I'll admit, when I saw the title and promotional materials for Israel Luna's 2010 comedy Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives (distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures), my expectations were lower than basement level. I fully expected it to be another in the long line of tasteless retro-exploitation "comedies" that never reach for anything beyond the obvious joke, that would go out of its way to offend with blatant stereotyping and knee-jerk homophobia. In fact, so dire were my fears that I almost had to force myself to slap the screener in the dvd player and watch it unfold.
So imagine my delight when T-OTwK grabbed me from the get-go and kept me interested and involved almost throughout. Engaging characters, skillful filmmaking, and some genuinely chilling scenes of violence? Over-the-top zany comedy and gore scenes tempered with sensitivity and respect for its subjects? All in an indie comedy with an obvious love for 70s exploitation and the confidence to play with its tropes and trust the audience to come along? Who'd have thunk it?
The plot synopsis goes a little like this: protagonist Bubbles Cliquot (Krystal Summers) works as a dancer at a transgender strip-club in some major urban area (Dallas, as it turns out). With her fellow dancers--the glamourous Tipper Summore (Jenna Skyy), Latina bombshell Emma Grashun (Erica Andrews), Southern belle Rachel Slurr (Willam Belli), and fiercely protective "Momma" Pinky La'Trimm (Kelexis Davenport)--Bubbles is part of a supportive and understanding family of transsexuals. As we see the girls perform and join them for afterhours cocktails and conversations, we sense the cameraderie and affection between them, an "us against the world" sisterhood that feels both real and engaging.
Unfortunately that sisterhood is shattered when trannie-hating psychopath Boner (Tom Zembrod) lures Bubbles, Emma, and Rachel into a warehouse trap, and proceeds to take his vengeance on them, ostensibly for Bubbles' having "tricked him" into homosexual sex, but more obviously because he can't handle his own repressed sexuality. The other girls answer Bubbles' distress call, but the ensuing fight ends with Boner and his two gang-mates free, Tipper and Emma dead, and Bubbles in a coma.
When Bubbles awakes, she joins Pinky and Rachel in a plan to avenge their sisters' deaths--a plan that involves a trip to the dojo of club regular and kung-fu expert Fergus (Richard D. Curtin) and extensive training with a variety of ornate bladed weaponry. Once they're ready, the girls set a trap for Boner and his thugs that leads to a blood-soaked and action-packed climax--pun definitely NOT intended.
|Ticked ,but still fabulous|
It would have been very easy for this flick to fall into the Bad Comedy Tar Pit, but director Luna shuns the easy jokes and over-the-top camp and focuses instead on the sisterly relationship between his characters. The "trannies" in this flick are never treated as jokes just because they are transsexuals--rather, they're human beings who just happen to also be funny every now and then, and who also face real dangers and problems. Really, you could have replaced "trannies" with just your average female strippers and made almost exactly the same movie.
Which is not to say there's not camp here--there is, of course--but to me it was realistic camp, i.e., the campiness you would expect to find in groups and clubs such as those depicted here, in real life. If you've ever been to a drag show or hung out with people involved in them, then you would not blink twice at the witty bitchiness or jokes presented in Luna's script. However, the camp is less central than the real affection between the characters, and the way they band together, even before tragedy strikes.
Maybe because I was so taken with the relationships Luna focused on, the most over-the-top of the comedy bits didn't work as well for me. One is when Bubbles wakes up in the hospital, and she and her friends are flabbergasted by a latex-clad transsexual nurse (Chase Wade) and the reflector-wearing, innuendo-spouting Dr. Laccio (Todd Jenkins). Another is the trip to Fergus's dojo, a bit of chop-socky silliness that elicited some giggles, but mostly fell flat for me. Luckily, Luna had the directorial intuition not to let the bit go on too long.
|Boner (Zembrow) menaces his victim|
The style of the film winks knowingly at 70s exploitation, though it probably owes more to Quentin Tarantino's take on the same. The movie is divided into chapters, each with its own usually humorous title card, and there is artificial film grain and even a "missing reel." While the flick is never really convincingly "grindhouse," the practical gore effects and creative vengeance methods in the final confrontation do hit that mark.
The acting here is not Shakespearean quality--many of the line readings are stilted and some reactions less than convincing--but graded on a sliding scale for low-budget direct-to-video indie films, it's really not that bad (and certainly as good as many of the 70s films it emulates). The girls--most of them real transgendered actors--do passably well, and as I said, the affection and cameraderie seems real enough. Standout performances are Davenport as Momma Pinky, who manages to be hilarious when the film calls for it and menacing as a mother lion when her girls are threatened. And Zembrod is an excellent villain--his first scene, wherein he whispers his grievances in a sing-song voice while he brutally kills one of the girls with a baseball bat, is truly chilling and well acted. (Well-filmed too--Luna handles the difficult scene with skill, even throwing in some disturbing, gruesome touches, like the matted hair and brain matter on the end of the killer's weapon.)
There are some negatives, as always. The pacing of the final confrontation scene suffers when first one group and then the other explain their needlessly complex and convoluted vengeance schemes--though again, perhaps this is true to the spirit of the 70s films that are the model. The comedy didn't always work for me, and the shot-on-video cinematography may put some viewers off, especially with the added video-effects grain and things like that. For me, I didn't mind it too much--Luna and crew had won me over, so I just went with it. Also, while Zembrod gave a chilling performance, his character *is* a stereotype of Southern bigoted homophobes that seemed a bit too easy for a movie that otherwise seemed to be fighting such stereotypes.
(Also, I learn through the wonders of the internet that there was backlash against the film from GLAAD and some trans-groups, citing the films' portrayal of transsexuals as "murderous vigilantes" and use of the perjorative term "trannies" as unhelpful. I can't presume to speak to those issues, but I for one never felt the title characters were presented anything other than affectionately, and certainly no different from heterosexual characters in similarly plotted films. But judge for yourself: Full article here.)
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, and extremely glad I got the chance to see it--somehow I doubt it's going to be playing theatrically in Little Rock. :) DVD features will inlude bloopers, Behind-the-Scenes footage, the "missing reel," commentary, and more (but were not included on the screener I got for review.) 2.25 thumbs.
Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives trailer (youtube)
Interesting, informative article from Queerty discussing the pros & cons of T-OTwK (hat-tip to Tenebrous Kate for the link!)
Note: Breaking Glass Pictures provided a copy of this film to MMMMMovies for review purposes. Images gleaned from the Internet--if one is yours and you need credit or to have it removed, please let me know and I will gladly comply.
|Luna (center, in leather jacket) and cast at the Tribeca Film Festival|