One of the true strengths of TV comedy is that different styles can work. There can be broad, mile-a-minute laugh-fests, there can be dark, satirical pieces or even shows like BBC4’s Detectorists, where laconic, observational, character-driven humour wins the day.
Deathgasm began life as a competition entry. The second year of the New Zealand “Make My Movie” competition specialised in horror and the winning pitch was from Weta digital effects man Jason Lei Howden. As a result, he had $200,000 and a shooting schedule of less than three weeks to make it. The results are a minor miracle.
The Corpse Grinders is a lurid and rather crass film that revolves around a cat food company called Lotus Cat Food. The Lotus brand of cat food is the most costly and superior cat food on the market. Run by two shifty businessmen (Landau and Maltby), the pair get into trouble with their suppliers and have to find an “alternative” supplier who is a local grave robber. They buy cadavers for 20c a pound and eventually come to the conclusion that “ingredients are everywhere” and resort to seeking out live product, mainly people they owe money to and winos.
Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) is a sad, divorced insurance salesman. By night he struggles against insomnia brought on by headaches and his loud mindless neighbours, escaping either into violent fantasies or the sewer of popular television. By day he works with people who are obsessed with the TV he hates, and have no other interests at all. When a misguided attempt at being nice gets him fired, and he finds out from his doctor that his headaches are the result of brain cancer, Frank decides to act out his fantasies for the betterment of the world at large.
How much you enjoy God Bless America from this point on is going to depend entirely on how much you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait. The film is best understood as a raw scream of rage at the cultural and political forces he considers to be rotting America from the inside out – primarily petty selfishness and an obsession with the cruelest and shallowest forms of celebrity on offer.
Frank and his sidekick Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) sometimes seem less like characters than direct stand-ins for Goldthwait. They make speeches which simply lay out the film’s manifesto, and pick their targets from an incredibly thinly-veiled list of real-world people and groups including most notably American Idol, Glenn Beck, My Super-Sweet Sixteen and the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (they also find room for people who double-park and talk during movies).
If you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait that all these shows, people and organisations are a blight on society (and you’re OK with watching them obliterated in a crudely cathartic splatter of rage) then you’ll probably enjoy this movie. If you disagree with Goldthwait’s targets, or feel uneasy about heroising characters who are essentially spree killers then it’s probably not for you.
The Cheezy Flicks motto seems to be to bring you the best of the worst and with 1977’s SuperVan they have outdone themselves! This isn’t so bad it’s good as much as so bad you can’t believe it!! And I loved every damn insane, pointless, exploitative, WTF moment of it! Okay, enough exclamation marks. Truth is, most people are going to be bored stupid, turned off by the bad acting, the lack of storyline, the nonsensical direction (and I use the word direction with some hesitation) and the slowness of things. BUT, for those true connoisseurs of trash, this is a true gem, a turd that no matter how well polished will always stay brown but one you’ll notice doesn’t smell half as much as you first thought.
The story revolves around vans, customized vans, lots of them. Oh and CB radios because hell they were cool too in 1976 so why not throw them in as well. See, there’s this big van show called Freakout 76 and our hero, small town boy Clint (Mark Schneider) is going to try and win the big prize, five thousand smackeroos, for best van. Only on the way to the event he comes to the aid of a chick being smash and grabbed by some bikies and loses his van to a crusher in the process. No problems though, he has a friend, a genius in fact who works in the research department for one TB Trenton (Morgan Woodward chewing up the scenery), owner of Mid American Motors and one rich, greedy son of a bitch besides. His mate is supposed to be building a petrol guzzling van for Trenton but instead he’s come up with Vandora – a super van that runs on solar power! Looking likes something from one of them 80s post apocalyptic Eyetalian movies, Vandora has lasers, a sonic scrambler, a weird whistling sound when she drives along and is seemingly unstoppable. Of course, Trenton isn’t happy about this turn of events, particularly since he’s sponsoring Freakout just to promote the Trenton Truck (he owns an oil company too by the by) and wants Clint and Vandora out the way. Oh and the girl, Karen (Katie Saylor), that Clint rescued – she’s Trenton’s daughter. (of course I hear you say).
With the lamest bikers you ever did see, the gayest moustaches this side of Magnum PI, a whipped cream fetish and the guy who went on to play Uncle Leo in Seinfeld (Len Lesser) as comedy relief cop you know it’s going to be trashy from here on in.
Filmed during a real van show it seems, there are endless wasted minutes of people wandering around, looking inside vans, smoking dope, grabbing girls, looking at girls, looking at vans… and then there’s Charles Bukowski!! Yep, the Buk makes an appearance as a waterboy at the wet t-shirt competition. A competition by the way where the girls keep their t-shirts on. Ah the price of fame huh, the price of fame. Of course, for Van geeks this is some pretty cool stuff – there are some sweet 70s murals and vans in this pic so for us kids of the 70s this is purty sweet. George Barris, the man who created Vandora, and who also appears in the movie, then went on to create the demon car in that other lost classic The Car and Kit from The Knight Rider series and when you look at Vandora you can see a little Kit in her. The guys behind this movie would go on to be involved in Moonshine County Express (starring Marcia Brady!) and Terror Train which should give you an idea of the pedigree we are talking about here.
This is a shocking movie, a cash in by some guys trying to work out the next teen thing and coming up with “well, vans are in right now, cb radio, hey, lets have some chase scenes, a teen comedy sort of deal, make a statement about petrol guzzlers.. think we can have it written up by lunch, I’m kinda hungry.” Then throwing it all at the wall and seeing what stuck. Taken from a video print so you get scratches, glitches and even the odd video flicker, this is true exploitation at its peak. I bow to Cheezy Flick’s greatness.
The extras – Keeping with the theme the boys have added trailers from Convoy, Zombies of The Stratosphere, Savannah Smiles, Jive Turkey, Horror Hotel (early Christopher Lee!), Legend Of Boggy Creek and Andy Warhol’s Bad as well as a string of Intermission ads from the days of the Drive-In including Bernz-o-matic Car Heaters so you can go to the drive-in all year round. I think I love these guys.
Having established his reputation delivering uncompromising and often profanity-laden monologues addressing racial, political and other topical social issues, the late Richard Pryor was probably not the first person most people would expect to be given his own prime-time comedy/variety program, especially given the safe American television landscape of the mid-1970s, when feel-good sitcoms like Happy Days and brainless action escapism such as Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man dominated the airwaves, providing viewers with a welcome alternative to the harsh realities which waited for them outside their front doors (and often within their own four walls).
Still, Pryor had written scripts for episodes of Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and a Lily Tomlin special (for which he shared an Emmy), and was also a guest host on the first season of Saturday Night Live, so his transition to television star may not have seemed all that far-fetched. Unfortunately, the resultant show only served to highlight just how difficult it was to try and take Pryor’s raw, often incendiary, comedic talents and harness it enough so that it would be accepted by middle-class America without losing its edge or diluting its potency.
The Richard Pryor Show debuted on the NBC network on Tuesday, September 13, 1977 in the 8pm timeslot. It lasted a mere four episodes, a victim of network interference, poor ratings, and Pryor’s refusal to continue working on the show unless it was moved to its originally agreed-upon timeslot of 9pm. What remains over thirty years later is a patchy series which runs out of enthusiasm and steam even before its four episodes were up. Still, there are some traces of Pryor’s genius peppered throughout, as well as enough humorous sketches and up-and-coming faces (Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhard among them) to make it worth mining through.
Episode 1 (13/9/77): In the debut episode, Pryor takes aim at Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name spaghetti western anti-hero, as well as the then-new phenomenon of Star Wars, with a send-up of the cantina sequence where Pryor is the bartender to a host of oddball aliens (many wearing Rick Baker make-up and old tunics from Planet of the Apes). Pryor tells one grotesque alien that he looks “just like a nigger from Detroit I know”. A more provocative sketch has Pryor as America’s first black president holding a press conference (and becoming violent when a white southerner enquires about the possibility of hiring the President’s mother to wash his windows).
Episode 2 (20/9/77): This episode starts off pretty well, with a great, cutting sketch set in a 1926 Mississippi courtroom, where a young black man is being prosecuted for having relations with a white woman. Dressed as a white Colonel Sanders-type, Pryor as the Prosecutor is overshadowed by Robin William playing the defence lawyer, who gets his client off by establishing that the woman is of easy virtue (and is then subsequently lynched because he managed to prove a black man innocent). The only other moment of real creative note appears at the end, where Pryor comes out as the bat-winged singer of the rock group Black Death – a hybrid of KISS/Black Sabbath/Parliament and pre-Spinal Tap lunacy – and tops off his act by destroying the set and killing his audience of adoring fans with a bizarre fog ray gun.
Episode 3 (27/9/77): A very laboured episode, by now Pryor’s disinterest in the format and material was clear, with a joke about script censoring leading to a series of vague and half-developed skits about cavemen and inept car repairmen. Only real memorable moments are a B&W sequence where a woman describes her first lesbian experience, and a lengthy improv set in a surreal circus, which nicely highlights Pryor’s sentimental side.
Episode 4 (4/10/77): Thankfully, The Richard Pryor Show managed to finish on something of a high, with an episode which, while lacking any truly great moments, is at least consistently amusing, with sketches that send-up the shower scene from Psycho, Zorro (Pryor is a vigilante known as El Negro), the Titanic (Pryor as a lone occupant on a life raft who drags rich survivors aboard then proceeds to rob them) and Taxi Driver (with Robin Williams providing the voice of a pistol in a gun shop). Other moments of fun include a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde bit, and an appearance by American Indian comic Charlie Hill, who of course sets his sights on the early settlers (“Pilgrims came to this country 400 years ago – as illegal aliens”).
Punchline’s three-disc release of The Richard Pryor Show certainly gives fans everything they could possibly want, with extras running the gamut from outtakes and deleted scenes to the original May 1977 NBC Special which eventually led to the series getting the go-ahead. There is also a booklet containing the scripts for unfilmed sketches and, the highlight, the complete uncut 44 minute ‘Roast’ segment from the final episode, where Pryor mostly sits with his head down, nervously puffing a cigarette as – in a send-up of the famed celebrity roasts hosted by Dean martin – the regular guest stars on the show get up and heap praise or ridicule at his expense.
Ultimately, The Richard Pryor Show captures the star at neither his angry best nor his drugged-out worst – like so much of American television, it is for the most part mediocre stuff, and no doubt suffered because of Pryor’s limited involvement in the writing (he is credited only as a writer of ‘additional material’). Still, it stands as an interesting misfire, a rare nugget of Seventies US television trying to go against the grain, and needless to say an absolute must for lovers of its star.
- Deleted Scenes
- Q&A Segment
- Complete 44 Minute ‘Roast’ Segment
- ‘Mudbone’ Monologue
Available on R4 DVD from Punchline.
18 year old Helen (Carla Juri) is eccentric, to say the least. She considers bodily hygiene to be a con, borrows the vegetables from her family’s fridge so she can rate their performance as masturbatory aids, and has a spectacular talent for saying the least appropriate thing at any given time. Her life is spent making things difficult for her divorced parents, tormenting her (much) younger brother, growing avocados, and hanging out (getting high, and into trouble) with her best (and only) friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse).
Helen’s world is turned upside down (or perhaps inside out – since it’s already upside down from most perspectives) when she cuts herself in an anal shaving accident and winds up in hospital. Being Helen, she immediately forms a plan to use the situation get her parents back together, and develops designs on a handsome male nurse called Robin (Christoph Letkowski).
Like Helen, Wetlands is fairly confronting on the surface. Within the first 5 minutes we’ve had a tour through an astoundingly filthy public toilet accompanied by Helen’s cheerful discussion of her hemorrhoids, her sex life, and her “pussy health experiments”. However (again like Helen) this confronting exterior is a front for a more complex truth. As the film goes on, Helen’s various quirks and transgressions begin to be revealed as open-hearted (and reasonably rational) responses to an adult world that is deceitful and sometimes physically dangerous. Similarly, though it appears on the surface to be a sort of gross-out polemic, Wetlands slowly reveals itself to be at heart a coming of age story with elements of romantic comedy.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Charlotte Roche, who created Helen as a semi-autobiographical character. As a result, it’s not entirely surprising that Helen and her various unusual views should be portrayed sympathetically, but the degree to which this works on screen is largely down to the charm and daring of Carla Juri in the central role, and deft direction by David Wnendt. Together, they manage the tricky feat of making Helen’s perspective the central point of view in the film, and allowing the various (often uncomfortable) background details of her life to inform the person she is without explaining her into a mere bundle of pathological responses glued together and waiting to be “fixed” by the right man.
If Wetlands has a weakness, it’s that the fundamental story becomes fairly basic (particularly toward the end) and Helen’s motivations are actually pretty conventional. This means that while the gross-out details will put off the easily-offended, connoisseurs of the weird will find that it all becomes a bit tidy for them. That said, the individual details are idiosyncratic enough, and Helen is likeable enough that this only rarely becomes distracting.
Recommended (if my descriptions haven’t already put you off).
- Carla & Charlotte – A 1 minute short about the relationship between Carla Juri and Charlotte Roche.
- Blood Sisters – A 1 minute short about the relationship between Carla Juri and Marlen Kruse.
- Dare – A 1 minute short about Carla Juri’s preparations for the role of Helen.
- The Making of Wetlands.
- Deleted Scenes
- Land In Sight music video
- Theatrical Trailer
“Madman Propaganda” – trailers
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.
Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey – probably better known as Mos Def) are a pair of petty crooks whose biggest achievement to date is running a pimp over with a van in order to steal his wallet-cash and his hat – but they have big plans. They’ve found out that a local businessman named Frank (Tim Robbins) has been using his various construction projects to siphon off millions of dollars and stashing the money in offshore accounts. If Louis and Ordell kidnap Frank’s wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) the pair reason he’ll have no choice but to pay a million-dollar ransom as he won’t be able to go to the police. Unfortunately, what neither Mickey nor her would-be kidnappers realise is that Frank is just about to divorce his wife so that he can live with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher) and isn’t too keen on paying to get her back.
Life Of Crime is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard‘s 1978 book The Switch and is the last adaptation of one of his books that Leonard was personally involved with before his death in 2013. In a film-trivia twist, this makes Life of Crime a sort-of-prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown because Rum Punch (the novel Jackie Brown is based on) follows on from The Switch and features the later career of Ordell (meaning that Mos Def ages into Samuel L Jackson circa 1997).
Life Of Crime is more Coen brothers than Tarantino – the plot is driven by bad people making bad decisions for bad reasons, rather than stylish action and slick pop-culture dialogue. Louis and Ordell’s plan (Frank’s intransigence aside) is critically handicapped by their reliance on a mentally-unstable neo-Nazi called Richard (Mark Boone Junior) to provide them with guns and a hideout. Mickey’s prospective lover Marshall (Will Forte) witnesses the crime (because he was trying to seduce Mickey when she was kidnapped) but is too worried about his wife finding out to actually do anything to help. Meanwhile, Frank (drunk and boasting about how clever he is) spills the details of his embezzlement plan to Melanie, who decides to play the femme fatale to try and profit off both sides (despite, for her part, being much less clever than she thinks she is). The sole point of innocence here is Mickey, who had naively believed everything that Frank told her and is utterly blindsided by the revelation that he refuses to pay her ransom. I admit I have a soft spot for “people being bad at crime” movies, but the assorted convolutions and incompetencies here are nicely put together.
Jennifer Aniston is excellent, and Mickey is a really unusual and interesting character in that she’s naive but also really smart and resourceful – adapting quickly to her new circumstances and trying to figure out ways to help herself out of her situation.
Unfortunately, for all that good stuff, Life Of Crime feels just slightly lacking in something. The whole film has this odd slightly tacky over-bright TV set look, which is probably a deliberate reflection of the characters’ low-rent conspiracies buts robs everything of the edge it would need to be fully engaging. It’s good, but stops short of quite being as great as it could be.
- “Making of” featurette
- Theatrical trailer
- “Madman propaganda” (trailers)
Despite producing only six feature films (and a handful of shorts) over the course of his long career, Jacques Tati is one of the most famous and influential French directors and actors of all time. This is particularly impressive given how relentlessly unusual his work was at the time, and remains today.
Alex de la Iglesia is just about the textbook definition of a ‘cult’ director. First breaking through in 1993 with the sci-fi lunacy of Accion Mutante before making a splash internationally with the comedy/horror The Day of the Beast. He has forged a path of unhinged films, populated with idiosyncratic and often grotesque characters, laced with a fine line in black humour.
The most notable exception to this pattern was his last outing, which was expected to be his Hollywood breakthrough. The John Hurt/Elijah Woods starrer The Oxford Murders was a tepid, by-the-numbers thriller, perhaps providing conclusive evidence that de la Iglesia is a director at his best when allowed to run wild.
And so to The Last Circus, where things run very wild, indeed.
The story begins in 1937, as a group of circus performers are press-ganged into service during the Spanish Civil War. Amongst these is a clown, still clad in make-up, wig and a dress. Armed only with a machete, he promptly wades into the opposing troops, cutting down and all sundry before he is finally overwhelmed and imprisoned.
Fast forward 36 years to the mirror image date of 1973 and the clown’s son Javier (Carlos Areces) has grown up and has followed his footsteps into the circus. His lot is not to be the star, the happy clown, rather he is to be the straight man, the sad clown, the butt of all the jokes. This is because his childhood of misery has left him devoid of mirth, but full of tragedy.
The happy clown is Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a charismatic superstar. The children love him, but his confidence bleeds into arrogance and alcoholism. When drinking, he has a tendency to abuse his wife, the acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang)…who Javier also falls for. It is a love triangle that rapidly spirals into violence, madness and murder.
The Last Circus plays out as a political allegory. Javier is the Republicans, wracked by internal turmoil while Sergio is Franco’s fascist Nationalists, violent and strong of purpose. Between them is Natalia, representing Spain herself, torn between two desires. This metaphoric approach gives the piece added depth, but sacrifices elements of the storytelling. The plot flow becomes increasingly stretched as the movie progresses and all of the characters become almost completely sympathetic as the madness and atrocities pile up on both sides.
Offsetting this stumble on the scripting side of things is some amazing work behind the camera. The production design is sumptuous and evocative, but the cinematography is never less than stunning. Deep shadows abound, with a rich, gothic, almost fairytale feeling throughout. This is one beautiful looking film.
The acting is more of a mixed bag, although de la Torre is the clear stand-out, chewing the scenery with aplomb whenever he gets the chance. Special mention must also be made of Bang, who is quite ridiculously attractive throughout. Oh, and she is also de la Iglesia’s real-life partner, for trivia fans.
An ambitious movie, The Last Circus starts off strongly, but loses its way somewhat in the second half. Perhaps fulfilling the requirements of allegory meant, in this case, a less enjoyable narrative. Still, the visuals are terrific and the invention on show means the movie is never dull. Perhaps a misfire, but a compelling one all the same.
The extras are limited to just the trailer for the film and trailers for some other titles from the Madman Entertainment catalogue. A shame, really, as a commentary track ruminating on the symbolism in the film could have been a terrific addition.