Tag Archives: Australia

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

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So everyone was urging me to see this cool new Aussie horror flick called The Babadook. I didn’t think it would be particularly good, to be honest, but the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes managed to persuade me in the end.

And wow, what a great horror movie. What a great Aussie movie.

The story, at least from the trailer, seemed kinda cliched. A mother (Essie Davis) starts to become terrified that the titular monster depicted in a pop-up children’s book she reads to her son (Noah Wiseman) might actually be real.

But fortunately, The Babadook is nothing like the typical boogeyman, monster-under-the-bed horror I had expected. While there is a handful of “boo” moments, the majority of the scares in this movie are psychological. It’s that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that creeps up on you and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There’s not much blood, and there’s very little use of computer-based special effects, and yet The Babadook is definitely up there as one of the scariest films I’ve seen for a very long time.

Another thing that sets The Babadook apart from most horror films in recent years is that the characters are actually well developed, meaning that you actually worry about them when something bad is happening to them. Essie Davis delivers a marvellous performance as Amelia, whose sanity appears to be hanging by a thread as her energy and patience is ground down to nothingness by her troubled son. Anyone who has had to deal with troubled children, or even normal children, will be able to appreciate what she’s going through and sympathise with her impossible predicament.

The way things begin to unravel for Amelia is executed with impressive skill, as one incident after another piles onto her despair, exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. She’s terrified not just of the Babadook, but of her own son, and even herself — or at least what she might do to him. That’s the brilliance of the film — for the most part, you don’t know whether the creature is a supernatural being, a real manifestation or her fears and anxieties, or just a figment of her imagination.

With this stunning debut, writer and director Jennifer Kent has set up what should be a career to look out for. It’s clear she knew exactly what she was going for from the very first scene, and the sombre color scheme she adopts really brings out the melancholy of the film’s tone.

What also stood out for me was the way Kent manages to un-Australianise the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with Aussie films per se, but the lack of strong accents and ambiguous settings do help open the story up to a wider audience and offer something that is more relatable to international viewers.

I don’t want to overstate the scariness of the film, because as we all know, bloated expectations can ruin even the best movies. My wife, for example, thought it was scary, but not that scary. Others have said they actually get more freaked out by cheap scares. That’s why I recommend checking it out so you can decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

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The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: I, Frankenstein (2014)

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I, Frankenstein, or as I liked to call it, I, Frankly-can’t-believe-Aaron-Eckhart-trained-6-months-for-this-shit, is already looking like a lock on my “worst films” list for 2014.

I knew it was not going to be a graphic-novel-to-film masterpiece, but I also had hopes that it would at least provide some solid popcorn entertainment. After all, Aaron Eckhart’s career trajectory has been on quite the upswing the last few years, and even though he’s made some questionable choices (such as Battle: Los Angeles, The Rum Diary and Olympus Has Fallen) over this period, none of his films have flat out sucked saggy scrotums — until now.

This should hardly come as a surprise. It’s hard enough to make a film about Mary Shelley’s classic novel (and we’ve seen some bad adaptations over the years). A film based on a comic that “re-imagines” that classic novel doesn’t really stand a chance. I, Frankenstein makes Van Helsing look clever.

The premise is this. Imagine if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not a novel but based on real events. Then imagine that Frankenstein’s monster, who is immortal, lives on after the events in the book for a couple of hundred years until the present day, and in the meantime learns to be a super awesome demon-fighting warrior. That’s basically it. Well, there’s actually also this long and convoluted back story about a secret war between gargoyles and demons, who want Frankenstein’s monster to unleash the secret to reanimating an army of corpses. I won’t lie; I was confused.

Anyhoo, the first problem with I, Frankenstein, apart from the silly plot, is that it’s kinda boring. Aaron Eckhart certainly tries, though the characters and the dialogue are so trite that it feels like watching bad cut scenes from a late 90s video game. They could have made light of the whole thing and turned it into a semi-comedy fuelled by sharp, witty comments, but everyone in it, including Eckhart, takes themselves so dead seriously that it saps all the fun out of the movie.

The second problem is that for a movie that depends on action to be watchable, the action sequences in I, Frankenstein are over-the-top (in a bad way) and lacking in creativity. Worst of all it’s all destroyed by extremely fake computer graphics that also remind me of late 90s video games. The gargoyles and demons looked like they were cut straight from an animated film and looked unrealistic even amid all the darkness and chaos.

Thirdly, turning Frankenstein’s monster into a superhero just doesn’t feel right. He’s supposed to be hideous — stitched up crudely from an assortment of corpses — but instead we get the chiselled features of Aaron Eckhart and his incredibly ripped body with a few lame scars across his face and body. It’s almost blasphemous.

Speaking of Aaron Eckhart, I was appalled to learn that he trained 6 months for the role. He worked out daily, trained in Parkour and Kali stick fighting and followed a strict diet, all so he could have a about 2 minutes of extremely average-looking fight sequences plus 3 seconds of a topless shot. You can’t fault the dude for his dedication, but boy, it’s hard to envisage a bigger waste of time than that.

All the other performances from a cast dominated by Aussies were fairly uninspired. Bill Nighy plays the villain, and you can tell he’s happy with the cheque but not having much fun. Yvonne Strahovski from Dexter plays a scientist and love interest, while Jai Courtney, Miranda Otto and Caitlin Stasey (from Tomorrow, When the War Began) play gargoyles. Everyone looks embarrassed to be there.

The only positive I can point out is that the film was made in Melbourne, which I suppose demonstrates that Australia is capable of making a relatively major Hollywood blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that the film they ended up making was I, Frankenstein.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013) (2D)

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I was kinda afraid of watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (it’s not just The Great Gatsby, it’s “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby“!) because of all the hype surrounding it, especially in Australia. Described as a lavish production with A-list actors such as Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, the film is said to be an ambitious adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.

I am ashamed to say I have never read Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, but I thought it would provide a fresher experience of the film version. It probably did, because the film was much better than I expected, though it did leave me wondering why it was such a great story, suggesting perhaps Luhrmann spent too much time on all the eye candy and razzle dazzle and not enough on the heart of the tale.

Set in Long Island in 1922, The Great Gatsby is told in retrospect from a sanitarium by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who befriends the titular Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire who loves to throw lavish parties. The story, however, is really about the relationship between Gatsby and his long lost love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick’s cousin. The problem is, Daisy is married to wealthy heir Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so I got what I expected in terms of flashiness — vibrant colours, stunning costumes, spectacular sets and beautiful cinematography. So if you’re after a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby certainly delivers. I saw the film in 2D, though I doubt you’d get a more immersive experience if you shelled out the extra bucks for 3D.

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is a melodrama — and a fairly interesting one with a lot of layers — but I don’t feel as though Luhrmann really captured the complexity or its heart of the source material. I mean, there must be a good reason why the story has resonated for nearly 9 decades, but I didn’t sense anything special while watching the film.

The performances were great across the board. Leo is Leo and he captures the enigmatic Gatsby wonderfully with the right amount of charm, and later, pain and vulnerability, though the standout for me was probably Edgerton’s Buchanan. At first I didn’t think he would be right for the role, but he surprised me — again. Is there any doubt now that he is Australia’s most underrated export?

In the end, I was probably more appreciative of The Great Gatsby than I thought I would be. I’ve never been a huge fan of Luhrmann’s style, which regularly struck me as more style over substance — and while The Great Gatsby probably falls into that category as well, there was more substance than I had anticipated, powered by some excellent performances. It’s a big, extravagant production that I enjoyed, but when you strip away all the glitz and glamour it felt like just another story. And surely the story of The Great Gatsby, widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written, is more than that.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I did love the soundtrack.

Movie Review: Snowtown (2011)

Snowtown is in cinemas 19 May 2011

In Australia, ‘Snowtown’ is synonymous with the infamous Snowtown murders, otherwise known as the Bodies in Barrels murders of the 1990s. And so I was very intrigued when I attended a screening of Snowtown, the new Aussie film that dramatises the horrific and somewhat bizarre events.

After the brilliant Animal Kingdom last year, I was ready to give any Australian film the benefit of the doubt, though I must admit I was slightly concerned because Snowtown is directed by a first-time feature director (Justin Kurzel) and stars a bunch of first-time feature actors.

Fortunately, those concerns were unfounded, because Snowtown doesn’t feel like the product of a group of first-timers. The film might be a little rough around the edges at times, but on the whole, it is solid cinema, and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in a long time. Frankly, Snowtown freaked me out.

The film is told from the perspective of young Jamie Vlassakis, who lives in the South Australian town of Snowtown with his mother and brothers. It’s a forgotten part of Australia, with people living barely above the poverty line and heavily affected by alcohol, drugs and sexual and domestic abuse. Enter John Bunting, a seemingly ordinary guy who befriends his family and becomes a father figure to Jamie. But there’s something about John that’s just not right, and Jamie soon finds himself falling too deep to get out.

Snowtown does have a bit of that Animal Kingdom feel to it in terms of style and the slower pace, but it is essentially a depressing horror film about one of the worst mass murderers in Australian history. It’s highly atmospheric, with some extremely graphic, visceral scenes that dare the audience to not look away — but at the same time there is a sense of authenticity and realism to it.

That’s the biggest strength of the film in my opinion — it’s ability to tell a story of such horrors without being over-the-top, cheesy or fake. The direction of Kurzel is actually very good, and the performances of the three main leads (Lucas Pittway, Daniel Henshall and Louise Harris) were all fantastic, miraculous really, considering this was their first feature film. Henshall, in particular, is outstanding as the terrifying, pathological Bunting.

Not all of the scenes worked, but my main complaint about the film is that it doesn’t explain some of the family/friendship dynamics very well. Bunting just appears in Jamie’s life — but we don’t really know where he came from. The same could be said for a number of the other characters. Who are they and how are they related to Jamie’s family? It wasn’t until I did some research after the film that I discovered who some of the characters were.

Ultimately, Snowtown is a strong film, technically and emotionally — not necessarily a pleasant one to watch, but if you enjoy dark, depressing films, being terrified and are intrigued by the type of people that stuff bodies in barrels (both apply to me), then this could be the film for you. To be perfectly honest, it unsettled, chilled, and scared the crap out of me, and I loved it because of that.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Red Hill (2010)

Red Hill is a strange one.  Starring Ryan Kwanten (who rose to stardom with True Blood), it’s an old-fashioned, modern ‘Western’ of sorts set in rural Australia.  It has a very simple (and may I say pretty predictable) plot, a scarred, ‘cliched’ villain, and it’s not particularly action-packed or fast-paced for the most part — and yet, for whatever reason, I really enjoyed it.

Kwanten is Shane Cooper, a big city constable who has just moved to Red Hill for “personal” reasons.  Red Hill is exactly what you would expect from a tiny rural town in Australia, where just about everyone owns a farm and police still get around on horses.  But Cooper is going to have one hell of a first day on the job, because Jimmy Conway (Tom E Lewis), a convicted murderer, just escaped from prison, and he’s heading back to Red Hill to cause havoc.

Written and directed by Patrick Hughes, Red Hill is a slick, well-made thriller that I liked a lot more than I probably should have.  Naturally, being an Aussie film set in the countryside, there are many wide shots of the beautiful landscape, but Red Hill kept me intrigued because of Hughes’s handling of the brewing tension and unsettling mood.

There are lots of weaknesses with this film, which I suppose some may consider boring and silly at times, and despite the unoriginal plot, it felt like I had just seen something a little different, a little more unusual.

3.5 stars out of 5