Model Minority, and six more movies

For watchers with an eye for the unusual, today's recommendations are Blast of Silence (1961), Model Minority (2012), and Radio Free Albemuth (2010).

— — — 

A Polish Vampire in Burbank (1983) 

Bad acting, bad jokes, bad effects, bad lighting, and a bad start — it's 15 minutes before this cheap homemade movie starts clicking, and even then it's effective only intermittently. But when it works, it works. It's stupid, and it's clever, and it's not very good, but I liked it. 

Dupah (writer/director/producer Mark Pirro) is a layabout vampire who wears leisure suits and does nothing but watch TV from sundown to sunup. His father disapproves, and wants Dupah to start biting necks and feeding on fresh blood, instead of ziplock baggie blood.  

Eddie Deezen has a small role — maybe you don't know the name, but you'll know the dweebish face and voice. He's by far the biggest name in the picture, unless you count the uncredited excerpts from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Memorable moments include Dupah's first date with a woman who's basically a vampire groupie, the Christian proselytizer who won't take no for an answer, and an inexplicable Sonny and Cher impression.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Barjo (1992)
a/k/a Confessions d'un Barjo

This is a French-language adaptation of Philip K Dick's autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, with the setting switched from 1950s California to 1990s France.

Everyone speaks French (which happens a lot in France) but the subtitles were apparently prepped by someone not quite fluent in English, which adds an extra layer of unreality. "Do not slaughter their heads nonsense, or fly out of here!" "Heck, who knew so that it grieve you?"

The story is mostly concerned with the cruelties and infidelities between two married couples. It's by Dick, so reality is always in question, but unlike most of his work — Blade Runner, Total Recall — it's not science fiction. Some of it does take place on the set of a Star Trek-like sci-fi show, though.

Behind thick glasses, Hippolute Girradot is an amusing mess as an obsessive compulsive clairvoyant inventor who's perpetually dazed, fears the end of the world, and sponges off his brother-in-law. Too bad he's only a supporting character.

There are car scenes here where the driver looks everywhere but the road while moving at 40 mph, which is disconcerting, but perhaps it's intentional. 

Those hoping to be offended will not be disappointed — there's domestic violence, hints of incest, and lots of dead animals, including a horse killed on screen (and it doesn't look like a special effect).

Verdict: MAYBE, but almost a YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Blast of Silence (1961)

"Remembering out of the black silence, you were born in pain." Scream, slap, an infant cries, and with the birth of baby boy Frankie Bono, the movie gets underway. The newborn narrates the movie, and usually refers to himself as Baby Boy Frankie Bono.

Flash forward thirty years, and he's a contract killer, commuting into New York City on 'business' while jazz plays on the soundtrack.

Unlike most movie hit-men, Baby Boy Frankie Bono is not as cool as central air. He’s lonely, full of doubt, and keeps second-guessing his career. "You could’ve been an engineer," he says to himself, and to us. "You could’ve been an architect." "You could’ve bought a house like that, if you’d wanted it. You’re in the upper 5% income bracket. Killing pays well, for a reason."

Baby Boy Frankie Bono doesn’t like his job, doesn't like people, and never smiles. He hates whoever he’s paid to kill, and almost always prefers to be alone. "You’ve always been alone. By now it’s your trademark. You like it that way."

He's a racist, and blunt about it, even for the early 1960s. "The streets of Harlem are busy enough. No-one notices you. You catch a danger signal. Your hands are sweating, but that’s all right because you know what it is — the hate of Harlem. You hate them, and they hate you," as the camera lingers on a group of black men at the corner. "Watch it, Frankie. Save your hate for [the target]."

Written, directed, and starring Allen Baron, this was his debut at everything, and he's definitely a promising rookie. The movie is bold, and brimming with self-confidence. Baron peaked with his debut, though — after this, his filmography faded to writing episodes of Love American Style and Charlie's Angels.

The black-and-white city scenery is delectable, and the whole story is set at Christmas, which adds a touch of hypocrisy. There's some beat-style bongo-playing, and the violent elements are convincing — you can almost see the red in the monochrome. 

Baby Boy Frankie Bono's narration, though, is overkill. It's thick, triple the recommended dose of noir, and after several stanzas it borders on parody. "Watch it, Frankie. Danger signals. Like electric current, like lightning, like fire in the night, and sirens screaming in your head. Don’t think. Don’t remember. Don’t look ahead. Concentrate. You have a job to do and you’re an expert. A killer who doesn’t kill gets killed."

The music is similarly heavy-handed — swooning violins, clarinets, fevered drums over spastic piano, tinkle tinkle xylophone, here come the horns, all building to a climax or, no wait, just more narration.

Verdict: YES, but jeez. "They all hate the gun they hire. When people look at you, Baby Boy Frankie Bono, they see death. Death across the counter..."

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Vincent Price is Dr Goldfoot, and he’s invented a fleet of bikini-clad but empty-headed robotic women, who run around kissing Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman. The women are certainly attractive, and surprisingly multi-cultural for 1965. Price’s diabolical plan is more pedestrian, though — he’s sending these artificial women out to snag and marry millionaires.

It’s an unfunny comedy, but it picks up points for audaciousness. There’s a great Claymation opening sequence, and a title song by Diana Ross & the Supremes that I’m still humming days later. Susan Hart (best known as the titular Ghost in the Invisible Bikini) gives a unnecessarily cogent performance as robot #11.

There’s a walking equivalent of the car chase from Bullitt, as we follow a robot on a stroll that takes in all of San Francisco’s sights, but makes no geographical sense. There's an impossible screeching ride down San Francisco’s twisting Lombard Street, perhaps filmed from the front bumper. There are a few other noteworthy points, I guess, but the movie still adds up to Double-0-and-¼, which is the name of Frankie Avalon’s spy character.

Verdict: NO, not unless you're high.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Model Minority (2012)

Kayla is a teenager whose parents don’t much listen or seem to give a damn. She wants to be an artist, but her dad thinks she should go into sales, because that’s where the money is. Her mom is a drug addict, and knows no maternal instinct.

When Kayla sneaks out to see a boy, her younger sister asks, “What’s wrong with him? Why won’t Mom like him? Is he black or something?” Yup, he's black. Racism is complicated; Kayla’s family is Japanese-American and they don't like African-Americans.

In most movies about teenagers, we watch a kid get their shit together, often quite unrealistically. This is different, and uncomfortable, as we watch a bright kid, ignored by her lowlife parents, wander in the wrong direction and fuck up everything, quite realistically. And her kid sister, too. There are opportunities where these girls could make a different decision, go in the right direction, but they don't. 

Model Minority flinches at the end, turns away without showing you the final horror as it happens, a wise and appreciated choice by writer-director Lily Mariye.

The movie won kudos and awards and deserves them, for honesty and artistry. This is how kids get their lives screwed up, and it’s rare to see it in a movie. This is serious stuff, not Asian-American Graffiti.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

This is based on a novel by Philip K Dick — yeah, I'm on a Dick kick — but that’s never a guarantee. Much as I love his writing, and I do love Dick, some of what he wrote gets so damned weird it’s difficult to follow, and becomes a real sludge. Adapting Dick to the screen is a daunting task, and it's done well here.

The film is an independent and underfunded production, but other than the lack of familiar stars, there's nothing about it that reveals the poverty. There's clever and effective but low-key special effects, and lots of existential and philosophical conversations lifted gently from the source material.

It’s about a sci-fi writer who’s just called ‘Phil’ (hint hint) and his best friend Nick, and Nick’s artist-wife Rachel. Nick is having premonitions, revelations perhaps, from a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS), and he’s decided to live his life as instructed by VALIS. This works out well for him — he starts the movie working in a record store, and with VALIS’s help he becomes a rising executive at a record company.

After Nick becomes a high-power suit, a young woman comes into his office applying for a low-level job, but Nick thinks she should be a singer/songwriter instead. This seems like a good idea, since she’s Alanis Morissette. The movie's music is by Robyn Hitchcock, though.

"We get hung up on names and labels, but they don’t mean anything. Communists are overly fascists." Oh, and meanwhile, in the background, a crazed right-wing President suspends First Amendment rights "that have been so long abused by our country’s foes and their unwitting allies among the media elite."

Writer-director John Alan Simon has been in the movie business forever, but this is his only credit as writer or director. There are some flourishes that convince me Radio Free Albemuth was made with love and respect for the late Mr Dick, and having read a lot of Dick, watching Shea Whigham play Dick feels like watching Dick. The actors playing the two other principal characters are adequate, too, but pardon my prejudice, they’re simply too young to convey the gravitas of the dialogue and situation. 

If you know anything about P K Dick, you’ll laugh when the movie’s 'Phil' says, "I don’t allow drugs in my house." The brownshirts or Young Republicans call themselves Friends of the American People (FAP) in the movie, and FAP agents, of course, are called FAPpers.

Verdict: YES. "Somebody else is going to have to write the great American science-fiction novel."

♦ ♦ ♦

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

I’ve heard of this movie all my life, but never had any interest because it's ridiculous — you know that, just from the title. Sounds like it belongs on a double feature with The Mountains of Ooga Booga

Set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, James Franciscus plays Kirby, a city dandy clad all in white, visiting a circus that’s run by people who know him and dislike him. One of the circus acts involves Gina Golan riding a horse as it jumps from a twenty-foot platform into a small pool of water, and I’m a bit disappointed when the jump and splash turn out to be a special effect, but the effects are by Ray Harryhausen.

Sci-fi fans will know the name Harryhausen. He was the master of stop-motion, the technique where movie-monsters are small but movable models, filmed one-frame-at-a-time as they're physically manipulated to simulate movement. It's a great visual effect, but recognizable when you see it, and I knew it the moment the horse splashed down.

After that, the movie becomes an unusual mix — you don't often see stop-motion monsters in an old-time western. It’s amusing when the swindler Kirby marvels at a miniature stop-action horse, and envisions buying and reselling it to the highest bidder — “Buffalo Bill, Barnum & Bailley, or the Ringling Brothers…”

When the next stop-motion effect is a dinosaur, Kirby soon meets a paleontologist, played by Laurence Naismith, who did not invent basketball. Naismith is endearingly awestruck when he finds living dinosaurs, and his moments reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s similar gee-whiz scenes in Jurassic Park. Prehistoric pterodactyls carry away the professor! Cowboy wrestles the pterodactyl!

Other than the prehistoric stop-motion, though, this is a totally typical western. “Getting married is like being a horse tied up in a corral. I couldn’t take being all roped up like that.” Despite seeing this movie yesterday, I couldn't have written this without the notes I took, because I already don’t remember anything beyond the stop-motion, Gina Golan's endless cleavage, and James Franciscus’s perfect teeth.

Verdict: MAYBE, but at best it’s a slight smile that lasts an hour and a half.

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If you can't find it, drop me a note.

Also, please drop me a note if you have any recommendations! I'm always on the lookout for odd and unusual or old and good films, and my interests tend toward almost anything beyond the weekly top ten. My preferences are...

• feature films over short subjects (but I'll give a good short a fair look). 

• anything underfunded over something that cost many millions to make (though of course the blockbusters can sometimes be fun too).

• almost anything over horror, which seems to be the go-to genre for homemade movies (but I'll take a chance on a horror movie if it's not like every other horror movie).




  1. Its a rare movie you can both enjoy and laugh at, Blast of Silence sounds great. I have seen Barjo and concur with your maybe. And undiscovered great Phillip K Dick movie is A Scanner Darkly. Cartoon, but very excellent.

  2. Model Minority -- never heard of it until today, and I just watched it and I am crying now. Thank you, Doug.

    1. Love it if/when I can nudge someone toward cinematic nourishment.

      I think I saw two 2021 movies last year...


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