Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#1,871. My Brilliant Career (1979) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Gillian Armstrong

Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes

Tag line: "Sometimes it is the things that bind us, that truly set us free"

Trivia: This film's director, producers, scriptwriter, first billed actor, production designer, costume designer, production supervisor, bookkeeper and accountant were all women

Director Gillian Armstrong's 1979 drama / romance My Brilliant Career has a lot going for it. Based on a 1901 novel of the same name by Miles Franklin, it’s a beautifully-realized period piece with gorgeous cinematography and a top-notch supporting cast.

But forget all that, because what makes the film so damn appealing is the career-defining performance of its star Judy Davis, who, in every moment, conjures up an energy that practically leaps off the screen and into your lap.

It’s the kind of work that usually nets an actress gobs of year-end awards, a la Charlize Theron’s turn in 2003’s Monster (winner of 17 awards, including an Oscar and Golden Globe); or Helen Mirren in 2005’s The Queen (aside from walking off with the “Big 5”, i.e. Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild, Dame Mirren took home 24 other awards from film festivals and critic circles the world over). While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Miss Davis’ work in My Brilliant Career with that of either Theron’s or Mirren’s, she is strong enough to warrant mention alongside them.

So, imagine my surprise when I learned that Judy Davis did not receive similar accolades for her portrayal of a headstrong Australian girl at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, she won only two awards for My Brilliant Career. Both were BAFTAs, for Best Lead Actress and Most Outstanding Newcomer. Yes, it was her first starring role in a motion picture, which makes her performance all the more impressive.

Most amazing of all, though, is that she was even snubbed in her own country! My Brilliant Career was the recipient of six Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography, but the top actress nod went to someone else, specifically, Michele Fawdon for Cathy’s Child. It’s not uncommon for some year-end awards to miss the mark, but for everyone (except the British) to overlook Davis’ incredible contribution to this film is almost impossible to believe.

Precocious teenager Sybylla Melvyn (Davis) knows that her hometown, the little backwater village of Possum Gully, will never afford her the opportunity to become a famous writer, artist, or musician. So, after refusing to accept a servant’s position secured for her by her mother (Julia Blake), Sybylla is shipped off to stay with her high-society Grandmother, Miss Bossier (Aileen Britton), who lives in the prestigious town of Caddagat with Sybylla’s Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) and Uncle Julius (Peter Whitford).

Her grandmother and aunt keep trying to marry her off to the boorish Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb), but Sybylla is content in Caddagat, and is prepared to begin what she refers to as her “Brilliant Career”, whatever it may be. But a chance meeting with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a wealthy young entrepreneur who lives with his Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy), throws a new wrinkle into the fabric of Sybylla’s life, one for which she is ill-prepared: Love.

Can Sybylla suppress these new feelings and launch her “career”, or will romance win out in the end?

It’s quite possible that Davis’s awards chances were undermined by her character’s plain, even homely, appearance. Unlike the actress playing her, Sybylla is considered an “ugly duckling” by those around her. In addition, the role itself - an independent woman who vows never to marry, then meets and falls in love with a handsome man - is nothing new.

Yet thanks to her charisma and vitality, which is on display throughout the movie, Judy Davis makes us forget that we’ve seen this story a thousand times before, and like Harry Beecham, we become absolutely smitten with her. Even in those sequences where her character is down in the dumps (at the evening ball, she sulks because Harry is spending all his time talking to another woman), we’re still drawn to her energy, and can’t take our eyes off of her. As for the story, hopeless romantics may have an issue with some of its twists and turns, but that shouldn’t prevent them (or anyone else) from ultimately admiring the hell out of this picture.

To be fair, I’ve never seen Cathy’s Child, so I’m in no position to judge who was the better Australian actress in 1979. What I will say, though, is that Miss Fawdon must have been Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Meryl Streep all rolled into one, because it would take a performance of that magnitude to convince me Judy Davis wasn’t robbed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#1,870. The Devil's Playground (1976) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Fred Schepisi

Starring: Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam

Tag line: "Young men torn between physical desire and religious discipline"

Trivia: Seminary scenes were filmed at Werribee Park Mansion, which had served as a seminary (Corpus Christi Catholic College) for 50 years

Fred Schepisi’s directorial debut, 1976’s The Devil’s Playground, is a semi-autobiographical account of life in a 1950’s Catholic seminary. Starring young Simon Burke, it tells the story of a 13-year-old seminarian whose devotion to God and the church are put to the test by his budding sexuality.

Tom Allan (Burke) is one of the many boys at the seminary trying to come to terms with their libidos. Though teased by some of his fellow students (because he’s a bed-wetter), Tom maintains a close friendship with Fitz (John Diedrich), who, despite being several years older, shares Tom’s doubts and fears as to whether he is fit to become a man of the cloth. For guidance, Tom turns to his instructors, only to discover most of them are as confused as he is!

Though only a teenager at the time (around 14 or 15 when the film was shot), Simon Burke’s portrayal of Tom is nothing short of remarkable. Playing such a demanding role with the confidence of a seasoned professional, Burke ensures that we are always in tune with what his character is thinking and feeling, and because of this we feel sympathy for him. In one humorous (if uncomfortable) scene, Tom is in the confessional, where he admits to the acerbic Brother Hanrahan (Gerry Duggan) that he masturbates frequently (2-3 times a day).

Following a brief tirade, Brother Hanrahan absolves Tom of his sins, gives him his penance, and sends him on his way. To Tom’s horror, his classmates, many of whom were praying just outside the confessional, overheard the boisterous brother, and they begin to snicker amongst themselves. Though played primarily for laughs (Tom’s chronic masturbation is already well-known throughout the seminary), we can’t help but feel sorry for him in this scene, and Burke’s gentle, heartfelt performance is the reason why.

In addition to Simon Burke, I was impressed with how The Devil’s Playground handled its adult characters. Far from demonizing the seminary’s Brothers, Schepisi shows that they’re every bit as human, and prone to temptation, as Tom and his friends. During a weekend getaway, Brother Victor (Nick Tate) and Brother James (Peter Cox) take in a rugby match, then head to a nearby pub for a few beers. While there, Brother Victor spots a couple of pretty women sitting by themselves, and approaches them, causing a shocked (and incredibly nervous) Brother James to run for the door.

Not to be outdone, the senior Brother, Sebastian (Charles McCallum), believes masturbation is perfectly normal, and questions aloud whethe rofr not there’s a God in heaven. Even the stern disciplinarian, Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam), has his weaknesses. After catching a ride into town with Brothers Victor and James, Brother Francine says he’s going to visit a local museum, but instead hangs out at a public pool, gawking at women in various stages of undress. By spending as much time with its adult characters as its students, The Devil’s Playground is one of those rare coming-of-age films that isn’t a “kids only” affair.

Winner of 6 Australian Film Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Lead Actor (shared by both Simon Burke and Nick Tate), The Devil’s Playground is an impressive motion picture, and thanks to the work of its entire cast, coupled with Schepisi’s documentary-like approach to the material, it is as relevant today as it was in 1976.

Monday, September 28, 2015

#1,869. Don's Party (1976) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Bruce Beresford

Starring: John Hargreaves, Pat Bishop, Graham Kennedy

Tag line: "What a helluva night!"

Trivia: First major acting role in a feature film for Australian Television personality Graham Kennedy

October, 1969. A general election is underway in Australia. Anticipating a victory for the underdog Labour Party, school teacher Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Dryan) decide to throw a party. Among the attendees are John’s outspoken friend Mal (Ray Barrett) and his oft-depressed significant other, Jenny (Pat Bishop); Simon (Graeme Blundell), a meek accountant, and his pretty but naïve wife Jody (Veronica Lang); Mack (Graham Kennedy), a wannabe photographer whose wife just left him; Cooley (Harold Hopkins), a womanizing lawyer, and his curvaceous 19-year-old date, Susan (Claire Binney); and Kerry (Candy Raymond), a sultry artist whose dentist husband, Evan (Kit Taylor), is most definitely the jealous type.

As the alcohol flows and the election results roll in, gentle ribbing gives way to angry insults and innocent flirtations lead to adultery. Before the night is over, more than one marriage will be teetering on the brink of collapse.

Based on a 1971 play by David Williamson, Don’s Party is a very funny movie. After throwing back a few beers, Cooley confesses to Mack that he once slept with his now-estranged wife. Not missing a beat, a nonplussed Mack, in turn, admits that he knew all about the tryst because he was in the bedroom closet shooting photos of it, which he now sells for a profit.

Of course, with it dealing so openly with relationships, the film also has its share of drama. On more than one occasion, a couple will “air their dirty laundry”, often quite loudly. Toss in a moment or two of frontal nudity (both male and female) and plenty of sexual innuendo, and you have a smart satire that takes aim at politics, marriage, art, and the middle class; as well as a bawdy sex comedy that is as titillating as it is thought-provoking.

Like many movies based on a play, Don’s Party can be a bit too talky for its own good. What saves the film, though (apart from its clever screenplay, which Williamson himself penned), is the cast that director Beresford assembled. Graham Kennedy is especially good as the party’s lone single attendee, as is Pat Bishop, who, though stuck in the background for most of the movie, has one very poignant scene late in the film.

Thanks to them, and the rest of the cast, what could have been a stage-bound, dialogue heavy snooze fest is instead vibrant and fascinating.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

#1,868. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Stephan Elliott

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp

Tag line: "She's back... Looking as gorgeous and outrageous as ever in a brand new frock"

Trivia: According to director Stephan Elliott, he took the three leads out in drag prior to the beginning of filming. None of them were recognized

On its most basic level, 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a movie about drag queens. Its three main characters are entertainers who dress up as women and lip-sync to songs such as "I Love the Nightlife" and "Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man". Their outfits are flamboyant (the movie won a well-deserved Academy Award for its Costume Design), and the stage performances are flashy and extravagant. 

But to reduce The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to a glorified drag act would be short-changing it. This is a lively, hilarious motion picture, with well-developed characters and some extremely clever sequences.

Tick (Hugo Weaving), a drag performer whose stage name is Mitzi, receives a call from his estranged wife, who operates a hotel / casino in the small desert town of Alice Springs. She’s in the market for a new stage show, so along with his two friends, fellow drag queens Adam / Felicia (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp), Tick boards a bus - nicknamed "Priscilla" - and sets off  on what proves to be an eventful journey through the Australian outback.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert features a number of entertaining scenes. So many, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping up with them all. Some of its best moments are when the three leads don their dresses and take the stage; along with their rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive", which they perform for a group of aborigines in the middle of the outback, there's a scene in which Tick and his buddies stroll into a bar filled with ruffians, only to find the most intimidating patron is a portly, middle-aged woman (June Marie Bennett)! 

While most of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is lighthearted in nature, there are times where things get a bit more serious. After spending the night in a small town, the three discover a homophobic threat has been spray-painted on the side of their bus. Yet even somber scenes such as these have their moments of frivolity (a flashback sequence, in which Adam recalls an encounter with a pedophile uncle, actually ends on a humorous note).

While the adventures themselves are a blast to watch, the movie’s real strength lies in its characters, all of whom are as colorful as their elaborate costumes. Terence Stamp delivers an understated performance as Bernadette, a transsexual whose best years are behind her, while Guy Pearce is perfectly over-the-top in his portrayal of Adam, an effeminate troublemaker who refuses to take life seriously. 

Naturally, these two occasionally clash, which is where Hugo Weaving’s Mitzi comes into the picture. Often forced into the role of peacemaker, Mitzi is, at times, as boisterous as Adam (especially when on-stage), yet also as level-headed as Bernadette. All three actors deliver remarkable performances, and never once allow their characters to devolve into caricatures. Also good in a supporting role is Bill Hunter (Newsfront) as Bob, a mechanic who, after being dumped by his stripper wife (Julia Cortez), hitches a ride on the bus and falls in love with Bernadette.

Normally, I don't condone sequels, but in the case of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I’d love to see another movie featuring these characters. The 100+ minutes I spent in their company simply wasn’t enough!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

#1,867. Breaker Morant (1980) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Bruce Beresford

Starring: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters

Tag line: "HERO OR VILLAIN ...his exploits shook an empire...and made him a legend"

Trivia: This was the first Australian film to win a major award at the Cannes Film Festival

Based on an actual court martial from 1902, Breaker Morant stars Edward Woodward as Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, an Australian officer in the Bushveldt Carbineers, stationed in South Africa to help the British in their fight against the Boers. Arrested by the high command and charged with the murders of several Boer prisoners as well as a German missionary (played by Bruno Knez), Morant and two of his fellow Carbineers, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), stood trial for their lives.

Due to the sensitive political nature of this case (the Germans protested the killing of their missionary, and could have used it as an excuse to assist the Boers), British authorities wanted to expedite the court martial. To this end, they assigned Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), a lawyer with no trial experience, to act as the attorney for the accused.

Despite being a novice in the courtroom, Thomas managed to stage an effective defense, arguing that Morant and the others were following orders issued by British Commander Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), which stated that all prisoners of war were to be immediately executed.

Were Morant, Handcock, and Witton loyal soldiers doing their duty, or cold-blooded killers acting contrary to military law?

Directed by Bruce Beresford, Breaker Morant features a handful of well-executed battle scenes, the most exciting of which cones late in the movie, when the Boers launch a surprise attack on the base where the court martial is being held (though still under arrest, Morant, Handcock, and Witton join in the fight, doing their part to keep the attackers at bay). That said, the film’s best skirmishes happen not on the battlefield, but in the courtroom.

Given a single day to prepare his case, Maj. Thomas seems a bit disorganized at first. He’s constantly fumbling through his notes, which are always a jumbled mess. Yet he is as ferocious as a rabid dog, and as sly as a fox, when it comes time to cross-examine witnesses. Thomas wins the respect of Morant and the others when he peppers Capt. Robertson (Rob Steele), the prosecution’s first witness, with one tough question after another. The entire cast does an exemplary job, especially Woodward as the title character, but for me, it’s Jack Thompson who delivers the film’s standout performance, portraying a man who believes his clients are innocent, and will do whatever he can to save them from the firing squad.

Winner of 10 Australian Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Breaker Morant addresses the hypocrisy of accusing solders of murder during a time of war while also challenging the chain of command that encourages such actions in the first place. An anti-war film in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (another movie about a trio of soldiers subjected to a sham trial), Breaker Morant is unforgettable.

Friday, September 25, 2015

#1,866. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Peter Weir

Starring: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray

Tag line: "A recollection of evil"

Trivia: Executive producer Patricia Lovell admits to being genuinely afraid of Hanging Rock. In an interview she explained that she has only gone back to Hanging Rock once since the shooting

For years, I was a bit fuzzy as to whether or not Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on an actual event (turns out it wasn’t; while Hanging Rock is a very real locale in Victoria, Australia, the story is a complete fabrication). But then, a picture as hauntingly enigmatic as this one practically invites ambiguity. As gorgeous as it is bewildering, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a movie you’ll think about for days afterwards.

Valentine’s Day, 1900. A group of young women from Appleyard College head to Hanging Rock, a geological formation situated near Victoria’s Mount Macedon, for a picnic. Chaperoned by two of their teachers, Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), the girls enjoy what appears to be a peaceful day in the country.

Their quiet afternoon takes a dark turn, however, when three students, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson), as well as Miss McCraw, disappear without a trace.

As the police, led by Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), carry out their investigation, the college’s headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), struggles to keep her school afloat amid all the bad publicity. The police fail to turn up any clues and eventually abandon their search, at which point young Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), who was picnicking in the area at the same time and was the last person to see the girls before their disappearance, feels compelled to take matters into his own hands.

With the help of his family’s servant Albert (John Jarratt), Michael tries to solve this puzzling case, and what he discovers during his time at Hanging Rock will shock not only the local authorities, but all of Australia as well.

Director Peter Weir weaves an aura of mystery throughout Picnic at Hanging Rock. Along with a few strange occurrences (during the picnic, both Miss McCraw and Mr. Hussey, who drove the cart that brought the girls to the area, notice their watches stopped at exactly noontime), Weir shoots the rock formation in such a way as to make it look incredibly foreboding. He keeps his camera down low, shooting upwards, giving the illusion that the rock is towering over his characters. And because of this, we feel a bit uneasy whenever the action switches back to this seemingly menacing locale. When Michael Fitzhubert,who is determined to find the girls, decides to spend the night at Hanging Rock, we fear for his safety, and wonder if we will ever see him again. Along with introducing a sense of dread into the proceedings, this adds a supernatural element to the movie that makes its central mystery all the more perplexing.

A beautiful motion picture that will have you turning its story over and over again in your head, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the seminal Australian films of the 1970's and, in my opinion, ranks among the greatest the continent ever produced.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

#1,865. Romper Stomper (1992) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Geoffrey Wright

Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie

Tag line: "You've never seen anything like it"

Trivia: Daniel Pollock, who plays Davey, committed suicide before the film's release

Years before he played the hero in movies like The Insider, Gladiator, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Russell Crowe was Hando, a neo-Nazi skinhead in the 1992 Australian crime / drama Romper Stomper

And believe me when I tell you, his character in this film is as far from heroic as you can possibly get!

Hando and his gang of thugs, which includes his best friend Davey (Daniel Pollock), patrol the streets of Melbourne, harassing (and sometimes attacking) the city’s ever-growing Vietnamese population. 

One day, as he and his cronies are hanging out at the local bar, Hando meets Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie), a drug addict looking for a place to stay. It isn’t long before she and Hando are an item, much to the chagrin of Davey, who is himself falling in love with Gabrielle. 

To make matters worse, the Vietnamese decide that enough is enough, and form a small army to stand against Hando and his gang. After a violent rumble, the skinheads are forced to find a new place to live, and once there dedicate most of their free time to planning their revenge.

Romper Stomper opens with a brutal scene in which three Vietnamese teens, who were simply riding their skateboards through a subway tunnel, are savagely beaten by Hando and the others. It’s the first of many sequences that take us deep inside the skinhead subculture; at one point, Hando, whose bedroom is decorated with swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia, tries to impress Gabrielle by reading her passages from Mein Kampf. This, along with a unique soundtrack (many tunes feature lyrics that attack minorities and promote white supremacy) and spirited fight sequences (including one big-ass rumble), gives the film’s entire first half an energy all its own.

Moments after Hando and his skinheads are driven out of the warehouse that they called home, Romper Stomper settles down a bit, allowing us to learn a few things about its main characters (including why Gabrielle has such a strained relationship with her father) while also permitting the various romantic subplots to play themselves out. It’s in these scenes that the movie’s young performers prove their worth, especially Crowe, who shines as the violently bigoted Hando, a character you love to hate.

An energetic and sometimes shocking exposé of racism at its worst, Romper Stomper also works as a drama, and while it certainly isn’t an easy film to watch, I’m betting you’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

#1,864. Bad Boy Bubby (1993) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Rolf de Heer

Starring: Nicholas Hope, Claire Benito, Ralph Cotterill

Tag line: "All he needs is love"

Trivia: Most of the sound was recorded by two binaural microphones hidden in actor Nicholas Hope's ears

Bad Boy Bubby is kind of a bizarre masterpiece.

Directed by Rolf de Heer, this 1993 film tells the story of Bubby (Nicholas Hope), a guy in his mid-‘30s who has never once in his life left the small apartment he shares with his mother (Claire Benito). To keep Bubby at bay, she tells him the air has been poisoned, and puts on a gas mask whenever she goes out. So Bubby spends his days playing with his pet cat, and his nights satisfying his mother’s lustful desires, He seems content.

That changes when his estranged father (Ralph Cotterill) re-enters the picture. All at once, Bubby is pushed to the side by his mom, and when a seemingly innocent act ends in tragedy, he leaves the apartment for the first time ever.

Bubby has difficulty adjusting to the ways of the world, but chance encounters with both a neighborhood garage band and a social worker he lovingly calls Angel (Carmel Johnson) allow him to finally experience the freedom he had been denied for so many years.

Bad Boy Bubby is, in many ways, an experimental film. All sound was recorded via two small mics hidden behind lead actor Nicholas Hope’s ears, allowing the audience to hear the world exactly as he does. In addition, director de Heer utilized the talents of over 30 cinematographers, the majority of whom shot only a single sequence. So the style of the picture changes from scene to scene (each cinematographer had full creative control, and was not permitted to view anyone else's footage). As you can imagine, this gives the film a somewhat frenzied look.

Its unique technical approaches aside, Bad Boy Bubby also has Nicholas Hope, whose portrayal of an innocent thrust into a world he cannot possibly understand gives the movie its center. With no idea how to communicate with those around him, he simply repeats whatever he hears, and while most of the comedy stems from Bubby’s interactions with others (a scene where he walks into a donut shop and orders exactly what the woman before him ordered, copying her voice and inflection as he does so, made me laugh out loud), it also results in some uncomfortable moments (because he doesn’t know what he’s saying, Bubby is often crude and profane).

Despite the occasional social faux pas, Bubby continues to view the world as a child would, gazing in wonder at anything and everything. It's this simplicity that catches the eye of “Angel”, the caretaker who will eventually fall in love with him.

Bad Boy Bubby can, at times, also be alarming. Aside from his incestuous relationship with his mother, Bubby inadvertently kills his pet cat when he wraps it in plastic (not wanting to leave it behind, he packs the dead carcass in his suitcase and carries it with him). But even during its most shocking scenes, the film exudes a charm that cannot be ignored.

Filled with humor and pathos, Bad Boy Bubby is a unique motion picture experience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

#1,863. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: George Miller

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Tag line: "Only the Mad Survive"

Trivia: Over 80% of the effects seen in the film are practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets

It took 30 years for director George Miller to get around to the next installment in his Mad Max series, and believe me, it was worth the wait! 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road is more than a cinematic assault on the senses. It’s a goddamn blitzkrieg! This movie will leave you stunned, worn out, and thoroughly entertained.

The road warrior, aka Max (Tom Hardy), continues to roam the wastelands of Australia, doing whatever is necessary to survive. After a run-in with a group of heavily armed marauders known as the War Boys, Max is taken prisoner and forced to serve as a permanent blood donor for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy with a life-threatening illness. 

The War Boys are the faithful servants of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the tyrannical leader of a desert community. In an effort to obtain more fuel for his vast army of vehicles, Immortan Joe sends one of his most trusted lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to Gas Town, a nearby refinery. Driving a fuel tanker, Furiosa and her War Boy escorts head into the desert...

But Furiosa eventually changes course.

As it turns out, she had no intention of going to Gas Town, and is instead on a mission of mercy to deliver Immortan Joe’s five wives, Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton), the Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) and the very pregnant Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), to the safety of the “Green Place”, an idyllic oasis where Immortan Joe cannot reach them. 

The moment they realize what Furiosa is up to, Joe and his remaining War Boys climb into their vehicles and give chase, driving as fast as possible to overtake her and “rescue” the wives. Not wanting to miss out on such a glorious hunt, the weakened Nux hops into a car and, with his “blood bag” Max strapped to the hood, joins the others in their high-speed pursuit.

Tom Hardy steps nicely into the role of Max (previously portrayed by Mel Gibson), and plays the character with plenty of gusto. But what surprised me most about Mad Max: Fury Road is that Max himself was relegated to a supporting role... in his own film! For the first hour or so, Max is either in prison or chained to the front of a car doing well over 100 miles per hour. In his place, we have Charlize Theron as Furiosa, who, despite missing an arm, is every bit as tough as Max, and a lot smarter than the War Boys. 

As for the film’s heavy, Hugh Keays-Byrne (who was Toecutter in the original Mad Max) reminded me of the Humongous from The Road Warrior: like that earlier character, his Immortan Joe is an imposing figure hidden behind a mask, and has an entire army at his disposal. The rest of the supporting roles are also well-cast, especially Nicholas Hoult as the maniacal Nux. 

The film's wildest character, however, is one that never utters a word: The Doof Warrior (played by Australian singer / songwriter Iota), a War Boy who, as Immortan Joe is chasing Furiosa, stands perched on an over-sized vehicle, performing rock music as flames shoot from his guitar! The Doof Warrior steals damn near every scene, providing Joe and his troops with their own soundtrack as they speed through the desert. In a movie filled with awesome characters, the Doof Warrior is the most fascinating of them all.

As with the previous movies, George Miller and his team create a convincing post-apocalyptic world for Mad Max: Fury Road (Immortan Joe’s headquarters, with its poverty-stricken minions and man-made waterfall, is damn cool). More than anything, though, Mad Max: Fury Road is a high-octane action film, with one amazing sequence after another. As with Mad Max and its sequels, director Miller used practical effects - as opposed to CGI - for the majority of the chase scenes, giving them a realistic feel while at the same time ratcheting the tension up as high as it will go. 

It’s damned difficult to pick a single moment from Mad Max: Fury Road that's my “favorite”, but if I had to choose one, it would be the sand storm. I was so wowed by this sequence that I had to immediately watch it again. As good as the action scenes are in the series’ other entries, Mad Max: Fury Road may actually have them beat.

Hands down, Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the decade's best action films. After nearly thirty years, “Mad” Max Rockatansky hasn’t lost his edge.

Nor, for that matter, has George Miller.

Monday, September 21, 2015

#1,862. Mission to Mir (1997)

Directed By: Ivan Galin

Starring: August Schellenberg

Tag line: "After decades of rivalry, the world's two greatest powers have discovered the value of friendship"

Trivia: For this movie, Imax trained eight astronauts to operate the IMAX camera, with each astronaut receiving a total of 25 hours of training

I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when the very notion that the United States and Russia would work together on anything was too ridiculous for words. By that point, the two countries had been natural enemies for decades, fighting a Cold War against one another that seemed to have no end in sight. Then the world changed, and these two super powers started to trust one another again. Mission to Mir, a 1997 IMAX-produced documentary, takes us aboard the Space station Mir (which is Russian for “peace”) to show us what’s possible when people who were once adversaries suddenly become friends.

Mission to Mir follows American astronaut Shannon Lucid during her record-breaking stay on the Mir Station, a place she called home for 188 days (from March 22 to Sept. 26, 1996). Working closely with her Russian peers, she performs a number of experiments, all designed to help us better understand how man might react to an extended stay in outer space. In addition, Mission to Mir gives us a brief history lesson on both the Russian and U.S. space programs, with clips of Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 orbit of the earth as well as the U.S. moon landing, Now, after years of working against one another, each nation is relying on the other to help mankind learn a bit more about the cosmos.

Like many of the IMAX space documentaries, Mission to Mir features impressive imagery (a brief shot of the station in orbit high above the earth is simply astounding). But the visuals you’ll remember after seeing this movie are of a more earth-bound nature, such as watching kids sled down a hill in Star City, Russia, where many of the current Cosmonauts reside. Thirty years ago, a simple scene like this would have been labeled “classified” and shoved into a Government file. The two countries still have their issues, of course, but the fact that we can all see this footage now is a testament to how far the U.S. and Russian governments have progressed.

And it’s this spirit of togetherness that Mission to Mir captures so wonderfully.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

#1,861. Fantasm (1976) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Richard Franklin (as Richard Bruce)

Starring: John Bluthal, John Holmes, Uschi Digard, Candy Samples

Tag line for U.S. DVD release: "The Sin-sational Cult Film Classic!"

Trivia: This movie was refused a UK cinema certificate in 1977 and only passed the following year after heavy BBFC cuts

In its opening scene, Fantasm, a 1976 Australian sex comedy directed by Richard Franklin (using the pseudonym Richard Bruce), lays its cards on the table. A naked woman, lying in bed, gently puts her finger in her mouth, then moistens her nipple (shown in close-up). Her self-exploration intensifies as the title screen and credits play; by the time we get to the writer and executive producers, her hand has moved further down her body.

More than a good way to grab an audience's attention, this intro features the first bit of nudity in a movie chock full of naked flesh - of both the male and female varieties - that stars some of the biggest names in ‘70s porn.

Hosted by Professor Jungenot A. Freud (John Bluthal), Fantasm plays out across ten segments, each focusing on the sexual fantasies of women. From the everyday to the taboo, each of these fantasies are acted out for us. Among the ladies whose innermost desires are revealed are Abigail (Dee Dee Levitt), a woman who longs to be pampered by the guys that work at her local hair boutique; Gabrielle (Gretchen Rudolph), a lonely housewife who longs to experience sex as a man; and Francine (Mara Lutra), a heterosexual who fantasizes about being seduced by a buxom brunette (Uschi Digard).

In between each segment, Professor Freud offers his personal insights, insisting at every turn that an active imagination is a vital component in developing a healthy sex life.

Despite a brief appearance by legendary porn star John Holmes (who, along with Maria Welton, takes part in a fruit fetish fantasy), Fantasm is a strictly soft-core affair. That said, it does cross into dark territory from time to time, with fantasies that include rape (titled Nightmare Alley, this sequence has Rene Bond being dragged into a gym and sexually assaulted by boxer Al Williams, at first forcibly, then as a willing participant), incest (a mother, played by Candy Samples, bathes her son whose just come home from war, then has him return the favor), and sex in a church (actress Serena is raped on an alter by Clement von Franckenstein, portraying a Satanic priest). But there's always John Bluthal’s Professor, with his philosophies and the odd pun, doing his best to keep the proceedings as lighthearted as possible.

More subdued than The ABC’s Of Love and Sex Australia Style, Fantasm is an entertaining '70s film that is of its era, and should be taken as such. Some modern-day viewers will undoubtedly be offended (the rape fantasy is especially troubling, and was difficult to sit through), but the film was meant to be provocative and, yes, shocking.

And it is both.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

#1,860. The Getting of Wisdom (1978) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Bruce Beresford

Starring: Julia Blake, Dorothy Bradley, Kay Eklund

Tag line: "From Henry Handel Richardson's immortal best seller"

Trivia: Approximately six thousand girls were auditioned to play the parts of the turn-of-the-century college school girls in this film

Set in turn-of-the-century Australia, The Getting of Wisdom introduces us to 15-year-old Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susanna Fowle), who, despite her rural upbringing, is sent to an upper-class boarding school just outside Melbourne.

Once there, the other girls, including Lilith (Kim Deacon), Kate (Kerry Armstrong), and Maria (Sigrid Thornton), tease Laura incessantly, making fun of both her name (they call her “Tweedledum”) and her dress, which her mother (Kay Eklund) made for her. At first, Laura doesn’t let their insults bother her. But before long she’s trying to impress her classmates by claiming that she and the handsome Rev. Shepherd (John Waters) are having an affair (which is a lie).

Still, despite her ups and downs, Laura always finds solace in her music (she’s a self-trained pianist), and strikes up a friendship with fellow musician Evelyn (Hilary Ryan), who teaches young Laura a good many things, including what it feels like to fall in love.

Based on a 1910 novel of the same name written by Henry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom relates the trials and tribulations of a country girl thrust into upper-class society. A free spirit who loves classic literature, Laura initially ignores the taunts of her classmates, but soon gives in to peer pressure, even going so far as join the others when they tease the school’s next-newest arrival, a girl they nickname “Chinky” (Alix Longman).

Interestingly enough, Laura’s self-confidence, which was formidable when she first arrived at the school, begins to wane once she is accepted into the fold.

Susanna Fowle excels as Laura, conveying the character’s strengths as well as her insecurities, and even though The Getting of Wisdom marked her screen debut, Ms. Fowle does more than hold her own with her more experienced cast mates; she outshines them at every turn.

A fan of the book (he supposedly read it when he was a teenager), director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies) does a fine job bringing this story to the screen, crafting a motion picture that is a beautiful period piece (the costumes and sets are top-notch) as well as an engaging coming of age tale, featuring a main character, and a young performer, you won’t soon forget.

Friday, September 18, 2015

#1,859. Long Weekend (1978) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Colin Eggleston

Starring: John Hargreaves, Briony Behets, Mike McEwen

Tag line: "Their crime was against nature...Nature found them guilty"

Trivia: Not all the financing for this picture had been completed and finalized when principal photography started on this movie

From classics (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) to more recent offerings (All is Lost), the battle between Man and Nature has been explored on-screen in a variety of movies. Long Weekend, a 1977 Australian film directed by Colin Eggleston, takes things one step further by showing us what happens when nature gets pissed off.

In an effort to rejuvinate their crumbling marriage, Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets) head to a secluded beach, where they will spend the holiday weekend camping and relaxing in the sun. Unfortunately, the two just don’t get along, and often take their frustrations out on the natural world, leaving their trash lying around and killing a number of woodland creatures.

And nature is about to fight back!

Peter's and Mary's ignorant behavior begins well before they arrive at the campsite. While driving, Peter tosses a cigarette out the window, inadvertently kicking off a small brush fire. Then, a few more miles down the road, he runs over a kangaroo. Things continue to go downhill once they reach their destination. After setting up their tent, Peter grabs an axe and starts cutting down a tree. When Marcia asks why he’s doing it, Peter replies “Why not?

But nature isn’t about to take this lying down. Peter, at one point, is attacked by an eagle looking for its egg (Marcia had found it earlier), yet this pales in comparison to what happens when Peter shoots a sea cow, which had been swimming nearby (initially, he mistook it for a shark or some other predator. In a well-orchestrated, tense build-up, however,  which stretches over a number of scenes, the sea cow proves plenty threatening enough!).

Playing a couple of jerks, both leads deliver exceptional performances. Behets' Marcia is downright belligerent through most of the film, shouting insults at her husband and complaining about having to spend the weekend in a tent, while Hargreaves' Peter, who claims to be an outdoorsman, has no respect for nature. Strolling along the beach, he tosses his empty beer bottles into the water, then shoots at them with his rifle. There wasn’t a single moment in Long Weekend where I was pulling for these two.

The closing scenes wrap the story up perfectly, and are disturbing, to say the least. A moment when Marcia drives off on her own is harrowing. But even at this late stage, we’re rooting for nature to win out in the end.

And it’s obvious the filmmakers felt the exact same way.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

#1,858. The Horseman (2008) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Steven Kastrissios

Starring: Peter Marshall, Caroline Marohasy, Brad McMurray

Tag line: "He has some questions"

Trivia: To help raise finance for the production, a short film was shot of the opening scene. The short film went on to win Best Independent Drama (10-30mins) at the 2006 Queensland New Filmmaker Awards

When I first read the synopsis for The Horseman, it sounded a lot like the 1979 Paul Schrader-directed film Hardcore, in which a deeply religious Midwesterner (played by George C. Scott) receives a pornographic videotape starring his missing daughter, then travels to New York City to find her.

But after watching a few minutes of this 2008 Aussie film, I knew it was going to be a much different movie. Whereas Hardcore was ultimately about a father trying to bring his child home, The Horseman is a brutal motion picture featuring a grieving dad who, while searching for the truth, takes revenge on everyone responsible for his daughter’s demise.

After discovering that his runaway daughter Jesse (Hannah Levien) died of a drug overdose, Christian Forteski (Peter Marshall) receives an anonymous package in the mail, inside of which is a video containing a pornographic movie. To his horror, the “star” of the picture is Jesse, who, in an obvious drug-induced state, has sex with a trio of men.

Putting two and two together, Christian realizes Jesse died the very day she appeared in the film. In an effort to find out what happened, he hits the road, visiting those involved with the making of this video, and exacting his own brand of bloody justice on each and every one of them.

During his travels, he picks up a hitchhiker, an 18-year-old girl named Alice (Caroline Marohasy), who has also run away from home. Hoping to save her from a fate similar to Jesse’s, Christian offers Alice some fatherly advice, all the while making sure she has no idea what he’s up to.

Yet, despite his best intentions, Christian’s unednding thirst for vengeance eventually puts both he and Alice in harm’s way.

Peter Marshall delivers a searing performance as Christian, a man whose grief over his daughter’s death is matched only by his hatred for those who took advantage of her. In one key scene, he tracks down the video’s producer, Finn (Jack Henry), who he ties to a chair, demanding that he reveal the names of the actors in his movie. When Finn, who also works as a boxing promoter, refuses, Christian pulls the man’s pants down and, with the help of a bicycle pump, “convinces” him to start talking.

That is an uncomfortable scene, yet isn’t nearly as violent as some of Christian’s other encounters. One poor guy, who he had knocked out, wakes to find a few fishing hooks attached to a very tender part of his anatomy. In contrast, the sequences where he’s with Alice show us a different side of Christian, that of a father figure trying to help his young companion, and it’s to Marshall’s credit that he’s just as believable in these more tender scenes as when he’s beating the hell out of someone.

Apart from the strong performance turned in by its lead, The Horseman features a decent supporting cast and a wrinkle or two in its story that’s sure to take you by surprise. That said, I have to warn you that it is also an incredibly violent film. I cringed more than once watching Christian exact his revenge (though he himself is the victim of what, to me, is the movie’s single most upsetting moment of brutality).

I do recommend The Horseman. It’s a well-made, highly-engaging motion picture. But if torture and copious amounts of blood aren’t for you, you’ll be better off passing on it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

#1,857. Breathe (2011)

Directed By: Martin Khodabakhshian

Starring: William Trubridge

Tag line: "300 Feet. One Breath. No Second Chances"

Trivia: This film's subject, William Trubridge, currently holds 15 separate Free Diving world records

Breathe, a 2011 documentary directed by Martin Khodabakhshian (a 9-time Emmy Award-winning producer for cable network ESPN), follows Free Diving world record holder William Trubridge as he attempts to do something nobody has ever done before: dive to a depth of 300 feet (92 meters) with no equipment, and on a single breath of air. The setting for this historic attempt is the Bahamas, more specifically an area known as Dean’s Blue Hole, a deep cavern situated smack-dab in the middle of a picturesque bay. This hole, which plunges to a depth of 663 feet (202 Meters), is where Trubridge spends a fair portion of his time training (he and his wife live in the Bahamas), and he even hosts a Free Diving competition, known as Vertical Blue, that brings dozens of the world’s most conditioned athletes to the Hole each and every year. Breathe tags along with Trubridge as he trains for his big dive, revealing how he prepares himself, both physically and mentally, for a feat that may ultimately cost him his life.

Even more interesting than the dive itself is the man at the center of it all, and it’s the attention it pays to William Trubridge that makes Breathe as engaging as it is. In what might be the movie’s most fascinating scene, Trubridge reveals his secret for staying under water for long periods of time, explaining how he uses both his lungs and his diaphragm to take in air (when his lungs are full, he forces himself to “swallow” air, claiming the process allows him to pull in an additional half-gallon of oxygen). Yet even with his extensive training, there’s no guarantee Trubridge will survive each new attempt, a reality that weighs heavy on the minds of those closest to him (both his wife and father are interviewed during the course of the film, and talk of how they fear for his safety each time he goes down). As to why he does it, not even Trubridge can answer that question (when asked by the director why he takes such risks, the famed diver silently peers off into the distance).

Bolstered by its stunning underwater photography and Khodabakhshian’s unique visual style (which involves lots of slow-motion), Breathe is a captivating, beautiful documentary. But as aesthetically pleasing as the movie is, and as dramatic as its final scenes are, it’s the time it spends with Trubridge that makes Breathe such a rewarding experience.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#1,856. Skyscraper Symphony (1929)

Directed By: Robert Florey

Trivia: Impressed with how Manhattan looked at sunrise, director Florey shot this movie over three mornings

Odds are a few of you have never heard of Robert Florey, though you’re probably familiar with at least some of his work. Having grown up in Paris down the road from the famous studio of Georges Méliès, he eventually moved to America, where he wrote several books on Hollywood (one of which, Filmland, was a best seller in his native France). After serving as an assistant to filmmakers like King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg, Florey himself became a director (he was initially going to helm 1931’s Frankenstein, but was instead assigned to Murders in the Rue Morgue). Eventually, he made his way to television, directing episodes of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In 1929, around the time he was co-directing (with Joseph Santley) the Marx Brothers in their debut feature, The Cocoanuts, Florey took a stroll around Manhattan at sunrise, and was impressed by what he saw. So, over the course of three mornings, he shot Skyscraper Symphony, a 9-minute short that featured a number of New York’s tallest buildings.

The movie starts off quietly enough, with a minute or so of static shots. Then, all of a sudden, the camera starts to move, panning up and down, twisting and turning towards and away from the various structures. In fact, some of the shots in this middle sequence are downright jarring (at one point, the picture spins in several directions, and there are a number of sudden cuts). Things do calm down a bit by the finale, and we close on a shot of a crane, which is busy constructing yet another giant building.

Skyscraper Symphony played in art house theaters for a short while, and is considered an early example of Avant Garde cinema (for decades, the movie was believed lost until a copy was found in 1990, in, of all places, the film archives of the former Soviet Union). But in my opinion, it isn’t so much a cinematic revolution as it is a filmmaker exercising his creativity, hitting the streets of New York and showing us what he believed was worth seeing. Forget cast, crew, sets and props; Skyscraper Symphony is one man with a camera, proving that art isn’t always done by committee.

Monday, September 14, 2015

#1,855. Containment (2015)

Directed By: Neil Mcenery-West

Starring: Louise Brealey, Lee Ross, Sheila Reid

Tag line: "No water. No power. No explanation. No escape"

Trivia: This movie won the Accession Award at the 2015 East End Film Festival

Mark (Lee Ross), a struggling artist, wakes one morning to find the front door of his apartment sealed shut. But he’s not the only one trapped inside; his entire building has been locked down, as has the complex directly across the way. The plot thickens when a truck pulls up carrying several people in orange Hazmat suits. Soon after, the intercom system in Mark’s flat starts broadcasting a recorded message, telling him to sit tight and remain calm. Hoping to find a way out, Sergei (Andrew Leung), who lives with his younger brother Nicu (Gabriel Senior) in the apartment next door to Mark's, knocks a hole through Mark’s wall. Believing that strength in numbers might give them an advantage, Sergei breaks through a few more walls, allowing the elderly Enid (Sheila Reid) and young couple Aiden (William Postlethwaite) and Sally (Louise Brealey) to join their group. Together, Mark and his new friends try their best to escape, all the while wondering why they’ve been cut off from the outside world.

Directed by Neil Mcenery-West, 2015’s Containment kicks things off with a perplexing mystery (why is everyone being quarantined?), which grows even more puzzling as the movie wears on. Peering out the window, Mark, Sergei, and the others watch as the authorities round up residents from the building across from theirs, who are then led into a makeshift hospital tent. Yet, despite the fact they’re entirely in the dark as to what’s going on, the newly-acquainted neighbors soon know what they're up against when a young man, before entering the tent, makes a break for it, only to be gunned down by a sniper positioned on the roof. At that moment, the main characters (as well as the audience) realize that whatever is happening is pretty damn serious.

Without going too deeply into spoilers, Mark and the others do manage to uncover the truth, at which point they themselves must go on the defensive, running from their fellow residents, who also want answers. All at once, what had been an intriguing mystery becomes an effective thriller, with the main characters fighting for their very lives against an angry mob. A taut, suspenseful film that features some exceptional performances (Ross does a fine job as the lead, though it’s Reid as the outspoken Enid who steals the show), Containment will, from start to finish, have you on the edge of your seat.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

#1,854. The Canal (2014)

Directed By: Ivan Kavanagh

Starring: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra

Tag line: "Fear will pull you under"

Trivia: Included among the crime scene photos used for a scene in this film is one of the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate

As a mystery, 2014’s The Canal doesn’t work. Odds are you will figure out what’s really going on by the midway point. What the movie is, though, is an effective ghost story, one certain to send a few shivers running up your spine.

Five years have passed since film archivist David Williams (Rupert Evans) and his beautiful wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) moved into their dream home. It was while cataloging some old police footage that David made a startling discovery: in 1902, his house was the scene of a grisly murder, committed by a man whose wife was cheating on him. 

This revelation hits David hard, especially since he believes Alice has also been unfaithful, and is romantically involved with her co-worker, Alex (Carl Shaaban). Tormented and needing to know the truth, David leaves their young son Billy (Calum Heath) in the care of his nanny (Kelly Byrne) and follows Alice. To his horror, his suspicions are confirmed, but things take a turn for the worse when Alice doesn’t return home that night...

Several days later, the authorities pull Alice’s lifeless body from a canal that runs through their neighborhood. Aside from dealing with his own grief and that of his young son, the now-widowed David is hounded by police detective McNamera (Steve Oram), who accuses him of murdering his wife. 

But David is convinced the ghost of the killer who once resided in his house is the guilty party, and with the help of his co-worker Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and an old-time movie camera, he intends to prove his theory. Did a ghost really murder Alice, or is David losing his mind?

Rupert Evans delivers a heartbreaking performance as the sensitive David, and because he is such a likeable guy, we feel his pain when he discovers his wife has been seeing another man. But David is also a strong-willed investigator, and believing the ghosts of the past are responsible for Alice’s death, he delves into the history of his house and its former occupants. 

Naturally, nobody believes him, so he tries to prove that the spirit of a century-old murderer does, in fact, exist, and it’s in these scenes that The Canal truly excels. With the help of a silent movie camera, David shoots the interior of his house, and the developed film reveals a ghostly presence lurking in the corner of nearly every room. Yet as chilling as these images are, the movie’s most effective scene has David shooting a roll of film by the side of the canal, resulting in a sequence that, though clearly inspired by The Ring, will creep the hell out of you.

It borrows heavily from other movies (aside from The Ring, there are also nods to The Shining), and anyone with a basic knowledge of horror movies (or thrillers in general) will see the ending coming from a mile away. Still, The Canal is an entertaining picture while it lasts, and even if the finale is a disappointment, the ride to get there can be pretty damn intense.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

#1,853. Lost After Dark (2014)

Directed By: Ian Kessner

Starring: Sarah Fisher, Mark Wiebe, Jesse Camacho

Tag line: "And you thought the '80s were dead ..."

Line from the film: "I don't want to be eaten by a cannonball!"

An homage to the slasher films of yesteryear, Director Ian Kessner’s Lost After Dark might not by the most convincing ‘80s throwback you’ll ever see, but when all is said and done it’s not a bad little horror movie.

It’s 1984, and a group of friends have arranged to meet up at their school’s Spring Ball. But they have no intention of staying long; hopping aboard a school bus hot-wired by Tobe (Jesse Camacho), the teens head into the woods of Michigan, where they will spend the night at a hunting cabin belonging to the family of straight-A student Adrienne (Kendra Leigh Timmins), who is hoping for some alone time with star football player Sean (Justin Kelly). 

Their road trip comes to an abrupt end, however, when the bus runs out of gas, stranding the group - which includes Adrienne’s best friend, Jamie (Elise Gatien); high-school sweethearts Johnnie (Alexander Calvert) and Heather (Lanie McAuley); ladies’ man Wesley (Stephan James); and bad girl Marilyn (Eve Harlow) - in the middle of nowhere. 

Adding to their problems is the school’s vice-principal, Mr. C (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), who saw them drive away in the stolen bus. After a brief talk with Adrienne’s father (David Lipper), Mr. C figures out exactly where the "thieves" are going, and follows them.

As for the teens, they find shelter in a seemingly abandoned house, and decide to spend the night there. But this isn’t just any old house; it’s the family home of the Joads, a clan of cannibals who were gunned down by police decades earlier. 

Unfortunately for the seven friends, Junior Joad (Mark Wiebe) survived the ordeal, and has been hiding out for years, snacking on stray hikers and vagrants who wander too close to his abode. It isn’t long before Junior starts picking the teens off one by one, but will he manage to kill them all before the remaining few fight back?

From its stereotypical characters (who make one dumb decision after another) to its insane killer, Lost After Dark definitely gives off an ‘80s vibe, which only gets stronger when the blood starts flowing (one kill in particular is a clear nod to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie). And while the film does have an artificially grainy look (complete with scratches and blemishes), Kessner thankfully kept the manufactured defects to a minimum (though he does utilize the “Missing Reel” gag, a la Grindhouse, where we supposedly miss some of the action because a reel of film was damaged beyond repair. Not only did this gimmick take me out of the movie momentarily, but from the looks of it, not a whole lot happened in that missing reel, leaving me to conclude that, if a reel was missing, the film was better off without it).

There are even occasional winks to the audience, especially with regards to ‘80s pop culture; during the bus ride, one character attempts to solve a Rubik’s cube, which, out of frustration, she eventually chucks out the window. But for the most part, Lost After Dark plays it pretty straight, resulting in some genuinely tense moments.

Those with fond recollections of the 1980’s will surely get a kick out of Lost After Dark. And while its appeal among the younger crowd might be more limited, I’d still recommend it for everyone. Yes, Lost After Dark is a throwback to a bygone era, but it also shows why so many of us still love the films of that time period.

Friday, September 11, 2015

#1,852. Wild Australia: The Edge (1996)

Directed By: John Weiley

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Mark Baker, Hayley Pero

Trivia: In 1998, The Australasian Performing Rights Association awarded this film for its musical score

Dedicated to the pioneer Bushwalkers of New South Wales who saved this place, and opened out eyes to the wild beauty of the world”.

The above dedication opens 1996’s Wild Australia: The Edge, an IMAX documentary that focuses on the continent’s Blue Mountain region, an area that, despite residing directly next door to the bustling metropolis of Sydney, is still as it was millions of years ago (“When the Grand Canyon was a shallow creek”, the film informs us, “these valleys looked much as they do today”). Narrated by Hugo Weaving, Wild Australia: The Edge takes us deep inside this beautiful region (a good portion of which was declared a National Park by the Australian government), revealing its wonders as well as its dangers, and shedding light on a discovery that has shocked researchers and conservationists the world over.

Much like Australia: Land Beyond Time, Wild Australia: The Edge takes full advantage of the IMAX format to present some breathtaking visuals (in a sequence that must have looked amazing on the big screen, the camera seemingly floats along a river, then glides over the edge of a waterfall, peering down as it does so). What makes it all the more impressive is that the Blue Mountains (which, incidentally, were also used as a key setting in the 1987 adventure / drama Initiation) are a natural time capsule, a look at a corner of the world as it existed before man was so much as a gleam in Mother Earth’s eye. In what is arguably the movie’s most dramatic moment, we follow a pair of explorers into an ancient cave system, where, with a reverence one would normally reserve for a church gathering, we're treated to formations that haven’t changed since the days of the dinosaurs. It is truly a sight to behold.

But even at this juncture of the movie, the best is yet to come. Late in Wild Australia: The Edge, the filmmakers are taken via helicopter (with blindfolds over their eyes) to an area that contains the Blue Mountains’ most prized possessions: Wollemi Pine Trees. Thought to have been extinct for the past 65 million years, these trees have survived is this region for a very long time, and conservationists, fearing what might happen if their location is revealed, work tirelessly to prevent the whereabouts of these ancient conifers from becoming known. At the time this documentary was made, these Wollemi Pines were a fairly new discovery; an adventurer named David Noble found them, quite accidentally, in 1994 (“It was about as likely as finding a dinosaur wandering through the forest”, says Weaving), and the inclusion of these prehistoric trees further drives home the fact that the Blue Mountains are one of the earth’s most remarkable regions (the cameras were even there to capture something that, in all likelihood, has never been seen before: a young pine cone, hanging from a branch in one of the trees, releases its spores into the air).

As you might expect, Wild Australia: The Edge adopts a pro-conservation stance that’s prevalent throughout the entire film; early on, we’re told that, at one point, there was a species of trees native to these mountains that stood over 435 feet (133 meters) tall. We know how big they were because they were measured by the men who cut them down. Though not subtle, such a position, especially with regards to this unique area, is certainly warranted, and I, along with everyone else, hope the Blue Mountains remain as they are for many, many years to come.