Razorback (1984)

Russell Mulcahy

The creator of Judge Judy wrote a book about a killer boar. It was adapted into a film in Australia in the 1980’s. Because the robotic boar never worked the film became about crazed pet food factory workers and a sign of Australia’s acceptance of its crazed underbelly.

 

Razorback is often unfairly described and derided as Jaws with a Boar.

Oh, if only it were that simple!

Razorback is barely a film about a giant boar. It is, at times, barely a film about anything. What it is though is an unwitting bridge between the 1971 bleak reality of Wake in Fright to the 1986 smash hit of Crocodile Dundee. Wake in Fright was an unflinching exploration of the nihilistic and drunken Australian psyche as experienced by a stranded school teacher in an outback town. It was a box-office failure and long lost in Australia as it was considered too unflinching in its depiction of the otherwise heavily romanticised Australian outback and inhabitants. Crocodile Dundee is essentially the same story as Wake in Fright but transformed into an extended tourism shoot and embrace of the foreign other with the drunken nihilism white-washed into a blokey fun.

Razorback forms part or all of the model which allowed Crocodile Dundee to make this transformation. Razorback backgrounds the drunkenness and hostility of the people it is populated by and the landscape they inhabit as it focuses upon the phantom dangers of a giant razorback boar. Crocodile Dundee would use the same tactic with the unreasonably ever-present danger of crocodiles.

Arguably this is a lot to lay on Razorback which some would argue is a film which is barely watchable. Directed by an untested Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet music video director it is full of set-pieces which veer dangerously close to proto steam-punk. The

gregandjeff
Greg Harrison was chosen over the lesser known Jeff Bridges.

producers passed on Jeff Bridges as the protagonist in favour of the lost to history and very underwhelming Gregory Harrison. The opening scene is a brutal exploitative reference to the Azaria Chamberlain dingo death in a story line which is never quite justified and then promptly abandoned. The eponymous boar, like Bruce the shark in Jaws, was apparently generally faulty and, so, is hardly seen. Instead the films prevalent and larger threat comes from the unpredictable and sexually violent local pet food factory workers.

Despite all this it is a cult classic and features prominently in the schlock aussie film documentary Not Quite Hollywood where Quentin Tarantino claims it is one of his favourite Australian films. Also, to the films merit, almost everyone in the crew (though not the cast) has gone on to have extensive careers in Australian and international film and television.

The most confusing aspect beyond the finished product are the films origins. Judge Judy creator, Peter Brennan, wrote two novels. One was Razorback and another was Sudden Death, a tennis thriller. He also co-authored another novel about the Kennedy brothers. When not writing schlock books he was an American television producer, writer, and journalist most well known for being the creator and executive producer of Judge Judy and its spin-offs as well as Current Affair and Good Day New York.

Filmed in Broken Hill and with many of the same crew from Mad Max 2 the film relies heavily on a hostile Australian outback and its weathered inhabitants for a threatening tone. It’s hard to know what was changed from the source material and assumedly American context of the book and to what degree, if any, the aspects of the township and its inhabitants were tacked on by the Australian film-makers. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason (scarcity, cult appeal, happenstance or price-fixing script-writing errors) copies of the Razorback novel are hard to find and often expensive (some around $150 at time of writing).

The director, Russell Mulcahy, had mainly worked as a music video director until Razorback. He would go on to direct Highlander, one of the Resident Evil films and a swathe of tv. His music video past is obvious in this, his debut. The film often looks like a music video with mist/fog and coloured backlit backgrounds filmed from low camera angles. There is also a hallucinatory dessert sequence that an IMDB review thought worthy enough to describe as ‘one of the most beautiful horror films not made by an Italian giallo master’.

In the absence of a working robotic boar and for story purposes too arbitrary or confusing to go into here the film focuses a lot of its time upon the ambivalently evil brothers Benny and Dicko, and their work in the town’s pet food factory. The factory is

M8DRAZO EC002
RAZORBACK, from left: David Argue, Chris Haywood as Dicko and Benny 1984, © Warner Brothers

ramshackle, malfunctioning, and mostly abandoned. There is some loose arrangement where local boar hunters supply carcasses to the factory but, judging by the surplus of body parts littered throughout the place, Benny and Dicko don’t seem to know how to process the mutilated offerings. Nonetheless the factory is a perfect place for director Mulcahy to fill with fog and film silhouettes garishly backlight in red and blue. Benny and Dicko are alcoholics who live in a cave, and are constantly changing into ever more outlandish fur coats and hats yet they appear to be the managers of the factory and the skeleton staff of heavy browed labourers. What’s more they take their work seriously. Throughout the film they abandon acts of rape, kidnapping, and murder so they can race back to the gore-ridden factory and hammer furiously at broken steam valves and jumpy conveyor belts.

Within the three films of Wake in Fright, Razorback and Crocodile Dundee a foreign other experiences the Australian outback and witness brutal hunting scenes. The infamous kangaroo hunting scene in Wake in Fright was shot with real kills and real drunken hunters and, not surprisingly, is extremely brutal in its violence and malice. In Razorback the acted drunken hunting is shot through backlit fog and becomes a music video and chance for the story, such as it is, to propel the protagonist towards his stand-in love interest. Crocodile Dundee sets up the same drunken kangaroo hunting scene for the same purpose of character. The drunken hunters are foiled by Mick Dundee at the behest of the shocked reporter. It is a chance for the suddenly honourable protagonist to distance himself from what were previously drunken brethren.

The transformation of the outback from the realism of Wake in Fright into the surrealism of a strange unexplained place in Razorback is also heavily reused in Crocodile Dundee as the hostile landscape takes on a level ambiguous spirituality. Wake in Fright focused upon the plight of an innocent school teacher trapped in the outback town and, so, underserved of the drunken excess he is subjected to. Razorback and Crocodile Dundee alter this dynamic by both using a New York reporter blundering into Australia with a missionary ideal and the hubris of reporting on the savagery of a foreign land. This sin of pride allows Razorback to justify the reporter’s hostile reception as it simultaneously draws upon Wake in Fright in its portrayal of the habitants as lost, drunken and manic within a landscape they exist to ruin.

Benny and Dicko are never really allowed to be evil however so much as psychotic cartoon characters. The rest of the town accepts them just as they accept the boar hunter whose son dies at the beginning of the film and is suspected (like Lindsay Chamberlain) of inventing the creature to cover up murder. It is difficult to know then if in this world all the inhabitants are twisted, or they are simply strangely accepting. Razorback never examines these or other questions long enough to provide any hint of underlying meaning. Similarly, the film refuses to encourage any sort of thematic interpretation in its frenetic pacing and continued priority of style above all else (including horror).

Crocodile Dundee becomes a much more gracious film as it choses to overlook the arrogance of the reporter and, instead, provides Mick Dundee as guide which allows the New Yorker to see and experience beauty in outback Australia and a degree of invented pathos to its isolated pub-going inhabitants.

Which isn’t to say, necessarily, that either Wake in Fright or Crocodile Dundee are morally right or wrong. Each have their problems and their ulterior motives. Wake in Fright wanted to be a frank and brutal look at Australia. Crocodile Dundee wanted to sell Australia to the world and show how foreign visitors could enjoy even its most isolated extremes. Razorback is great because of the fact it does exist in a blank middle-ground. It is a film which is aware of the faults of Australia and any attempt to portray it. But rather than worrying about this the film leans into being as brutal, fast and psychotic as it can in this portrayal. It merges the tropes of American music videos onto the Australian outback and one-pub towns. It doesn’t care about its perception or treatment of Australia, Australians or its overseas visitors and, as a result, and like many the Ozploitation classics is much more interesting and Australian than its mainstream contemporaries or forebears.

covers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist (2013)

Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

The Disaster Artist is a book about Tommy Wiseau the lead actor, director, screen writer and producer of the cult hit and ‘worst movie ever made’ The Room.

The Room was self-funded by Wiseau with a mysterious budget of six million dollars and should have been little else other than a vanity piece full of laughable acting, writing and special effects. Instead and, perversely, because Wiseau is such a bad actor, and wrote such awful dialogue and performs with such misplaced intensity The Room gained a mesmerised cult following and has regularly screened on cult cinema nights for over a decade worldwide. In my home city, Melbourne, there are at least monthly screenings.

Written by Wiseau’s friend and co-star Greg Sestero with the help of journalist/writer Tom Bissell The Disaster Artist seeks to explain the origins of Wiseau, his film, and the many missteps towards its accidental success. Sestero first met Tommy Wiseau as a fledgling actor in a San Francisco acting class. Through anecdotes the book details how the two became friends as well as the career paths of their unsuccessful acting careers. This side of the book, the accounts of insider Hollywood at the lowest levels and the subsequent clumsy making of an independent film are endlessly interesting and entertaining and could have been enough to form a great book. It is the attempt to simultaneously intertwine a biography of Wiseau which elevates the book to something better. The result is similar, though not quite as amazing, as Emmanuel Carrère’s excellent I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. The Disaster Artist, bears similarities to Carrère’s biography in its construction of Wiseau who is, or at least is portrayed as, a mysterious character who is impossible to truly

billboard
The bulk of the marketing for the original run of the film was this billboard in LA. Wiseau is said to have paid $12k a month for the advertising and kept it up for five years!

know. Like Carrère had to with Dick the authors of The Disaster Artist are forced to be resourceful and second guess themselves as they attempt to paint a portrait of a man who has entirely invented the nature of his past and the identity of his present.

The structure chosen by the writers means that the eventual reveals around the theorised mystery of Wiseau’s origins and his riches not to mention his all-consuming passion for acting form the climax of the book. I won’t mention them as I believe it is impossible to explore these reveals without severely altering and hindering a reading of the book.

Ultimately, I finished the book feeling slightly unsure about what I had read. It seemed unclear if the telling of this story was sanctioned by Wiseau or if he had in fact actively promoted it. Since Sestero has, I believe, an ongoing working relationship with Wiseau this lack of clarity seemed intentional and designed. Other questions are also avoided. Is Wiseau happy to be successful and popular for his failure? Does he think audiences laughing with him and the nature of acting and exhibitionism and drama or, rather, is The Room a product of mental illness and the continued cult status, cinema screenings and soon to be released Franco film a continuation of a sort of refusal to examine the underlying issues behind it and its stars faux success?

Some of these issues are covered as Wiseau’s hypothetical origins are unveiled. But it is these conceits and plays with narrative time which simultaneously provide more tension and entertainment while also placing the reader in deliberate ignorance to Wiseau’s motivation and justification as events are transpiring. Because of these tactics the book often inadvertently becomes a work which explores the nature of biography and auto-biography. The authors contend, ultimately, that it is impossible to know Wiseau or the truth of his background whilst presenting their best guesses. As a reader it is impossible to know if they are bending the truth of their ignorance or knowledge and, if so, to what degree? Are they being intentionally disingenuous about their knowledge on Wiseau? Or is this part of the dogged misguided genius of a man who created a success out of failure? As a fan of biography and its form I found myself just as amazed by the continued mystery and possible manipulation of this figure. Is Wiseau one step ahead of us all, one step behind, or does he have one foot in a different dimension altogether?

Fist Fight (2017)

Richie Keen

Jillian Bell takes the Michael Fassbender award: for not just turning up, not just matching the token effort of all around, but for owning every single scene so hard that you start to wonder if she (like him) knows what film she is in.

 

Charlie Day playing a Charlie Day type and Ice Cube playing an Ice Cube type (complete with NWA quotes he somehow doesn’t visibly wince at).

The jury is still out as to whether Charlie Day can pull off being a leading actor as there’s not much in this movie to work with. His character is boring and weak and, by films end, has only evolved into someone slightly less boring and weak. The central idea of a teacher fight is fine, I guess, within the film but barely believable with a bunch of half-hearted obstacles and hinderances and character motivations. As with every middle of the road American comedy the worst part is the sign-posted heart felt character arc and

jillianbell
Jillian Bell: A showoff

ending where everyone and everything ends in a sort of mediocre fairy tale. They all get to keep being teachers. That sucks.

Kumail Nanjiani and Tracey Morgan are ok in supporting roles though it feels like they didn’t really know what they were doing. Meanwhile poor Christina Hendricks is way off in tone and it perhaps her character lost a lot of lines or scenes or she was given the wrong script, either way, her character, her approach to it is strange.

Meanwhile Jillian Bell steals every scene with the best lines, perfect timing, and what feels like a genuine interest in being in the movie and being the funniest person within it. Jillian Bell is has been criminally underrated for a while and, I think, is one of the best comedic character actors working at the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that everyone else in this movie hates her now because she overshadowed everyone so hard.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that she is a complete dick who went out of her way to show everyone up. I don’t think believe either is the case (I would of Fassbender), I’d hope and assume she is awesome and she is much better than this movie deserved and makes it much more deserving or watching on a long plane trip than it may have otherwise been.

 

The Sad Variety (1964)

Nicholas Blake

Daniel Day Lewis’ poet laureate father writing 60’s detective fiction to pay the bills.

 

Nicholas Blake was the penname of C.S. Lewis who was an Anglo-Irish poet laureate and the father of academy award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Because, assumedly, the early earnings of a poet wouldn’t pay Daniel’s acting-school bills Lewis also wrote a series of detective novels based around the exploits of ‘gentleman detective’ Nigel Strangways.

Cecil_Day-Lewis
Cecil Day-Lewis Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972.

This is one of the later entries in the Strangeways series published in 1964. The book uses the trope of a closed circle of suspects trapped within a location, in this case an English country town which is isolated by heavy snow. The young daughter of a nuclear scientist has been kidnapped, the ransom for her return, is the vital nuclear state secrets known to her father.

As a detective Strangeways is almost a bystander. The plot progresses as much through accident and happenstance than detective work. Strangeways’ most constructive action is to direct his relatively more capable wife towards the task of slyly questioning suspects and using her expertise in high speed driving and knowledge of cars (neither of which are explained in this outing) to literally speed him and his police colleagues towards the third act.

The book is like Nicholas Freeling’s What Are the Bugles Blowing For? in some ways. As in Bugles this is a late entry in the Strangeways series and his character traits, background, and capabilities are assumed knowledge. As with Bugles the book also struggles with how to situate itself within the changing society of the sixties though is admirable enough in not landing on the wrong side of history in judging societal standards of sexuality, marriage and class.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the Strangeways series or the detective writing of Blake/Lewis. Where Bugles was an example of a 60’s detective novel that is very badly written The Sad Variety is consistently well written but feels rushed and cut for length so that none of the characters are ever fleshed out enough to make the stakes seem as important as they should. Unlike Bugles there aren’t as many interesting asides or digressions that help work as a time capsule.

Blake/Lewis identified as a communist for much of his life. He turned against the movement and the villains within this novel are said to representative of what he saw as the by-any-means-necessary doctrine of communism.

A great pulp book cover to this edition and an interesting snapshot of the tipping point of society as it progressed throughout the 60’s but, unfortunately, never compelling enough to be anything but a curiosity.

sadvariety

Transmetropolitan (1997)

Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Over 10 volumes between 1997-2002 Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson developed a Mike Judge like absurdist yet eerily prescient dystopian future. The anti-hero protagonist of their world is Spider Jerusalem. Spider is a chaos agent gonzo journalist who is a mix of the drug fuelled passion of Hunter S Thomson tempered with the arch narration of Renton from Trainspotting.

Ellis and Robertson foresee the idea of celebrity presidency, populist religion and the manipulation and subversion of journalism. They incorporate and invent sci-fi tropes. flat,800x800,070,fThe creators also foresee and explore the mobilisation of movements such as trans-gender rights emerging as important distinct causes rather than small parts of larger struggles. Written in 1997, the writers could easily have used these fringe groups and the idea of identity struggle for cheap laughs but, instead, continually work hard for moments of humour while also providing pathos and closure in the various story arcs and overarching tale of Spider. The character of Spider is written  in such a way that he manages to walk a line of being heavily drug afflicted, dry and extremely cynical but also instinctively compassionate.

Special mention must be made of the art. I often skim over artwork in comics but the art of Darick Robertson demands attention. Robertson’s art is visceral and fun, and is often riddled with Easter eggs, gags, and messages within the densely populated crowd scenes. He consistently goes the extra yard to be creative and provide a fully populated and organic feeling environment. Transmetropolitan from start to finish is fully realised and bitingly satirical. It remains the most intensely passionate and truly enraged graphic novel I’ve read.