Tag Archives: Sundance

Slow West (2015)

slowwest

I’m getting close to finishing off my list of 2015 films to watch so I can finally do my best of and worst of lists. One film that was suddenly added to the list was Slow West, a little-known Western that caught my eye after it found its way onto a couple of “Best of 2015” lists I came across.

Created by first-time writer and director John Maclean, Slow West stands out because it is so darn unusual. It may star Michael Fassbender and recognisable names such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn, but it’s understandable why the film got so little buzz among mainstream audiences and media even though it won jury prize at Sundance.

The premise is weird: McPhee plays Jay, a young Scottish man who heads to the American West to search for his love. There, he encounters Silas (Assbender), a bounty hunter who offers to protect him along the way in exchange for payment. But ulterior motives are involved and Jay doesn’t really know if he should be terrified of Silas or trust the bounty hunter with his life — or both.

It’s not easy to describe the kind of film Slow West is. The title is apt because it is a Western and the pace is slow. It’s an atypical coming-of-age film that’s pretty to look at, quirky, awkward, darkly comedic and slightly absurd, but also extremely violent. This sweet juxtaposition reminds me a little of Fargo, both the movie and the TV show, which I think just are two of the greatest things ever made. If you’ve seen the movie or the show you’ll have an idea of what I mean, though in my opinion Slow West isn’t quite up to the level of those masterpieces.

Smit-McPhee, who a lot of people don’t realise is Aussie, is carving out quite a career for himself despite not growing up looking like a traditional heartthrob. The Road, Let Me In and soon X-Men: Apocalypse as Nightcrawler; the 19-year-old is sure picking a lot of great roles. He’s excellent in Slow West, exuding a quiet charm and resiliency despite playing essentially quite a wimpy character.

Likewise, Assbender is totally bending asses again left and right as the cool bounty hunter. It’s good to see him produce and star in a small film like this while making all these huge blockbusters, and putting in equal effort to make his characters come to life no matter the size of the role or the budget.

As much as I enjoyed it, I recognise Slow West is likely to polarise audiences. It has elements that critics love (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but may be too weird and slow — even at just 84 minutes — for mainstream audiences. Personally, I found it to be nice little film, interesting and funny enough to sustain my interest until the wild and gripping climax. While I wouldn’t place it in my top 10 of 2015, I appreciate it for what it is and look forward to seeing Maclean had in store for us next.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Compliance (2012)

This movie has moved up my review list because I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Compliance is the kind of movie that’s so crazy and so against all common sense that you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s based on a true story. It is inspired by the infamous strip search prank calls that swept across the United States a few years ago, and more specifically, by the Mount Washington case in 2004 where things went further than anyone could have ever imagined.

The film takes place in a fictional fast food franchise called ChickWich (the real life one was a McDonald’s), which is run by a middle-aged store manager called Sandra. On this day she receives a call from a man identifying himself as police officer Daniels, who claims a girl whose description matches a store employee stole money from a customer. What happens from there is both bizarre and ridiculous, as the call escalates from one improbable incident to the next.

Compliance premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival and was met with mixed reactions and a number of walkouts. Some thought it was a masterpiece, a fascinating study of human obedience and submission to authority that works and feels like a horror movie. Others thought it was stupid, exploitative and simply too implausible to swallow.

While I didn’t quite think it was a masterpiece, I was captivated by this film from start to finish. Part of it was because I knew of the background and that it was very closely based on the true story. So every time I saw something that stretched my boundaries of incredulity I just told myself — this really happened. If I didn’t know that I probably would have felt the same way as those who walked out.

Part of the reason the film felt believable was because of the performance of Ann Dowd, who plays the manipulated Sandra. She came across as a typical unintelligent, gullible store manager, and the way she reacted to the caller, including to his praise and in her desire to please him, just seemed so real to me.

Less convincing was Dreama Walker (pretty sure I’ve seen her on Gossip Girl), who plays the teenager worked caught up in the mess. I’m not sure if it was her performance or the script (by writer and director Craig Zobel), but she didn’t seem naive or stupid enough to do some of the things she was told to do towards the very end. I haven’t seen the surveillance footage of the real life incident, but there appears to be a sizable gap between some of the tamer and more extreme things the psycho caller gets her to do.

My verdict on Compliance is that it’s definitely a worthwhile film to catch if you get the chance. It’s a surreal, provocative, frustrating and often bewildering 90-minute experience that will likely remain locked in your memory long after the credits finish rolling.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom opens around Australia on 3 June 2010

People like me are what’s wrong with the Australian film industry.  My initial reaction to Aussie films is always one of scepticism and prejudice.  If it’s Australian, then chances are, it’s crap.  I’m sure I am not alone in holding this kind of biased sentiment against locally produced films.  Is it because of the poor track record?  Is it because they try too hard to make something edgy?  Or is it because we’re so used to the big bucks spent on Hollywood movies that we look down upon the locals who make their films on, relatively speaking, shoestring budgets?

I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that Animal Kingdom, the Australian film written and directed by David Michod, is the real deal.  The film may have won the World Cinema dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until I watched it at a screening last week that it stripped away my prejudice against it and most Australian films in general.

Animal Kingdom is an explosive crime drama set in Melbourne suburbia.  The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville), who is thrust into the world of crime when he is forced to go live with his grandmother ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his three uncles — Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).  They are a family of relatively small-time armed robbers and drug-traffickers, but their time is coming to an end thanks to a gang of renegade detectives who are taking the law into their own hands.  As J finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into their world, Animal Kingdom becomes a frightening tale of survival, as J is torn between his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), self-preservation and loyalties to his family.

If there is one word I could use to describe Animal Kingdom, it would be “riveting”.  Even though it is classified as a “crime drama”, the majority of the tension (and man, there is edge-of-your-seat tension throughout the entire film) stems from the relationships and power struggles between members of the Cody family.

Debut director Michod has created an incredibly intense world that is terrifying, claustrophobic and deeply personal.  When you are a 17-year-old and this is the only life you’ve ever known, where do you go?  Who do you turn to for help?

Animal Kingdom is a film that twists and turns, and although there is a certain feeling of inevitability, you never quite know exactly what is going to happen next.  What struck me as particularly brilliant was how well each of the characters were drawn out.  With the exception of perhaps Pope’s best friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) and senior cop Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), every key character in this film is multi-dimensional and never turn out to be as they first appear.  They each have such strong personalities and traits that their interactions are always bound to produce fireworks and/or make you feel unsettled.

I used to have this idea that all the ‘good’ Australian actors end up overseas, but the performances in Animal Kingdom blew me away.  First-timer James Frecheville gives a wonderfully controlled performance as the protagonist J — a subdued man-child who prefers to be unseen but is forced to come out of his shell as matters spiral out of control.  While Stapleton and Ford both give solid performances, the standouts have to be Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope and Jacki Weaver’s Smurf, the two menacing and psychotic heads of the family.

Animal Kingdom should not be mistaken for an action-thriller.  I wouldn’t describe the pace as slow, but at 112 minutes it does feel like a long movie, especially towards the end when it took a while to come to the final resolution.

All I can say is go see it, not because we should support the Australian film industry but because it is genuinely a terrific film.  I do hope it does well at the box office, especially amongst locals.  It is by far the best Australian film I’ve seen since the 2001 Lantana.

4.5 stars out of 5!