The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

Fast Five


Fast Five

If you don't go see Vin Diesel's new movie, Paul Walker will shoot you.

(2011) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Joaquin de Almeida, Gal Gadot, Matt Schulze, Tego Calderon, Don Omar. Elsa Pataky, Michael Irby. Directed by Justin Lin

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Fast and Furious series. Street car racing doesn’t appeal to me much and the scene behind it really doesn’t do anything for me either. While I’ve always liked Vinnie D, Walker is a bit on the wooden side for my tastes.

So I really didn’t expect to want to go see Fast Five – I waited until the previous entries in the series were on home video in most cases before seeing them (Tokyo Drift I never saw at all). So when I found out that Dwayne Johnson was in the new one, my curiosity was piqued – Johnson is to my way of thinking the future of the action hero.

The movie takes a sharp left turn from the previous entries in the series. As it begins, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is broken out of the prison he was being sent to at the end of the last movie. The escape is a daring one and involves his sister Mia (Brewster) and her boyfriend (and Dom’s best friend) Brian O’Conner  (Walker) – the former federal agent from the first movie – driving muscle cars recklessly to the sound of pulsating rock/rap music going to extravagant lengths to get the bus carrying Dom to crash.

Mia and Brian flee to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with Vince (Schulze), one of Dom’s crew from the first movie. Wait – ‘scuse me, he’s more than that. He’s family (as everyone who works with Dom apparently is). They’re running low on funds and on the run from the law. Vince has a job for them – stealing some cars from a moving train. Child’s play, right?

Wrong. The cars were apparently impounded by the DEA and one of them has a chip in it that contains all the secrets of the operation of Reyes (de Almeida), the drug kingpin of Rio and he’s kinda anxious to get it back – so much so that he sends out head thug Zizi (Irby) to kill everyone who gets in the way. That includes the federal agents on the train, who are murdered by Zizi and his men, although Reyes – through his control of the police and the media – makes sure that Dom, Mia and Brian are blamed.

The death of the agents is enough to make the U.S. Government sit up and take notice, so they send their most ruthless, dedicated manhunter, Hobbs (Johnson) after the trio. Hobbs is like a pit bull; he doesn’t care about guilt or innocence, he just cares about getting his man. He enlists the help of patrol officer Elena (Pataky) whose husband was gunned down in front of her doorstep (slum), prompting her to enlist in the police force. She is at least for the moment non-corrupted, her motivations to carry on in her husband’s memory. At least, I kinda think so.

Being chased from every direction makes Dom realize that in order to get out of this he’s going to need to attack the corrupt Reyes directly – and the best way to hurt him was to take his money. Thankfully, the chip tells him where it all is – sitting in a vault at Rio’s main police station. They realize they’re going to need a team in order to pull it off.

They pull friends they’ve worked with from the previous films, including Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese), Han (Kang) – who died in one of the earlier films if memory serves – Gisele (Gadot), Leo (Calderon) and Santos (Omar). They will need to be at their best to take on the corrupt Rio cops as well as Reyes’ thugs and the best protection money can buy to get at the cash – not to mention having a very angry Hobbs, whose team was killed off by Reyes, on their tail.

Those who loved the street racing element to the first four movies are going to be very disappointed with this installment. There’s only brief mention of street racing and only one scene essentially set at one. No, this is more of a heist flick, all about the car chases, the beat downs and Vin Diesel in a wifebeater.

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and executed. There’s a chase sequence on the rooftops of Rio’s favelas (slums) that is kind of nifty, not to mention a car sequence involving two cars working in tandem dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio. The movie has a fluid tempo that only rarely lets up. While the other F&F films were equally action-packed, they were mostly with car racing scenes but quite frankly, you can only do so many of them before they start to look the same to the untrained eye, which is what most of us have.

Diesel is solid as ever as Toretto, a role that seems perfect for Diesel’s skill sets; lots of glowering, a strong moral core and a good deal of swagger. Adding Johnson – the Rock – to the mix is a masterstroke. He and Diesel have a good deal of chemistry even in adversarial roles. The two have a big fight scene in third real that just frankly rocks; I wonder if Diesel was hoping he might get a people’s elbow at some point.

Walker is an actor who has never resonated with me, at least to this point. I’ve always found him wooden, although there’s a certain charisma that he displays from time to time. Here, I didn’t see it at all to be honest; he didn’t really add anything to a role that was pretty much has no color to it as written anyway.

While having all these extra characters from the previous films might have some nostalgia value, it rapidly becomes a “too many cooks spoil the broth” with too many characters taking too much screen time. Still, many of them (particularly Kang and Ludacris) make the most of their time onscreen.

This isn’t particularly smart filmmaking but it is solid and quite frankly, in a very disappointing first quarter of the year this is a glimmer of hope that Hollywood was looking for. The box office was the biggest so far this year, the biggest ever in the month of April and the biggest opening weekend in Universal history.  The American public seems to be waiting desperately for a movie that just blows stuff up and in that respect Fast Five delivers. It’s not a great movie but it’s a solid movie and the box office seems to be more of a commentary on the desire of the moviegoing public to see a decent action movie than an endorsement on what is an above average – but not great – movie.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and Diesel vs. the Rock makes a great battle. This is by far the best movie of the series to date.

REASONS TO STAY: More of the same; muscle cars, cliché dialogue and barely-clothed women with nice butts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some fairly big action sequences, a bit of sexuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, each of the main actors is shown with footage from their previous appearances in the series.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, definitely the theater. It’s big, it’s brainless and it needs to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw IV