputes.

Still from Dark Star (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Dark Star explores just enough dark matter to make it a heavy contender for the List, given its narrow category of sci-fi-comedy. The main things holding it back are that it hasn’t aged well, it’s a shoestring budget production with a syrupy pace, and the fact that it really could have fit a few more ideas into its runtime. But some details demand its consideration, such as the theme song: still the only country-and-western quantum-physics love-ballad so far in cinematic history. And a damned catchy one!

COMMENTS: Dark Star is such an enduring and beloved cult film that nothing I could say here could dent its reputation. It marks the origin of two heavy-weight genre-film talents: director John Carpenter, of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live fame, and Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to pen the screenplays for Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. This is about the film you’d expect if you gave these two juggernaut talents a camera and turned them loose when they were students on a dormitory budget. Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy and a clever satire on the Golden Age of science fiction. It cheerfully plunders your memory if you grew up munching “Analog” and “F&SF” magazines and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks from thrift store spinner racks (that’d be me!), in the same way plunders grindhouse cinema. This is all done with a relaxed, broken-in pace, giving it a unique tone even among sci-fi comedies.

The crew of the good ship Dark Star are on a 20+ year mission in deep space to detonate unstable planets around star systems wherever they may find them, to clear space for potential future colonization. They get pep talk video transmissions from Earth mission control with a ten-year delay; the crew has tenuous support at best and their mission is not particularly urgent. They’re a crew of expendable red-shirts. Indeed, Commander Powell is dead already, but kept as a meat popsicle able to telepathically counsel the crew. Morale is in the pits: Talby (Dre Pahich) has retreated to the observation bubble where he avoids as much responsibility as he can, Doolittle (Brian Narelle) escapes with daydreams of his good old days surfing in Malibu, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) fitfully takes out his aggression with laser rifle target practice, and Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) has adopted a farting orange ball alien, whom he seems to identify with more than the rest of the team. In between, the crew’s intense boredom and frustration makes them lash out at each other with testy, passive-aggressive acts of random pettiness.

Outside of all that, there really isn’t much of a plot. We have a crew of burnouts who have allowed their beards and mustaches to grow into Freak Brothers‘ territory, surrounded by banks of computer monitors and endless colorful buttons and switches, earning this movie the well-deserved moniker of “hippies in space.” Everything electronic talks, from the ship’s guiding computer to each individual bomb (note that this movie predates “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). The hilarious alien gets loose and Pinback has to chase it down, in an extended slapstick sequence that brings him to peril in an elevator shaft. Various computer and electronics malfunctions cause the sentient bombs to go haywire, creating a crisis where the crew must talk a bomb down from exploding with the ship still attached. Funny throwaway moments are all over; the crew tokes doobies in joyless resignation, and thumbs through D.C. Comics’ romance titles. And of course, numerous sci-fi works from the classics up to that year are referenced, including, without spoiling it, a Ray Bradbury short story—you’ll know it when you see it.

Dark Star‘s cult following today is at least halfway due to the intelligence at the core of its lightweight premise. It is a grand piss-take on the science fiction epic blockbuster, a genre at that time still in its salad days. Ironically, Carpenter and O’Bannon would go on from here to make some of the most definitive movies in that very genre. Dark Star counters the unfolding corridors of wonder reflected in David Bowman’s eyes with caustic pragmatism: space travel sucks when you run out of toilet paper. There are no Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks here to deliver ringing speeches about the nobility of mankind’s quest for discovery. When new stars or intelligent lifeforms are discovered, Lt. Doolittle sneers “Who cares?” and “Find me something I can blow up!” Have Stephen Spielberg and his imitators given you the impression that our first contact with alien life forms will be a sweeping cosmic epiphany? Naw, it’ll probably be something like the orange ball with horrid clawed feet which has to be chased and corralled like a rowdy puppy. Dark Star pops our Atomic Age balloon to remind us that no matter what amazing things humans accomplish, most of our problems will still be with us just because we’re dumb monkeys who can barely get anything done through the choking bureaucracy that is our only form of self-governance. This makes Dark Star a contender for the very first cyberpunk movie. Ain’t it groovy?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Dark Star’ is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star – An in-depth review and tribute by Lawrence Brooks at “Den of Geek”

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

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEST F(R)IENDS, VOLS. 1 & 2 (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin MacGregor

FEATURING: Tommy Wiseau, , Kristen Stephenson-Pino

PLOT: After Harvey, a mortician, takes in Jon, a vagrant, the two hatch a scheme to sell golden teeth gleaned from years of cadaver processing; Jon learns the hard way that friendship is more important than money when he double-crosses Harvey.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The first half of Best F(r)iends just about carries its weight with Wiseau weirdness, but the plot twist(s) and the Wiseau-ex-machina in the second half steers the experience well enough into the realm of ridiculous to handily earn its weirdo chops.

COMMENTSOrson Welles and Gregg Toland, Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer: to this auspicious list one must now add Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. Auteurs often go it alone, but sometimes, it takes the discovery of a cinematic soulmate to join the pantheon of greats. Sestero and Wiseau are not (yet?) there. But with their continued collaborations (beginning with the cult classic The Room), these two dreamers have carved their own niche in the world of weird movies. Best F(r)iends, volumes one and two, exhibits something of a peculiar talent. Having already tackled the “What the…?”, they now prove they can actually maintain a (largely) coherent narrative.

Bloodied and down on his luck, Jon (Sestero) resumes his life begging on the streets of LA while pursued by a garish hearse. Its driver, Harvey (Wiseau), is a mortician with a troubled past and an odd pasttime: collecting the dental discard of the cadavers he magically transforms from damaged bodies into something you could be proud to show off. Harvey tentatively decides to take Jon under his wing, but is soon betrayed when Jon arranges to offload the boxes of gold culled from Harvey’s years of corpse work. Conspiring with his new girlfriend Tracy (Stephenson-Pino), who is not all she seems, Jon ends up murdering Harvey. When things start to go wrong for the lovers, it takes a knight in shining armor to come to the rescue.

Best F(r)iends‘ weirdness crept over me slowly. Put together from untold hours of footage, it really is two volumes in name only: this is Sestero’s epic. Though the first half merely putters along a pathway of somewhat predictable Wiseau Weirdness (I had to give up writing down Harvey’s truisms halfway through), it is the second half that blows down the barrier between quirky and outright weird. While I don’t want to ruin things for Wiseau-philes out there, I will give the hint that my plot wrap-up above is far less metaphorical than you might think.

I won’t get into Wiseau and Sestero’s long and bizarre shared history. Suffice to say, Wiseau is as alien in real life as he seems onscreen and Sestero is only nominally more talented an actor than his Room performance suggests. He is, however, not half-bad as a writer, and Best F(r)iends, improbably, hangs together as a narrative, one that alternately confounds and amuses. Even more unlikely, it somehow turns out to be an emotionally moving film that, while weaving its web of lies and double-crosses, is a compelling meditation on friendship and trust. It is no great monument to film, but Best F(r)iends is still impressively odd, and, more impressively, something you can actually follow.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Justin MacGregor certainly plays into the absurdity of the script’s strange premise and twisted plotting. Taken as a whole, the pacing of the experience is a little flabby and unwieldy—partly due, no doubt, to the film having now been split into two volumes—but MacGregor and Sestero seem to have taken cues from David Lynch of all people. There is a pervading sense of surreality to the proceedings, as Daniel Platzman’s score overbearingly plays over montages and scenes that convey more bewildering emotion than they do coherent plot details.”–Leigh Monson, Birth. Movies. Death.

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)

NORTH (1994): THE WEIRDNESS OF A COLOSSAL FLOP – A CASE STUDY

When the Wizard of Weirdness benevolently gave each of us regular contributors the opportunity to pitch one movie onto the List—with no veto—the Present Author got away with Nothing But Trouble (1991). It’s a controversial pick, for sure. My reasoning was, why pick a movie that was probably comfortably fated to end up on the List sooner or later? You get an opportunity, you take it. There were a few shocked gasps and Greg, notably, nearly lost his lunch. For what it’s worth, the Good Bad Flicks podcast recently vindicated my fanny right out of purgatory on that movie. Me, Good Bad Flicks, and everybody on the set but and Chevy Sourpuss Chase stand alone in our crusade, even if apologetically.

Still from North (1994)

But it could have been worse. Throughout my time in the Weird Vineyards, I’ve had a devil on my left shoulder digging his pitchfork into my clavicle, maniacally whispering the name of JUST ONE MOVIE into my ear. “Nominate it, it’ll be hilarious!” When that veto-proof list slot came up, the screaming from my sinister side became deafening, but I resisted. Since the List is now closed, and I finally feel it’s safe to mention the name of the movie that no one on this site has dared to utter…

Got your HazMat suits zipped up? Got your clothespins on your nose? Got your handy jug of brain bleach ready? I shall prepare to utter its vile name. This is going to be good. This movie had an identical budget to Nothing But Trouble, and fared even a little bit worse. It’s a one-word title. It’s even a monosyllabic title. In fact, it’s a title that just so happens to be the name of a pretty famous primary compass direction.

North (1994) is one of the most notoriously spectacular failures in box office history. And make no mistake, this is NOT a List recommendation! North is just too terrible.

Like Nothing But Trouble, North had a jaw-dropping line-up of splurged comedic talent, a runaway budget, and a high concept that was a unique take on a familiar structure. It should have been a hit. So should Skidoo or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but these things happen.

Yet when you think about weird movies, you can’t long avoid North. How can you ignore ’s tush on a billboard, Jason Alexander as a pants-obsessed haberdasher, Kathy Bates as the last person to appear in blackface and have her career survive, Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire as a mom-and-pop duo performing a Texas hoedown about the death of their son, a Citizen Kane homage with a kid school newspaper editor making Jon Lovitz his suck-up toady, Alan Arkin as a manic motormouth judge holding court in a furniture store, Abe Vigoda getting put out to sea on an iceberg, and in multiple roles playing… nah, you’ll never believe me. All this, directed by the man who gave the world beloved classics like This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride.

The premise seems harmless enough: a kid divorces his parents and Continue reading NORTH (1994): THE WEIRDNESS OF A COLOSSAL FLOP – A CASE STUDY

“IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

Following a triumphant return in 2017, MST3K is back for another go-round on streaming service Netflix, and this time, they’ve bowed to the expectations of an audience that is keen to binge-watch. Season 12 is a tight six episodes, and the show’s already thin plot has been tweaked to explain that Jonah, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot––and you—are going to be subjected to this latest series of world-shattering bad movie experiments in a row, force-fed in one continuous orgy of cinematic incompetence.

Still from "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet" (2018)

This doesn’t technically matter as concerns the real heart of the series: bad movies being riffed. But it is significant because the format has encouraged the producers to select movies that will speak to the greatest number of subscribers: they’re newer, they’re genre, and—unfortunately for us here in the land of weird movies—they’re pretty easy to digest. In the campaign to make the show a success, it feels like some of the inherent weirdness has been bleached out.

Mind you, they haven’t skimped on the awfulness. Our season kicks off with one of the most notorious bad movies of recent vintage: the blatant E.T. ripoff/unsubtle McDonald’s promotional cash-grab Mac and Me (1988). Unlike a lot of copycats, you can really feel the stress of trying to hit all of the original’s story beats while trying to heighten them for maximum payoff. Lonely fatherless child? Let’s put him in a wheelchair. Everyone loved E.T. dressed as a ghost? Wait till they see MAC in a bear costume leading a full-on dance number. Oh, and that other film moved truckloads of Reese’s Pieces? Think how much Coke we’re gonna sell. What makes Mac and Me weirdest are the gallons of flopsweat being generated by filmmakers who are desperate to surprise you into forgetting about the vastly superior predecessor. It’s a feature-length version of Daffy Duck’s ultimate trick.

If there is a more mercenary approach to filmmaking than the one exhibited by Mac and Me, it lives and thrives at The Asylum, and their ticket to the party is MST3K’s newest subject ever, Atlantic Rim (2013). A half-hearted riff on Pacific Rim with roughly a thousandth of that film’s special effects budget, the movie isn’t so much strange as it is sad. Like most Asylum mockbusters, it’s a con job designed to fool people who can’t quite remember all two words of the title of the movie they want to see, and as such isn’t really worthy of this show’s attention. The film goes through the motions while trying to show as little action as possible. Most of the fun to be had comes in the form of a gleefully cast-against-type Graham Greene, chewing scenery in a way he knows he’s unlikely to come by again.

Lords of the Deep (1989) is another movie hoping to piggyback on another film’s ambition (in this case, The Abyss), but hampered by what it can’t afford to show. There’s some entertaining sniping amongst the crew of an overworked underwater base, and star Priscilla Barnes’ interaction with strange ocean-dwelling creatures takes the form of trippy drug-like scenes that come as a surprise. Throw in a comically obvious villain, a body count that rises and falls, and a stilted distaff version of HAL 9000 and you get a movie that’s pleasantly odd, but not especially high on the WTF meter.

If Season 12 comes anywhere close to weirdness, it’s thanks to The Continue reading “IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET