Tag Archives: Hollywood

CHANNEL 366: BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR (2021)

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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)

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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 as the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe the film has cultivated.

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)

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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-action1 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.)

CAPSULE: SPACE JAM (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Pytka

FEATURING: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Wayne Knight; voices of Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, Bob Bergen, Kath Soucie, Danny DeVito

PLOT: Recently retired basketballer Michael Jordan is abducted by Bugs Bunny and the “Looney Tunes” gang to help them avoid enslavement by the evil Swackhammer, corporate overlord of Planet Moron.

COMMENTS: The other night, I let the mid-’90s wash over me like a quarter-century-old wave of dodged memories. They were all there: late-to-new-career Michael Jordan, mid-career Bill Murray, post-career “Looney Tunes,” and radio-friendly basketball hip hop . Wheaties, Gatorade, and KFC all had name drops or slogan references. And there I was: having very little idea who any of these athletes were. However, I did recognize the salient cinematic points of interest. Space Jam is the kind of movie that screams 1990s: the pacing, the musical score, the editing transitions, and the impressively hit-and-miss humor. Growing up, everyone I knew from school had seen this; now, I too can say that I have seen Space Jam, and I find myself utterly unbothered for having done so.

The story takes little more than sixty minutes to tell, which I gather is appropriate for a game consisting of four fifteen-minute quarters. Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan) has just announced his retirement from basketball in order to pursue his dream of mastering the world of baseball. He does badly on the Boston Barons team, but is beloved by the holdover fans. His life evolves from mildly depressing to mildly annoying when Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) becomes his personal assistant. In the parallel story, alien overlord Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) orders his goons to filch a new attraction for his failing amusement park, sending them lightly brained but heavily armed to the land of “Looney Tunes.” The real and animated worlds collide mid-golf round while Jordan is on the links with Bill Murray and Larry Bird. Soon, the big game comes and…

…and at around the thirty-seven-minute mark, when everything had been set up, I began to worry. There were still fifty minutes of this benign nonsense to go, and I couldn’t imagine how far they might stretch it. However, this being “Looney Tunes,” I should have known to count on it not over-staying its welcome. Before the fifteen-plus minutes of credits, we meet sassy, mid-’90s “Don’t Ever Call Me ‘Doll'” hot bunny girl Lola, view an inordinate number of Bugs Bunny butt-shots, hear a delightful bitch-o-logue from Daffy Duck while he visits our world to retrieve Jordan’s lucky sports gear, and sit in adequately-entertained wonder while a well-paced finale teaches us the importance both of self confidence and having a Murray-ex-machina on the sidelines.

Space Jam is a childhood touchstone for many, and having watched it for the first time in (comparatively) old age, I begrudge them not a jot. This viewing is timely, too, as we brace ourselves for the new Space Jam saga; I know I’m not the only one hoping we can get Alfred Eaker‘s two cents on that forthcoming cultural feast.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weirdly entertaining little curiosity, which seamlessly combines vintage Looney Tunes characters with live-action footage, is dominated by Jordan’s nice-guy personality.”–Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: FREDDIE GOT FINGERED (2001)

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Reader recommendation by June Culpepper

DIRECTED BY: Tom Green

FEATURING: Tom Green, Harland Williams, Marisa Coughlan,

PLOT: Gord Brody (Tom Green), a slacker with a dream of becoming a cartoonist, goes to California to get his cartoon made.

Still from Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Panned by critics to this day, this film is a -esque prank on both the film industry and the audience, more of a nightmarish combination of Sweet Movie, Adaptation, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie than another Jack and Jill.

COMMENTS: Tom Green did not want to make a movie. After his meteoric rise from Canadian public television to MTV fame with “The Tom Green Show” (a late night talk show that combined gross-out stunts with surrealist humor, predating “The Eric Andre Show” by two decades), Hollywood most certainly took notice.  “We don’t understand him, but the kids seem to love him,” the execs probably said. “Let’s give him 15 million dollars.” After handing him the check, Tom went back to a shack in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, and came out nine months later with Freddy Got Fingered.

Freddy Got Fingered works as a sort of deconstruction of the gross-out comedy schlock of the era, taking every trope of these sorts of films and stretching them to their absolute limit, to the point where the audience is left to wonder why they liked these gags at all. The angry father who disapproves of his son’s wild dreams is played by Rip Torn, a screaming warthog in a human skinsuit. The love interest, who in most of these films is just there to satisfy the lead’s sexual needs, is a wheelchair-bound Marisa Coughlan, who is obsessed with rocketry and fellatio.  Green takes the essential pillars of gross-out comedies and breaks them down to the point where you can never build them up again.

Freddie Got Fingered also has a meta-cinema tinge to it, almost as if the film itself is the joke. The movie, in a weird way, is about the movie itself being made. Gord, who is obviously a stand-in for Green himself, has a meteoric rise to fame, in a way that almost feels out of his control. He then blows all of his money on pointless nonsense (the movie itself).  In his own words, “Easy come, easy go.”

This film is an over-the-top combination of meta-cinema, surrealism, punk spirit, and weird gross-out moments that caught me so off-guard that I don’t even want to spoil them. Tom Green got to make his perfect film, and weirdos making their magnum opuses are what this site is all about.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie is super weird…  someday it will be acknowledged as a triumph of absurdist filmmaking.”–Andrei Alupului, Spectrum Culture

(This movie was nominated for review by “Frank,” who said ” I feel the farcical, insanity of Freddy Got Fingered is at least worth a look.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)

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DIRECTED BY: William C. McGann

FEATURING: , Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston, John Eldredge, Elspeth Dudgeon

PLOT: Two policemen, an artist, a femme fatale, a pair of captains, a socialite, and a housekeeper are all trapped in a lighthouse with the Octopus, a criminal overlord, and an octopus, a mollusk, menacing them as they investigate a mysterious murder.

Still from sh! the octopus (1937)

COMMENTS: Sh! The Octopus has something for everybody. Its inspired mash-up of screwball comedy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and melodrama defies categorization, and isn’t for those who tend toward dismissiveness. When a feature film clocks in at under an hour, can be found streaming for free on YouTube, and has been buried in a sea of Reader Suggested titles, all the warning signs are there. I ignored these signs and committed myself to fifty-four minutes of wild gyrations between tiresome comedy and middling comedy, ultimately witnessing a witch-y performance and a narrative punchline that made a certain technicolor 1939 classic feel derivative.

But first, the story. Irish-American cops Kelly and Dempsey are cruising around off duty when they are informed via dispatch that Kelly (Hugh Herbert), who spends his time in the patrol car popping pills of unknown provenance, is about to become a father. Meanwhile, “marine artist” Paul Morgan has purchased an abandoned lighthouse from the federal government to focus on his paintings—a lighthouse with the aptly named “Captain Hook” as its caretaker. Meanwhile, Clancy, another Irish-American, has been appointed as the police commissioner tasked with bringing down a gang-lord known as “the Octopus”. Meanwhile, at the lighthouse, more and more people assemble as the plot spirals outward wildly, revealing that the FBI, the “Society for Peace”, the proto-CIA, and the proto-INTERPOL are all interested in the plans for a Radium Ray—a weapon so powerful that, as the inventor’s daughter informs us, “whoever controls it would control the world!”

That’s a lot of “meanwhiles,” and a lot of Irish-Americans. And that’s the kind of movie this is: your basic “haunted house” framework with every conceivable plot-graft bolted on to it (probably by some Irish-American workers). I’m a fan of screwball comedy, and so had more patience for what was going on than most would, but I still was wondering what all these gyrations could possibly be in aid of. However, there was a twist at the end that left me chuckling for a good fifteen minutes after the lighthouse exploded. (Whoops; spoiler alert.) Sh! The Octopus is a barely passable movie, to be sure, but it does have that twist. And it’s a concise bit of nonsense for the more stereotypically minded on St. Patrick’s Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the weirdest little film made by a studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat

 

CAPSULE: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins

FEATURING: Sophia Lillis, , Samuel Leakey

PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.

Still from Gretel & Hansel (2020)

COMMENTS: There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.

Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch.  Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…

This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on a tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.

Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.

Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)