The Guardian

Ashton Kutcher in the swimming pool in The Guardian

 

The career of Kevin Costner seems to have come and gone. After having a run of mad popular success with The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard (even the Robin Hood movie: Prince of Thieves did pretty well), he followed up with two epic failures. First Waterworld, which went down like the Titanic. Then The Postman, which was so vainglorious – this is the one in which our hero restores civilisation to a post-apocalyptic America – that it stunned reviewers into a kind of embarrassed silence. These belly flops seem to have busted Costner back down to private and since then he’s gone for more modest assignments. The Guardian is one such, a “hell I used to be that guy” mentoring drama directed by Andrew Davis, who is a sound choice for Costner, having made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege and turned a workaday chase movie into something special with The Fugitive. Davis does it again with The Guardian, a wearisomely familiar tale about a brave yet tragic US Coast Guard instructor (Costner) of rescue swimmers and his friction-filled training of a new kid on the block (Ashton Kutcher). At 27 Kutcher is at the top age limit for US Coast Guard applicants but he has a swimmer’s build and youthful looks, so… Meanwhile, director Davis guides the rookie and the pro through a screenplay that most of us could block out if asked to – the drill training, the locker-room machismo, the “sir, yes sir” dialogue, the crypto-homoeroticism and even the “hell, you remind me of me” scene, with of course each man learning something about life and himself on the way. And yet, in Davis’s hands, it all seems, if not fresh, then at least remarkably watchable, the action movie cliches and Top Gun homages (Kutcher even wears Ray Ban Aviators) piling up on each other with a certain degree of kinetic finesse, Davis’s stock in trade. Costner reminds us and possibly himself how he became a star in the first place – because he is so good at playing average guys. And Kutcher keeps the sullen braggadocio this side of unattractive and rises to the challenge of a more serious role than he’s used to – dude, where’s my career. Having started with a quick resume of Costner’s rise and fall, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t really his film, or Kutcher’s. It’s the baton’s – this is all about one generation graciously ceding to the next, which is hungrily grabbing at what isn’t being offered quite fast enough. And on this level – and Davis lets looks and gestures rather than the dialogue do a lot of the work here – it rises right above the cliche, and the fact that this is a film containing a training montage set to rock music (Kasabian’s Club Foot) becomes almost forgivable.

 

The Guardian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Casino Royale

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

 

 

You only live twice, or so they say. Casino Royale is the old Bond song incarnate. Because we have been here before. Not titularly – though we have, in the 1967 spoof made by a gaggle of writers and directors (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller among them) who must have been high. Tonally, I mean. After A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last Bond and a bad performer at the box office, moves were made to zhuzh up the increasingly tired formula. In came Timothy Dalton, out went the eyebrow, and for a couple of films, which in retrospect, look better and better, there was a return to a badass Bond. But neither 1987’s The Living Daylights nor 1989’s License to Kill did very well at the box office either. Producer Cubby Broccoli panicked and out went not just Dalton but the grittier style. In came Brosnan and back came the eyebrow. Broccoli died shortly after, leaving his daughter and Michael G Wilson (who’d presided over the Dalton Bonds) to restart the process that Cubby had abandoned. By the mid-90s the time was right. Other directors were cannibalising 007 for their own big-budget actioners – James Cameron made True Lies, a Bond movie by any other name. While John Woo with Face/Off, Renny Harlin with The Long Kiss Goodnight, Tony Scott with Enemy of the State and Michael Bay with The Rock (starring Sean Connery) were clearly all at it too.

But though Brosnan’s Bond got dirtier during his four-film run – he grew a beard! – it’s taken till now to finally reboot properly. And so here we are, with the “blond Bond” – and what a gift to the publicity machine twittering fanboys are when someone takes their pacifier away. A reboot and a reset, Casino Royale puts Bond back in a tux and back at the gaming tables for a film that’s littered with slaughtered sacred cows – there is no pre-title stunt-filled breathtaker, instead a brutal, CCTV assassination by our new favourite Bond. There’s no sign of Q, and his “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”, or of many of the usual gang of pantomime regulars. There’s a distinct lack of rumpy-pumpy, though Bond does get a dalliance with Eva Green, as uber-Bond girl Vesper Lynd. And 007 even seems also to be completely indifferent to the making of the perfect martini – when the estimable Daniel Craig is asked whether he’d like it shaken or stirred, he replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Unwilling financially to match Bay or Cameron and their legions of CG technicians, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have decided instead to deliver a great spy thriller instead. The plot is bare-bones – on his very first mission, 007 must stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning at cards in a casino in Montenegro, because if he does… no idea… something to do with funding all the terrorist outfits in the world. Does it matter? Not really. Because the film is in fact more interesting watched as an exercise in franchise renewal – Bond slo-mo walking out of the waves à la Ursula Andress, Bond actually washing blood off himself, Bond apparently dying. As an actual thriller… it gets about four-fifths there before losing its way towards the end, as some old Bond tropes (moving the action to Venice, in this case, for little reason) re-assert themselves and that familiar “are we nearly there yet” feeling takes hold. That apart, it’s a great Bond movie, and Daniel Craig, scowling when he’s not running (even free-running), is a great 007. Welcome back.

 

Casino Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Kon-Tiki

Trouble down below in Kon-Tiki

 

A festival regular in 2012, but scared from the wide-release ocean by the presence of a great white Life of Pi, the estimable Kon-Tiki finally gets a release two years later. Potential viewers include anyone interested in Thor Heyerdahl’s intriguing thesis – that the Polynesians had sailed to the islands from South America. But also anyone who likes watching half dressed blond men, or a rollicking sun-drenched adventure on the high seas.

 

The 33-year-old Norwegian Heyerdahl set out on his crackpot 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific in a balsa-wood boat in 1947. This film about his adventure quickly dispenses with his backstory – the reckless child who became an ethnographic adventurer, the searcher for truth whose thesis of trans-Pacific migration was laughed out of court. The film’s lack of real interest in whys and wherefores is clear in these early scenes, in the way New York, where Heyerdahl is hustling for sponsors, is bathed in the sepia matt finish of low-budget CG. It seems to barely matter, since this “getting the gang together” segment is just a warm-up for the main event, which is the journey across the ocean.

 

How do you lash a balsa boat together? Why balsa in the first place? Where did Heyerdahl get the plans for his boat from? Questions which go unanswered, and which show that deep down, someone at the planning stage in its production was as unsure about this film’s broad appeal as Heyerdahl’s detractors were about his quest.

 

This matters because, later on, after encounters with whales, buffetting by storms and an OMG of phosphorescent beasties, it’s the boat itself that starts to become the problem, and Heyerdahl’s increasing intransigence too. Why won’t he tackle running repairs with modern materials? From where does he get his great confidence that the South Americans/Polynesians did it this way too? Is the boat going to fall apart? Is Heyerdahl? We have no idea.

 

But what it lacks in technical grounding or a “relatable” hero, the film makes up in set pieces. And here you can really see why first Life of Pi, then All Is Lost and finally even Captain Phillips might have given Kon-Tiki pause. Though it does hit back with a few Hollywood moments of its own, as when one of the guys falls into the water and the sharks line up for dinner. Or when another of the guys literally wrestles a shark onto the raft itself – heart-in-mouth stuff, and all shot under a mercilessly bright sun in the very crispest of defs.

 

Yes, “guys”. There are six men on the boat, though apart from Heyerdahl (a steely Pål Sverre Hagen) and the plubby refrigerator salesman-cum-engineer Hermann Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) they play as variations on a theme of blond, in various keys of gingery beard. Even the strikingly handsome Torstein (Jakob Oftebro) who is introduced early on as the ladies man, eventually sinks into the facial hair and bronze skin anonymity of the rest.

 

As for wider context, this being the 1940s when the world was getting back to normal after the Second World War, and might have been less keen on adventure than Heyerdahl had anticipated, little of that. Little too of a sense of 101 days passing, though of the claustrophobia of being half a dozen men on a bit of floating wood with a shed perched atop, plenty.

 

Apart from those early New York scenes, Norway’s most expensive film is technically highly accomplished, and uses striking cinematography to retell a story that has become part of the cultural DNA. And like the boat itself, it swamps, it sways but it gets there.

 

 

 

Kon-Tiki – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Flushed Away

Roddy the Rat holds on tight in Flushed Away

 

 

Aardman, the animation house that gave us Wallace and Gromit, announced the ending of their collaboration with DreamWorks (Shrek) just as Flushed Away was released. And watching it, you can understand why. High on sentimentality and laden with backstory, it’s a DreamWorks movie with Aardman touches, rather than what Aardman probably hoped for – an Aardman movie with DreamWorks muscle behind it. A good movie that could have been a great one, in other words, though the good stuff makes it worthwhile. The over-complicated story tells the tale of Roddy St James, a privileged London pet rat (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets “flushed away” down the toilet and into the sewers, where he meets Rita (Kate Winslet), an attractive scavenger rat. And before you can say “mismatched buddies” or “unlikely lovers” the pair of them are being pursued by heavies (Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy) working for subterranean gangster The Toad (Ian McKellen). It’s around this point that Roddy calls for the help of his laidback French mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of crack ninjas to help him. Was this before or after they returned to Roddy’s gilded cage in Kensington, for some time-wasting to-and-fro between Roddy, Rita and Sid (a low-rent sewer rat voiced by Shane Richie)? I don’t remember.

As with Aardman’s Chicken Run and all their Wallace and Gromit output, film parody and film reference provide texture and a little something for adults to enjoy. And as well as an eclectic, well chosen soundtrack taking in Billy Idol, Elgar and Tom Jones, it’s got a perky script with salty highs – “I’ve got a bum like a Japanese flag” someone says at one point – which seems to have survived the rewrites that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s original draft went through, presumably to inject the sort of brassy heroism and “follow your dream” ethos that Clement and La Frenais have not built a career on.

The stop-motion claymation is out too, replaced by bright, clean CG, that does pay lip service to the quirkiness of the original, and doesn’t disgrace itself in its big set pieces, particularly the finale when the final of the World Cup between England and Germany (another plot strand) threatens to wipe out all life in the sewers.

Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman do what they can with characters that aren’t all that memorable, symptomatic of the film itself – it’s minor characters such as McKellen’s Toad and Reno’s Frog who delight, vocal asides that amuse, throwaway details that enthral. When the best of Aardman is allowed to come through, in other words.

 

Flushed Away – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum

 

 

One of Disney’s old standbys is the perky live-action comedy, of the sort they used to put out on the 1960s, invariably starring Dean Jones and a gaggle of pesky kids, plus a cute animal or two. These movies were cute and zippy and had a gee-whizz wholesomeness that was easy to mock but hard to hate. Night at the Museum drills right into that vein, and even gives a small part to Dick Van Dyke, king of Disney’s live-action magnum opus, Mary Poppins. But he’s not the star. Instead there’s an appropriately bumbling Ben Stiller fitting right into the Van Dyke mould, as the hapless, hopeless dad who takes a job at a Museum of Natural History, only to discover that at night the exhibits come to life, thanks to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet, or something. The support cast is strong: Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs as what must be the oldest security guards on the planet – they’re retiring, we’re told, but that still doesn’t quite explain how gents in their 80s are holding down jobs where they might be expected to get physical. Whatever. There’s also a bickering Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a diminutive cowboy and a miniature Roman centurion, Robin Williams as a statue of Teddy Roosevelt back to boombastic life, and Ricky Gervais who, aware of the John Cleese rule, it seems (acclaimed British comics often killing US films stone dead), plays his tiny role as the dorkish museum boss as someone who can’t speak.

You won’t like this if you’re hoping for sophisticated comedy, but it’s a fun piece of lightheardedness, done well, with the CG creations – a dinosaur running amok being a high point – never too threatening or convincing. I’m going to make obvious what a lot of critics seem to have missed about this movie – it’s for kids. Sure, a couple of jokes are in there for beleaguered parents in for the long haul, but it isn’t for grown-ups. Not even vaguely. The kids might not know who Teddy Roosevelt is, and they might wonder why the film seems so insistent on the importance of reading, but apart from that and the obviously downplayed icky love stuff with Carla Gugino, it’s clearly old school Disney that’s the target, and director Shawn Levy and team hit it. You wouldn’t want another one, though, would you?

 

Night at the Museum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Ghosts

Ai Qin Lin in Ghosts

 

 

The British film-maker Nick Broomfield is well known for his documentaries made in the teeth of adversity, his working practice often being to get into someone’s face and then stay there while they duck and dive (see The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, the 1991 doc on South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche). Either that, or he “dead chairs” – as news people called it when an interviewee doesn’t or won’t turn up – his subject and makes a documentary about the documentary he’s trying to make (see Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher). In fact he’s made something of a specialty out of these two practices, to the point where his basic skills as a documentarian are often overlooked (see his two films on Aileen Wuornos – The Selling of a Serial Killer and Life and Death of a Serial Killer).

All of this might seem like a long and unnecessary preamble to Broomfield’s debut as a fictional film-maker. But his documentary skills and stylistics are to the fore in his exposé of the hidden story behind the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers disaster of 2004 – the day when 23 migrant workers drowned on a beach while gathering shellfish, because they were unaware how fast the tide came in. Most of the victims were Chinese, and Broomfield makes Ghosts the story of one of them, Ai Qin, whom he follows from Fujian province in China. She’s a pretty girl who wants to find a better life in the west, to send back money for her son and parents, though her parents don’t want her to go – “We don’t want you to go,” they say in the extremely functional dialogue that marks out the film. Well, at least it makes the story easy to follow, as Ai first signs up to the onerous debt agreement, then spends six whole months being transported across borders until she winds up in Thetford, a market town in Norfolk, England, where she works for a series of bullies in white vans, who take her and her fellow illegal aliens to one agricultural “picking” job or another. This central, Thetford section of the film is tough going, because Broomfield isn’t sure how to hold our interest while depicting the drudgery of daily life, the meanness of the aliens’ existence, the lack of light and shade in the lives of these Chinese slaves. Though we do learn that “ghosts” is what they call white people, because of the skin colour. The irony being that these poor doomed souls are in fact now the ghosts, entirely invisible.

It might be a bit of a trudge, but Broomfield makes telling points as he goes – how the cheap food we enjoy relies on underpaid illegals such as Ai Qin. Who eventually finds herself in February 2004 out on the cockle beds on the vast shallow beaches of North West England, a long way out from the shore and unfamiliar with the fast-moving tides.

Broomfield shoots in the real locations, uses former illegal aliens (including Ai Qin Lin, who plays Ai Qin) for all the key roles and has found a gaggle of British extras who really add to the authentic feeling of a film which he seems to let build at its own pace – this, surely a skill learnt from putting together a coherent, exciting documentary without a shooting script to follow. And his grim intertitles at the end of his sombre film tell us that the families of the dead cockle pickers are still paying back the $25,000 fee to the gangs who arranged for the journey of their now-dead children to the UK.

 

 

Ghosts – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Eragon

Edward Speelers in Eragon

 

 

Here be dragons. Dungeons and Dragons, to be more specific. Because that’s what this British Lord of the Rings knock-off most resembles. The 2000 film also heavily featured Jeremy Irons, who moved heaven and earth to save it but could not ultimately fight the sheer dead weight of the script and its deadly fantasy game holdovers. Something similar is going on here, with Irons once again mustering all his considerable charisma to try and float a sodden barque, a tale of a fine-limbed young farm lad (Edward Speelers) who has somehow sprung noble from the poor lumpen volk, his nice-boy accent setting him off against the ooh-aarghs of fellow proles and a token of his specialness. He finds a dragon’s egg – for what is “Eragon” if not “dragon” with a typo? – a discovery that sets him off on a journey. For he has been chosen to save his land etc and rid it of evil etc etc. Every Skywalkerish figure needs his Ben Kenobi. Enter Irons, working like a man might to save a drowning child. Enter also Rachel Weisz as the voice of the dragon (cajoling, caring, a tough-love mother). And enter John Malkovich in a have-cape-will-swish turn that’s also worth five of your minutes.

Based on the trilogy (yes, there are more – shudder) of fantasy novels by Christopher Paolini, Eragon feels like what it is – the regurgitated fantasy reading of a lively 15-year-old (which Paolini was when he started on the series) brought to life by a mercenary production that’s determined to cut any corner, and directed by a visual effects man (Stefen Fangmeier – a not inappropriate name) who seems better versed in the looks of TV than the big-budget movie. The singer Joss Stone turns up as a fortune teller, briefly. Not because she brings anything to the role, but because she brings another demographic to the film. And having done her job, she is dispensed with. If art is all about hiding the artifice, Eragon has a long and mythic quest in front of it. Not only can you see the actors acting and hear the script changing gears, you can see the marketing levers being pulled – and that’s really bad. But ultimately it’s the gulf between the film’s ambitions and its execution, its unwillingness to cut its jerkin according to its cloth that marks Eragon out as a dud. You can make a sword-and-sorcery film for nothing, but not like this one has been made. And with that, incanting up his wizard’s sleeve, your humble reviewer was gone.

 

 

Eragon – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

31 July

 

Black Tot Day, 1970

Today in 1970 was the last day on which British sailors were issued with a daily rum ration. The ration had initially been beer – much safer than water – and had been set at a gallon (4.5 litres) a day in the 16th century. But that’s a lot of beer if there are a lot of men, and so the ration became a half pint of rum in 1655, after the British had secured whole chunks of the rum-rich West Indies. Drunkenness being a problem, the half-pint ration was mixed with water 1:4 and served twice a day. In 1824 the ration was halved to a quarter of a pint and in 1850 an admiralty committee recommended the ration be ended. However, it persisted until 1970, when it was decided that modern high-tech warships and alcohol didn’t make good bedfellows. On 31 July 1970, after the usual pipe of Up Spirits, the last rum ration was poured at 6 bells (11am), while some sailors wore black armbands. A can of beer was added to rations to compensate.

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, dir: Rob Marshall)

Well stap me vitals, a decent POTC movie. Yes, I believe the consensus is that this fourth one in the series is a bit of a dog, but that’s only because the consensus has been in hock to the unsustainable idea that the first three were any good. They weren’t. Number one was passable, though way too long. Number two was pantomime piracy without any jokes. Number three was an unforgivable three hours long (nearly) and still had trouble telling its story without breaks for exposition every few minutes. Which brings us to number four – which removes the bland and increasingly embarrassing Orlando Bloom and the implausible Keira Knightley, promotes Captain Jack Sparrow properly to the lead role and shaves all the shag off the POTC dog to reveal a lean, light questing beast. Penelope Cruz has been drafted in to spar with Depp, and they make a feisty bickering and possibly romantically inclined duo. Ian McShane is a devilishly piratical Blackbeard – “the pirate all other pirates fear” – joining Geoffrey Rush to make a duo of ancient mariners who understand that in this sort of film it’s all about swash, not swish. Talking of buckling, Keith Richards as Depp’s dad – and how many column inches did this bit of casting generate – is a waste of everybody’s time and is in the film so little that there’s the suspicion his performance is mostly on the cutting room floor. Round the edges, again having learned from the other films, is lively but not obstructive character support, with Richard Griffiths making a fabulously fruity King George. And Judi Dench turns up early on for a ten second cameo in the brilliant opening chase-through-London sequence, which probably would have gone on for an hour in POTC 3.
Perhaps best of all is the plot, which is exactly the sort of ridiculous story that salty sea dogs might tell each other on a stormy night on the high seas – sexy mermaids, silver chalices and a zombified ship’s crew all figure as Sparrow, Barbossa and Blackbeard chase across the oceans in search of a fountain of youth. And if the previous films relied too heavily on effects generated in post-production, new director Rob Marshall leans less heavily on them, preferring to set a lot of scenes at night, in the murk and the gloom, leaving a small space for the human imagination to work. There’s real sword fights. And even a bit of seafaring lore, a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (source of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
It’s still a POTC film, so let’s not get carried away, but it’s a good one, far far better than might have been expected from a franchise this waterlogged.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A dead franchise brought back to life
  • Penelope Cruz is the right foil for catwalk pirate Jack Sparrow
  • Ian McShane’s Blackbeard
  • Orlando Bloom isn’t in it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Everlyn Sampi in Rabbit-Proof Fence

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 July

 

Nazi eugenics law passed, 1933

On this day in 1933, in Germany, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) was put onto the statute books. It allowed for the compulsory sterilisation of anyone whose genetic disorders might be passed on to their children. Disorders originally included manic-depressive insanity and alcoholism, as well as more usual hereditary conditions, but were eventually widened out to include homosexuality, idleness and dissidence. Genetic health was decided in a series of courts set up expressly for the purpose, with the Nazis taking their cues from the work done in California, funded by the Rockefeller foundation and rooted in the writings of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin and enthusiastic interpreter of Charles Darwin.

 

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, dir: Philip Noyce)

A simple tale with a jaw-dropping true story behind it, Rabbit-Proof Fence puts a human face on the practice by the Australian government in the 1930s of separating mixed-race aborigine children from their families. The practice went on until the 1970s, we’re told by an intertitle card that comes up at the end. What we’ve seen up till then is the inhuman consequences of a wrong-headed law that sought to rescue the children of what were seen as transracial couplings from the “too black” families now raising them. To steal children from their mothers, in other words.
The curtain rises just as Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) – their poor but happy existence already established – are about to be forcefully removed from their families and taken to a strict school where they will be educated to the appropriate level for their social station (a servant or factory worker). The girls and their families resist but are overwhelmed by the authorities. Once at the brisk but not cruel school/internment camp, they don’t like the regime of enforced English-speaking and heavy manners, and as soon as possible they skedaddle, are captured, and escape again, deciding that they’re going to walk the 1,500 miles back home by following the fence that keeps the all-devouring rabbit separate from land earmarked for farming. If you want to read an allegorical intent into the fence – the rabbits are the marauding incomer, the fence a civilising barrier – the film isn’t going to high-five your efforts. It’s a remarkably straight telling of a simple and powerful story. But simple doesn’t mean dumb. The performances by its non-actor stars deliver the emotional heft, while Kenneth Branagh, arguably faintly overdoing it with the Nazi mannerisms, delivers recognisability – and a name for the marquee – as the government official running the relocation department who now wants those girls found.
Director Philip Noyce is a master of mood (The Quiet American) and a dab hand at the action thriller (Clear and Present Danger) and folds both together with the sort of retina-searing visuals that the Outback is famous for, thanks here going to legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle nods occasionally towards Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. That Roeg connection is reinforced by the presence of David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine tracker half-heartedly helping the white guys find the escaped girls, whose debut was in Roeg’s film, when he was a young Aborigine man helping the white girls get back home.
So, some symmetry, a lot of beauty and a fair bit of believable acting, tenderly nurtured by Noyce. The result is a film with a lot of heart and a hard message, delivered with a lot of style and ending with a lump-in-the-throat moment as the story from 70 years before is suddenly brought bang up to date.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A shocking true story
  • Christopher Doyle’s cinematography
  • Peter Gabriel’s ambient soundtrack
  • Christine Olsen’s subtle but ballsy screenplay

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Hunter

Willem Dafoe takes aim in The Hunter

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

9 July

 

 

 

Queen Victoria creates Australia, 1900

On this day in 1900, the world’s sixth largest country was created by the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. It had of course existed since it broke away from Gondwana around 150-180 million years ago, and had been inhabited by various groups of indigenous “Australians” for at least 40,000 years. And collectively the landmass had been called Australia, or a variant on it, since before it had even been discovered – the Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South) of legend. But Australia had never existed as a political entity. Starting out initially as just one colony in New South Wales, it had grown piecemeal to become five self-governing Crown colonies. On 9 July 1900 Royal Assent was given to an act formally uniting the colonies into one federal government, which took power on 1 January 1901.

 

The Hunter (2011, dir: Daniel Nettheim)

There are a lot of great reasons to like The Hunter, but the way director Daniel Nettheim builds and sustains tension has to be the main one. It’s a real “who is this man, what is he doing, and is he going to get out alive” thriller that drops us in to its story and lets us work things out for ourselves.

Some things we do know. We know that Willem Dafoe plays the shadowy “hunter” Martin, a man with a high-velocity rifle hired by a shady organisation to go and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, an animal reputed to already be extinct. And, er, that’s about it. No, hang on, the shadowy organisation wants some bit of the animal, so it can take its DNA and do something with it, something despicable, we guess. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the man, the gun and the fact that at some point, if Martin doesn’t get the results that the mysterious Red Leaf outfit want, then he’s probably going to become extinct himself.

The quest, the struggle, is elemental, almost prehistoric, and Nettheim and Dafoe spend a lot of time putting us on the hunter’s side, introducing us slowly to Martin, showing us his skill as a hunter – saturating his clothes with wood smoke so the animals won’t smell him coming, for example. The film is similarly saturated with flavour and relationships. For a loner travelling incognito Martin gets about a bit – striking up an increasingly intimate relationship with a pretty mother (Frances O’Connor) and her children (including the remarkable Morgana Davies), or a more prickly one with the semi-affable local guide Jack (Sam Neill). As for the locals, a bitter and foul-mouthed bunch of dirt-poor yokels who don’t much go for the fancy ways of an outsider, they have a hickory pungency that adds to the sense of threat.

Peel back the flaps and the structure is Apocalypse Now or something biblical – the lone man going up a mountain in search of something mythical. But it’s a muddy Apocalypse Now, and we’re never quite sure if Martin is a good guy, though Dafoe’s wise broad face leads us to suggest there might be goodness in there. Possibly. This not-quite-knowingness is the film’s strongest suit, and Nettheim and writer Alice Addison tease us with genre expectations too – the tension of a thriller, the deferred money shot of a quest film, the tease of a fledgling romance, the threat of a borderland quasi-western, the righteousness of the eco-drama. Which will come out on top? Will Martin survive? Does the Tasmanian Tiger even exist? What is going on? Nettheim keeps us hanging on right to the very end.

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The primordial cinematography of Robert Humphreys
  • A performance of psychological nuance by Dafoe
  • The Tasmania settings
  • Morgana Davies, star in waiting

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Hunter – Watch it now at Amazon