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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

 

Logan Lucky (2017)

Steven Soderbergh

Is movie Universe creation approaching a possible saturation and breaking point? We’re deluged with content on the movie and television screen and the market leader, Marvel, is fast approaching the point where newcomers could be too intimidated by the breadth of their universe. Meanwhile the other studios are racing to reach that same breadth with mixed success.

So, it is tempting, though not necessarily correct (yet) to claim there is a sort of reaction going on whereby established filmmakers are interested in making standalone stories. Examples include Shane Black’s hilarious and madcap The Nice Guys, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and, this, Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist film. There is also growing speculation that DC might capitalise on this idea by making standalone films out of their properties (i.e. the rumoured Scorsese Joker origin film).

Like with Wright in Baby Driver, Logan Lucky feels like an act of escapism for Soderbergh. It is essentially a return to the well that was Ocean 11 overlaid with a different setting, target and cast of character tropes.

The movie is heavily stylised but feels a little too bright. There is no hint of the southern gothic which often makes southern texts much more interesting and unique.  Beyond the accents actors adopt this movie could, really, have been set almost anywhere in America fb395191b8e3d830ce8a4096994298d0(or even Australia with a few changes), the setting is horribly underutilised. There is not quite enough of anything, not quite enough car racing or stunts, not quite enough stakes, not quite enough character, and not quite enough reveal at the end. Unlike in Oceans 11 players in the heist are essentially all amateurs. They have no established set of skill and so the heist is almost unbelievable and somehow anti-climactic. There was an extra motivation in Ocean 11, revenge, which helped explain the film whereas the characters of Logan Lucky avoid and decry any sort of motivation.

Adam Driver and Channing Tatum could perhaps have been playing opposite roles to have suited their acting abilities better while, Daniel Craig is fun because it’s fun seeing him ham it up and it works in this movie but is part of the problem as much as it is a boon. Soderbergh avoids easy beats and the painful American movie second act interpersonal conflict and, for all of this movie’s problems, many also shared by Baby Driver, it is still fun simply going to see a well-made film not connected to another movie or necessitates staying around after the credits for a preview of what is to come.

 

 

Annabelle Creation (2017)

David Sandberg

Annabelle Creation is the latest film in what is now being retconned into The Conjuring universe (rather than franchise). Annabelle Creation is a prequel to Annabelle, which itself was a prequel to The Conjuring. As a tacked-on universe prequel I thought it would be safe to expect that Annabelle Creation would follow Rogue One and Kong: Skull Island and be serviceable and good while completing a task.

With little interest in rushing to Universe connectivity the movie revels in the early twentieth century American gothic. There is nothing to fear at the start of the movie but the very landscape itself provides a sense of foreboding. Director David F. Sandberg sets the scene for a conjuring against the back drop of a prairie land full of rusted farm machinery and technology such as lights and cars which are primitive and unreliable. Anthony LaPaglia constructs handmade dolls in an isolated and large farmhouse which he shares with his wife, played by Miranda Otto, and daughter. The family exists in this gothic bucolic bliss until the daughter dies in a road accident.

Oddly the trailer outlines the entire plot of the movie and arguably spoils its most compelling element which is the very slow reveal of not just the extent of the evil hidden within the house but the how it came to be there in the wake of daughter’s death. The movie proper starts when, twelve years later, a nun and her six orphan girl charges are invited to live in the house with the still grieving couple.

As soon as the nun and orphans arrive there is a feeling of a growing restrained threat and violence. As the children voice or attempt to ignore their fears the movie becomes about the idea of faith and the power of evil in the world and its ability to consume and destroy the innocent without caring about what should or deserves to happen. The setup of isolated farmhouse is naturally terrifying, the use of the doll and ghost child eminently chilling and the main pre-pubescent girl protagonists are especially vulnerable.

The film could have gone further and been as socially analogous as Get Out if it had chosen to twist the knife deeper and allude to the evil which existed, and exists, within the church. The demon and/or its existence could have been portrayed as analogous to predatorial priests preying upon the weak. Perhaps realising how close they are to this territory the filmmakers go to pains to ensure viewers that the demon is a demon is a demon and as such too much of the monster is shown in the third act of the film and rather than a terrifying wraith of the imagination some of the terror is dulled as the conjuring of inherit evil is rendered into form on too many occasions.

There are also either a lot of conceits or no limit to the demon’s power which is simultaneously frustrating and serves to heighten the threat and feeling of helpless ness with which the audience is shown the film. In service to universe building there is an Easter egg for the next Conjuring Universe movie, The Nun, and the epilogue of the film feels a little to complete as, like with Rogue One, it is forced to fit too well and, again, leave nothing to the imagination as it runs on seamlessly into Annabelle.

These small faults aside Annabelle Creation is still a film which is better than the sum of its parts. The script, acting and direction are well done and it maintains an enthralling pace and doing a lot with a relatively low kill count.

Don’t watch the trailer before seeing it. Destroy all porcelain dolls afterwards.

 

 

Trumbo (2015)

Jay Roach

Such an amazingly mundane film and amazing because while assumedly isn’t hard to make a boring film it is surely difficult to make one so boring out of such interesting source material. The two-hour running time to this movie drags as an eternity as the film struggles with the formation of the red scare and McCarthyism in America in the wake of WW2 and the beginnings of the cold war.

I think most people are aware of the film because Bryan Cranston was nominated for best actor in the 2016 academy awards for his portrayal of the titular Dalton Trumbo. Knowing parts of the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 from the You Must Remember This podcast and having also read about Trumbo in Steve Martins auto-biography Born Standing Up I’ve been eager to watch this film ever since I missed it in cinemas. Amidst the many amazing brushes with historical figures in Steve Martins book his interaction with Trumbo during the time Martin was dating his daughter stood out the most. Martin wrote that it was the first time he had been around such intellectual radicals and described Trumbo as an intense and passionate man despite the troubles he’d gone through with the Hollywood black lists and his time in prison.

On the screen, the film does many things well. It seamlessly interweaves original archival footage and recreates similar footage where necessary. The film is always well acted and the cast, one and all, do a great job of portraying some of the most influential players in Hollywood history.

But there is never a sense what it is to live in America at the time. Kong: Skull Island managed a better job in it’s opening credits with short introductory montage of news clippings and footage. Trumbo never seems confident enough to dive too far into history or examine closely why the cold war lasted for so long or why communism was pursued so vehemently domestically.

A particularly weak moment slowly passes by when the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper threatens to publish the real, Jewish names, of the studio heads and the aura of anti-Semitism which operates in tandem with McCarthyism is left to the audience to be interpreted as a general fear of foreignness. This lack of general political and national scope to the film is problem enough but the film is even less effective with its central subject. There is no indication of how Trumbo came to be where he is. The film introduces him in his thirties as the highest paid screenwriter to date. There is no explanation for his communism or stubbornness or exploration of his past as a war correspondent or even how he grew as a writer. He is birthed fully formed into the film and as such there is never any reason to like him.

Even as Trumbo is blacklisted and jailed there are no real stakes. On Trumbo’s release from prison he and his family move to a palatial house in the city whereas in real life, they moved to Mexico. It is these kind of disconnects which not only, biographically, make it difficult for the film to explain key moments (such as the inspiration for his second Oscar winning film The Brave One) it also is just one of many instances where an opportunity for crisis or real stakes for Trumbo and his family are side-stepped for convenience. Keeping the film in Hollywood allows the filmmakers to concentrate the cause and menace of McCarthyism into the single villain of the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as played by Helen Mirren.

The only real crisis the film bothers to present is that as a workaholic Trumbo might be at risk of losing his family and even this small stake is discarded as his drug and alcohol fuelled work is shown to not be the mission of a stubborn obsessive but the ultimate foil to his nemesis Hedda Hopper. The film portrays this outcome between these two individuals as the main cause of the end of the blacklists, the red scare, McCarthyism and the whole dark chapter of American history. Meanwhile the epilogue cards explain that the blacklist was still in partial operation for a further twenty years and negate even the flimsy premise of crisis and battle the filmmakers invented.

The film is a boring failure made by a director of bad comedy films (notably the Austin Powers sequels) and a tv writer. Though the acting within the film is good I’m not even sure that Cranston deserved to be nominated for work in a film weighed down by such an ironically bad script.

I know now why I’ve never really met anyone who’s seen this film. Very few did. Though I would say to anyone that was interested that they would better spend their time listening to Karina Longworth’s much more interesting, entertaining and accurate stories of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten on the You Must Remember This podcast.

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Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton

A movie which falls flat even as it hints at what it could have been.

Eva Green is as always great even as she chews the hell out of the scenery and loves every second of it. As both actor and character Green dominates Johnny Depp who seems restrained and unsure of his choices. The basic story, based upon a 70’s TV show I’ve never seen, is ok and the fish out of water concept of a vampire waking up in the 1970’s is flimsy but fun even as the movie seems to seek to avoid period settings and the political spirit of the times.

This film could have been a lot of things. Even some simple editing changes may have been enough to fix it. I know characters are based upon tv source material but Chloe Grace Moretz’s character, as much as I love her and as fine as she is in this with what little she has, could have been edited out with little alteration to the story. The same could be said for Johnny Lee Miller who, too, is fine but seems to be given unnecessary screen time because… well… he’s Johnny Lee Miller.

A cameo from an old Alice Cooper breaks the suspension of disbelief while also acting as the only highlight in a film that in its third act becomes confusing and boring. This movie plays out as if perhaps in an earlier cut there was a longer running time which explained or justified some of the sub-plots. It is this kind of half commitment which is its biggest failing.

That said Eva Green is great even if it is a worry that she seems likely to become trapped in these schlocky genre films. She highlights too that this by now familiar Burton ensemble of Depp, Bonham-Carter, and Elfmen needs new life. After so many awful films over the last two decades I’ve no interest in seeing any film with Johnny Depp directed by Tim Burton. Green’s role in this film though hints at the possibility that Burton could regain a sort of relevance if he was to work with new people. He needs people that are actually thrilled and excited to be in his world. Who are fans rather than freinds, peers or ex-spouses.

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Tell it fast?

I’m currently writing a review of (Tom Cruise’s) The Mummy and a look at the state of Universals fledgling dark universe.

It’s been widely reported that The Mummy is a bad movie and it is on most fronts though it has the potential for a good (if not great) movie within it. One of the bigger problems I have with The Mummy is that the story is completely linear and the story time, as far as I could tell, is perhaps only 12-16 hours.

Linear story lines with short story times seem to be relatively common over the last year. Rogue One was a very straight ahead story and other than a flash back in it’s opening scene the events took place over the course of less than 12 hours. Wonder Woman uses a present day framing device to tell the story of the movie within flash back and also shows Diana’s upbringing through flashback but is otherwise also a very linear story with maybe 48 hours of total story time.

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between these films. The Mummy and Rogue One share the commonality of not being great films that probably should have been. Wonder Woman fares better though it’s third act suffers because of the usual poor CGI boss battle common to all DC films to date.

My theory is that all of these movies have sought to model themselves after Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s linear story with a scantmadmax 12 hours of story time. Mad Max worked because the action was so tactile, sensational and innovative. It was also a chase movie and didn’t ask for the audience to need  know or care to much about the titular or support characters.

By contrast the films above insist and rely upon empathy with the main characters, are trying to tell stories and to fit into bigger universes (Star Wars, DC, and Dark Universe respectively) and don’t provide enough or big enough action for such straightforward stories.

It’s a shame that these films were probably created under such heavy influence from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wonder what they could have been otherwise? I also wonder how many other films will try and fail with the same formula?

Perhaps the upcoming Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan will create a new trend. There is no running time released yet but the trailer hints at multiple character arcs and story lines and it seems safe to assume the movie will come close to the three hour mark. I don’t expect it will lead to superhero movies running to three hours but perhaps, hopefully, it will mean a return to less linear and longer style of story within big budget films and an end to trying to emulate a movie as unique as Mad Max.