Tag Archives: Hollywood

28*. WALKER (1987)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s commentary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ed Harris, , , , Peter Boyle,  Marlee Matlin

PLOT: Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hires William Walker, a mercenary and adventurer fresh off a failed campaign to establish an independent state in Mexico, to take a small army to Nicaragua to join their civil war on the side of the Democrats. Assembling a ragtag band of disreputable men lacking better prospects, Walker takes his army to Nicaragua, where he has unexpected success, driving back the Legitimist army and arriving in the capital of Grenada as a liberator. Initially accepting a position leading the army, Walker grows power mad and seizes the country’s Presidency.

Still from Walker (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Walker was a real historical figure and, ridiculous anachronisms and obvious fantasy scenes aside, Walker describes the general direction of his career. Many scenes were drawn from his diaries and letters and other historical sources. (One major change was the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who did not sponsor Walker’s original expedition, but was involved in his downfall.)
  • The practice of American adventurers invading Latin American countries with private armies was surprisingly common in the 19th century, so much so that it earned its own name: filibustering. William Walker was the most successful filibusterer of all time. He somehow took control of Nicaragua with an army initially comprised of a mere 60 men.
  • Rudy Wurlitzer’s previous screenplays included the bizarre post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), ‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Western Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973).
  • Cox made Walker in the same year as Straight to Hell, a quickie scraped together after plans to film a punk rock concert in Nicaragua fell apart.
  • The movie was filmed while the C.I.A..-backed Contras were waging a guerilla war against the ruling Sandinistas. Cox filmed corpses from a Contra massacre and included the footage in the film’s end credits.
  • Universal Studios gave Cox his largest budget ever, six million dollars, to make what they hoped might be a prestige biopic, or even a hit. They did not expect the deranged, anachronistic, incendiary film Cox delivered, and after poorly-received test screenings they buried the film. Cox never directed in Hollywood again.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to cite one of the many iconic scenes of Walker, rifle in hand, striding confidently in the foreground in his smart Puritan-black suit while mayhem erupts in the background. We instead selected the surreal image of Walker striding confidently across the beach in the background, while in the foreground two of his men are being punished by being buried up to their necks in the sand with a tarantula crawling over one’s head, while their overseer enjoys a Marlboro and Coke.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Smoking during tarantula torture; 19th century helicopter evacuation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by (if he was obsessed with politics instead of sex and Catholicism). That’s Walker in a nutshell.


Original trailer for Walker

COMMENTS: Walker drops its strangeness on its viewers gradually. Continue reading 28*. WALKER (1987)

CAPSULE: THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003)

Beware

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

“I’m not so good with the rhyming.”  – The Cat (Mike Myers)

DIRECTED BY: Bo Welch

FEATURING: Mike Myers, , Spencer Breslin, ,

PLOT: Two children left alone at home encounter a human-sized talking cat who leads them on a series of wacky and destructive misadventures.

Still from Cat in the Hat (2003)

COMMENTS:

Shall I spin you a tale of a movie gone wrong?
Of 82 minutes that feel three days long?
Then I’ll tell unto you, just right there where you’ve sat
Of the travesty known as The Cat in the Hat.

‘Twas a gray day in Hollywood, no dreams to dream,
When one junior executive cooked up a scheme:
“What we need’s some IP we can plunder for cash.
It can be mediocre, can even be trash!
All we need is the title; who cares if it’s rank?
They’ll fill up the theaters, and we’ll all make bank.”

“You’re so right,” said his colleagues, “it’s easy as pie.
For familiar content, we won’t even try.”
So those vultures considered what might be of use
And decided to dig up our dear Dr. Seuss.

“We’ve done it before,” they all cried. “It’s a cinch.
We grossed two-sixty mill on that trash heap, The Grinch.
Which proves that we needn’t pretend like we care. No,
That garbage still vacuumed up mucho dinero.”

The honchos began to assemble the parts
That would demonstrate all of their filmmaking smarts.
A novice director? Sure, that’ll be fine.
“We’ll pick some guy known for production design.”

“And a script?” a small voice piped up. “I took a look
And it might be a challenge to translate a book
That’s so short. We’ll get ripped by the Dr. Seuss nerds;
It’s one thousand six hundred and twenty-six words.”

“Damn the length!” came the riposte. “Damn logic and plot.
For those minor objections,” they said, “we care not.
Once we get a big star, we’ll have no cause for worry.
His comedy chops will fix things in a hurry.”
So they looked at the feline displayed on the front
And decided to try an uproarious stunt.
Tall and thin, long of limb, with a wide, gleeful eye…
“Mike Myers!” they cried. “There’s no doubt he’s our guy!”

And perhaps that is how we arrived at this place,
At a movie so lacking in wit and in grace.

Continue reading CAPSULE: THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003)

CHANNEL 366: BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR (2021)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gandja Monteiro, Jake Schreier, Matt Sobel, Nick Antosca, Arkasha Stevenson

FEATURING: , , Eric Lange

PLOT: A filmmaker seeking revenge on a producer takes a surreal and supernatural trip down the rabbit hole after making a deal with a witch.

Still from Brand New Cherry Flavor (2021)

COMMENTS: Lisa Nova drives to Los Angeles to meet with producer Lou Burke about expanding her short film “Lucy’s Eye” into a feature. Lou loves the film, a check is written, and a contract is signed. But Lou revokes his promise to allow Lisa to direct after she refuses his sexual advances. Lisa vows revenge on the predatory producer. Lisa goes to see Boro, an odd woman she met at a party who told her she could hurt someone for her. Boro is a witch of sorts, and for a price she will put a curse on your enemy.

“Brand New Cherry Flavor” is a Netflix limited series consisting of eight fortyish minute episodes. Motivations are hammered out pretty quick in the first episode; going forward, it is all about the revenge. The plot is primarily supernatural horror. There is a significant amount of violence and gore ranging from eye trauma to decapitation. And there are definitely enough wacky, what-the-hell moments to qualify the series as weird.

The three central characters all give quality performances. Eric Lange is great as the arrogant and lascivious producer. It was very satisfying seeing him get his comeuppance, and by the end of the series I almost felt sorry for him—almost. Rosa Salazar plays Lisa Nova with a quiet confidence. I found myself liking her more with every episode. One of my favorite scenes has her tripping on some magic stew that actually made me feel like I was stoned myself. My favorite character was Boro, played by Catherine Keener. Her army of zombies, affinity for kittens, matter-of-fact commentary and facial expressions made me smile or laugh out loud several times. There are some genuinely creepy moments and a few shocks, but there is a good deal of humor in this horror series.

I am under the impression that when Netflix uses the term “limited series“ that they do not intend a second season. I really enjoyed “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” and there is definitely more story to tell here. I would welcome a season two. The full series is available to watch on Netflix right now.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Brand New Cherry Flavor may be the best showcase yet for Salazar and her ability to carry a project that, with a different lead, would have collapsed under the weight of its self-conscious weirdness… Not everything Lynchian aspires to be utterly oblique and not everything Cronenbergian aspires to a complete body horror miasma, but it’s striking how Brand New Cherry Flavor achieves beats that are ‘weird’ or ‘gross’ without ever being pervasively unsettling.”–Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONDO HOLLYWOODLAND (2019)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Janek Ambros

FEATURING: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo, Jessica Jade Andres, Ted Evans

PLOT: A being from the 5th dimension enlists the help of a purveyor of magic mushrooms and observes a cross-section of the town’s residents in an effort to define the concept of “mondo.”

Still from Mondo Hollywoodland (2019)

COMMENTS: The fabled Hollywood sign, symbol of dazzling entertainment throughout the world and physical representation of the film industry’s outsized sense of self-importance, began its existence as an advertisement. “HOLLYWOODLAND” arose in the Santa Monica mountains nearly 100 years ago to lure prospective Southern California residents to a new real estate development. The last four letters were stricken when the sign made its shift from billboard to civic symbol, and the sign enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom.

So while the most obvious inspiration for the title of Mondo Hollywoodland would seem to be the similarly named 1967 quasi-documentary about the region’s curious subcultures, the newer film leans more into Hollywoodland’s origins as a neighborhood. The Dream Factory is ever-present in the lives of the absurd, deluded, ridiculous people chronicled here, but they are still people, and this is a movie that looks for the community among them.

Early on, when the narrator identifies himself has being from the 5th dimension (presumably not the band), we can take comfort in knowing that everything about to ensue is pretty silly. Further exemplifying the flimsy structure of this endeavor is the decision to divide Southern California society into three classes, each of which is trying to buy into the Hollywood dream despite repeatedly seeing the cracks in the façade.

We begin with the Titans, ostensibly the power brokers who make blockbuster entertainment and break the hearts of aspiring stars. And yet our focus on Ted, a perpetually coked-up mid-level executive desperately trying to bring a Disney Channel starlet to heel, reveals these masters of the universe to be puny. There is no world beyond sci-fi epics and last-minute dialogue changes for these Titans, and Ted’s triumphant fist pump (earned by completely caving in) belies his fear at losing what little power he has.

The Weirdos occupy the opposite end of the spectrum, determined to better their world and generally clueless about how to do so. Hoping to take down a Trump-allied neo-Nazi, they pass out flyers at a gun-sense rally. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, they advocate for harmony. One even mediates a conflict between two pieces of wood. They are obsessed with politics, the state of the world, and whether their empathy and good intentions are enough to bring about utopia. At least, they are when they’re not tripping. Weirdo Daphne is so disillusioned with the slow pace of change that she takes matters into her own hands, torching a car. “Hope they got the message,” she says, even though it’s doubtful if even she knows what the message might be.

Enter the Dreamers, certain that their taste of fame and fortune is just around the corner. Not surprisingly, this section of the film flirts with sadness, as all these dreams seem to be deferred. From an agent whose clients are all up for the biggest roles but never get the gig to an acting coach whose credibility derives entirely from his stint on “Mad About You” to a wannabe fitness guru who longs for even the reflected glory of training the stars. Central to this section is Anna, the granddaughter of a one-time Grace Kelly stand-in who goes on a date to a concert by the grandson of Bing Crosby. The barest glimmer of Hollywood’s allure is being pushed away by generations.

Boyle, the hapless mushroom dealer, is our connecting thread, popping in and out of stories while still carrying on his own peculiar battle against the rats hiding in his rented bungalow. Regularly high on his own product, he is frequently flummoxed by the simplest interactions, and wants only for things to be “groovy,” a condition that has eluded him since the disappearance of his cat. But he also becomes the unifying force that brings our Titan, Weirdo, and Dreamer together in a genuinely hilarious low-rent heist. They’re a marvelously motley crew, and the success of this scene at the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe Mondo Hollywoodland cultivates.

We never learn, precisely, what “mondo” is to this crowd, but if it means anything, it’s a special kind of magic that happens when aspirations manage to outdistance reality. Mondo Hollywoodland is self-evidently a Dreamer’s enterprise (having nabbed actor James Cromwell as an executive producer, the film’s publicity spares no effort to highlight the connection), but it is determined to face down the formidable opposition of a negative world and to be, in the end, groovy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Our lead protagonist, Boyle, is a mushroom dealer, and the entire film feels like a psychedelic bender... If you’re a fan of the experimental or WTF genre, you will find a home here.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action[efn_note]An animated sequel, Journey Back to Oz, was released in 1974.[/efn_note] sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)