Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

Disclosure (2020)


The emotional heart of an unwelcome disclosure.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassGeraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Kieran Cochrane, Lucy McMurray. Directed by Michael Bentham

 

When it comes to our children, we are enormously protective. We believe in them, sometimes even against all evidence or logic; we give them the benefit of the doubt. When one child accuses another of a heinous act, the battle lines are drawn immediately and ferociously.

In this Australian drama (not to be confused with the 1994 Demi Moore/Michael Douglas erotic thriller nor the two other films – one a Netflix documentary on transgenders in cinema – with the same title coming out in 2020) we meet Danny (Winter) and Emily (Ridgway) Bowman. He’s a journalist, she’s a documentary filmmaker. When we first meet them, they are having sex and filming it. Flash forward a few years and we are in the home of Joel (Wren) and Bek (Hakewill) Chalmers. Joel is a local politician on the rise; she’s on the phone, obviously busy and harassed when we hear a piercing child’s scream coming from the bedroom. Distracted, she walks over to the room, warns her son Ethan to “leave the little ones alone” and sends him outside to play. She leaves, still on the phone. Ethan doesn’t emerge, but there’s an ominous silence coming from the room.

A few weeks later, Danny and Emily are skinny dipping in their backyard pool when Joel and Bek show up unexpectedly at their door, with Joel’s bodyguard (Stone) in tow. There is tension between the two couples, who have been close friends up to now and we soon find out why. The four-year-old daughter of Danny and Emily has told them that Ethan, the nine-year-old son of Joel and Bek, has done something terrible (and presumably, sexual) to her. Tom and Bek are there to plead with the Bowmans to take Ethan’s name out of the paperwork; Danny and Emily want Ethan to be seen by a therapist. Bek is particularly adamant against it – Ethan has denied the girl’s account. Bek, who suffered serial sexual abuse as a child, is particularly sensitive about the accusation. Emily is horrified that Bek doesn’t believe her daughter.

The discussions go from civilized to strained to frantic to violent as both couples stand their ground in defense of their kids. As things devolve, we get the sense that there is an awful lot of adult baggage being dragged into the argument which is, ostensibly, supposed to be about the welfare of their children.

This is an emotional film which only grows more so. At first, it is the women who react emotionally and, to a certain extent, non-logically. The men seem to be calmer and more conciliatory, wanting to work things out without damaging the friendship the two couples have built. The women are willing to burn the mofo right to the ground.

First time filmmaker Bentham has a good eye, contrasting the rural/suburban idyllic neighborhood, studded with pools and lush greenery with the ugliness of the innuendo cast in both directions by the parents whose civility slowly goes out the window over the course of the film. Hakewill in particular, playing the brittle and shrill Bek, does a marvelous job although all of the other main performers do a crackerjack job as well.

The ending was a little bit of a letdown; Bentham had played things straight pretty much throughout but there’s an almost comedic element to the denouement that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film; I was left wondering if it was meant to be symbolic of something (which I don’t want to get into so as not to spoil it) and in the end, decided that it was, but you may disagree and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This reminded me strongly of Roman Polanski’s 2011 filmed version of the Yasmina Reza stage play, with a sexual element added. That film had a more stage-y quality to it, although there are moments where this feels like it might have been based on a play as well. It is nevertheless an impressive work that has floated under the radar, but deserves far more attention than it has gotten to date (there isn’t even a page on Rotten Tomatoes for the film). For those film buffs still in quarantine looking for something different, this is one to keep in mind. It’s out on VOD now; it can be purchased on Blu-Ray next Tuesday (go to the film’s page to find out where it will be available in the U.S.).

REASONS TO SEE: Covers a wrenching topic from both points of view. Uses thriller tropes to tell a dramatic story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit awkward and unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sex, brief nudity, plenty of profanity and uncomfortable sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bentham’s debut feature.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

2040


The act of planting a tree can lead to a better future.

(2019) Documentary (Together) Damon Gameau, Eva Lazzaro, Zoë Gameau, Tony Seba, Eric Toensmeier, Paul Hawken, Kate Raworth, Malala Yousafzai, Brian von Heizon, Fraser Pogue, Leanne Pogue, John E. Petersen, Genevieve Bell, Sharon Pearson, Neel Tamhane, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Colin Seis, Amanda Cahill. Directed by Damon Gameau

 

In the midst of a global pandemic, with rioting going on in our cities, I think that some of us can be forgiven for looking towards the future with a bleak eye. It doesn’t have to turn out that way, though.

The future weighs heavily on the mind of Australian filmmaker Damon Garneau (That Sugar Film). That’s because he has a four-year-old daughter, and with the dire warnings about climate change, he wonders what kind of dystopian society his little girl Velvet will have to live in and what could be done to stave off the worst effects of climate change now – with technology that is already available to use.

He started off with talking to young kids about what they wanted the world to be like, asking them about what kind of technology they wanted to see. Some said basic things, like clean water, and the end of deforestation. Of course, there were some silly things, like chocolate rain and plant-powered rocket boots. Nobody ever said kids were practical; just imaginative.

Garneau called this project “an exercise in fact-based dreaming” and that’s how it is presented here, with plenty of graphics and whimsical effects to illustrate what the world might be like in the year 2040 (when Velvet, played as an adult by actress Eva Lazzaro, will be 25 years old). Some of the technology described in the film is already in use.

In Bangladesh, for example, engineer Neel Tamhane is setting up villages with solar panels and hooking them up into mini-networks, within which they can sell any energy created that they don’t use, or buy more if they end up needing more than they produce. The money that would go to energy providers then stays within the community, and in the case of natural disaster (flooding is frequent there), it is much easier to get the network back up and running. It also keeps money spent on energy within the community rather than going out to a provider, increasing prosperity within the villages. It also opens up life for those villages, allowing children to study after dark, and gives the villagers the opportunities to watch sporting events, news and other programs in the evening, as well as lighting the village so that further commerce can take place. These kinds of micro-networks would reduce our dependence on petroleum, reduce energy costs and also could act as additional income for those who don’t use as much energy as others.

The oceans are also in dire straits, and aquaculturist Brian von Heizon suggests that we grow new forests of kelp off of various coastal regions, then moving out into deeper waters. Kelp stores carbon and helps scrub it out of our atmosphere and our oceans; can be used as food and as biofuel, and also helps regulate the temperature of the ocean by allowing cooler water from the deeper parts of the ocean to bring the temperatures down near the surface, which would be conducive to various types of shellfish and fish, as well as providing a habitat for fish. These tethered kelp colonies are already on the drawing board for use in areas where the ocean needs to be renewed.

Farmers Paul Hawken, Fraser and Leanna Pogue recommend soil renewal by growing crops that help replenish the nutrients of the soil, and growing less corn and soy, both which tire out the soil by stripping it of its nutrients. Crops like sorghum and sunflowers (along with others) can help replenish the soil; having animals like cows and pigs graze on land that has been “rested” from growing anything more than grass also helps restore the soil. All of them say we need to put an end to Big Agra, through which factory farming has delivered nothing but obesity and disease, and has proven catastrophic to the soil. In case you wonder if we can afford to lose the food coming from Big Agra, they supply an amazing small percentage of what humans eat (about 20% – the rest of what they grow is to feed food animals) – and small family farms tend to be much more efficient and grow healthier produce, which we should be eating rather than chowing down on fast food burgers.

We need to rethink private ownership of cars, using driverless smart cars on demand as well as energy-efficient mass transit to get us where we need to go. Building high-speed electric trains are more fuel-efficient than flying jumbo jets and not having to park as many cars – nearly a third of the total land mass of Los Angeles is used for parking cars and roadways – can improve air quality, particularly if we turn disused parking lots into green spaces.

One thing that should be a priority worldwide; educating women. In many parts of the globe, women do not get the same education chances that men do; women are often put in arranged marriages at a very young age, or are forced to work to help support the family rather than go to school. Adding millions of minds to the ranks of the educated can only do our world good.

The movie goes on and on with examples of what we can do right now to mitigate climate change and maybe even remove the threat entirely. We have reached a tipping point and things are going to get worse, true, but if we have the will, which for the most part our leaders do not since business and government are all about chasing short-term profits to begin with – we can make a  more livable world than the one we have now.

Gameau makes an engaging narrator, although his Aussie accent can be a little thick at times. The movie uses a lot of interviews with children, but especially towards the end it felt like they were reading from scripts, while the film is giving the impression that these are what children are thinking right now. Originally I had been impressed at how articulate the children are, until it becomes obvious that they are reading and not speaking. That’s a no-no in my book.

If the movie is guilty of anything, it might be naivete. Big Oil, Big Agra and Big Finance aren’t going to give up the status quo very easily, and moving to cleaner and cheaper energy is going to be no easy taslk, not to mention that getting masses of people to give up much of their meat nas well as private ownership of their cars is going to take some fancy taking. However, these are the kinds of decisions we need to make if we are truly committed to making a better world for our kids. If you are in need of hope for the future, this is the documentary to see.

REASONS TO SEE: Practical, real-world solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. Hope-inducing. Gameau is an engaging narrator.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the kid interviews seem scripted.
FAMILY VALUES: Recommended for the entire family.<Although Gameau flew from place to place on commercial jets, the film ended up being carbon-neutral due to tree plantings and utilizing low-carbon technology in filming.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Gameau flew all over the world to make this documentary, the production ended up being carbon-neutral due to all the trees that were planted by the production team as well as their use of carbon-friendly technology in making the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema Screenings
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic:  77100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ice on Fire
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Tommaso

True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots

Little Monsters (2019)


Think of her as a poor man’s Michonne.

(2019) Horror Comedy (NEON/HuluLupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, Alexander England, Nadia Townsend, Kat Stewart, Stephen Peacocke, Diesel La Torraca, Henry Nixon, Marshall Napier, Saskia Burmeister, Rachel Romahn, Talayna Moana Nikora, Felix Williamson, Lucia Pang, Ava Caryofyllis, Jason Chong, Adele Vuko, M.J. Kokolis, Carlos Sanson, Kristy Brooks. Directed by Abe Forsythe

 

Comedies in the horror genre have to strike a most delicate balance. On the one hand, the scares have to deliver but on the other hand so do the jokes – all without dragging the movie down to the level of a spoof. It’s hellishly hard to pull off.

This Australian zombie apocalypse effort does give it the old college try. Slacker Dave (England), a washed-up metal musician has broken up with his girlfriend Sara (Townsend) – we spend most of the credit sequence watching a montage of the uncomfortable arguments between the two – and has taken up on his sister Tess’s (Stewart) couch.

He’s a self-centered twit who has taken no ownership of his own part in his relationship’s demise. He bonds with her son Felix (La Torraca) over violent videogames and inappropriate behavior, but the kid is five years old and seems much more mature than Felix who has already frayed the nerves of his sister to the point that she’s ready to kick him out of her flat. Maybe that would have done him some good.

Instead, he develops a crush on Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), the perky kindergarten teacher of Felix. He ends up volunteering to chaperone on a field trip to a petting zoo/farm where kid TV superstar Teddy McGiggle (Gad) happens to be shooting his TV show on location. Also coincidentally. but pf a much less desirable sort, an experiment on a nearby U.S. military base has gone terribly out of control and a horde of zombies are descending on the unsuspecting attraction, putting the kids and celebrities alike at risk.

The gore sequences are done pretty decently, although there’s nothing particularly cutting edge here and nothing you haven’t already seen on The Walking Dead. Where the movie really falls down is as a comedy; much of the humor is extremely broad, perhaps in an effort to appeal to a younger audience but the gore is at times intense so that would seem to indicate that the filmmakers were looking for a mature audience. Or maybe, that they figure that the younger sense is desensitized to the violence through their embrace of videogames. They might have a point.

There is also a point that is a tribute to teachers and much of that goes to Nyong’o whose Miss Caroline reminds us of the teachers who shielded their charges from flying bullets at Newtown and other equally infamous school shooting situations. It’s also easy to understand why anyone would develop a crush on her; Nyong’o absolutely shines here and dang it if you won’t develop a bit of an attraction to her as well. As for the other lead characters, Dave is far too self-centered a creature to root for much and despite his turn to the light midway through the film, his change of heart doesn’t seem quite believable. Gad is generally a compelling performer but the alcoholic and cowardly McGiggle is simply too repulsive and one-note to be memorable – so much so that I had to go back to this paragraph and add him in just before publishing this review.

The pacing is a bit leaden and the film’s inability to decide what it wants to be costs it. In a season when we’ll be flooded with horror films, there are others that are undoubtedly more worthy of your attention than this one (hopefully the Zombieland sequel will be one of them). Other than Nyong’o, there really isn’t much to recommend this film but she’s almost enough. Almost.

REASONS TO SEE: Nyong’o is absolutely lustrous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor falls flat in places. Ridiculously slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, bloody zombie violence, brief drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off” is a pivotal song in the screenplay but initially the producers couldn’t secure the rights. It took a personal appeal from Nyong’o directly to Swift I order to get the rights to the song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Serendipity

Storm Boy


A boy’s best friend is his…pelican?!?

(2019) Family (Good Deed) Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtney, Finn Little, Trevor Jamieson,

Morgana Davies, David Gulpilil, Erik Thomson, Chantal Contouri, Martha Lott, Paul Blackwell, Michelle Nightingale, Brendan Rock, James Smith, Rory Walker, Lucy Cowan, Bradley Trent Williams, Anna Bampton, Miraede Bhatia-Williams, Caroline Mignone. Directed by Shawn Seet

 

Children have a special affinity for animals that we tend to lose as we grow into adulthood. Not everybody loses it; lots of adults love animals as much as they did as children (if not more) and work very hard to protect the animal kingdom through organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the SPCA or as veterinarians, zoologists and activists trying to save the habitat that particular species need to thrive.

The 1964 Australian novel Storm Boy by Colin Thiele has been made into a live-action movie once before in 1976; a hit in Australia, the movie is less well here in the States. The new version is a bit different than either the novel or the 1976 movie. Retired businessman Michael Kingley (Rush) has turned his corporation over to his son Malcolm (Thomson) and now his son has negotiated a deal to turn over thousands of acres of unspoiled wetlands over to developers for mining and building upon. Malcolm’s daughter Madison (Davies) is very much against the idea and as a result an extremely wide rift has developed between father and daughter (all of this is new, by the way and not in the book or previous incarnations of the film).

The deal must be voted upon by the firm’s board which Michael sits upon. However, the board meeting is interrupted by a sudden storm which causes a floor to ceiling window in the office tower to shatter, letting in the high winds and rain. While everyone else flees the room, Michael is drawn to the broken window. He looks down and sees a pelican and is reminded of his childhood.

Much of the film takes the form of a flashback as Michael narrates his tale to his granddaughter. After Michael’s mother and sister were killed in a car crash, his grief-stricken father known about town as Hideaway Tom (Courtney) moves to a deserted and isolated coastline of Coorong National Park. The pair subsist there on whatever fish Tom can catch and whatever else Tom can scrounge. One day, young Michael (Little) finds three recently hatched pelicans whose mother had been shot by hunters. The three little birds don’t have much of a chance as an aborigine named Fingerbone Bill (Jamieson) who happens by tries to explain to the young boy, whom he names Storm Boy because of his love for pelicans (Ngarrindjeri tradition holds that when a pelican dies, the event brings on a storm). Storm Boy is not dissuaded and brings the young pelicans home to nurse to health.

Incredibly, the chicks survive and grow to adulthood with the help of the bemused Tom and Fingerbone Bill. Storm Boy names them Mr. Proud, Mr. Ponder and Mr. Percival and although the first two eventually fly away to make their own way in the world, Mr. Percival is inseparable from Storm Boy. The two create quite a sensation in town which is currently divided by a movement to turn the coastline into a nature preserve which doesn’t sit well with the local hunters. Still, everyone finds it amusing until one stormy day when Tom’s life is at risk when the engine to his boat fails during a storm. The seas are too rough to swim but only Mr. Percival can get a line out to the stricken boat.

Mr. Percival becomes a local celebrity and it appears as if the bird’s future is assured. However, well-meaning locals who are aware that Storm Boy has been home schooled by his dad take up a collection to send him to get a proper education. Storm Boy doesn’t much want to go; what would happen to his pelican, after all, if he left?

There is a definite pro-ecological message to the film which is much more overt than in previous incarnations of the story. Geoffrey Rush has been the target of some controversy of late but he does deliver a performance here that elevates the movie some. Courtney, whose work has always been solid, also stands out here.

The pelicans, unlike in a lot of recent family movies involving animals, are completely real and not CGI. A pelican trainer helped the birds with their “stage directions” and the birds were never tethered or restrained in any way; they often flew freely about the set and sometimes would fly out of shots they needed to be in, or into shots they weren’t supposed to be in. To the credit of Seet (primarily a television director up to now) he was patient concerning the birds and the result is a film with the kind of warmth that no amount of CGI no matter how life-like can replicate.

The movie feels cozy and warm with a feeling of safety and security, even though the events don’t necessarily reflect that. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being somewhere snug on a rainy afternoon, feeling content and drowsy. Not that the movie will put you to sleep – at least it didn’t put me there – but it certainly feels like a movie a lot of kids will eventually love, particularly those who love animals.

It’s not getting a wide release so you may have to search a bit to find it on the big screen but if for whatever reason you can’t, this is a definite rental once it becomes available on home video – and may end up being a purchase if your bird-loving kids enjoy it as much as I think they might.

REASONS TO SEE: The movie is warm and cozy like an old blanket on a rainy afternoon.
REASONS TO AVOID: The rescue scene is somewhat far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, some difficult thematic elements and a bit of child (and pelican) peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pelican who plays Mr. Percival in the film now resides at Adelaide Zoo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ring of Bright Water
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Big Kill

The Nightingale


When seeking revenge, first dig two graves.

(2018) Drama (IFC) Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Nathaniel Dean, Matthew Sunderland, Luke Carroll, Sam Smith, Ben McIvor, Magnolia Maymuru, Dallas Mugarra, Zachary Gorman, Terrence Perdjert, Keith Melpi Jabinee, Claire Jones. Directed by Jennifer Kent

 

Back in 1825, Tasmania was known as Van Dieman’s Land. This is where Irish convicts were sent to live out sentences for crimes serious and petty. Clare (Franciosi) was convicted of the latter, stealing to survive on the mean streets of Dublin. Sentenced to seven years for theft, she serves out her sentence in prison where she meets and marries fellow Irishman Aidan (Sheasby). The two have a baby together.

Clare is taken from prison early by Lt. Hawkins (Claflin) for which she is initially grateful but it turns out to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Hawkins turns out to be an absolute monster who forces Clare to sing for his drunken men who are little better than the criminals in their charge, then rewards her performance by raping her. She asks again and again for the papers that prove she’s served her sentence and allow her free movement in the country with which she and her husband would live on their own, away from the British settlement. When she gets insistent, the bad-humored Hawkins, stinging from the rebuke of a superior officer who tells him flat-out that the promotion he’s angling for will never be his, commits a foul and heinous act against Clare and her family before leaving to Launceston to get there ahead of his superior and perhaps cajole his way to that promotion himself.

Clare, bereft and enraged at the injustice given her, goes on the hunt for Hawkins and his cohorts Ruse (Herriman) and Jago (Greenwood). A friend begs her to take a native tracker with her and while she resists at first, she reluctantly allows Billy (Ganambarr) to accompany her. Together the two make their way through the heavily wooded terrain distrustful of each other, both with their reasons to hate the man they chase. Eventually the two develop a grudging respect, and then an uneasy trust followed by a dependence on one another. Can all this lead to the vengeance they both seek?

Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to the sensational 2014 horror film The Babadook is a very different film. This is a much bloodier and grim film, one that will likely stay with you for longer than you might imagine. Franciosi plays the often unlikable Clare whose own prejudices are as virulent as those directed against her. She is fixated on her mission to exact revenge on Hawkins and his men and will not rest nor give quarter until that mission is accomplished. Ganambarr is the soul of the film, the only character with any sort of lightheartedness. He was coached by an aboriginal cultural expert on the language, music, ritual dances and cultural mores of the time. While he too desires vengeance for reasons very similar to Clare, he is horrified at the lengths that she will go although in some ways one can’t blame her.

The movie suffers from overindulgence on the part of its director; many of the scenes drag on far too long and some of the points are drummed in with a sledgehammer rather than a ballpeen. Nonetheless this is compelling where it needs to be and it certainly should be one to keep an eye out for when it debuts on a limited theatrical run later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganambarr and Franciosi deliver compelling performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film could have used much more judicious editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, rape and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outlaw Josie Wales
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
 Shadow

The Family


Introducing the children of the corn.

(2016) Documentary (Starz) Sung Yun Cho, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Bill Hamilton-Byrne, Roland Whitaker, Elizabeth Jean Whitaker, Anouree, Nick, Rebecca, Anthony John Lee, Peter Spence, Marie Mohr, Leeanne, Michael Stevenson-Helmer, Fran Parker, Barbara Kibby, Dave Whitaker, Lex de Man, Philippe de Montignie, Raynor Johnson, John MacKay, Margaret Brown. Directed by Rosie Jones

 

The rise of quasi-religious cults in the 1960s and 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, one of the most notorious of these was a Melbourne-based cult known as The Family. Founded by psychologist Raynor Johnson as a means to a healthier lifestyle, he soon fell under the spell of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful and charismatic blonde who had a way of charming everyone around her.

Her idea of family was a literal one; dozens of children were adopted through dodgy means and born to existing members. Hamilton-Byrne preached that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that there was a holocaust coming; the kids would rise as the leaders of a post-apocalyptic civilization. She was obviously a wack job but as cults go that doesn’t seem to be too terribly different.

In 1987 the cult’s Ferny Creek compound was raided and six of the children were removed and placed in protective custody and soon the horrifying truth began to emerge. The children had been physically abused, manipulated, and lived in a state of constant fear. Forced to dress alike and have their hair dyed blonde (as Hamilton-Byrne’s was) they were robbed of their individual identities. They were given LSD often without their knowledge or consent and they were often starved as a means of punishment.

One of the officers who was on the raid, Detective Sgt. Lex de Man, was clearly haunted by what he saw and observed. He acts somewhat as a narrative guide but also was a consultant on the documentary. Some of the stories told by the now-adult former cultists are heartbreaking and/or hair-raising. Many of the kids required therapy once removed from the clutches of the cult.

Jones is something of an Errol Morris disciple in terms of her style. There are plenty of interviews buttressed with home movies (which are chilling) and recreations of certain events. Rather than as a typical documentary, she gives it a kind of a 48 Hours spin, presenting the events as an unfolding mystery. For American audiences, it truly is – although the story was huge in Oz back in the late 80s and early 90s, it scarcely made a ripple on various American news sources. The film is slickly made with a brilliant atmospheric score and while the ending doesn’t have the smooth pacing of the rest of the film, there is at least a satisfactory wrapping up although to be fair the issues that the survivors have is ongoing. Believe it or not, the cult still exists today and Jones does speak with a current member for perspective.

The documentary has won awards at Australian film festivals and received a limited theatrical release there last year. Here in the States, it’s available on Starz and on their companion streaming app although for how long is anyone’s guess. It is certainly worth looking into, particularly if you’re into true crime documentaries.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling story of the horrors perpetrated on children within a notorious cult.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult content including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Amanda Brown, a former member of the wonderful Australian band The Go-Betweens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prophet’s Prey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Winchester

Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story


“I’m a kangaroo; how do you do?”

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Terri Irwin, Diane Smith, Greg Keightly, Philip Wollen, Peter Singer, Tim Flannery, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Rex Devantier, Terrence Dawson, Dror Ben-Ami, Chris “Brolga” Barnes, Barry O’Sullivan, John Kelly, Stephen Tully, Peter Chen, Daniel Ramp, Paul Borrud, Jennifer Fearing, Lee Rhiannon, Mark Pearson, Lyn Gynther, Lauren Ornelas. Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Michael McIntyre

 

The kangaroo is somewhat emblematic of Australia. It appears on the tail fin of their national airline; many Aussie companies also use the animal as a logo.. Sports teams are named after the beast and one would think that the national symbol of Australia would be as beloved there as the bald eagle is here.

That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination. While there are those who love the kangaroo, the farmers, sheepherders and ranchers of Australia look at ‘roos as little more than vermin, pests who decimate the pasture land that they need for their cattle and sheep to graze on. That segment of Australia claims – and government agencies back them up – that the kangaroo population has exploded and they now outnumber humans on the continent. The problem is so bad that an entire industry has sprung up around the controlled extermination of kangaroos, despite the strange fact that the animals enjoy a protected status in Australia. That protection is very much in name only.

The dark underbelly of the issue is that kangaroos are being slaughtered in a perfectly legal fashion at a terrifying rate which animal activists have labeled the biggest slaughter of a single animal species going on in the world today. Thousands of kangaroos are being hunted by gun-toting kangaroo hunters and killed every night. Property owner Diane Smith and her partner Greg Keightly have taken to documenting the incursion of these hunters onto their property to engage in the extermination of kangaroos which live in the wild there. On occasion the two have nearly been shot themselves.

Their videos have shown unimaginable brutality. Although the government exceptions require that the kangaroos be dispatched humanely, the hunters often miss the clean head shots leaving the kangaroos to die in agony, sometimes lingering for weeks. Joeys (the baby kangaroos) are ripped from the pouches of their dad mothers and rather than having a bullet wasted on them are swung into the fender of the jeeps, sometimes several times in order to bash their brains in. It’s a disgusting spectacle.

The husband and wife documentarian team interview several politicians and ranchers who rationally explain that the controlled extermination of the kangaroos is a necessity to keep the cattle and sheep industry thriving and that without this herd culling the country would be facing an ecological disaster. However, it is clear that their sympathies lie with the activists like Smith and Keightly who are actively fighting for the kangaroos.

The cinematography is beautiful – Australia is a beautiful country and the kangaroos are very cute creatures. The slaughter footage, much of it taken at night, is graphic and disturbing – small children are likely to be upset by it. On a technical note, the graphics that the filmmakers use to augment their film often flash on the screen too quickly to read completely. Another two or three seconds per graphic would have been greatly appreciated.

There are also lots and lots and lots of talking head interviews and while the movie presents a great deal of information, those who are annoyed by those sorts of interviews are likely to be annoyed by this film. The movie is a bit on the long side as it attacks every aspect of the kangaroo industry, from the use of leather on soccer cleats (David Beckham has famously gone over to shoes that don’t use kangaroo skin) to even the safety of the meat taken from the kangaroo carcasses; animal activist and politician Mark Pearson asserts that the meat is butchered in unsanitary conditions out in the bush and is transported long distances without proper refrigeration. He claims that kangaroo meat is potentially loaded with e.coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria although no statistics are given on whether this has been detected or not.

In many ways the slaughter of kangaroos is a modern range war taking place as we speak. It is disturbing that the overpopulation of the animals can’t really be properly documented and government estimates are based on a highly suspect mathematical formula that seems arbitrary and greatly favors those advocating for the extermination of kangaroos. The movie does make some effort to present both sides of the conflict although it is clear that they are firmly on Team Kangaroo. The documentary is certainly flawed but it sheds light on a subject that I and I’m sure many non-Australians didn’t even realize was a thing that in and of itself makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: This is a searing indictment of the kangaroo industry. The animals are beautiful and a joy to watch and the beauty of Australia is without peer.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. The graphics go by a little too quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of animal cruelty, violence done to defenseless creatures, adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is an Australian-made film, it is actually opening in Oz nearly two months after it opens here which is unusual in that generally most films open in their own country of origin first.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)