Tag Archives: Australian

THE BABADOOK (2014)

After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent,The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.

In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.

The genre bucks forged an unspoken patriarchal set of genre rules, and it did not take long for the rot of banality to set in. For a brief period, it seemed as if it was on the shoulders of independent filmmakers to offer an alternative tonic. Within mere decades, however, the indies had largely succumbed to imitating the well-cashed trash of the studios, which begs the question: “What then is the point of independent film?” Why settle for a low-budget, generic product that offers the same ingredients as the name brand that preceded it? At least the name brand has a better-looking box and doesn’t cost any more than an indie festival ticket. Given the status and quality of independent filmmaking, Robert Downey Jr.’s recent dismissals and criticisms appear justified.

Yet, in her directorial debut, independent Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent evokes the childhood of cinema, via and ‘s 1926 cut-out animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed. In these films Kent locates a springboard with no preexisting rules of film and genre.

Still from The BabadookAmelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, widowed when her husband was killed in a traffic accident while taking his wife—in labor—to the hospital. Amelia’s son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), fancies himself a magician straight out of a Melies film. He is also a perennial misfit, and quite the handful. Samuel happens upon a pop-up book featuring the Babadook; a dark, shadowy figure in top hat. Through deliberate pacing, Kent routes us through the pulse of fundamental, pubescent fears. As children, many of us experienced fears such as the one Samuel finds in a simple pop-up book. Yet, The Babadook hardly stops there. This fear leaves the page and acquaints us (or reacquaints us) with a menagerie of psychological horrors.

Instead of the flash-and-trash 20-frames-per-second pacing often found in 21st century film, Kent and her actress Davis purposefully take us to a tender part of Amelia, still encased in grief and loss. The psychological pacing parallels this. With intelligent intent, the film’s mise en scène informs us as to the character’s psyches. In her dimly lit, cluttered home, Amelia’s journey of trauma grounds us in the experience of what its like losing a partner, and of the fear of a child coming up against the supernatural or inexplicable.

The elaborate sets enhance the visceral eeriness of loss; thinking yourself safe, when suddenly, via divorce or death, you find yourself alone at night in a large house that formerly offered security. A sanctuary morphs into a mausoleum, like an insomniac child imagines a dresser morphing into a monster. The muted scare tactics of Babadook are authentically frightening because the horror is relatable. For a millisecond, your imagination dances with unconscious archetypal fears.

The film abounds with deliberateness: articles of clothing look like the Babadook, the feminine is portrayed in pinks and blacks and, as the horror, unravels, the visual tones darken and engulf. Even Amelia’s sweater blackens in the middle of the night.

Redemption is found in the gift of endurance and feminine pragmatism. Rather than attempting to dispatch a monolithic demon, simply feed it, pacify it, put it in the basement and hope for the best.

*This review was done in collaboration with Aja Eaker.

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: , Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974)

AKA The Cars That Eat People

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Terry Camilleri, John Meillon

PLOT: Mild-mannered Arthur survives a car crash that kills his brother and finds himself stranded in the insular, automobile obsessed town of Paris, Australia.

Still from The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its director’s last name, this one falls just a little short of “weird.”  Park The Cars That Ate Paris in the oddity yard.

COMMENTS: You could look at The Cars That Ate Paris as a psychological horror, or a semi-surreal black comedy about a fish out of water, or as a satire of Australian car culture, or even as a dramatic character study of a broken, phobic orphan desperate for acceptance. The movie even starts, rather inexplicably, with what appears to be a cigarette commercial, for further confusion. Without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the town of Paris, New South Wales, an isolated burg with a junkyard barter economy based on salvaged car parts, and Arthur, an annoyingly meek wreck survivor with an automobile phobia who finds himself stranded in a community that insists on taking him in and teaching him their way of life. There are also out-of-control teenagers in roving automobile gangs and a hospital that, given the out-of-the-way hamlet’s low population, is surprisingly stocked with brain-damaged “veggies” (of the full, half and quarter varieties).

Cars zooms back and forth between understated comedy and looming horror, constantly grinding its gears. Scenes like the one where the town’s psychiatrist/surgeon slips disturbing photos into Arthur’s Rorschach-type test have a dark-alley-of-the-mind quality to them. At other times, the movie jaunts off in a different direction, suddenly rolling into a Sergio Leone parody. The ending, quite naturally, is a violent demolition derby, complete with growling cars, wherein the entire town is trashed while costumed loonies wander the street. Cars offers a bumpy ride, and goes pretty much nowhere, but the scenery out the window can be astonishing.

Understandably, The Cars That Ate Paris was a hard movie to market. In the VHS era, it was housed in the “horror” section (sometimes under the misleading alternate title The Cars That Eat People) with a box cover that stressed the cool spikemobile and copy that suggested it was something like an Australian version of Death Race 2000. The movie got bad word-of-mouth through this mismarketing when legions of teenagers rented it expecting a fast-paced horror movie about killer cars and instead getting a thoughtful, weird little arthouse drama. Its reputation changed for the better after the Criterion Collection picked up the film, repositioning it as a cult classic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Effortlessly employing surrealist and fantasy tropes in a story that is, ultimately, never very far from the possible, Weir steers us on a dizzying journey through autophilia, survivalist politics, and the darker side of human nature.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by the Awful Dr. Orloff, who believed it to be “much, much weirder” than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:  Julia Leigh

FEATURING, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

PLOT:  A quiet but reprobate student blindly contracts for unconventional assignments with an enigmatic madam to cater to the peculiar perversions of the ultra-rich.

Still from Sleeping Beauty (2011)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTSleeping Beauty is not a sex-movie, but rather a tense, eerie multiple character study. The focused, unadorned manner in which it is shot, without a musical score, combines with the bizarre nature of its story to set an unusual mood which demands that we take it seriously. This atmosphere, and the choices the writer and director made in deciding what elements of its story to show us, to make Sleeping Beauty a weird and unusual viewing experience.

(Ignore the website and DVD jacket descriptions of this slick Aussie thriller; because US distributors don’t know how to present unusual efforts to a general audience, the synopses grossly mischaracterize this effort as some sort of racy potboiler. Sleeping Beauty is not a sex piece, even though Emily Browning looks just like a Real Doll sex doll in the trailer. Sleeping Beauty is not another Eyes Wide Shut. It is not designed to be racy or titillating. Nor is it a murky, confusing David Lynch-style movie, although fans of Lynch’s works will surely love it. Sleeping Beauty is in no way what I expected. It is unpredictable and although it declines to utilize a demented twist ending, I assure the reader he will never guess where it is heading).

For additional fun, be sure to look for an appearance by actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the crazed “Toecutter” in 1979’s Mad Max.

COMMENTS: Wow! What a gem! I was hoping for something different and creepy from the trailer. I was not disappointed! Yet I was surprised. I was expecting something sci-fi or horror, about turning girls into living sex dolls. Sleeping Beauty turns out to be so much more unsettling, sophisticated and subtle. From its opening frames, the somber cinematography and unabashed, close-in concentration on its characters makes it clear that you are watching a serious, high-quality effort crafted by a writer and director who know exactly what to do. There’s a controlling sensation that your impressions are being skillfully manipulated by the filmmakers. Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

108. BAD BOY BUBBY (1993)

“Christ, kid, yer a weirdo!”–Pop

DIRECTED BY: Rolf de Heer

FEATURING: Nicholas Hope, Carmel Johnson, Claire Benito, Ralph Cotterill

PLOT: With only a rudimentary vocabulary but a gift for mimicry, middle-aged Bubby has been raised by his mentally ill, abusive mother with no knowledge of the outside world inside what is essentially a fallout shelter. One day an interloper enters their underground hovel, shattering the only reality Bubby has ever known. Eventually he finds himself released into a modern Australian society he can hardly comprehend, but must learn to fit into somehow.

Still from Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Partially as an experiment and partially for practical reasons, de Heer chose to shoot the film with thirty-two different cinematographers, essentially one for every location.
  • Bad Boy Bubby uses binaural sound: the film’s soundtrack was recorded and mixed from two microphones Nicholas Hope wore behind his ears, so that the audience would experience the sonic world exactly as it would be heard from Bubby’s perspective. On home video the effect is largely lost, with the end result being only that a few of the conversations in the film sound frustratingly muffled.  The director suggests that the theatrical experience can be reproduced by listening to the movie while channeling the sound through a pair of stereo headphones.
  • Originally, the underground scenes were to have the sides matted to create a narrow, claustrophobic aspect ratio, and the film was to expand into widescreen when Bubby surfaces into the outside world.  Director De Heer thought the effect was too intense and made the film “unwatchable” and dropped the idea.
  • Bad Boy Bubby won a FIPRESCI International Critics Prize, along with several less significant festival awards.
  • We initially passed Bad Boy Bubby over for inclusion on the List, declaring it to be only “borderline weird.” You can read the original review here.
  • A search for reviews of “Bad Boy Bubby” on the Los Angeles Times website yields no results, but offers the helpful suggestion, “Did you mean ‘bat boy’ bubbly?”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bubby the punk rock front man performance artist, on stage in a priest’s collar, holding a blowup doll with enormous breasts wearing a gas mask, backed by a band whose heads are swaddled in cling wrap.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In my original review of Bad Boy Bubby, I demurred adding the film to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies by noting that the movie “has a unique tone that’s hard to capture, but the first words I’d choose to characterize it are ‘relentlessly offbeat,’ rather than ‘weird’… for the most part de Heer chooses to tell his story using a straightforward, realistic narrative style that makes us believe bizarre Bubby is a real person in a real world.” The first words I’d use to describe it are still “relentlessly offbeat,” but on further reflection I’ve concluded that Bubby‘s offbeat moments come relentlessly enough that “weird” is a fine choice for the second word I’d use to describe it. I do not want to be in the business of denying the weirdness of movies that feature middle-aged feral children, cling-wrap murders and bizarre swings in tone, especially when they have rabid cult followings and excellent critical reputations.


Short clip from Bad Boy Bubby

COMMENTS: Bad Boy Bubby is a film that moves slowly from deep darkness into light. It is Continue reading 108. BAD BOY BUBBY (1993)

CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Hartley

FEATURING: Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, , Pete Tombs, , , ,  Marlene Clark, Judy Brown, R. Lee Ermey, Danny Peary,

PLOT: Documentary covering exploitation films made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, both by Filipinos and by American companies looking for cheap labor and exotic locations.

Still from Machete Maidens Unleashed!

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few of the films mentioned (For Y’ur Height Only?) might be worthy of consideration for the List, but this documentary survey is a curiosity piece—and possibly a place to get ideas for your Netflix queue.

COMMENTS: There are two strands to Machete Maidens. One is the history of an enterprising but anarchic third-word film industry and the American carpetbaggers who flocked there to make cheap pictures, packed with war stories from those who were there. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who loaned army helicopters to American filmmakers in the evenings after they’d spent the mornings strafing Islamic rebels) and notorious first lady Imelda (who allegedly ordered dead workers’ bodies to be left in the cement of the Manila Film Center so the project could be completed in time to host a film festival) remain in the background as villains throughout the entire epic. On the front lines, American filmmakers and actors relate stories of pistol-packing makeup men and cockroach-infested living conditions (at one point Sid Haig describes his accommodations by saying “I saw a rat carrying a kitten out the window”).

But as interesting as this backdrop might be, the main attraction is not the island’s political scenery, but the movies made there for export. These reflected the evolving shock aesthetic of the American drive-ins, not tropical politics. The scandalous profit margins of native filmmaker Eddie Romero’s “Blood Island” horror movies, with their cheap rubber-masked monsters menacing topless Filipino babes, were the proof-of-concept legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman needed to ship contract director Jack Hill off to the islands to produce his smash hit The Big Doll House.  This revolutionary sleaze introduced the world to the concept of women’s prisons as topless entertainment centers, and also to the enormous talents of burgeoning bust icon  Continue reading CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

SATURDAY SHORT: ITALIAN SPIDERMAN TRAILER (2008)

Since extended to feature length through ten mini-episodes broadcast on YouTube, the “Italian Spiderman” trailer was originally shot as a film school project by Dario Russo. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t experienced the “actione,” “velocita” and “romanza” of “Italian Spiderman” yet, get ready for a treat.