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

Assassin’s Creed


Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

(2016) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian, Crystal Clarke, Michelle H. Lin. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Is free will all it’s cracked up to be? What is free will, after all, if the decisions you make are uninformed? Is it better to have someone make our decisions for us for the greater good? Or is it better that we have our own free will even if our decisions tend to be rendered by self-interest and disregard for others?

Convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is about to be executed. Never mind that he witnessed his father (Brian Gleeson) murder his mother (Davis) in cold blood without explanation, he turned to crime on his own and for his crimes he will pay. Except that he wakes up – not in heaven, but in a strange corporate facility where Dr. Sofia Rikkim (Cotillard) informs him that he’s still alive and about to take part in a procedure that will tap his genetic memories. Memories of ancestors, or in this case of a specific ancestor – Aguilar (Fassbender) who was an assassin – excuse me, Assassin – who alone knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden.

This is all a part of an ages-old feud between two warring factions, the Templars and the Assassins, each fighting for their philosophy of free will versus control. Think of the Assassins as Chaotic Good while the Templars are the Lawful Evil. In any case, the Apple of Eden contains the genetic DNA of free will; he who controls it can modify human behavior – eliminate violence altogether, says Dr. Rikkim. Oh boy!

The means of doing that is through a machine called the Animus in which Callum can inhabit the body of Aguilar, see what he sees and utilize his skills which, as it happens, he retains when he comes back into his own body. There’s also a robotic arm on the Animus which allows Callum/Aguilar to do all sorts of nifty parkour moves.

The problem is as it always seems to be is that not everything is what it appears to be. Dr. Rikkim seems to have the best intentions, but what of her industrialist father (Irons) and the haughty patrician lady Ellen Kaye (Rampling)? And when it turns out that Callum’s hated father (Brendan Gleeson) is in the facility, a reckoning is sure to follow.

Like many movies based on videogame franchises, the basic appeal is going to be to the gamers who are familiar with the game and know the mythology behind it. Those of us who aren’t familiar with the game are going to have a hard time navigating this movie which is convoluted and over-complicated. The latter two traits actually work in favor for a videogame; gamers want a complex game to navigate because that maintains their interest.

The visuals are compelling for the most part although there’s a tendency for the scenes set in the Inquisition to be overlighted and a bit washed out. Scenes that are set outdoors don’t look it and I have to think that’s because the CGI is insufficient to the task. Nothing takes you out of a movie faster than scenes that don’t look real. Also, I understand that the Eagle that appears several times in the movie is a game thing, it seemed overused to me and also looked badly animated.

The stunts however were mind-blowing, some of the best of the year. While I thought that the best one (involving a more than 100 foot free fall, a stunt not attempted for a Hollywood film for more than 30 years) should not have appeared in the trailer when it does show up in the film it’s no less breathtaking.

One doesn’t go to this kind of film for the acting, but given the pedigree of the cast including some of the finest actors in the world (i.e. Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons and Gleeson senior) the performances show that they were at least attempting to do their best. Stiff upper lips must have been needed given some of the things they had to do and say here, but one can’t fault the cast here for the film’s shortcomings.

It is ironic that the theme here champions free will and yet the medium is a movie, which is essentially a passive enterprise in which the audience simply accepts the vision and viewpoint of the filmmaker as opposed to the videogame in which the player makes choices. The audience here makes none other than whether or not to walk out halfway through. What we have here is another failed attempt by Hollywood to make a hugely popular videogame into a movie franchise; perhaps they should stop trying.

I’m not against videogames or videogame adaptations – far from it. I’m just against bad adaptations. I would love to see a film adaptation that actually does justice to a game and I know it can be done. It just hasn’t really been up to now for any franchise not called Resident Evil. Hopefully at some point we will see one – just not today.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts are incredible. The cast at least take the material seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly complex and convoluted. All of the outdoor scenes look like they were filmed indoors in a simulation of late afternoon.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect with a videogame adaptation there is a ton of violence, some adult thematic elements and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was given a completely unique plot rather than bringing one of the videogames to the screen (there are nine of them in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) and Ubisoft has stated that all of their big screen films will have separate storylines from their games.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tomb Raider
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Fences

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate