Tag Archives: Australian

SPECIAL THANKSGIVING DAY CAPSULTACULAR: TURKEY SHOOT (1982)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Olivia Hussey,

PLOT: Hapless free-thinkers are hunted for sport by a merciless regime in a dystopian future.

COMMENTS: Newsreel footage of chaotic societal collapse sets the backstory. The sanitized opulence of a knick-knack shop shows the good life. A helpless reprobate crashes onto the scene, pursued by fascist goons, to introduce the conflict. And the whaaaamming tones of the synth score let you know: this is Dystopian ’80s Country—in the bleak future year of 1995.

“Freedom is Obedience; Obedience is Work; and Work is Life”: remember that. And “the Program has been devised for your own good.” The re-education camps are bursting to full, as deviants continue to rebel against the benevolent authorities. Charles Thatcher (no relation) oversees his patch with effete tyranny, making life hard to hellish for his wards, particularly defiant manly-man Paul Anders and confused gentlewoman Chris Walters. But it’s not all bad at the camp: “promiscuity among deviants, while not encouraged, is permitted within reason.” But “Unbreakable” Anders won’t be taking his punishment lying down.

The man at the film’s helm is good, as evidenced by his snappy introduction to the world within and throughout. In the space of a few minutes he builds tension with style when the Radio Freedom DJ is surrounded, then apprehended, by the police state’s state police: a medium shot on a man with the microphone, speechifying on the abuses by the authorities, interspersed with low-height camera shots of the weapons and waistlines of the approaching enforcers, utterly dehumanizing the villains. The director fleshes out the world he has built with incidental dialogue, such as details concerning the oddly egalitarian punishment for pregnancy amongst the inmates: both responsible parties are sterilized. An odd touch that suggests this dystopia is at least gender-equitable.

Trenchard-Smith would go on to direct the better (and odder) Dead End Drive-In (which actually uses footage from Turkey Shoot), recycling the premise to craft a far more compelling and nuanced experience. Of course, he’d also go on to direct a fair number of straight-to-video movies of highly questionable quality. (*Ahem*, Leprechaun 3 and Leprechaun 4: In Space.) Above all else, Trenchard-Smith’s career is the story of a man who can ably execute whatever project is thrown his way,  and bring it in under budget. In this case, it managed both to recoup its outlay and become something of a cult favorite. It treads a fine line: campy premise with commendable execution, alongside hammy acting interspersed with suave performances. I recommend you dig in, as this movie ain’t no turkey.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“All in all though, the movie is a lot of fun… chock full of the kind of violence that exploitation fans know and love. Inmates are impaled with arrows and then run over, guards find themselves on the receiving end of some grisly battering ram type weapons, limbs are severed, torsos explode, and an implied lesbian rape scene is thrown in just for good measure.” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

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 1995. 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