Tag Archives: Australian cinema

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

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Russell Crowe fancies himself as the world’s greatest actor, so I was curious to see how he would fare in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, about a grieving father’s quest to find his three missing sons in Turkey following the end of World War I.

The film is “inspired by a true story,” whatever that means, and while it is largely grounded in reality it has a somewhat “magical” feel, where audiences are supposed to be believe in miracles and that “everything happens for a reason”. I don’t want to say it is a bad film, because it’s not, though after hearing Crowe talk it up so much and describing how much effort and passion and experience he poured into the production, not to mention its win for Best Picture at the AACTA Awards (shared with Babadook), my immediate response after watching it was: “That’s it?”

It’s an Aussie production through-and-through, with a mostly Australian cast and crew that features one prominent recognisable foreign signee, the lovely Olga Kurylenko, as a widowed Turkish hotelier. Crowe apparently just wanted to focus on directing, but the film producers wouldn’t give the movie the green light without him in the starring role. Russell was said to have put the crew through a rigorous boot camp to prepare them physically and mentally for their roles, and raved on about how he felt he was the only person in the world who could do the film justice. Despite this being his first film as director, he believed he had more experience than most directors — including Ridley Scott — given his 30 years as an actor in the industry.

And yet, The Water Diviner, notwithstanding its touching premise, turned out to be not all that much better than a glorified TV movie. It is well-researched and provides the historical background from both sides — notwithstanding typical accusations of inaccuracies — and there are undeniably moving moments, dramatic scenes and nicely choreographed war sequences, though many of the positives are undone by a sappy tone and corny melodrama. The contrived romance between Crowe’s and Kurylenko’s characters, in particular, was completely unnecessary and took away the focus from the film’s heart, which is a father’s grief and the love for his sons.

Led by Crowe’s typical self-assuredness, the performances from the cast are decent. Jai Courtney, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays an ANZAC captain who has his doubts about the Aussie farmer’s quest. Jacqueline McKenzie has a small role as Crowe’s depressed wife, while Packed to the Rafters star Ryan Corr plays one of Crowe’s sons. Isabelle Lucas is for some strange reason in it, looking way too thin as a basically pointless side character.

Perhaps its the budget or time constraints, but The Water Diviner fails to deliver the sweeping epic it appears to have set out to be. Instead, it’s a solid and even occasionally good, but ultimately unspectacular film that likely won’t have producers rushing to ask Crowe to direct their future projects.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Predestination (2014)

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Predestination wins the award for the most ambitious sci-fi movie of the year. I don’t mean ambitious in terms of scale and scope, like Interstellar, but ambitious in terms of its central conceit and its execution of it. I have a feeling this will be one of those cult classics people either love or hate, and, despite its flaws, I find myself falling into the former category.

This is one of those movies where you can’t really say too much about the plot or else you’d give away too much. Suffice it to say that it is a sci-fi film with a time travel foundation. Ethan Hawke plays what is known as a Temporal Agent, someone who travels back in time to catch criminals before crimes are committed. Aussie Sarah Snook, in a star-making performance, plays two roles, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage before trying out for the Space Corps, and an older man who tells his story to Hawke’s character in a bar.

All of this will make sense as the movie progresses, but what should be noted upfront is that Predestination is not just a time-bending movie. It’s also a gender-bending movie as well as a mind-bending one. It’s by no means impossible to follow or even figure out the twists and turns in advance, but like many time-travel movies, it’s complex and circular, and may require multiple viewings if you want to make sense of it all.

Directed and written by Aussie brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who last made the underrated political vampire movie Daybreakers (also with Hawke) in 2010, Predestination is based on a the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein. It feels like a short story adaptation too in that it requires some level of suspension of disbelief and is told through unconventional narrative methods, jumping around in time and delivering stories within stories.

In some ways, the make-or-break point of the film is whether you can buy the idea of Sarah Snook, as good as she is, playing a believable male character. If you can, then all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. If not, then the whole thing begins to crumble. In my humble opinion, she was more than good enough to make me believe in the characters and their emotions, which is why I found the journey to be so engrossing. For the first half of the movie, at least, I had no idea where the story was heading and why it was being presented in the way that it was — and yet I felt as though I had been entranced by the peculiar narrative. At a certain point, the whole point of it all becomes clear, and even if you think it’s stupid you still have to be impressed by its creativity and audacity.

With a relative lack of action and a narrower, personal scope, the film is not as well-rounded or as exciting as some other time travel films like 12 Monkeys or the more recent Looper, but it makes up for it with stronger character development and a distinct Twilight Zone-feel.

At the end of the day, Predestination is a strange film and an acquired taste — one that happens to be my cup of tea. I love sci-fi and fascinating time travel stories, and I enjoy films that challenge you — for better or for worse — to pick apart its logic. Throw in the excellent performances of Hawke and Snook, and the stylish direction and visual style of the Spierig brothers, and Predestination is turning out to be one of my dark horse highlights of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: These Final Hours (2014)

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Aussie movies, yay! I have been a bit of a dick when it comes to Australian movies for most of my life, but I have started to come around in recent years following a string of impressive efforts that have made the rest of the world take notice.

The latest Australian film to be a hit with the critics is These Final Hours, an apocalyptic drama about the moments before a natural disaster wipes humanity off the face of the Earth. It is great to see Aussie filmmakers take on something a little different and ambitious, and to have the skills and actors to pull it off. Even though not everything in this film worked, it is without a doubt one of the better end of the world movies I’ve seen in recent memory.

The story focuses on a young man in Perth named James (Nathan Phillips) as he struggles to cope with impending doom. At the beginning of the film we are told there’s about 12 hours before the catastrophe hits Australia’s west coast, though the majority of the plot focuses on the final 5.

It’s a character-driven film that succeeds because it explores a small sample of human reactions rather than something too broad to cover. There are scenes that suggest the budget is not that small, so it appears to be a conscious decision to keep the story small scale and personal. It does a good job of asking what you would do if the end was near. Would you confront it head on? Spend it with family? Get trashed? Party? Have sex? Kill yourself? Kill others? Or just go crazy?

These Final Hours tackles all these various possibilities with an observant eye and a sensible amount of realism and practicality. For the most part, it doesn’t over sensationalize things, nor is it too subtle for the impact to be felt the way it needs to be. There are some confronting scenes but none of them feel exploitative.

The primary catalyst for James’s character development is the young girl (Angourie Rice) he meets along the way. It was quite obvious where they were heading with the story once James runs into her — you know, the clichéd flawed guy minding his own business becomes a reluctant hero scenario — though to the credit of writer and director Zak Hilditch does a good job of keeping the narrative tight and intense for the film’s 97-minute running time.

The dialogue is OK — it’s effective at times but too scripted and melodramatic at certain moments. The ending also left a “that’s it?” taste in my mouth.  Still, the film is pretty good when put in context, but to be honest it’s nowhere near deserving of the overwhelming praise from critics and the 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is, however, probably a sign of good things to come. Jessica De Gouw, who has a supporting role in the film, is starting to earn a name for herself on the TV series Arrow and Dracula, while Sarah Snook, an extended cameo in this one, is on the rise after receiving deserved acclaim in the horror flick Jessabelle. Perhaps this can be one of those films we look back on as a turning point for many successful careers.

3.5 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

Movie Review: Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010)

To be honest, I had never heard of the bestselling Tomorrow series (total of 7 bookss) by John Marsden until the film of the first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, started making waves in the headlines.  I was intrigued by the teaser poster, which has a girl with her back turned, looking out into the vast, empty plains.  It gave me the feeling that this was going to be a promising blockbuster, and I was utterly shocked when I discovered that it was Australian.

Anyway, I went and checked it out over the weekend, harbouring some moderate expectations.  And I am glad to say, at a basic level, the film delivered — an intriguing story, teenage angst, and a fair amount of action.  While it was clearly not at the level of most Hollywood blockbusters, with a budget of just $20 million, I think Tomorrow, When the War Began was a solid domestic effort.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a bunch of teenagers from a small Australian country town that decide to go camping, and while they are away, Australia is invaded by an unknown foreign enemy.  How will they respond?  Will they hide, or will they fight back?  (I think we all know the answer).

The film is written and directed by Stuart Beattie, who worked on 30 Days of Night, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Australia and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. As Marsden’s book was first published in 1993, several changes were required to make this a ‘modern’ adaptation.  I haven’t read the book yet (recently bought a copy), but from what I have heard the film is quite faithful to the original source.

What I enjoyed about the movie was that it was, for the most part, pretty entertaining.  There’s nothing like a story about a bunch of average youngsters of various backgrounds and personalities who find themselves tossed into a perilous situation and must band together to overcome their prejudices and weaknesses in order to give themselves a chance to become heroes.  We’ve seen it done before plenty of times, but for me, it never gets old, as long as it is well executed.

Yes, most of the stuff that happens in the film beggars belief, but it didn’t bother me at all.  I accepted the gaps in logic and just went along for the ride.  Even though there were very few surprises throughout the film, I still found many sequences to be tense and exciting.

And of course, we’ve got quite a cast of stereotypical characters — the strong, independent protagonist Ellie (Caitlin Stasey), the naive but loyal best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the local bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz) the wimpy jock Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), the dumb blonde Fi (Phoebe Tonkin), the token hardworking Asian Lee (Chris Pang), the token religious freak Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), and the token stoner Chris (Andy Ryan).

I didn’t have a big problem with the characters themselves, but it pains me to say that the acting from the young cast was somewhat uneven.  Without naming names, I will simply say that some of the acting was cringeworthy (though the majority of it was passable).  Again, I can’t discuss the book as I haven’t read it yet, but I would put some of the blame on the dialogue.  Corny?  Yes.  Realistic?  Not even close.  The interactions between some of the characters also felt strained and unnatural.  I could see what they were aiming for but they couldn’t quite pull it off.

So that was my impression of Tomorrow, When the War Began.  A solid Aussie action flick (gosh there are so few of them), but ultimately nothing special.  Nevertheless, the film has been doing very well across Australia and New Zealand, which means sequels could be forthcoming.  If so, let’s hope they can turn it up another notch.

3.5 stars out of 5

(A couple of nice touches in the film were the little jokes about the book and the subtle references to Australia’s invasive past)