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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Smash Palace (1981) dir: Roger Donaldson Blu Ray (Arrow Academy)

The car crash of a marriage

This action-drama revolves around three family members who work in a vehicle junkyard named Smash Palace which is located in backwater New Zealand. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) performs all of the hauling and mechanical work while his French wife Jacqui (Anna Maria Monticelli) handles the reception duties. However, Al’s passion lies in his race car which he works on with the assistance of his beloved infant daughter Georgie (Greer Robson-Kirk), in preparation for an imminent big race. He’s also fixing up a vintage jalopy for his best mate, a local police officer named Ray (Keith Aberdein).

Unfortunately, Al’s preoccupation with motor vehicles and his volatile temperament cause marital frictions with Jacqui, causing her to drift towards Ray behind his back. One day, when Al goes out camping with Georgie, he discovers that the latter has forgotten to pack the all-important tent. When they head home, they discover Jacqui and Ray together. After a major row, Jacqui tells Al that she is leaving him, with the agreement that he can see Georgie at weekends.

However, when their daughter sees him winning a car race on television, she misses him enough to go run away and pay him an impromptu. Jacqui accuses him of willfully taking her outside of his allotted time and files for a non-molestation order, meaning that he can only see their child when she expressly permits him to do so. As a result, Al goes increasingly off the rails and resorts to a series of extreme actions.

Watch a trailer:

A great follow up to a seminal New Zealand film

Smash Palace was the second feature-length film for New Zealand director Roger Donaldson - the first being the seminal Sleeping Dogs (1977) which was also given a recent Arrow Academy release. While somewhat more polished in execution than his promising debut, it retains the same naturalistic NZ New Wave flair from its energetic staging to its entirely on-location shooting style. On paper, it’s the Antipodean country’s answer to other contemporary family breakup films such as Robert Benton’s Oscar-baiting Hollywood melodrama Kramer vs. Kramer and David Cronenberg’s icky cult horror classic The Brood (1979). However, the approach is entirely different from either of those two.

It starts off feeling like a fairly low-key, slice-of-life drama depicting some largely amicable scenes of familial bonding. They are tainted only by the most trivial pieces of conflict, such as Al chiding Jacquie for passing Coca-Cola to Georgie while the latter is sitting in his beloved racing car. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that these are merely the “calm before the storm” moments. Al, in particular, is a man fully capable of exhibiting a rash and volatile temperament. One scene, where he throws eggs at his wife during an argument, is intercut with another depicting Georgie flicking a torch on and off repeatedly - a simple but chillingly effective depiction of the impact of their discord on the youngest member of the family. Things only escalate further and further towards situations that are arguably rather absurd, yet at the same time fit right in with the fraught emotional landscape of the couple’s disintegrating relationship.

Seemingly Roger Donaldson couldn’t quite let go of the action-orientated approach of Sleeping Dogs and thus he keeps one foot in the same stylistic sphere for Smash Palace. There is a spectacular opening car crash, a couple of exhilarating motor racing scenes, a comedic spot of madness involving Al stripping himself naked in the street (be warned: full-frontal male nudity is featured here) and a bit of violence involving him getting roughed up by some local thugs. Oh, and the third act turns into an extended manhunt which must surely have inspired Taika Waititi’s excellent Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016).

Bruno Lawrence and Greer Robson-Kirk in Smash Palace

Bruno Lawrence turns in a superb performance as a seriously flawed man who is fully capable of toxic and antagonistic behaviour, yet something of a sad victim of his own impulses. It’s a difficult juggling act to make us feel both sympathy and revulsion, and Lawrence pulls it off admirably. Anna Maria Monticelli (credited as Anna Jemison) doesn’t quite hit the same level as his alternately headstrong and browbeaten partner. Nonetheless, while her accent doesn’t sound particularly French, she sparks believably off him during their multiple tense confrontations through the course of the film.

Graeme Cowley’s landscape cinematography is stunning throughout, making for a great looking production despite its undoubtedly small budget. While the oddball genre mix of domestic drama, racing movie and action-thriller might confound some viewers, both director Donaldson and star Lawrence hold it all together incredibly well. Smash Palace is an apt title since the film is (quite intentionally) the equivalent of watching a car crash: uncomfortable, messy, startling and incredibly difficult to look away from.

Runtime: 108 mins

Dir: Roger Donaldson

Script: Roger Donaldson, Peter Hansard, Bruno Lawrence

Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Anna Maria Monticelli, Greer Robson-Kirk, Keith Aberdein, Desmond Kelly

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

It’s another classy looking and sounding release from Arrow. The colour palette is spectacular, right from the opening shot of a red sky. Sound is clear and sharp, creating a lot of impact.

Extras

Audio Commentary

Roger Donaldson and New Zealand racing driver Steve Millen provide a solid commentary here. Donaldson reveals that the film was inspired after he read a news article with the headline “Boy, 5 in gun siege”. A race car crash show on a television during one of the earlier scenes was stock footage of previous a real-life accident involving Millen himself. The driver also stood in for actor Bruno Lawrence during his character’s racing scenes. The main race sequence was shot around a real event at Bay Park Speedway which Millen was participating in. The rain and pitstop scenes were written in as both occurred in real life during the event; the latter was necessitated by an issue with the car’s gears. The shots of Lawrence himself sitting in the car were filmed during a break between the two heats. While the lead actor didn’t have a hand in the original script, he brought so many improvised ideas to the film that Donaldson ultimately decided to credit him as one of the writers.

As per his commentary for his previous Arrow release of Sleeping Dogs, some of the most memorable comments come when Donaldson discusses both the freedom and frank disregard for health and safety which he (for want of a better word) enjoyed during production. No permits were sought or required for filming, bar one country road being closed off for a race car scene. Lawrence’s outdoor striptease was even witnessed by some neighbours, who were suitably appalled by the sight! One supporting actor, who looked into the light produced by an arc welder for too long, suffered from temporary blindness for two days.

The Making of Smash Palace

Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, Keith Aberdein and a number of other people involved in the film were lined up for this excellent 53-minute documentary. We get to visit the film’s locations as they are nowadays; the “Smash Palace” featured in the film is a massive real-life junkyard called Horopito Motors. As you might expect, Donaldson felt that the symbolism was perfect as each car represented someone’s dream coming to an end. We also see the remains of the old tow truck that Bruno Lawrence’s character drives during the film. Donaldson mentions that it was a nightmare to work with because it was constantly breaking down - indeed, when it was pushed over a cliff while shooting one particular scene, the entire crew cheered.

Aberdein reveals how terrified he was during the sequence where he was in the helicopter flying through the gorge as the blades came just inches from its walls. He also says that he knew the pilot was a “cowboy” because he got killed in a flying accident a year afterwards!

A theatrical trailer and enclosed booklet round out the extras.

Overall:

Smash Palace is another powerful and imaginative piece of New Zealand cinema which has remained rather overlooked over the years, at least on this side of the world. As with Arrow’s release of Roger Donaldson’s previous film Sleeping Dogs, the director and others involved in the film make some highly enjoyable contributions to the roster of extras.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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