SWEET COUNTRY (2018)

April 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For whatever reason, Australia and Westerns seem to go together quite well. Perhaps it’s the naturally beautiful vistas that seem to stretch forever. Maybe it’s the slower pace and the accent that provide the perfect blend of comfort and danger. What matters is that director Warwick Thornton has delivered another gem from the Outback genre.

That previously mentioned blend of slow pace and danger is evident in the opening scene. Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is napping in a rocking chair on his front porch until being startled awake by the snorting of a stranger’s horse only a few feet away. The new neighbor is Harry March (played by Ewen Leslie), an ornery war vet who drinks too much and is racist to his core.

The film is set in the 1920’s, although it doesn’t really matter when. It’s more about the what, the why and the who. The racism on display would be just as believable in contemporary times, though this Outback seems especially far out. Neighbors are rarely seen, and the town is so small, they watch silent movies (The Kelly Gang) and hold court outside on the dusty main street.

Co-writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter have created a story that likely has played out in real life, although hopefully not to this extreme. A series of events occurs: indigenous Australian Sam Kelly (played exceptionally well by non-actor Hamilton Morris) is coerced into helping March put up a fence, March crosses the line with Sam’s wife, a young boy Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) is always stirring up trouble and pilfering things, and a drunk March accuses Sam of hiding the boy and violence erupts leaving the “white fella” dead and Sam and his wife on the run.

Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is the local law – he even proclaims “I am the law” – and he forms a posse to track down Sam so he can stand trial. The posse includes March’s friend Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), Sam’s employer Fred Smith (Mr. Neill), and Archie (Gibson John), an indigenous Aussie employed by Kennedy.  Director Thornton uses this chase sequence to paint some extraordinary visions on screen. The natural land is beautiful, and then we come across a stunning and deadly desert in the salt flats. Mr. Thornton acts as co-cinematographer with Dylan River, and the result is a movie that’s a thing of beauty to look at.

Director Thornton uses an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, sometimes in quick cut form. This approach keeps us on our toes, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes filling gaps. Against the wishes of the locals, this is a developing country, and many of the locals feel it’s no longer their country – they are kept as laborers, and rarely treated as equals by the new inhabitants. In this world, for this man (Sam), doing the right and necessary thing places he and his family in instant peril. It’s better to run than surrender. The story is very good, though the dialogue is a bit lacking at times. The photography is world class. Though we would have preferred screen vets Bryan Brown and Sam Neill to have more scenes together, the panoramic majesty of Australia is certainly enough … with an added and fitting bonus of Johnny Cash singing “Peace in the Valley” over the closing credits.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

November 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 


HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)

July 7, 2016

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2016

hunt for Greetings again from the darkness. It just doesn’t seem very many movies are designed to be funny to a wide range of viewers. There are raunchy comedies for taboo lovers. There are comedies for young kids. There are even Nicolas Cage movies for unintentional laughs. But writer/director Taika Waititi actually delivers a thoroughly entertaining movie that will generate laughs across multiple generations … it’s quite simply, a fun time at the theatre.

Based on the 1986 book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump, who himself is a bit of a legendary figure in New Zealand, the film begins with Child Protective Services (or whatever it’s called in New Zealand) dropping off 12 year old Ricky Baker to his new foster family. Paula, the CPS agent, considers Ricky a lost cause and describes him as “a very bad egg” as she rattles off his list of previous rebellions to new foster mom Bella, who takes note of Ricky’s heft with a couple of wisecracks – delivered with a well-meaning smile.

In a terrific screen introduction, “Uncle” Hec slowly comes into frame flashing a world class scowl and a wild boar slung over his shoulder. Ricky continues his habit of running away at night, but Bella slowly wins him over with her kindness, understanding and breakfast offerings. A tragic occurrence and fear of being shipped back to the juvenile center, has Ricky disappearing into the New Zealand bush. Soon enough Hec catches up and the two begin a relationship that is the core of the film.

Rima Te Wiata plays Bella as a perpetually optimistic woman with a sincere drive to help Ricky adjust and find some joy in life. Sam Neill plays Hec in full grumpy curmudgeon mode … a nice compliment to the extraordinary presence of Julian Dennison (Paper Planes) as Ricky. Ricky and Hec together are a hoot to watch. It’s not simply the generational differences, but also a clash of one man who wants little more than to be left alone and a young boy who wants little more than to be noticed and cared about. It’s not so much the direction of their relationship that surprises, but rather the manner in which it develops.

Director Waititi’s next film is Thor: Ragnarok, so this makes us appreciate even more his pleasant little indie film that features not just colorful and interesting characters, but the beautiful landscape of the New Zealand bush … much of which we see during the humorous manhunt for Hec and Ricky. It’s a farcical comedy with a dose of profundity and loads of adventure for two social misfits. Rachel House is pretty funny as the obsessed CPS worker, and Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) is downright hilarious as Psycho Sam. Watching criminial-wannabe Ricky literally count off his Haiku, leaves little doubt as to why this one has been such an “audience favorite” at multiple film festivals.

watch the trailer:

 


JURASSIC PARK 3D (1993, 2013)

April 8, 2013

JP There are a few truly awe-inspiring moments in movie history. One of the most memorable occurs when Dorothy steps out of her Black & White farm house and into the full color wonderland of Oz (the original Wizard of Oz). Not far behind is our first glimpse of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Director Steven Spielberg brilliantly focused on the stunned reactions of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Attler (Laura Dern). We smiled because we knew their reactions mirrored ours! Now, twenty years later, the film has been re-released with a very effective 3D re-mastering.

The movie has its place in Hollywood history for its revolutionary use of George Lucas’ ILM CGI and the animatronics and visual effects under the supervision of Ray Winston. This was no ordinary science fiction special-effects movie. It was a very interesting, entertaining, thrilling story that brought to life the plastic dinosaur toys of kids and dinosaur dreams of JP4curious adults. This was light years from the Ray Harryhausen stop-action dinosaurs we had seen before. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park had back-stories, childhoods, ferocious roars and a realistic look that tied right into our childhood fantasies.

Never-before-seen special effects would be enough to set this one apart, but it’s the story and characters that draw us in and elevate the movie to classic status. John Hammond is a very likable, little old rich man played by Sir Richard Attenborough. In fact, Attenborough is genuinely such a nice guy, he was cast as Kris Kringle in the 1994 re-make of Miracle on 34th Street. He is also an Oscar winning director for Gandhi (1982) and ironically beat out Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) that year. Attenborough also directed A Bridge Too Far (1973), A Chorus Line (1985) and Chaplin (1992); plus, one of my favorite hidden gems: Magic (1978). Unfortunately, Attenborough, now almost 90 years old, has recently been moved into hospice for health reasons.

JP2 John Hammond and his team of scientists have taken “dino DNA” and brought life to dinosaurs, previously 65 million years extinct. Hammonds’ instincts as a showman lead him to develop a kind of amusement park where people can come and see his dinosaur creations in a natural habitat. Facing a lawsuit … what could go wrong?? … his investors bring in a team of specialists to inspect the park. Dr. Grant, Dr. Attler and Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) take the tour with Hammond’s grandchildren (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) and a bean counter played by Martin Ferrero. Of course, things go terribly wrong thanks to a sub-plot involving the park’s computer guru played by Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”). Don’t miss the photo of J Robert Oppenheimer (the atomic bomb creator) on Nedry’s computer monitor. Samuel L Jackson has a classic line of dialogue, but also seems to be prepping for his role in Deep Blue Sea (1999). The other key player is the park’s game warden played terrifically by the late Bob Peck … he mutters the “clever girl” line.

JP3 Real life Paleontoligist Jack Horner worked as an adviser on the film and was the inspiration for the Dr. Grant character. It’s also interesting to note that there was quite a bidding war for the rights …even before writer Michael Crichton had finished the manuscript. When Spielberg won the rights, he hired Crichton to write the screenplay, and David Koepp was brought in for the final version. Crichton is also known for Westworld (1973), Twister (1996) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). Mr. Koepp is known for his screenplays that include Mission Impossible (1996), Panic Room (2002) and Spider-Man (2002). And of course, the majestic score was composed by the great John Williams, a frequent Spielberg collaborator.

JP5 Jurassic Park was nominated for and won three Oscars: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Sound. Many believe Jurassic Park should have nominated for the Best Picture, but I doubt Mr. Spielberg much cares. See, he released another movie that same year… Schindler’s List … which did win the Best Picture Oscar. Many ask about the child actors from Jurassic Park. Tim was played by Joseph Mazzello, who was most recently seen in TV’s “Justified”, as the snake-charming traveling preacher. Mr. Mazzello has also appeared in The Social Network, and the mini-series “The Pacific”. Lex was played by Ariana Richards and she won the role based on her amazing ability to show and express fear … and her believability as a teenage hacker. Ms. Richards has focused more on her work as an artist, but does act periodically.

Jurassic Park is definitely one to experience on the biggest screen possible with the clearest sound possible. This 3D re-mastering is worth the price of admission and I enjoyed seeing the look of awe in the eyes of a few youngsters in the theatre. No need to wait for Jurassic Park 4, which is scheduled for release in 2014 … go experience the original in its full big screen glory!

**NOTE: It’s always fun to see kids experience the Jurassic Park dinosaurs for the first time, but I like to warn parents that there are two very intense, terrifying sequences: the first T-Rex attack in the rain, and the kitchen scene with the Raptors chasing the kids. Young kids need to be pretty tough to make it through those scenes.

Below is the newly issued trailer for the 3D version.  I would not recommend watching it if you have not seen the movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hke5SxKzkbc