Name: Kimberley Thomson
Twitter handle: @2bottleThomson
City I call home: Melbourne
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: Documentaries and dumb horror.
A film that changed me/my mind: Ever since the guy behind the counter of my local video store let the teenage me borrow his personal copy of Pink Flamingos, I've had an inkling that there is nothing more absurd, hilarious and disgusting than cinema. A change for the better or the worse, this remains to be seen.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: So many. In particular, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, plus a big swathe of documentaries.
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: Gorging on movies for a week straight sounds like a pretty delicious prospect. It should be a challenging, but overwhelmingly useful experience.
Cinema excites me because: The immersive nature of cinema is pretty exciting, and quite unique as an art form; sitting in a dark theatre surrounded by total strangers is something that shouldn't be undervalued in a world that is increasingly atomised.
A publication I’d one day like to write for: The Age, The Monthly, Slate, NYT ...
Favourite critic and why: Although not a spectacularly original choice, reading Roger Ebert shred a film limb from limb is one of the finer pleasures in life. Slate's Dana Stevens is also normally worth reading. And of course, where would we be as a nation without the verve and pomposity of our own critical darlings Margaret and David.
Feature: Death of a Cannon But Trash Lives On
Kimberley Thomson gets down and boogaloo with the trash cinema cannon.
Menahem Golan has been in the news quite a lot of late. He caused a stir at Cannes this year when he yelled from the stage: “In the 1980s, they didn’t call this the Cannes Film Festival. It was the Cannon Film Festival!” He is the subject of Mark Hartley’s documentary Electric Boogaloo: the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films; and, sadly, he passed away on 8 August, just days after the film’s world premiere at MIFF 2014.
The co-owner of the Cannon film company emigrated from Israel to America in the late 1970s alongside his cousin, Yoram Globus. Their aim: building a cinematic empire that could rival Hollywood. At its feverish height, Cannon released almost one movie a week. Inevitably, quality often took a beating. Despite their best efforts, the names Golan and Globus became linked with excess and bad taste: the very foundation of trashy cinema.
“To me, the Cannon logo was the 80s,” says Mark Hartley, who adds that he has fond memories of watching Cannon titles as a teenager. “Look at a film like Life Force. It’sthe biggest budgeted, zombie, sci-fi, nudie space film that you will ever see in your life. But it is done so incredibly straight – there is so much money thrown at the screen – you know that no one else in their right mind would have invested so much money, time and effort into a film that had such a ridiculous story line,” he says.
“You’ve just gotta be thankful that films like that got made and no one in the world would have made it apart from Cannon,” he adds, “because they thought it was going to be the next Star Wars.”
Electric Boogaloo caps Hartley’s trilogy of documentaries celebrating the cinema that dwells on the far-flung fringes of good taste. Not Quite Hollywood (2008) spotlighted the golden age of Australia’s 1970s Ozploitation genre, while Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) discussed the spate of American B-movies shot on the cheap in the Philippine jungle throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hartley says all three films are about “outsiders trying to break in to become insiders”. Electric Boogaloo is about two “Israelis trying to become a major Hollywood force, the next major studio in Hollywood, but not really having the proper sensibility to be able to do so.”
Hartley says he is wary of slapping the ‘trash’ label on the Cannon output at large. “There are no films in Electric Boogaloo that are really unprofessional, that are badly made. There are films that are badly scripted and badly directed, but they all got theatrical releases.”
Thanks in no small part to the cheerleading of Quentin Tarantino, the desire for trash and genre cinema is now stronger than ever. The 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival offered an impressive genre program. Alongside the world premiere of Hartley’s documentary, it presented a remake of ‘70s Ozploitation wonder Turkey Shoot and a doc on The Philippines’ midget James Bond export, Weng Weng, in Andrew Leavold’s The Search For Weng Weng. One of the most exciting horror titles was New Zealand’s Housebound; although too well-crafted to comfortably fit the trash bracket, it still aptly demonstrated the prize value of including an exploding head.
“Exploding heads are important to the world,” says film historian and writer for Fangoria magazine, Michael Helms.
Throughout the 80s Helms edited Melbourne-based fanzine Fatal Visions, which discussed films strewn across the spectrum between “art-house to out-house”.
“When I use the word trash, I use it lovingly,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there that know and understand trash. You either get it, or you don’t.”
Helms says one of the key appeals of trash cinema is that beneath the blood and breasts and head explosions there is fertile ground for provocative subtext. “Every good exploitation film, horror film or trash film, is going to have subtext. Turkey Shoot is loaded with it. Even if you’re not looking for it, you’re going to see it. It’s got an immediate duality to it.”
“There are cheap thrills galore in this one,” says the Fatal Visions entry on the original Turkey Shoot (1982). Writer and Radio National presenter Phillip Adams walked out on it, proclaiming it “without doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen”.
He would probably not be any kinder to its reincarnation, either. Husband and wife director–screenwriter team Jon Hewitt and Belinda McClory have created a film juiced with action and excess that will test the durability of your stomach lining.
Dominic Purcell plays a disgraced Navy Seal who must compete on a murderous reality TV show to win back his freedom. It’s a suitably absurd plotline, but also a clear take-down of the exploitative nature of reality TV and a critique of military institutions.
The remake has deliberately foregone the campiness of the original, presenting straight action in its place. Yet the overall tone becomes confused; a parody that has gone too far and become the thing it was making fun of in the first place. For many the charm of trash cinema lies in campiness and absurd black humour; something that is missing here.
“This stuff’s gotta be supported,” says Helms of Australian genre films. “How is a film industry meant to survive if you don’t have things people can point to and say, ‘That’s rubbish!’”. Especially in a time when “Hollywood has co-opted everything about exploitation”.
Getting funding and an audience for genre still proves difficult in this country. Between documentary projects, Mark Hartley directed an updated version of another Ozploitation gem, Patrick, which world premiered at MIFF 2013. Financial backing was a struggle and the film flagged theatrically. “Patrick was received well,” says Hartley, “but no one saw it.”
Upon its 1982 release, producer of the original Turkey Shoot, Anthony I. Ginnane (who resumed this role for the remake), pronounced with Cannon-esque vivacity: “We’re after the international box office!” And the film did do well overseas. With a release date yet to be confirmed, time will tell how the remake fares.
No matter your assessment of Turkey Shoot, or trash in general, you’ve got to hand it to contemporary genre practitioners: far removed from the floodlights of Hollywood, if they have a vision – no matter how absurd or financially unviable – they run with it. Surely that would have made Menahem Golan proud.
Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
“It’s hard to say the words ‘Cannon Films’ without laughing,” one disgruntled director explains in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. And indeed, between baroque ’80s dance sequences, Chuck Norris and an intergalactic rendition of Hercules, there is a lot to laugh about in the Cannon catalogue.
The two Israeli cousins behind the infamous production company, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, never seemed quite aware of the downright shoddiness of the films they were responsible for; moreover, as this documentary suggests, they were proud of them. As boys, the pair would loiter endlessly around theatres in Tel Aviv. A love of cinema was born; they relocated to America in the late ’70s; and so unfolded a lifetime of producing Frankenstein-esque cinematic concoctions – a typical Cannon film is equal parts camp, sleaze and misjudgement.
Electric Boogaloo completes a trilogy for director Mark Hartley. His first offering, Not Quite Hollywood (2008), chronicled the glorious Ozploitation chapter of our own national cinema, and in 2010 Machete Maidens Unleashed! was an erotic jungle boogie into the anarchic B-movie culture of the Philippines. While all three films follow an almost identical mould – the narrative is unfurled for us at rapid-fire pace; a series of colourful anecdotes spills from various talking heads – Electric Boogaloo is told with archival interview footage and a steaming treasure trove of film clips (lifted from Cannon’s 2000-plus films). Thanks to Hartley, we are granted the best bits while being spared clunky narratives and eye-gougingly bad dialogue.
Hartley and his team also have a knack for choosing strong talent to supply stories that propel the story; there are no big-ticket interview subjects here (no Tarantino, Landis or Roger Corman, as the previous films boasted), but the talent chosen is entertaining and uproarious anecdotes are aplenty. The title is lifted from a (typically) ill-fated Cannon film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, a sequel to one of the company’s rare successes (a pioneering breakdance film, Breakin’). Meanwhile, the company’s brief dalliances with art cinema are skimmed over by the doco – head-scratchingly, Cassavetes and Godard each signed on to make a Cannon film.
Whereas Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed! relied on a sense of place to ground their narratives, Electric Boogaloo leans on the characters of Golan and Globus (particularly the fiery Golan, who attracts more than one comparison to Jabba the Hut). The pair, now well into their eighties, appear only in archival snippets, after declining to participate in the film. The storytelling suffers a little bit because of this absence – we are only granted a second-hand sense of their characters. But, their visionary chutzpah is still clearly apparent. (In a hilarious footnote, Golan and Globus proved the Cannon wheeler-dealer ethos is not quite dead by commissioning their own Cannon doc almost immediately after Hartley requested their involvement. It beat Electric Boogaloo to release by three months.)
In typical Hartley fashion, Electric Boogaloo spits out an almost indigestible amount of information. Its pace is as breakneck as the way the cousins operated. Don’t expect anything outside of the Hartley jelly mould, but cinephilic appetites will once again certainly be whet.
Review: I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Caroll Spinney seems like an indisputably lovely man, with an infectious sense of childlike wonder. You would have to have in order to adopt the persona of an eight-foot tall yellow bird for 40 years! I am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story chronicles the life of the puppeteer behind one of Sesame Street’s most beloved characters.
Spinney joined the Jim Henson family after a stint in the military, and spending time on various other puppet shows, including Bozo the Clown. After donning the yellow feathers in 1969, he’s been a faithful resident of Sesame Street ever since and, even at 80 years old, is not intent on leaving any time soon.
Over the past 50 years, Spinney and his wife Debra have been diligent documenters of their family lives, meaning there is some insightful archival footage to draw from. But unfortunately, I am Big Bird struggles — as many biographical docs do — to cogently tell the story of an entire life within a 90-minute runtime. After a brief introduction via TV show clips and some complimentary statements from talking heads, we launch headfirst into pathos: Spinney recounts a tough childhood dominated by a hard-headed father. More time spent celebrating the joy brought by the TV show could have framed the film better.
The score from Joshua Johnson is overwrought and incessant. Dense strings summon more melodrama than a Masterchef finale. This does a disservice to the story; more restraint would have allowed for poignancy without sensationalism.
Indeed, Sesame Street as a show can be poignant, teaching kids how to deal with difficult life problems, such as grief and loss; but first and foremost, it is playful. You get the sense that this is true of Spinney himself. But the film — mainly at the hands of the score — doesn’t allow for this to fully come through.
Sporadic animations are included, detailing things like the logistics of internally operating a giant bird suit. They are undeniably charming and more would have been welcome. More attention to aesthetics in general would have lifted the film. Spinney is an artist in his own right, and we are shown a few of his drawings, but perhaps giving him more creative input in the production process could have been an interesting way to sustain visual interest.
This doc draws inevitable comparisons to 2011’s Being Elmo, the story of Kevin Clash, voice of Elmo, who arrived a little later to the Sesame Street party than Big Bird. I am Big Bird briefly suggests a hint of rivalry between the two characters; as the show became targeted to a younger demographic, Elmo usurped Big Bird as the most popular and recognisable character on the show. Being Elmo more successfully tells the story of a life and engages with the impact of the TV show in an emotional, but less melodramatic way.
I am Big Bird in comparison has fallen folly to a common chink in the armour of biographical docs: it is a hard thing for a film to carve an interesting story from the amorphous block of somebody’s life, sweet as your subject may be; but for the audience, it’s a necessity.