Bizarre Streaming Picks for the Pandemic Mind

As I’ve looked to occupy myself at home over the past several months, I’ve found comfort in the many moods of cinema. Cheerful flicks for a crummy mood, horror movies to get my blood pumping, and long films because I don’t have a lot of places to go and that has freed up a lot of time.

Going deeper into this strange time though, I’ve found myself seeking out weird movies: both old favorites and new experiences. I guess my feeling is that bizarre times call for corresponding cinema. 

I’ve been enjoying the ride and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’m sharing the movies I watched on the Criterion Channel, though I have also noted other places you can stream these films when possible. Most of them can also be rented from the usual suspects:

 


The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

The only film written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) is just as bizarre and inventive as you would expect. A boy who objects to his life of routine and parental control imagines a frightening, but vibrant world ruled by his strict piano teacher.

 


8 ½ (1963) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHBO MaxKanopy

Federico Fellini’s quasi-autobiographical tale of a film director surrounded by chaos offers the perfect example of how one must give in to the carnival and abandon the fantasy of an orderly life.


             

Alice (1988) [feature]

The Criterion ChannelHoopla, Kanopy

Surrealist filmmaker, puppeteer, and animator Jan ┼ávankmajer’s nightmare-inducing take on the story of Alice in Wonderland is a perfectly fascinating plunge down the rabbit hole, but maybe not for most kids.





Black Lizard/ Kurotokage (1962) [feature]

The Criterion Channel

While I prefer the more devious vibe of the 1968 Black Lizard, an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s classic crime novel, this light, absurd musical take on the story is a lot of fun. The famous detective Akechi pursues the notorious criminal Black Lizard while showing himself to be a criminal of the heart.

 

Cab Calloway’s Hi Dee Ho (1934) [short]

The Criterion ChannelPrime

With his floppy forelock and alternately jittery and fluid dance movies, Cab Calloway always had an otherworldly air, like surrealism personified. He takes the crackling jazz of his sizzling band to another plane with his uniquely delirious and unpredictable style. The bland stiffs in the Cotton Club audience seem oblivious to the magic they are witnessing.

 

A Chairy Tale (1957) [short]

The Criterion ChannelKanopy, NFB

There’s a lot of wonder to be found in the work of Canadian filmmaker Norman MacLaren; take a look at his short films on the National Film Board of Canada website for plenty of pleasurable distraction. I’m especially fond of this stop motion fantasy though. Accompanied by the fanciful strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar, a man struggles to sit on a chair which always slides away from him whenever he approaches. It’s a silly, but touching story which is ultimately about mutual respect.

On Blu-ray: A Garland and Rooney Double-Header, Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy


When I finished up my double feature viewing of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films Strike up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943) (both newly available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive), I felt a familiar mixture of exhilaration and confusion. There’s so much to love about these classic musicals: the top-shelf tunes, entertaining supporting cast, uplifting production numbers designed by Busby Berkeley, and the transcendent marvel that is Judy Garland. 

The everlasting point of confusion for me is Mickey Rooney. I wonder how many classic film fans appreciate Mickey Rooney more than they enjoy him? It’s clear that he had talent; I’m not entirely immune to his zest, but don’t think I’ll ever get him completely. I’m sure part of it is that some of his humor and vigor haven’t aged well, but it’s also hard for me to pay him much mind when Garland is there busting your heart open with those smooth tones and soulful brown eyes. He seems like a cheerful wind-up toy in comparison.

That confusion has always affected my feelings about Garland and Rooney films. They have an undeniable chemistry, but I’m always baffled that the miraculous Ms. Judy would be mooning over this self-absorbed, oblivious guy. I know it is very much of the times that she sits there cheering him on while sitting on her own monster talent and intellect, but knowing isn’t everything. 

I suppose it says a lot for these films that despite all that, they always leave me happy. Strike up the Band is rightfully most famous for a dream sequence that features an orchestra of stop-motion figures with fruits and nuts for both their heads and instruments. The moment is the product of aspiring band director Jimmy’s (Rooney) imagination: he is using the contents of an overflowing fruit bowl to explain his musical plans to his friend Mary (Garland). The scene is full of bizarre images, like a walnut-headed figure playing a nutcracker like a harp and a line of pear-noggined musicians playing pear halves like violins. An early career George Pal designed the number, which could stand on its own as an entertaining short film. 

This unusual scene happens early in a musical that is otherwise full of that “let’s put on a show” vigor. Thanks to Berkeley, the dance numbers really pop. His standard technique of using dancers to make mesmerizing patterns gets a burst of energy from his youthful dancers. They’re all adorable, though it is really something seeing all those white kids attempting Cuban flair in the Do the La Conga! number. 

The then hugely popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (most famous now for his key role in King of Jazz [1930]) appears with his orchestra and even acts opposite Rooney in a few scenes. 


Though it also has its share of big production number flair, Girl Crazy (1943) is for the most part a lower-key affair. This is my favorite Rooney and Garland film because it is bursting with Gershwin standards. Having But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm, and Embraceable You in one movie would be enough to give it classic status, but the topper is the magnificently meandering Bidin’ My Time, with Garland and the The King's Men and chorus, and is practically an anti-production number with its easy pace and lanky cowboy dancers. 

I also enjoyed the presence of character actor Rags Ragland, who shows his burlesque past in the way he adapts smoothly and easily to the performance style of his costars. He had an especially pleasing chemistry with Garland.

Tommy Dorsey and his band are lively presence throughout the film. Director Norman Taurog perfectly frames the fresh, joyful energy of the trombonist and his musicians. The group plays for June Allyson in the opening nightclub number as she croons Treat Me Rough. They are especially magnetic though in the Fascinating Rhythm number, where they all look like they are having the time of their lives.

Both discs feature introductions by Mickey Rooney and theatrical trailers. Strike up the Band also has a commentary by John Frick, the comedy short Hollywood Daredevils, the cartoon The Early Bird Dood It, a Stereo remix of I Got Rhythm, and audio of a Bronco Busters outtake. The Girl Crazy disc includes the Pete Smith comedy short Wedding Bills, the cartoon Romeo in Rhythm, a Stereo remix of Do the La Conga, and audio features including a Leo is on the Air Radio Promo, Millions for Defense and a 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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