Tag Archives: Australian

CAPSULE: DEAD END DRIVE-IN (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Brian Trenchard-Smith

FEATURING: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford

PLOT: After two of his tires are jacked at a drive-in theatre, Jimmy finds himself trapped in the car lot with his girlfriend and hundreds of society’s rejects.

COMMENTS: It’s a glorious thing to randomly stumble into a movie and find out that it’s Australian. This pleasant surprise was augmented by an error on the part of the video streaming service, which claimed that Dead End Drive-In was from 2011. I was awed at how the filmmakers had captured everything about New Wave dystopian aesthetics a quarter century after the fact. When I saw the copyright date at the end of the credits I was somewhat disappointed, but also relieved. (“That makes a whole lot more sense,” my brain acknowledged.) Still and all, it Brian Trenchard-Smith’s “ozploitation” picture is a helluva lotta fun.

Trenchard-Smith was the brains behind Turkey Shoot, another “society collapses, and here’s a mess of violence” film, set in the post-apocalyptic year 1997. It hasn’t gotten as bad by the time Dead End Drive-In takes place, but it’s getting there. Jimmy (Ned Manning) is a wiry weenie of a guy who wishes his rough, tough brother would let him in on his lucrative towing business. Car parts are a hot commodity, so whenever a car gets smashed up, the first wrecker on the scene gets the bounty. Jimmy borrows his brother’s ’57 Chevy to take his sheila to the Star Drive-In for a movie and sex, during which the passenger-side wheels are swiped. Jimmy is informed by the fatherly drive-in operator that, no, he’s not going anywhere. Ever.

The misfit milieu found within this open-air prison (which doubles, nightly, as a drive-in theatre) is everything one could hope for from a mid-’80s assemblage of the best deadbeats society has on offer. Transvestites, drug users, vandals, welfare bums… I put these all in the same list not to cast any particular judgment or insinuate moral comparability, but because they all fit in the slot that button-down 80s traditionalists would consider “undesirable.” However, they’ve formed a raucous-but-welcoming society within this prison. There are occasional brawls, sure, but there’s a camaraderie, as evidenced by the freely intermingling coteries and the pick-up games of cricket.

Dead End Drive-In‘s camera work is worlds better than should be expected for a B-movie actioner. An early foreshadowing shot of a jogging Jimmy beautifully frames him behind a chainlink fence, the center demarcated by two perfectly placed tail-fin cars. The “Star Drive-In” first appears in a postcard-worthy frame. And a low shot of a police van approaching a cockerel on the lot captures the startled bird as it is flanked by the moving vehicle tires.

My one criticism of the film would be its strangely shoe-horned social commentary. When a convoy of Asian prisoners arrives at the drive-in, the locals immediately get riled up and speechify about the intruders. Obviously the director is trying to say something, but it’s both a little unclear (is all “white trash” racist?) and over-the-top (everyone but our hero immediately goes from zero to vicious in their racist mania). Regardless, Dead End Drive-In is a wonderful diversion filled with New Wave classics, gratifying camerawork, and Australians.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a doozy of an Ozploitation piece packaged with crazy characters, bizarre situations and solid action.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

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

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: A FAMILY (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jayden Stevens

FEATURING: Pavlo Lehenkyi, Liudmyla Zamidra

PLOT: Emerson hires a cast of amateurs to play his family in his home movies, but a walkout derails his ambitions.

COMMENTS: “Protagonist” describes A Family‘s leading man on only a technical level. (Even the term “leading man” lends him a bit too much weight.) Emerson is in his late 40s (I’m guessing) and has no real family to speak of (I’m guessing). I’m guessing a lot because other than what’s shown on screen, there is no backstory for this oddball—a man who appears to be one bad day away from becoming Erwin Leder’s serial killer in Angst. If you’re looking for an awkward “family” comedy, nothing could be more apt than Stevens’ feature debut.

Located just before the cutoff for “antisocial” on the personality spectrum, Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi, channeling some sort of After Last Season dramatic persona) is a perfectionist with a knack for inept communication. The affable folks he’s hired to play his “father”, “mother”, and “brother” all try their best (the “brother’s” scripted reaction to his Christmas gift, “A puzzle! Seven-hundred-and-fifty pieces!”, is picture-perfect over-enthusiasm), but the newly cast “sister”, Olga (Liudmyla Zamidra), throws a spanner in the works. Her personal life interferes with Emerson’s strange production, and after a wage dispute, the others quit in exasperation. This forces Emerson into the unlikely position of auditioning for the role of “husband and father” in Olga’s own dysfunctional family.

A Family‘s strength lies in its social-realist approach and complete lack of explanation for any character. The opening shot of Olga’s “sister” audition cements the distance right from the start. The “scripted domesticity” scenes are, oddly, the most conventional-feeling element in Family. With the “home movies,” we see what we’d expect to see, for example, a family Christmas get-together (albeit a sad, sad, awkward one). The corny acting on display whenever the “family” is filmed rings true to the thespionics gracing millions of home movies the world over.

Emerson is a perfect example of the “how is this person even real?” archetype. That’s not to say there isn’t an authenticity to his character—I believed every moment with him—but by focusing on one of the oddest of ducks ever captured by film, Stevens constantly wrong-foots the viewer. His unscripted conversation suggests almost alien behavior (“My car travels up to ten times the speed of the average cyclist”; “You should never blame a frozen treat for your form”; “Do you serve nachos? I’ve never eaten them, but I’ve seen them on television”). The fact that these statements come from such an obviously broken man spikes the hilarity with sadness. A Family seems to be about life’s quiet desperation and the importance of loved ones. At the same time, it’s probably best to hire good actors if you want a quality family life.

A Family is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfolding in spaces shared with Atom Egoyan, Yorgos Lanthimos, Aki Kaurismäki, and Charlie Kaufman, A Family nonetheless finds an unsettling absurdity that is all its own.” -Anton Bitel, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

“Circo Animato” 2020 program

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.

“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen

An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an  ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.

“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min

This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.

“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao

By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1987)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Norman Boyd, Michael Lake, Rhys Davis

PLOT: A drifter is escaping his pursuers by heading north, but a vertical mountain range blocks his path;  he encounters an eccentric pair of siblings, and the trio plan to head beyond the pass in a homemade flying machine.

Still from Spirits of the air, gremlins of the clouds (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Surreal music-video visuals combine with stage-like theatrics in this odd little story of a crippled inventor, his child-like sister, and a stranger on the run. The post-apocalyptic milieu is both sand-swept and candy-colored, and the claustrophobic atmosphere feels about to burst into the wild blue yonder.

COMMENTS: Judging from the natural backdrop in Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, Australia’s outback is a combination of desolate sand and technicolor hues. As such, it’s custom-designed for post-apocalyptic wasteland movies, and Proyas takes advantage of this nigh-unreality to great effect. But not satisfied with a vision of lifeless wind and dust, he places eccentrics lifted straight from David Lynch onto his barren stage, in the process creating one of the most eccentric and eerie melodramas to spring forth from celluloid.

The remnants of humanity are, it seems, scattered about like so much paranoid dirt. When a wanderer dressed in black (going by the name “Smith”) appears on her homestead’s outskirts, Betty Crabtree (dressed in dime-store Kabuki regalia, and playing an over-trinketed two-string violin) seeks her brother to warn him of a coming devil. Brother Felix sports the wild hair of a mad inventor or a crazed hermit, and is confined to a wheelchair seemingly designed by Tim Burton during his “blue period.” Felix is eccentric, but also a genius, and is eager for Smith’s company and assistance. Betty is having none of this newcomer, and makes her hostility increasingly clear: first with adamant Bible quotations, then with a hand-scrawled note reading, “Leave now, or you die!,” and finally with a painted message covering the homestead’s workshop exterior, “Go home or burn in Hell.” Smith does not go home; instead, for reasons of his own, he agrees to help Felix build the impossible.

The Crabtree compound is like a survivalist’s Bible camp. The pair have stocked their basement with countless shelves of Heinz baked beans (the company received a shout-out in the credits) and hung crosses from every wall and support beam (we learn that the siblings’ father is he used to be religious—but then stopped). Other unlikely touches convey this future reality. Felix’s prized possession is a history of early flight, and he wistfully calls attention to the trees in the photographs’ backgrounds and the “nice, clean clothes” everyone wears. The Popol Voh-style soundtrack and dissociative camera tricks offset this grounding in reality. Proyas interrupts medium shots of action—such as the strange meal (of baked beans) that follows Smith’s arrival—with altogether too-close close-ups. And it seems that he intermittently removed frames of film, creating a stilted, jagged appearance in the flow of machines and people.

With a cast of three people, Proyas creates a grounded human world. With a solitary household as a location, he shows this world to be foreign to our experience. Like Felix with his mad dream to fly, Proyas (all of twenty-four when he made this) defies the doubters. Using practically nothing, he firmly establishes himself as a cinematic visionary. There is certainly something personal in this tale of staggering success against oppressive odds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a genuine shame the melding of big budgets and Proyas has never really gelled, possibly because the larger the budgets got, the more Proyas discovered what he couldn’t do with them out of responsibility for making the film as palatable to general audiences as the studio demanded. Because, dammit, Proyas has an amazing eye, one evident from his first feature film…Proyas’ eye for imagery is in fine form, and it’s not difficult at all to find the line that connects SPIRITS OF THE AIR to DARK CITY..” -Jon Abrams, Daily Grindhouse

CAPSULE: TOP KNOT DETECTIVE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

FEATURING: Toshi Okuzaki, Mayu Iwasaki, Masa Yamaguchi, Des Mangan

PLOT: Mockumentary describing a bizarre Japanese cult TV show about a ronin detective who fights samurai and giant robots and eventually travels through time, and the mystery behind its sudden cancellation.

Still from Top Knot Detective (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s cute, but minor; an affectionate and entertaining 90 minutes for exploitation movie fans. “Reboot” the fake TV series and we’ll talk about weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: In our first introduction to “Top Knot Detective,” we see the black-robed title character menaced by a ninja; our hero quickly plays a reed flute, which summons a shark. It bursts through the ground and flies through the sky to completely swallow the bad guy (and squirt liters of blood from its mouth). That may be the craziest moment in the fake series: or it might be when the detective literally catches lightning while playing electric guitar in a thunderstorm. Or the product placement for Suttafu beer. Or the late-series introduction of the detective’s armored, time-traveling, baseball-bat-wielding sidekick. Or the cheaply-designed penis monster (with the actors’ arms poking out of the sides of the pink rubber suit). You can pick your own WTFiest moment, but all of this “archival” material is presented on low-definition, mock-multi-generation-VHS stock, complete with the occasional vertical hold artifact.

Seeing outrageous clips delivered without much regard for the show’s chronology, we don’t get a real sense of how the plot arc of the series works, but that’s by design. The conceit is that “Top Knot”‘s creators pretty much made up the show as they went along—and that anything could happen from episode to episode. About all we learn about the overall plot is that “Deductive Reasoning Ronin” is searching for the man who killed his master, a poorly-motivated villain who sends ninjas, giant robots, and (apparently) penis monsters after the detective. Presumably, the detective solves mysteries in between sword fights, marking his triumphs with a heavily-accented and often inappropriate cry of “deductive reasoning”!

The movie’s real plot is the fictional backstory of the making of the TV show, told through interviews with the alleged cast, all of whom exclusively speak Japanese. The filmmakers introduce Takashi Takamoto, the dissolute narcissist and self-appointed genius behind the series, and Suttafu, the conglomerate trying to make a buck off the show’s sensationalism, along with a bitter rival and a J-pop love interest. In stark contrast to the campy re-enactments, this archival material is produced with a totally straight face, so that anyone who came in in the middle would be forgiven for thinking that “Top Knot”  was a real television show. The story of love affairs, Takamoto’s unhinged appearances on a talk show featuring an animated kitty, and tabloid scandals of a sort peculiar to Japan all ends in a murder. Like “Top Knot”‘s interrupted plotline, this crime isn’t fully resolved… although I have my theories. But while you ponder the mystery, stay tuned for another mind-boggling (fake) trailer post-credits.

If there’s one complaint to be lodged against Top Knot Detective, it’s that it plays up the whole damn-Japanese-TV-is-incomprehensibly-weird stereotype, encouraging cultural mockery rather than cultural engagement. But the project is presented with such genuine love and affection for the genre that this seems like a minor criticism indeed.

The grindhouse revival trend sparked ten years ago by and played itself out in the U.S. fairly quickly, but is still going strong in the underground Down Under. They definitely put their own odd, Aussie spin on the phenomenon. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a documentary celebrating the island’s homegrown exploitation industry, arrived in 2008. (who appears here as a talking head) made the Grindhouse-style fake “Italian Spiderman” trailer in 2007, and went on to co-write the insane Hitler-hunting TV series “Danger 5” (one season was done in the style of 1960s men’s magazines, the other as an 80s action movie), which graced TV screens in 2011 and 2015. Narrator Des Mangan is a real Australian television cult film presenter (and screenwriter of the campy 1993 throwback Hercules Returns, which scooped the revivalist genre by a couple decades). In other words, Australians know and love their outré exploitation, and appreciate it precisely for the qualities that make it weird. As one talking head sums up the appeal of “Top Knot”: “….the whole thing doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. When you watch a lot of media, watch a lot of movies and TV, you get bored, you get jaded, you’ve seen the same stuff over and over again, and you’re praying for some kind of weirdness, some kind of real lunacy to just grab you and shake you up and show you something new.” A better manifesto for the trash-oddity subgenre would be hard to script. These are our kind of people, folks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“McCann and Pearce make their feature directing debut with a wonderfully bizarre and almost mind-bogglingly complex meta-treatment on not only the delightful weirdness of ’70s Japanese cinema, but also the culture of rabid fandom that eats this stuff up.”–J. Hurtado, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

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

CAPSULE: FAGS IN THE FAST LANE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Josh Collins (as Sinbad Collins)

FEATURING: Chris Asimos, Oliver Bell, Matt Jones, Sasha Cuha, Airsh “King” Khan, Justine Jones, Aimee Nichols, Pugsley Buzzard, Luke Clayson,

PLOT: A gay superhero and his team go on a quest to retrieve a golden penis stolen by a gang of circus freaks.

Still from Fags in the Fast Lane (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This cartoonish gay superhero grossout flick will almost certainly make one of our lists: we fully expect to see it on our 10 Weirdest Movies of 2018 list. It’s a big jump from one of the weirdest of the year to weirdest of all time, though, a leap the slight Fags isn’t quite capable of making.

COMMENTS: When 69-year-old -ex Kitten Natividad counts as your star power, you know you’re aiming at a very particular audience. Fags presumes (or at least hopes for) a certain level of familiarity with yesteryear’s trash culture, although if you’ve seen at least one movie you’ll recognize the silly-yet-offensive spirit. Obviously, is an inspiration (one of the better throwaway jokes is a reference), but given the bright comic book design and heedless incoherence, I suspect Australia’s surreal Nazi-fighting comedy adventure “Danger 5” was a more direct stylistic influence.

Set in an anything-goes world of freak show gangs, Aztec cults and GILF brothels, the plot is bonkers. The action begins in small-minded small-town “Dullsville,” where dashing yachtsman Beau (AKA the “Cockslinger”) and his beefy, mustachioed longtime companion Lump are brought in to handle a gang of gay-bashing thugs. (“The toughest gays in town,” this avenging duo eschews limp wrists for pimp hands.) Soon enough, they find themselves chasing after jewels stolen from mama Kitten’s retirement home bordello, along with a mystical dildo. A buxom killer transvestite and a lethargic Indian eunuch (the original owner of the phallus in question) join the team, along with the young thug hostage Squirt, who opens up to his queer side as the adventure continues. The team is opposed by burlesque queen Wanda the Giantess and her gang of freaks (including a bald gal with crab claws) and tailed by the local sheriff and his sadistic hacker assistant. The gang’s adventures take them to a booby-trapped tiki truck stop, a gender-bending pagan temple, and into a freaky Freak Town final showdown. And that’s just scratching the surface of the maximalist mayhem.

The plot moves quickly enough and takes itself with so little seriousness that you probably won’t mind some suspect writing. Very few of the jokes land, tending towards the obvious, the juvenile, and the toilet-minded. (Baseball bat sodomy is not one of my favorite sources of comedy, but at least no one can accuse Fags of being overly PC.) The plot often makes little sense, but coherence was not a major point of emphasis. A melee at McBastard’s Meat Pies has almost no visible motivation but lots of cheesy violence and stiletto-heeled crotch-kicking. At one point Lump is captured and tortured with a laser finger; it’s not completely clear how he is abducted, and entirely unclear how he escapes. Plot points seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, the design elements—a grab bag of colorfully bizarre sets and costumes, low budget CGI, and animation both traditional and stop motion—are impressive, all the more so considering the obvious low budget. Key set pieces include a psychedelic musical number sung by the castrated fakir and a trip into a swamp filled with stop-motion penis-themed vermin. And if that’s not enough for your money, there’s a roadside performance by horror rockers “the Mummies” thrown in for good measure.

It goes without saying that neither homophobes nor the easily grossed-out will want to encounter Fags, but if you’re made of sterner stuff, you should find it fast-paced fluff that satisfies your guilty desire for absurd sleaze served with a twist of retro pop-culture surrealism. Currently in very limited release in the U.S., a DVD release is scheduled for June 1. More information can be found on the movie’s home page.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The mood is madcap, as pop-art expressionism meets ’60s trash meets Benny Hill action, while the entendre are single and spunky.”–Craig Mathieson, The Age (contemporaneous)