Actor Michael Jai White is probably best known for his bone-shattering roles in fight movies like Undisputed 2 and Blood & Bone, and few film fans would have credited him with the comedy chops to come up with a spoof as deliriously funny as Black Dynamite (Icon).
As the title suggests, Black Dynamite spoofs the Blaxploitation sub-genre, and the subject provides the film’s creators with a rich supply of material throughout. After gangsters kill his brother, Vietnam veteran turned CIA killing machine Black Dynamite (Jai White) is let of the leash in search of answers and violent retribution. Backed by his radical Black Panther-style accomplices, Dynamite uncovers a labyrinthine conspiracy that takes him all the way to the Honky House.
Ordinarily it would be hard to send-up a genre that doesn’t take itself particularly serious in the first instance, but the writers -including Jai White -know exactly which buttons to push throughout. While I anticipated Black Dynamite being amusing, I didn’t anticipate quite how many laugh-out-loud moments there would be, and Jai White’s deadpan delivery imbues the material with a hilariously earnest quality. Furthermore, with an attention to detail that would shame Grindhouse duo Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Black Dynamite is one of the most unexpectedly quirky comedies of the year. Amusingly, in a bid to save money Black Dynamite’s producers raided the Sony stock footage archives, and one of the films that provided them with particularly rich pickings was dodgy Chuck Norris action flick Missing In Action 2, which only adds to the nostalgia factor! Anyone who enjoys Blaxploitation films -or exploitation film-making in general -is in for a deadpan treat.
Originally known as The Orgasm Diaries, brilliantlove (Soda Pictures) is a sexually explicit Brit-flick that focuses on the tempestuous relationship between Manchester (Liam Browne) and Noon (Nancy Trotter Landry). At first glance, laconic Manchester seems like a waster, but he comes alive when indulging in his dual passions of photography and sex -which collide to often eye-opening effect. Kooky amateur taxidermist Noon is an obliging participant in Manchester’s erotic photography, but when a drunken Manchester accidentally leaves an envelope full of explicit images in a local pub, it opens a can of worms that threatens to tear the couple apart. Suave pornographer Franny stumbles across the photographs, and duly invites the pair to move out of Manchester’s grubby lock-up and into his plush country retreat, where he promises to make them stars.
Despite an engaging premise, and a pair of admirably unrestrained performances from the two lead actors, brilliantlove is a strangely slight confection, and although the relentless penetration dominates the film, it can’t quite distract you from the paucity of the narrative. Franny’s role as a catalyst in the piece stretches plausibility, and his ambitions of turning Manchester’s grubby snapshots into sophisticated erotica are a step too far. That said, the juxtaposition between highbrow sex and low-brow smut is an apt one, as brilliantlove straddles lovestruck teenage titillation and arthouse sophistication throughout, never quite convincing you of either. Nevertheless, if first-time director Ashley Horner can muster up some substance to go with his style then he could have a bright future ahead of him.
Set in 1976 Mary & Max (Soda Pictures) is the feature-length debut from award-winning Australian Claymation filmmaker Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for Harvie Krumpet in 2004. Mary Daisy Dinkle is a lonely eight-year-old girl who lives with her drunken mother and taxidermist father in the Melbourne suburbs. Improbably enough, in an effort to find out how babies are made in America, she plucks a random name out of the New York phone book, and sends a letter to Max Jerry Horowitz, an overweight 44-year-old New Yorker, whose solitary existence rivals Mary in the loneliness stakes. The odd couple duly strike up an off-kilter pen-pal relationship, in which they trade increasingly weird letters, offering bizarre solutions to one another’s curious problems. Several unfortunate misunderstandings later, one particularly weird letter gives Max a vicious anxiety attack, duly landing him in a psychiatric institution where he is cut off from Mary’s letters, leading you to wonder: will these two oddballs ever actually meet?
Mary & Max took 57 weeks, and 8.3 million Australian dollars to make, but it’s a hugely impressive feat, and despite its elongated run-time never feels like a short film that has outstayed its welcome. With a voice cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman (Max), Toni Colette (Mary), Eric Bana (Damien, the object of Mary’s affections) and a voice-over courtesy of Barry Humphries, the film is bursting with quality throughout. Writer/director Elliot peppers the script with unexpectedly weird details that keep you on your toes throughout. Simultaneously twisted and charming, Mary & Max is a vividly imagined piece of work that suggests that Elliot is equally adept at working on a bigger stage. Effectively a warped fairytale, with some seriously dark moments. A bittersweet gem ideal for anyone who has a taste for offbeat material.
I’m Still Here (Optimum) ostensibly charts the events surrounding Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting to take up a new career as a rapper. At the time, Phoenix -an actor with an impressive knack for dividing audiences -came under intense scrutiny from press and fans alike. Had he really turned his back on Hollywood, or was this some kind of elaborate prank? With his swollen gut and unruly beard, Joaquin Phoenix seems less like the subject of a documentary, and more like a walking, talking art installation. His commitment to his new lifestyle is slightly mind-boggling, and with his deadpan brother-in-law Casey Affleck on directorial duties, the whole endeavour treads a thin line between freak-out and farce. Without giving the game away to those of you who aren’t aware of the truth, the whole project is convincingly executed, if rather self-indulgent. (But, admittedly, anyone who isn’t aware of the full story by now probably won’t be interested enough to seek out the DVD)
Tellingly, the best scenes in the film are those which Phoenix and Casey Affleck had no control over, with assorted media clips used to explore the brutal fallout from the disastrous David Letterman chat show episode, in which a visibly uncomfortable Phoenix was berated by the host for chewing gum after failing to answer any questions. Amid the stars poking fun at Phoenix (one of whom is Ben Stiller, who has already appeared elsewhere in the film, suggesting he is well aware what Phoenix is up to), the cruellest, and inevitably funniest sequence is a video blog labelled Eddie’s Hollywood Minute and a Half, in which the blogger -presumably Eddie (?) -delivers a scathing assessment of Phoenix and his career. When the dust settles, I’m Still Here is undeniably intriguing, but now that the cat is out of the bag, slightly pointless.