TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening title card states “Nothing you are about to see is true” … and then it dissolves, leaving the word ‘true’ as the first word in the film’s title. Of course, some of the things we are about to see are true, though it is a dramatized version with a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (BERLIN SYNDROME, 2017) from Peter Carey’s 2000 novel. Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, 2015) takes a very artsy and stylistic approach in telling the story of the notorious Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, while still including the expected violence and brutality.

Opening in 1867 Australia, we first see young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwert) spying on his mother (Essie Davis, THE BABADOOK, 2014) as she provides service to Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). It’s the kind of service a young boy should never see his mother perform, especially as the father/husband (Ben Corbett) hovers outside the cabin with Ned’s siblings. Life is difficult for the Kelly family. Dad has some issues, so mom does what she has to in order to keep food on the table. Ned’s life and family dynamics change quickly when his dad takes the fall for a crime Ned committed.

Harry Power (played by hefty Russell Crowe) arrives on the scene, and becomes Ned’s mentor in song (a sing-a-long title that can’t be repeated here) and as a bushranger. It’s not long after this when the movie shifts from Ned as a boy, to Ned as a man (played by George Mackay, 1917), who spends a few years away from home. Ned crosses paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) numerous times, one which results in Ned meeting, and falling for, a young prostitute named Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT). Ned and Mary return home to visit his mother, and they find she’s now engaged to a younger man, George King (Marlon Williams). George has been teaching his “trade” of horse-thieving to Ned’s brothers, including Dan (played by musician Nick Cave’s son, Earl Cave). It’s at this point we learn about how the Kelly Gang was formed, and why they took to wearing dresses … “Nothing scares a man like crazy.”

There is a lot going on in this story for the tale of a man who was executed at age 25. We see Ned evolve from a curious youngster to a bare-knuckle boxer to an outlaw who became an anti-hero cult icon. Witnessing the father figures he endured leaves little wonder why he turned out the way he did – an angry, cross-dressing outlaw leading the Irish rebellion in hopes of taking down the Crown. Ned is told that “a man can never outrun his fate”, and we know Ned’s fate upfront. We are there as Ned gives a motivational speech to the Kelly gang, and we watch in awe as they self-test their own body armor.

My Dear Son …” are the first words we hear as Ned writes a letter promising to tell no lies about his history. The letter acts as somewhat of a framing device for the film, and covers the entirety of the Kelly Outbreak, as it’s now referred. There have been numerous projects (movies, mini-series, docu-dramas) over the years, including Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as those who have portrayed Ned Kelly on screen. Director Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner offer up quite a stylish look for this vast wasteland, and even utilizes some Terrence Malick-type editing for effect. Even the closing credit sequence is a work of art. It’s a family affair for director Justin Kurzel, as his brother Jed Kurzel delivers the music, and Justin’s wife Essie Davis plays Ned’s mother. It’s certainly not a typical western, and Ned is difficult to relate to as a character, but the look and style of the film keep us engaged. Perhaps the oddest decision was to have MacKay clean-shaven, as most of us have seen the photos of Ned Kelly and his beard … a beard that seemed to inspire modern day hipsters. Filming took place at Old Melbourne Gaol, which was the actual spot where Ned Kelly was hanged. His last words were: “Such is life.”

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1917 (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year’s stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse … and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock’s ROPE and Inarritu’s BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It’s up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man’s Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake’s older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn’t welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It’s really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He’s no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It’s a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently – sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it’s a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn’t a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it’s meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, “Penny Dreadful”) show us the true presentation of linear … in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It’s a work of art and a unique viewing experience.

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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

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