More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

One-Armed Man Strikes Back

Spencer Tracy is one of those actors who, no matter what, always manages to remain consistently entertaining, powerful, and strangely understated. Many of his performances were quiet and earnest, yet one might always suspect that there rested a stern bite beneath the surface.

Who couldn't love this face?

Who couldn’t love this face?

His later work in such films as the Scopes Monkey trial courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1960); the phenomenal Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) which chronicled the trials for the Nazis war crimes following World War II; the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in which his white daughter is engaged to a black man (played by Sidney Poitier); and even a wryly comic role as the straight-laced Capt. Culpepper who decides that he might be entitled to more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to name a few are very memorable indeed.

His white hair, craggy face, and gentle, thoughtful timber added much to many films. Not terribly fond of rehearsals, Tracy would read the script once several days before shooting and not look at it again (in order to preserve the freshness). Tracy (much like Frank Sinatra) was also not fond of multiple takes.

This is comfy. I could narrate "How the West was Won" from here right now. Give me the microphone.

This is comfy. I could narrate “How the West was Won” from here right now. Give me the microphone.

Today I wish to highlight what cab be been best categorized as a “minimalist neo-western.” The Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), follows many of the familiar conventions of typical cowboy/western fare, but the added touch of taking place in 1945 gives it a uniquely contemporary flare.  The film is directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and also stars Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), and Walter Brennan (The Pride of the Yankees).

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Bad Day at Black Roc is set in a quiet—too quiet—western town in the middle of nowhere. There are only a few residents and the train never stops there…that is until the mild-mannered John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) shows up one day. Macreedy, a one-armed war veteran, is greeted with hostility and suspicion by all. It seems everything the intelligent and likable Macreedy does just bothers the residents of Black Rock.
Quit bein' a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Quit bein’ a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Macreedy, a simple gentleman with a streak of hopelessness since the loss of his arm, has come to Black Rock with one simple purpose: to give a medal to the man who’s son saved his life in the war. The catch: the man is a Japanese-American named Komoko. Macreedy learns (despite many attempts to chase him out of town) that tough guy, Reno Smith (Ryan), and his racist thugs murdered Komoko. It’s a taut suspense thriller to see if Macreedy can stay alive long enough to catch the next train. Despite being handicapped and an older guy with one arm against a whole town of cowardly thugs out to get him, Macreedy is filled with a new purpose: to avenge Komoko and bring his murderers to justice, but as the Black Rock folks close in and gradually cut off communication and transportation to the outside world, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The few friends he has made in Black Rock are all too conflicted and afraid to help him so Macreedy truly is alone in the wretched desert town. It all culminates into an edge-of-your-seat final showdown (but definitely not your typical western showdown).
We don't take kindly to strangers.

We don’t take kindly to strangers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a satisfying film with great performances and a sharp look. Director John Sturges does fine work. The suspense and feelings of isolation really boost the story into something quite special. A rather humorous and violent exchange between Borgnine and Tracy in a bar is particularly enjoyable. Macreedy’s transformation from a man whose handicap has led him to give up on himself into a man full of righteous indignation and a profound sense of purpose that awakens his will to survive is electrifying. Once again Spencer Tracy gives a very fine performance as the exceedingly polite but resolve-filled John J. Macreedy.

Why don't you just tell me where to sit.

Why don’t you just tell me where to sit.

The film deals with hard issues. Anti-Japanese sentiment felt by many Americans during World War II is manifests in a very unapologetic and ugly way. This movie is really about a viscous hate-crime being avenged. It pulls the carpet out from under the audience even more by having the long arm of justice ironically represented by a one-armed man. I strongly recommend you seek out and watch Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a pleasurable little film with a lot of strong atmosphere, color, and suspense. I love it and I think you will too.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30, 2009.