Tag Archives: Documentary

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johan von Sydow

FEATURING: Tiny Tim,

PLOT: Johan von Sydow chronicles the improbable rise and unfortunate fall of ’60s icon Herbert Butros Khaury, aka “Tiny Tim”.

COMMENTS: Beginning and ending his career as a mere circus performer, Herbert Butros Khaury nonetheless hit it big—nay, hit it huge—as the nebulous singer and cultural icon “Tiny Tim.” Ukulele in hand and falsetto in throat, he captured the hearts of the American people for a few glorious years in the late ’60s through early ’70s. His first wedding garnered a viewership of between forty- and fifty-million people when broadcast live on “The Johnny Carson Show,” a record exceeded at the time only by the ratings for the lunar landing.

That fact and many others are courtesy of Johan von Sydow’s well-researched and rather moving documentary, Tiny Tim: King for a Day. Chronicling Herbert Khaury’s semi-tragic childhood, joyful period of success, and ending with his semi-tragic decline (both in popularity and in health), Tiny Tim is a very straight-forward film about one of the strangest popular phenomena of the 20th century. Herbert Khaury was one of those celebrities who are only ever “real” when on stage, and his private life was a cavalcade of sadness and discomfort as he tried and failed to tone himself down for mundane day-to-day activities like love, friendship, and business.

Most people know only the stage name of the man, and maybe his break-out hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I knew about him primarily through his board game, “The Tiny Tim Game of Beautiful Things.” But this performer was known by all kinds of big names. Influential television producer George Schlatter, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, Tommy James (of “and the Shondells” fame), and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary) all had kind words to say about this strange, wonderful man. Even famous fringe artists Jonas Mekas and Wavy Gravy chime in at length—the latter providing an hilarious anecdote about the time he and a buddy saved Khaury from an encounter with the mob.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a “talking heads” kind of affair, but it is made novel in a couple of ways. Most strikingly, there are animated segments depicting experiences chronicled in Khaury’s personal diary (these are narrated impressively by none other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who I imagine leapt at the chance to be involved with this picture). They provide an intimate grounding of the man behind the persona. And von Sydow’s choice to avoid close-ups when recording the “talking heads” pays off handsomely, as you can see each of the commentators in their natural habitat. The contrast between executive Schattler’s organized award statues and “power desk” and Wavy Gravy’s obscenely cluttered study deftly illustrates the variety of Khaury’s friends and associates. The documentary is thorough, but short; appropriate, I feel, for a man known to the world as “Tiny Tim.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an energetic, wildly creative account of an inimitable figure who lived an almost unbelievable life.”–Christopher Schobert, The Film Stage (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SPINDRIFT’S HAUNTED WEST (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Burke Roberts

FEATURING: The members of “Spindrift”

PLOT: Four musicians record sights and sounds from their “Ghost Town Tour” in a pastiche of performances, wandering about acid-infused scenery.

Still from Spindrift's Haunted West (2020)

COMMENTS: What better way to write a movie review than while listening to that movie’s music in the background? Normally I don’t have the film playing while I write my reviews, but having reached the half-way mark in Spindrift’s Haunted West, I have figured out what’s going on and can be certain of two things.

The first thing: this isn’t really a movie. Haunted West begins in wide (wide wide) screen, its opening credits over what could be the establishing shot of a top-tier spaghetti western. Blue sky, jagged hillside, and a day-time moon lurking above. But Spindrift quickly show their hands in the opening scene: the band wanders around a derelict town while their music plays non-diegetically. Things move forward, in their meandering way, with shots from performances in historical saloons, shots from performances around campfires, and the occasional music-video-esque backdrop of gibbets, “Olde West” thoroughfares, and some neat-o pointy rock sites.

The second thing: Haunted West is the perfect thing to play on a grainy projector with dodgy speakers during your next Western-themed party. Delaware-born band leader Kirkpatrick Thomas must have spent a youth saturated in Western movies, Western television shows, and acid rock. His band’s sound veers from Prog-Western to Ballad-Western to Acid-Wibblies, with even some visits from what I can only describe as “Mariachi Luau.” The one constant is an Ennio Morricone vibe, as might be expected; Morricone was God’s gift to Spaghetti Westerns.

I often mention the length of short movies–whether it be a comment on efficient story-telling or a bafflement at how something so short could seem so long. Spindrift’s Haunted West moseys onto the screen, showcases some considerable musical talent, and then moseys away. This travelogue music video is a much better investment for your seventy-seven minutes than some movies I could mention, so pull out the Bulleit, slap on a stetson, and rock on, rock in, and rock out with Spindrift.

WHAT THE TOMBSTONE SAYS:

“Here lies George Johnson / Hanged by mistake / 1882 / He was right, we was wrong / But we strung him up & now he’s gone.”

CAPSULE: BIG RIVER MAN (2009)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch

FEATURING: Martin Strel, Borut Strel

PLOT: Slovenian Martin Strel is 53, overweight, and a functional alcoholic; he’s also the world’s greatest endurance swimmer, and this documentary follows his attempt to set a new world record by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River.

Still from Big River Man (2009)

COMMENTS: I’ll save you a quick trip to Wikipedia: as unlikely as it seems, Martin Strel is real. Watching Big River Man, you may assume it must be a mockumentary; it doesn’t seem possible that such a character could exist. For one thing, how can he maintain his magnificently paunchy physique while swimming ten hours a day? (Two bottles of wine per night helps, as do healthy servings of horseburgers, when he can get them). Nevertheless, the record books show that Strel, who took up endurance swimming in his forties, has swam the length of the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, in his crowning achievement, the world’s second-longest river, the Amazon, as chronicled here.

Unknown to most of the world outside of swimming circles, Strel is a huge celebrity in his native Slovenia, where he’s so famous that (according to Borut, his son and publicist) the cops let him drive drunk. Before taking up swimming, he was a professional gambler, and when not swimming he teaches flamenco guitar, does ads for McDonalds, acts in Slovenian action movies, and buddies around with his pal, America’s ambassador to Slovenia (who looks the other way when Martin tells Borut to steal a bag of dinner rolls). Also, should he ever give up competitive swimming, he would to have a promising career as a competitive eater. Martin is bigger than life; he tests the limits of the widescreen format.

Documentaries are tough sells as weird movies. By necessity, they are always based in reality. The best they can do is to explore an eccentric topic, and sometimes play around with the form. Big River Man definitely profiles an odd subject in Martin Strel, who is even stranger than he sounds on page. There’s a sense that he’s not all there even when we first meet him, and he only gets odder as he progresses downriver. He has to deal with the pounding Amazon sun, which forces him adopt an Elephant Man-style mask; parasites, including a fish that purportedly swims up the urethra; and, most significantly, his own deteriorating health, both physical and mental. He hires an amateur navigator, who gets infected by Martin’s insanity and assigns the swimmer a messianic status. Meanwhile, Borut tries to hold the expedition together and keep his father alive. The co-directors capture a bit of Martin’s madness with some well-crafted montages, and even include a dose of psychedelic imagery, something rarely seen in documentaries. Also of note is an eclectic soundtrack that steers away from South American music in favor of classical selections and a sprinkle of tracks from the gravelly voices of and Howlin’ Wolf. The result is a trip downriver that often feels like a real-life version of a jungle fever epic. You’ll be left to wonder: is Martin Strel an inspiration to humanity, or just a man swimming away from his demons as fast as he can?

If you can’t get enough of Martin and Borat, the Indiepix DVD includes almost a half-hour of outtakes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strel is one strange duck, and you can only wonder that Werner Herzog, with his fondness for captivating weirdos, didn’t get to him first.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Rory,” who said it was “definitely worth a shout – horse-eating Slovenian alcoholic loses mind whilst trying to swim the length of the amazon. Even if it’s not weird enough it’s a must-see.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 3: COMEDY & CAMP (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: The final installment of a three-part survey of cult films, focusing on comedies and films with a camp sensibility. (Volume 1 is reviewed here, Volume 2 here.)

Still from Time Warp Greatest Cult Movies of All Time Vol. 3: Comedy and Camp

COMMENTS: This omnibus collection of mini-documentaries confronts its most challenging subject matter here in the third act. In the case of comedy, the ability to make audiences laugh is subjective, underappreciated, and difficult to discuss without destroying the very qualities of humor. When it comes to discussing camp, the concept itself carries with it issues of gender, sexuality, race, and power. How would the producers of the Time Warp series address these important, sometimes even incendiary topics?

The answer is: pretty much not at all. Time Warp just wants to have fun and share some rabidly adored films. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the fact that the filmmakers don’t even want to engage with some of these interesting topics means that the whole enterprise carries about as much weight as “VH-1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”

There’s a pretty straightforward recipe for Time Warp’s method: play some clips from a film that took time to find its audience, get some of the movie’s participants to recount tales from the production, throw in some well-chosen clips and a little commentary from talking heads to explain why the film has a devoted following, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Then queue up another movie and do it all again. The panel of hosts clocks in barely 5 minutes of screen time, and offers virtually nothing in the way of analysis, context, or debate. So you just kind of have to trust that the producers have done their best in picking the comedies and camp-fests that best exemplify the label of “greatest cult films of all time.” Clerks? Yeah, I can see that. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Yes, I am totally convinced. Super Troopers? Um… sure, I guess.

That said, the list assembled here is pretty entertaining. These actors and directors are genuinely and justifiably proud of their work, and thrilled that it has managed to endure and thrive over the years. Diedrich Bader and Jim Gaffigan tell stories of having their famous lines quoted back to them. B-movie legends Erica Gavin and Mary Woronov offer gleefully unrestrained accounts of the conditions in which their movies were made. Jon Gries (whose name is misspelled in his chyron) is interviewed while holding a noisy parrot, and why not. And it’s a bittersweet surprise to see the late Fred Willard show up. Interspersed with well-chosen clips and some thoughtful commentary from critics and other professionals (gold medal to Amy Nicholson for her explanation as to why John Lazar should have become a legend), Vol. 3 makes a pretty strong case that any one of these films could easily merit its own feature-length documentary.

But it’s hard to be sure what distinguishes this from a video version of a Buzzfeed listicle. As my colleague Terri McSorley noted in reviewing Vol. 2, these selections are pretty anodyne. These 18 films are almost wholly American (only Monty Python and the Holy Grail can legitimately call itself a non-US film), largely recent (more than half are less than 30 years old), and predominantly white (actresses Shondrella Avery and Marcia McBroom and actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar help vary the palette). This roster feels like a good place to start the conversation about cult movies, but hardly the end-all be-all of the form.

Maybe I’m just jaded by the extensive efforts of this website to justify the films we crown. After all, consider the fact that Danny Peary needed three volumes to chronicle 200 films in his “Cult Movies” series, or that Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon accumulated 130 entries over the course of five years. To spend a decent amount of time with 47 films in less than six hours is really a solid achievement. But it still feels like the format makes it impossible to do much more than pay lip service to a handful of films that have earned passionate devotion, without examining the phenomenon or delving into why these films are such good ambassadors.

I’m including the complete list of films discussed in this volume, with links to our reviews. And it’s possibly instructive to compare our attention to campy vs. funny flicks. Guess a comedy’s got to work really hard to land on our radar.

* Part of the 366 Weird Movies Canon

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf has a more interview-packed chapter to finish with, securing sunnier features to study, closing on a bright note of classic endeavors that provided a sense of danger, delirium, and human insight, brought to life by talented filmmakers. Any chance to spend time with these titles is most welcome.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT MOVIES OF ALL TIME, PART 2: HORROR AND SCI-FI (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: , , Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollack

PLOT: This is part 2 of a three part documentary about cult films, focusing on horror and sci-fi featuring clips and interviews with critics and those associated with the films. (Volume 1 is reviewed here.)

Malcolm McDowell in Time Warp the Greatest Cult Movies of All Time, Vol 2 - Horror and Sci-Fi

COMMENTS: Joe Dante, John Waters, Kevin Pollack and Illeana Douglas host the documentary. Dante introduces each title, while his co-hosts add commentary between clips and interviews. At a running time of 1:23:22, each film is afforded a decent amount of coverage. Director Danny Wolf and his crew pull out all the stops on assembling a parade of entertaining and relevant interviewees. There are a handful of critics included, but most of the interviews are with the cast and crew of the films.

The always entertaining shares some great Evil Dead stories. Ken Foree discusses working on both Dawn of the Dead and The Devil’s Rejects. chats about Death Race 2000. If there was a competition for Queen of Cult I think Ms. Woronov, would have to be crowned. She also graces Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Eating Raoul, both of which will be covered in the documentary’s third part; and she appears in Night of the Comet, Terrorvision and Chopping Mall, any of which could easily make a list of cult horror films. Edwin Neal, who plays the hitchhiker in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, takes us on a tour of the old house, which is now the Grand Central Cafe. Director talks about Re-Animator (sadly, Gordon passed away in March of this year). Malcolm McDowell tells a funny story about meeting Gene Kelly. And there’s , , , archival interview footage of and ; the list goes on.

After watching this documentary I started a conversation on Twitter about cult film. I realized quickly that people had varying ideas on what exactly gives a film cult status. In my mind a cult film does not have mainstream appeal but, through word of mouth after a reasonable amount of time has passed, grows a small but ferociously dedicated audience. I don’t think that is the case any longer. Cult films have evolved simply due to the fact that everything is so easily accessible. The “reasonable amount of time” that must pass is no longer a factor. Home video wasn’t common until the early 1980s, so films remained in obscurity for years. Even with home video, there were films that were difficult or impossible to get. Social media has changed everything.

I don’t think any two people would create an identical list of their favorite cult films of all time; my own list would look quite different from this one. That said, there are two selections I must quibble over. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is without a doubt one of the greatest horror films ever made. It does buck all the rules of cultdom, though. It was successful on its release, was well-reviewed, and is probably one of the best known and most loved horror flicks of all time. Secondly, Human Centipede is the only film to make the cut that was not made in North America. Of all the amazing and unique horror films to come from other countries, they decided to include Human Centipede as one of the greatest cult horror films of all time! I actually liked the movie, but its inclusion here sincerely boggles my mind.

Still, overall this is a great list of films; I am particularly thrilled they included Liquid Sky. The absolute definition of a cult classic; a genuinely weird and one-of-a-kind flick. There is something to entertain everyone in this documentary, from the seasoned horror and sci-fi fan to the newcomer.

The complete list of titles featured:

Death Race 2000
Liquid Sky
Human Centipede
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
The Brother from Another Planet
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Re-Animator
Blade Runner
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
Evil Dead
The Devil’s Rejects
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf also makes time for independent fare, surveying the strangeness and scrappiness of ‘The Brother from Another Planet’ and ‘Liquid Sky,’ with the latter title especially gonzo in terms of new wave immersion, limiting outside appreciation. ‘Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time Volume 2: Horror & Sci-Fi’ sustains the sugar rush of the previous endeavor, with Wolf once again providing a fun reminder of quirky and gruesome cinema achievements and the artists who brought them to life.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 1: MIDNIGHT MADNESS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: , , Ileana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: Part one of a three part documentary on cult movies.

Still from Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time, Vol 1. Midnight Movies (2020)

COMMENTS: The charm of Danny Wolf’s talking-heads-plus-clips documentary Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time is that, at bottom, it’s just a bunch of knowledgeable film fans sitting around yakking about some of their favorite films, which just also happen to be some of the wildest, weirdest, and most unique visions ever committed to celluloid.

The presentation, however, is a bit ho-hum. There isn’t a great flow from one movie to the next. It starts with a panel briefly attempting to define the term “cult film” (John Waters proposes, “To Hollywood executives, ‘cult film’ means that twenty people who were smarter than them liked it and it lost a lot of money”). They start the survey with an examination of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), not because it was the first cult movie or midnight movie, but because it’s inarguably the most successful repertory feature film of all time. Coverage then segues into The Big Lebowski—because that’s the second most beloved film—and then wanders around, finding opportunity to slip in oddities like blaxploitation movies and Reefer Madness seemingly at random. A more structured approach might have allowed for a deeper appreciation of the historical context and development of these films, but that shouldn’t be a huge obstacle to your enjoyment. The ramshackle order of presentation arguably fits the subject: movies that captivate their audience through passion rather than logic.

Of course, the cult movie geek in me wants to point out that only a few of the pieces covered in this introductory volume were actually “midnight movies” intended to be shown at 12 AM screenings. With Ben Barenholtz (the inventor of the “midnight movie” as a marketing gimmick) on hand, the doc misses a great opportunity to explore a 1970s cultural phenomenon that endures (in an enervated form) to this day. Although it’s relatively senseless to complain about omissions in a subjective project like this, I do think ‘s El Topo (1970) deserved at least a name check, seeing as how it was the first film regularly and specifically programmed for midnight theatrical screenings.

But, to be honest, most true “midnight movies” dive deeper into the cult catalog than Time Warp cares to go. The “Midnight Movies” subtitle is therefore a misnomer for this particular doc (volumes two and three, covering “science fiction and horror” and “comedy and camp,” promise to be more tightly focused). But we’ll give them a break, because Time Warp isn’t a graduate cinema course; it’s a freshman “Introduction to Cult Movies 101” offering. And that’s absolutely fine. While I can think of a number of recommended documentaries devoted to individual films or cult figures (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s ApocalypseI Am Divine), I’m not aware of another film that covers quite the same introductory ground. Time Warp therefore fills a gap. And even if there is a similar documentary out there that I’m overlooking, there’s no way it got this incredible lineup of celebs and icons to chip in their thoughts. I mean, if I told you I had a movie whose cast featured Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, Fran Drescher, , , and Pam Grier, would you watch it?

Four of the sixteen movies discussed here are canonized on our own list of the best weird movies ever made, with Freaks, Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead joining Rocky Horror. I’ll let you tune in yourself for the reveal of the full list of titles they highlight. As we here know as well as anyone, large part of the enjoyment of any list are friendly arguments about what should and shouldn’t have made the cut. We’ll bring you the scoop on the other two volumes as they are released (the horror is set for May 19, while the camp and comedy one drops on June 23).

At the moment, it appears that Time Warp can be rented on Itunes, Vudu, or Fandango Now. We’ll try to update this post if it shows up on other services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Beyond the clunkiness of its construction, however, Time Warp nevertheless does cinephiles a great service with its homage to the oddities of the cinematic past. I, for one, was not unhappy with the visit.”–Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Film Festival Today (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: QUEEN OF PARADIS (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Lindstrom

FEATURING: Reine Paradis

PLOT: After a sold-out exhibit of her “Jungle” photography series, Reine Paradis goes around the United States to find the perfect locations for her follow-up, “Midnight.”

COMMENTS: When I experience art, I try to do so with a degree of ignorance–I typically neither know, nor care to know, anything about the artist. I eschew “director’s commentaries” for films because I want to see the work, and experience the story, on its own. I found Queen of Paradis, a documentary about an artist making art, somewhat awkward going—and knew half an hour in where it was going, and how it was going there.

We follow Reine Paradis, a Surrealist photographic artist, and her husband (who handily fills the roles of driver, prop repairman, photographer, and all around supportive swell guy) across the country as she puts lime plexi-plastic on display, making unreal, still-life vignettes from a real, photographed setup. The tone is typical talking heads-style documentary interspersed with intimate scenes (socially and emotionally intimate, that is)—including more “breaking-and-entering” segments than I was expecting, as Reine and hubby sneak into a salt mine for a white “mountain”top shoot, or onto a fenced-off billboard for a neon-lime-green spaghetti dinner “restaurant” shoot. It is a credit (I presume to director Lindstrom) that the tone never quite veers into satirical—any other movie with the line, ‘Okay! I have the fish!’ shouted by a French woman standing beside a train track would doubtless smack of parody.

But an interesting topic does not an interesting movie make. I also experienced this with the documentary about The Residents. While Queen of Paradis is competent, adequately assembled, and informative about its subject matter, that only hits a documentary’s minimum requirements. (And upon a little reflection, it seems unfair to be so dismissive of a documentary that does those three things; oh well.) Still, all and all, I found Reine’s imagery fascinating and playful and that, ultimately, is the point. Queen of Paradis could be dismissed as an advertisement for the artist, but I don’t begrudge her that. It worked on me.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

reine paradis – The titular artist’s homepage, with plenty of images and information about her, her work, and this movie

Surreal-Chic – In-depth article about Paradis’ first photo-set, “Jungle”

“Interview” by Plastik Magazine – This brief (1:18 minutes) segment conveniently condenses Reine’s process, and results, into a bite-sized chunk

“step into reine paradis’ surrealist adventure land” – Interview and article with the i-D people (a fashion culture, fanzine outfit) featuring many of the photographs from the “Midnight” shoot

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not exactly a massive fan of art documentaries. I prefer watching more of the pop-culture and modern-day artists…the ones with a quirky edge over the traditional. Paradis definitely fits the quirky side of art. Queen of Paradis is an excellent art film.”–Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)