If you think the Australian cinematic new wave of the 1970s and 1980s consisted mainly of enigmatic art films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, historical dramas such as Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, or sensitive character studies by Gillian Armstrong or Jane Campion (yes, yes, we know she’s a Kiwi, but she made her name in Oz), then you’ve got a snike in yer living room, mite.
There’s an entire world of sex, violence, car crashes, and rampaging critters lurking in the hard white underbelly of the Land Down Under — a dimension in which the studliest man on Earth is an ocker (good old boy) named Alvin Purple, and Nicole Kidman is just a teenage BMX bike racer. The home of the Feral Kid and Patrick and Razorback and the Nightrider and Eskimo Nell. The lost continent of Ozploitation. A wilderness that time forgot. A place that’s Not Quite Hollywood.
It’s almost criminal, the amount of fun filmmaker Mark Hartley (a maker of making-ofs) has conducting this wildly salacious, enormously entertaining documentary exploration of Australian genre crowd-pleasers, made for the drive-in audience at roughly — very roughly — the same time international audiences were discovering Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, et al. The standard wisdom is that a change in governments combined with a new “R certificate” for Australian movies ushered in the new permissiveness, but Hartley’s army of Oz-movie-biz talking heads has theories of its own.
Who knew that Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries especially treasures his contribution to the fake-projectile-vomiting (aka “chunder”) effects in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie? Or that blackballed former James Bond George Lazenby resuscitated his career with a role as a drug lord in The Man from Hong Kong? Ozploitation attracted mavericks and misfits from film industries everywhere: drunk-driving champ Dennis Hopper (Mad Dog Morgan), “bloody pom” David Hemmings (Harlequin, Race for the Yankee Zephyr), Hong Kong action reject Jimmy Wang Yu, H’wood moonlighters Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis (they costarred in Roadgames), and perhaps not surprisingly, porno star John Holmes (Fantasm).
But the reminiscences of home-grown filmmakers are even zanier: producer Anthony I. Ginnane (it appears he’s universally despised), actor Jack Thompson, directors Tim Burstall and Richard Franklin, and Grant Page, hardest working stunt man in the Southern Hemisphere, whose crippling automotive exploits in Stunt Rock and Deathcheaters still draw gasps of admiration today. Mel Gibson is conspicuously absent from the barrage of talking heads clips; his one-time boss George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, etc.) is happily not.
One of Ozploitation’s most fervent admirers is Quentin Tarantino. While ransacking world cinema for ideas, Tarantino discovered Australian horror and car-crash films and has evidently never recovered. He particularly loves the Ozzie talent for choreographing cars and motorcycles, with cameras mounted six inches above the pavement, elaborate maneuvers, and multi-angle collisions. “It makes you want to jerk off,” he enthuses. The maker of Death Proof also raves about horror pic Next of Kin (a relative of The Shining), prison camp shocker Turkey Shoot, and Fair Game, “a female Straw Dogs.”
The film clips fly at us like loose auto parts — bang-bang-bang — the most extreme scenes (full frontal nudity, gore, crocs, telekinesis, bikers, werewolves, but a surprising lack of dwarf tossing) from more than 130 movies in rapid montage, cued to wisecracks. Forget the wine and cheese — grab a six-pack of XXXX, a few Violet Crumbles, and fasten your seatbelts.
Maybe someday someone will make a documentary about exploitation filmmaking in South Africa. As far as we know, there’s exactly one: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
Johannesburg isn’t the first place we think of as the location for an outer-space alien invasion pic, but that’s what makes this sci-fi adventure by relative newcomer Blomkamp — a special effects animator turned director and co-writer (with Terri Tatchell) — so refreshing. Did we say refreshing? Visceral is more like it. The imaginative, New Zealand-produced (it’s backed by Peter Jackson), South African CGI-fest may indeed set a post-Predator, post-Terminator record for tonnage of rotting meat hitting hard metal surfaces, but that’s not its principal appeal.
As told in newscast format, a mammoth mother ship from another galaxy anchors itself above downtown Johannesburg, and, twenty years later, the ship’s crew of athletic, seven-foot-tall extra-terrestrials with heads like shrimps (that’s why they’re known as “prawns”) are, for some reason, living in the same rundown shanty townships formerly occupied by South Africa’s native black population, and engaging in running battles with the local police. Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like a heavy-handed, can’t-we-all-just-get-along allegory about race relations in the former home of apartheid.
But the introduction of Wikus van der Merwe skews that a bit. Wikus (pronounced VEEK-us), a mid-level manager at the huge privatized multi-national company that runs South Africa, gets sent down to the former Soweto, now Prawntown, to evict the belligerent aliens and relocate them to the countryside far away. Good luck with that — they’re mean, powerful, and are hiding clandestine weapons only they can operate. But something happens to poor, luckless Wikus (well played by actor Sharlto Copley), something to change his outlook on inter-species co-operation and respect.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but District 9 has the potential to satisfy two mutually exclusive groups of bottom-feeding moviegoers — the ones who like to watch monsters get splattered and the ones who prefer a little characterization stirred into the spew.
On to Part Three of this week’s cavalcade of fantastic visions — filmmaker Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls, aka “Being Paul Giamatti.” Writer-director Barthes, a native of France, casts Giamatti as himself in the elliptical yarn. While rehearsing for a New York stage production of Uncle Vanya, Giamatti grows dissatisfied with his acting in particular and his soul in general, whereupon he spots an advertisement for a high-tech firm that specializes in extracting a person’s soul, with the option of exchanging it with others’. Giamatti goes for it, setting in motion a shaggy-dog story involving a mad scientist (David Strathairn), a Russian black-market soul-smuggler (Dina Korzun), a trip to St. Petersburg, and a satisfying helping of Giamatti’s patented facial moues.
We’d ordinarily flee at top speed from such an exercise in dead-end absurdism, but Giamatti carries it off. Shlumping around Russia in a silly borrowed fur hat, pulling his long face from Sideways, Giamatti’s demeanor is perfect for a tale of misplaced souls — not to mention the frustrations of Chekhov. By the time Barthes’ screenplay descends into a psychodrama of infancy, we’re beyond caring. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt a bit.