Tag Archives: Obscure/Out of Print

CAPSULE: TIME MASTERS [LES MAÎTRES DU TEMPS] (1982)

AKA The Masters of Time

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DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Voices of , Michel Elias, Frédéric Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry

PLOT: A boy is marooned on an alien world, and a space mercenary encounters many obstacles in his rescue attempt.

Still from Time Masters (1982)

COMMENTS: Like the younger brother of an overachiever, Time Masters has to live up to a mighty pedigree. Director Rene Laloux is already enshrined in these halls for Fantastic Planet, another Stefan Wul adaptation renowned for its trippy visuals and detailed alien worlds. Add in that Laloux’s collaborator this time around is the famed artist Jean Giraud—better known as Moebius—and it’s only natural to assume that the result will hit similarly mind-blowing heights. Alas, the comparison does the newer film no favors. Hamstrung by a plot stretched too thin and production levels of sharply varying quality, Time Masters plays like the Filmation version of its predecessor.

The film’s production seems to be part of the problem. Originally conceived for television, satisfaction with early work convinced Laloux to expand it into a feature film. Unfortunately, the budget did not expand in proportion, and a large percentage of the movie was outsourced to animators in Hungary. (So many co-producers were brought in that it can legitimately be called a Franco-West German-Swiss-British-Hungarian production.) It’s not hard to figure out which parts of the film were animated where; the adventures of Piel on the surface of the untamed world of Perdide are charming and delicate, with the boy interacting with fascinating creatures both friendly and vicious. Meanwhile, the crew on its way to rescue him is flat and inert, completely incapable of demonstrating any emotion, let alone matching the tenor of the vocal performances. Time Masters becomes a tale of two films.

The story isn’t helping matters, as it betrays the effort that goes into delaying the central goal. Having received a subspace message that a small child is all alone on a dangerous planet and in need of rescue, the response of the would-be heroes is to take their sweet time. Stopping to pick up a sage advisor, they go for an extended swim. An attempted mutiny by a deposed royal leads to a suspense-free prison break. The threat of interference by space cops is met with the breathless excitement of a board meeting. (That’s not a metaphor. They all go into an auditorium and talk it out.) You can almost feel the screenwriters making the “stall for time” gesture.

Time Masters is not without its charms. In fact, the cuter the creature, the more interesting they seem to be. Piel and his planetary menagerie are sweet and occasionally even adorable, although they are far outdone by a pair of faceless gremlins named Yula and Jad who offer a running commentary on the foolishness of those around them. They are the Threepio and Artoo of the piece, but they bring more punch than most of the humans do at their most emotive.

Time Masters is commendable as something original, featuring some dramatic visuals and culminating in an ending that is certainly bold, even if it doesn’t really pay off the story in any meaningful way. But there just isn’t a whole lot that happens, and what does happen isn’t compelling enough to be more than a passing fancy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it’s just that until that point there’s a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy – basically, it looks like a kids’ film… It weaves a spell if you’re indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by Nickholas P Michell. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MOEBIUS (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Gustavo Mosquera

FEATURING: Guillermo Angelelli, Roberto Carnaghi, Anabella Levy, Jorge Petraglia

PLOT: A train vanishes within a vast subway system, and a topologist who happens to be a former student of the man who designed the transit line is tasked with tracking down the missing transport.

Still from Moebius (1996)

COMMENTS: For roughly a decade following a coup in 1976, the military junta that led Argentina waged a so-called “Dirty War” against suspected dissidents and opponents. The campaign amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, typified by widespread arrests without charge or trial, death camps, and even the taking of newborn infants to be raised by the families of favored families. (For what it’s worth, the Argentinian dictators had help.) The campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder was widespread, and the suspected number of 30,000 people disappeared without a trace during the junta’s reign may be low.

So perhaps you can understand why a short science fiction story about a subway train that mysteriously goes missing might have some resonance to Argentine audiences. The hidden parts of history are an ever-present threat to those in power, so the questions the characters in Moebius confront go far beyond what happened to the train, and reach into the puzzles of why can’t we find out and who doesn’t want us to know.

That’s why the way the mystery within Moebius unfolds is surprisingly satisfying: via the turning of the wheels of bureaucracy. As the alarm of a missing train works its way up the chain, we see ever-higher levels of managers and functionaries confronted with the baffling report, with no dialogue necessary to convey their confusion. Ultimately, these same bureaucrats will be looking for a way to make the whole thing go away, because the only thing more dangerous to the powerful than an unknown is a bad known.

As the equivalent of a locked-door mystery, Moebius relies heavily on mood to do the bulk of the work. After all, our hero is a topologist, a mathematician who studies the malleability of surfaces. This turns out to be a canny choice for an investigator, given the metaphysical nature of the train’s disappearance, but it also means we shouldn’t expect a lot of riveting action.

At least as interesting as Moebius’ plot is its production: director Mosquera enlisted a crew of 45 students from the newly established Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. Despite their nascent skills, the film is a very polished product. In particular, antique cameras and analog editing bring an unusual sheen to the various clips of trains in motion, giving the Underground the feel of the underworld.

Ultimately, what makes Moebius strange is its reliance upon metaphor. It’s no coincidence that the final sequence begins in a subway station named for Argentina’s premier magical realist, Jorge Luis Borges. For as much as it may seem to be about a man looking for a train, Moebius never ceases to be about a nation confronting hidden truths that stubbornly resist the sunlight. The movie is effective as a tight little science-fiction tale, but the ghosts of the desaparecidos have another story they insist upon telling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pop culture’s given us glory trains, cocaine trains, trains to nowhere, and hellbound trains, but Argentinian director Gustavo Mosquera manages to wrap them all into one in this masterful mind-fuck.”– Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

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

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF PICASSO [PICASSOS ÄVENTYR] (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Tage Danielsson

FEATURING: Gösta Ekman, Hans Alfredson, Margaretha Krook, Lena Olin, Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: The life of the legendary Spanish painter, told with a  questionable level of veracity.

Still from The Adventures of Picasso (1978)

COMMENTS: In a few weeks, a motion picture will make its streaming debut purporting to tell the remarkable story of pop music’s crown prince of parody, . Weird promises to cover every step of the master accordionist’s life and, whenever possible, to subvert the proceedings with lies and misdirections. It’s a fitting approach for someone who has built a career out of taking familiar sounds and destroying them from within.

What it won’t be is unprecedented. The grand womb-to-tomb biopic has been assailed before. Its conventions have been savagely parodied. We’ve seen lives thoroughly misappropriated with falsehoods and flights of invention. (And that’s to say nothing of legitimate productions that shred the truth to achieve better storytelling.) It turns out that a leading exemplar of the ridiculous film biography hit screens years earlier, the product of a Swedish comedy duo who wondered what it would be like to make an authoritative biography when you have virtually no knowledge of the subject.

Like a book report by a student who did absolutely none of the reading, this take on the life of Picasso is drenched in flopsweat. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, the pieces of the Picasso legend are already falling into place: young Pablo has established his bonafides at art school (successfully painting a nude after seeing the model for a split second), relocated to Madrid, adopted his trademark striped shirt and white trousers, and invented cubism. Having burned what few facts they have available, the filmmakers pivot to wildly making stuff up. Did you know that Picasso was gifted with a vial of magical ink by a woman he saved from a pair of foul brigands? Maybe you recall his illustrious contemporaries, who evidently include Ernest Hemingway, Erik Satie, two Toulouse-Lautrecs, Puccini (and his real life Mimi), Vincent van Gogh, and even Rembrandt. And who can forget the real story of how a petty artistic quibble between Churchill and Hitler presaged World War II. (No wonder Picasso would seek refuge in America, despite the notorious Art Prohibition of the Roaring Twenties.) The Adventures of Picasso is the movie equivalent of converting text into Japanese in Google Translate and then back.

One of the film’s most inventive techniques is the choice to dispense with dialogue altogether. Actors speak in grunts and gibberish or spout cursory and irrelevant phrases in pidgin versions of various languages. (A persistent chanteuse sings lyrics that are actually a recipe for a Finnish fish pastry.) Even the headline of the traditional newspaper carrying the word of the outbreak of World War I reads simply “BOOM KRASCH BANG!” Only the narration is necessary to carry the story forward, and you get a different version depending upon your native tongue. (English-speakers like myself are treated to comic actor Bernard Cribbins, in his role as Gertrude Stein.) The filmmakers have thus given themselves an out: don’t understand what’s going on? No worries; you’re not supposed to.

While writers Danielsson and Alfredson will do anything for a joke, they show surprising empathy for the Picasso they’ve created. There’s an extended skit where the onscreen Picasso is forced to do whatever the narrator dictates, and that typifies the notion that Picasso ultimately had no agency, a victim of his own success. His father is a relentless huckster; when his dicey hair tonic instantly produces Picasso’s famous baldness, the old man immediately sells the locks to capitalize on his son’s fame. Throughout the rest of his “career,” dear old dad will be there, making friends with history’s greatest monsters and looking for the quickest way to make a buck. At the end, the great artist is nothing more than an exhibit himself; his home is a theme park and his doves of peace are trinkets to be sold. In this telling, Picasso doesn’t so much die as drop out, leaving our materialistic world behind.

The Adventures of Picasso certainly takes an unusual approach to biography; if you come hoping to learn anything about the creative mind behind “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” or “Guernica,” you will surely be disappointed. And even the deeper truth that may be lurking within seems suspect; the real Picasso was far from an innocent and was in full control of his brand. But there’s something almost noble about the notion that if you can’t get it right, then by all means get it completely and utterly wrong. Or, as another great biographical subject once observed, “It doesn’t matter if it’s boiled or fried. Just eat it.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Adventures of Picasso‘ is billed as ‘a lunatic comedy,’ and while it does achieve that feeling on a couple of rare occasions, for the most part it’s like a bad dream… The film’s strategy is to make everything as feverishly absurd as it can be…. But too much of it has the ring of desperation. It’s all too frantic for words.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Ettin, who called it a “[S]wedish surreal comedy” that ” [I]’m sure you will like.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)        

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DÜNYAYİ KURTARAN ADAM [THE MAN WHO SAVES THE WORLD] (1982)

aka Turkish Star Wars

DIRECTED BY: Çetin Inanç

FEATURING: Cüneyt Arkin, Aytekin Akkaya, Füsun Uçar

PLOT: The Wizard is bent on destroying the Earth, but a pair of Turkish space pilots, Murat and Ali, evade destruction, crash-landing on a planet where the locals eke out their existence under the Wizard’s oppressive thumb. By strengthening his body and taking control of a mighty sword, Murat confronts The Wizard and his grotesque minions.

Still from Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (AKA The Man Who Saved the World, Turkish Star Wars)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Somehow managing to combine crowd-pleasing action with an awe-inspiring level of filmmaking incompetence, this infamous Turkish “blockbuster” is impossible to believe even as you’re watching it. The sheer magnitude of the amateurish techniques and narrative shortcuts results in less of a film and more of a fever dream – which is a surefire way to get our attention.

COMMENTS: Let’s start with the theft, as that is the full and complete reason for Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam‘s notoriety in the Western world. Director Inanç and star Arkin plotted their new film to take advantage of the public’s interest in sci-fi fantasy epics, with Star Wars leading the way. Steal from the best, they say, and Inanç took that phrase as literally as possible, illicitly dubbing an anamorphic print of the box office juggernaut and peppering his new movie with random and strangely squeezed clips from the pilfered print. The result is riotously inept: scenes are offered in no particular order; clips are frequently repeated; the original film’s good and evil seem to have flipped sides. Perhaps most amusingly, space pilots are filmed with the Star Wars footage rear-projected to simulate space flight… only the footage retains its original cuts. For anyone who knows the ubiquitous blockbuster, it’s hilariously naïve, like an art thief trying to cart away the Venus de Milo in the middle of a midday crowd.

But the snarky moniker is genuinely unfair, because (a) the purloined clips constitute a very small portion of the film, mostly during the scene-setting opening, and (b) there’s so much other stealing going on. Star Wars is joined by clips from old fantasy epics, stock footage of space launches, and even another studio’s logo card. And then there’s the soundtrack, a veritable calico quilt of lifted cues. The sharp-eared will pick up the bass line from Queen’s Flash Gordon score, a hyperactive take on the Battlestar Galactica theme, and fanfares from a James Bond movie, while it takes no listening skills at all to notice the liberal use of John Williams’ “Raiders March,” which the film appropriates as Murat’s spring-into-action theme, meaning we get to hear those noble trumpets literally dozens of times.

But pinching footage from another film alone does not a weird movie make, and Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam proves that it can vie for the title on its own. The story, what little can be teased out, is that a villainous warlord has an insatiable vendetta against the Earth, and is determined to destroy it. Or already has. (Possibly owing to translation issues and definitely because of regular re-use of the exploding planet scenes, the Wizard seems to destroy the Earth a lot in this Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DÜNYAYİ KURTARAN ADAM [THE MAN WHO SAVES THE WORLD] (1982)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of , Joan Gerber, , Andy Devine, Frank Nelson

PLOT: A young clockwork mouse and his father find themselves lost in the world, encountering a host of eccentric characters.

Still from The Mouse and His Child (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Taking on the appearance of a standard-issue children’s animation, The Mouse and His Child casually delves into such topics as philosophy, destiny, and the search for infinity, all represented through a world absurd even by the standards of cartoon logic.

COMMENTS: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for animated cinema in the west. was making his scandalous debut, and films like Coonskin and Fritz the Cat were introducing the once-unthinkable notion that animated films clearly crafted for adults could, in fact, not only exist, but have a genuine market. Animated movies aimed at children remained dominated by Disney, who didn’t exactly release their most iconic features in this particular decade. Younger upstarts like Pixar and (ugh) Dreamworks hadn’t yet emerged to contest Disney’s place as the prime source of children’s animation.

That’s one of the reasons why The Mouse and His Child is so noteworthy. Not only did it have the audacity to enter into the heavily monopolized animation market, but it did so with a movie that took a vastly different approach to children’s entertainment.

It ought to be said that kids, especially ones raised on today’s media, probably won’t enjoy The Mouse and His Child all that much. But as a curiosity piece—an example of just how remarkably eccentric children’s animation can be while still technically fitting into that category—it’s really quite priceless.

I’ve not read the book that this movie was based on, nor have I read any of Russell Hoban’s other works; but if this adaptation is a faithful reflection of the source material, it’s hardly surprising that it was penned by an author who also dabbled in magical realism and had extensive experience writing for adults. Themes well outside the interests of any child dominate the narrative, and the film’s approach to the nature and structure of reality is one that, while not exactly elaborate, has more depth to it than is normal for a children’s film.

The story opens in a toy shop, where the titular mouse and his child—a pair of clockwork toys—have newly arrived. Here, all the clockwork mechanisms live under the strict leadership of a ghostly grandfather clock, who robotically instructs them that they are to do only what they are “wound to do” and that love, family, and free thought are not accommodated for under “clockwork rules.” It isn’t long, however, before an accidental spill off the table and into a bin sends the mice accidentally carted off out into the world, where they head off on a clearly allegorical quest to become “self-winding.”

On their journey, the Mouse and his Child encounter the various oddities of this world, which might be best described as akin to The Animals of Farthing Wood if Farthing Wood happened to be the campus of a liberal arts university. A crooked rat cons and swindles his way through the movie (like any good cartoon rodent) while delivering every line with a thespian trill. A would-be clairvoyant frog struggles to reconcile his sincere belief in the concept of destiny with his fraudulent fortune-telling racket. A shrew resides in a hole by a pond, obsessing over abstract mechanical theories whilst shrugging off the plight of the forlorn clockwork creatures whom his talents could aid. And in a lake, an aged turtle ponders furiously over the Droste image on the label of a discarded dog food tin, convinced that some great universal truth lies beyond “the last visible dog”.

What really sets The Mouse and His Child apart is not the barriers it breaks, but rather the absurd middle ground that it occupies, one so difficult to precisely pin down that it could be considered the sole example of its own sub-genre. Far too introspective and philosophical for children’s entertainment, yet never approaching the edginess and vulgarity typical of “adult” animation, it resembles, more than anything else, an absurd experiment: a bold attempt to marry philosophy and animation. Mixing these two was unheard of at the time, and even in our more explorative day and age, there are few folks out there who flirt with the notion of exploring infinity and universal truth within the format of children’s animation. How well it works is a matter of debate better left to those better versed in philosophical matters than I; but there is little denying that, even now, over four decades later, with the boundaries of animation pushed much farther than once they were, there are still very few—if any—films quite like this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious mishmash overall, well animated yet not entirely satisfying, whether you have read the book or not. The sense that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface lingers, however, a need to find meaning in it all.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

CAPSULE: BLISS (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Ray Lawrence

FEATURING: Barry Otto, Lynette Curran, Helen Jones, Miles Buchanan, Gia Carides

PLOT: Harry Joy, an ad-executive and raconteur, has a near-death experience after a heart attack, and afterwards starts to see himself as living in Hell. He attempts to reform, but comes into conflict with his family. He finds a kindred spirit in Honey Barbara, a hippie girl in the City to sell marijuana to support her commune, but can Harry overcome the pull of his old life and find love?

Still from Bliss (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are touches, mainly in the imagery, it’s not full-on weird in concept or themes.

COMMENTS: Bliss is a story about stories: how stories affect one’s environment and how stories can save one’s life. Both Peter Carey (author of the original novel) and Ray Lawrence worked in advertising—storytelling used to sell something. Bliss is an expiation and penance for that life. At its core, it’s a story of a man’s mid-life crisis: he has a heart attack, dies, is revived and takes stock of his life, seeing himself as living in Hell, and works to atone.

At the time of its release, some compared it to Terry Gilliam‘s work, specifically Brazil. Some of the absurdist touches to illustrate the hellishness of Harry’s life (roaches skittering out of his chest incision, his wife’s infidelity symbolized by fish dropping from her crotch onto the floor) make that comparison sort of understandable, solely due to the use of imagery.

But with some 30 years of perspective, it’s a very superficial—and somewhat wrong—comparison. Now we see that Bliss anticipated “Mad Men,” and can be seen as a more focused and compact distillation of the thematic concerns of the show, only without the period setting and detail. Also, Bliss‘ Harry Joy is a far more sympathetic character we identify with, and his journey does come to a conclusion, rather than ending in ironic ambiguity.

HOME VIDEO INFO: Bliss was available on VHS from New World Video in the mid 1980’s, and to date is the only home video release in North America. In 2010, an all-region DVD was released with both the theatrical version and Director’s Cut, as well as a commentary with Lawrence and producer Anthony Buckley, but it appears to be out-of-print at this date.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Ray Lawrence milks the absurdity of the surreal situations for laughs and pathos in a take-no-prisoners style that challenges audiences’ tolerance for eccentricity.”–Michael Betzold, AllMovie

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Bliss Rewatched – a Guardian article about the film

Original trailer for Bliss