Australia is the perfect place to set a good mystery, there’s just this inherently unexplored magnitude of desolation, otherworldly geological splendour and ghostly vastness to the landscape, an advantage that director John Connolly seizes with The Dry, an absolutely sensational noir singed thriller starring Eric Bana in a galvanizing comeback of sorts, or at least in my eyes I feel like I haven’t seen the dude in a while and he comes roaring back into play here. Based on the novel by Jane Harper, Bana plays Melbourne detective Aaron Falk, who returns home to Kiewarra, the outback bush-town he grew up in after the family of a childhood friend is found brutally murdered, including a young child. He initially only plans to stay for the funeral but the moment he arrives, the entire suppressed collective memory of the townsfolk dredges back up to the surface and before you know it old grudges are stirred and painful memories of the unsolved murder of a teenage girl from their past come back to haunt them, especially Aaron who was unofficially implicated as a teen. As if all this isn’t stressful enough already, the region is also going through an apocalyptic drought that makes the threat of wildfire an ever present source of anxiety and causes threatening, Mordor-esque flares of fiery colour on the horizon. The film expertly meanders through a narrative that feels languid and as slow paced as the sun etching across the desert horizon and as brittle, succinct and unforgiving as the landscape. We weave back and forth between hazily recollected flashbacks to the teenage years of this group, jigsawed together with laser precision and tethered to the present day investigation that bit by bit, conversation by conversation, memory by memory, yields truth to both mysteries. The eventual resolutions to both threads are shocking, cathartic, operatic and intensely emotional experiences impeccably acted by the entire cast, beautifully and eerily scored by Peter Raeburn (check out his amazing musical work in this year’s Amazon Prime show Tell Me Your Secrets as well) and given the evocative atmospheric boost of the ever present Australian wilderness enveloping everything. Great film.
I love a great horror anthology, and while Shudder’s new original Deadhouse Dark may not be a great one it’s certainly a good one and definitely worth checking out, if it doesn’t become your thing then hey, at least the six modest episodes all clock in at under fifteen minutes for you rambunctious kids in the aisle. There’s something so delicious about the concept of anthology: each chapter is a new story, a new setting and a new narrative to devour, you get to check in with previous ones if there’s connective tissue or thematic resonance that bridges them and it all feels very… ‘fun’, in the best possible way. This is an Australian produced series and the stories vary greatly, from two sisters having a bloody encounter on the way home from a Halloween tailgate party all captured on their dash-cam to an elderly gentleman contending with a fearsome rodent problem in his home to a teenage athlete going that extra dangerous mile to win to an underground bunker with a horrific being lurking inside to a terminally ill hoarder with more than just stockpiled junk hiding in her house. They’re somewhat connected by a mysterious woman in an opulently decorated, Kubrickian mansion who receives strange boxes from the dark-web, each with a clue to a story we’ve seen unfold. I would have liked more cohesion and development in this segment because I wasn’t clear just how her presence or actions were the lynchpin of all these happenings, even though it felt like the show was assuredly trying to convince me of the fact. But how? And why? Ambiguity is welcome but I felt the need to know more, or to absorb what was there with more clarity, but it’s a relatively small quibble. The show has some fantastically creepy moments that range from jump scares to terrific suspense to leering monsters both seen and unseen to well orchestrated moments of encroaching dread. It’s well worth a look, the entire miniseries only takes up about an hour and a half of your time and can be binged swiftly on the greatest streaming app currently serving the population, Shudder.
Why do people repress memories and bury trauma only to have it resurface in a big way later in life? Often life events can be so painful that in the moment that is the only way to carry on until we are older and perhaps ready to process them better. Michael Petroni’s Till Human Voices Wake Us explores these feelings in deeply poetic, dreamlike and underrated yet very affecting fashion.
Guy Pearce is Sam, a Melbourne psychologist who travels back to his roots in rural Australia to bury his father, and a few other things from his past. We see flashbacks to his childhood (his teenage self played by the very talented Lindley Joiner) and his days spent with childhood sweetheart Sylvie (Brooke Harman) who tragically passed away when they were both very young. This key event has shaped who Sam is as an adult now and he is disarmed and unprepared for the flood of memory, emotion and unresolved pain that accompanies his return home. On top of that he meets a mysterious amnesiac woman named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) who can’t remember who she is and needs his help.
The title of the film as well as many plot and thematic elements are based upon a poem by T.S. Eliot, particularly this passage:
“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
This excerpt and the overall poem are like a compass to the heart of what this story is about, it’s poetic in itself and speckled with clues here and there although to a seasoned filmgoer the story and twist ending won’t be especially difficult to discern, but like they say it’s about the journey. Pearce is an endlessly mesmerizing actor who only lends himself to challenging, distinct projects and he turns in a heartbreaking, implosive and eventually very cathartic turn here as a man who has done his best to avoid emotion for years until he can ignore the past no longer. Carter is sensational too, her dreamy meanderings slowly giving way to realization, she has the deep set eyes and features to pull of the most ethereal, mysterious characters. They have wonderful chemistry together too, as do Joiner and Harman. This is a quiet, slowly unfolding piece that requires your patience, understanding and diligent attention as it has no intent to crowd please, cloy or beg for cheaply elicited tears. Intensely moving romance, gorgeous Australian scenery and four rich, deep central performances from Pearce, Carter and the two kids. Highly recommended and available on Amazon Prime in HD.
Young Bruce Hunt loved movies and blowing things up. This love, and learning the basics of the craft from film magazines of the period, would firmly cement in his mind the path on which he would travel. As it was said in a film that Bruce would later work on, “Fate it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” a teenage Bruce would encounter Academy Award winning special-effects artist Dennis Muren in a cafe in London.
It was Muren that would advise the dreamer to seek out an effects house in his native Australia for possible future employment and, after art school, that is what the talented Mr. Hunt would do. Working with small production houses on commercials his work would soon catch the eye of the founder of one of these companies, a man named Andrew Mason. It would be Mason, producing a film directed by Alex Proyas called Dark City, that would call on Hunt to bring his passion, and by then, professional eye for effects photography to his first big screen gig.
Work on another big flick would follow, as Mason would again tap Bruce and bring him to work on the Wachowski’s cinematic masterpiece The Matrix. There would be work on the film’s sequels before, at last, Bruce would sit in the director’s chair for The Cave, an adventure in deep terror. He would emerge from the darkness to work on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia only to descend again soon after for Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t be afraid of the Dark.
Through it all his love of the movies continues to drive him and, as you will hear, he has plans to get his visions back on that big screen, just as soon as he can. It was great to sit down with Bruce. Not only is he a filmmaker I admire, but it was great to just talk about movies with him.
If you don’t know his work then now is the time to check it out. But, if you already have and you’re a fan like me – then kick back and enjoy.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my good mate . . . Bruce Hunt
Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne is as haunting as motion pictures get, and hasn’t left my thoughts since I saw it in a small independently run cinema some ten years ago. When a film is set in Australia, you know right of the bat it’s going to have an eerie, striking story to tell. It’s a vast, lonely place in areas, full of secrets and unexplored areas. Gabriel Byrne finds himself in a tricky situation of his own doing, playing an Irishman living in a small, isolated fishing village deep in the mountains. While on an expedition with his mates, he comes across something harrowing along a desolate stretch of river: the body of a murdered aboriginal girl. Here’s where he makes a fatal mistake.. instead of reporting it instantly, he continues over the weekend with his trip, waits until he’s back in town and then notifies the authorities, leaving her right there in the water. Once the details emerge, this causes a royal nightmare of controversy, racial tension and upset, including his wife (Laura Linney) who is horrified by the borderline inaction on his part. Was he wrong? Definitely. These snap decisions during times of great stress are common though, reactionary function not always falling into the place of logic, resulting in a mess such as this. Now as you can tell by my review, most of the film focuses on his actions and their repercussions, not so much on who killed the girl, or why. We see her in an unnerving prologue on some faraway highway, lured to a rest stop by a mysterious trucker, and then we see her alive no more. The trucker appears again throughout the film on the fringes of the main story, but never are we given clarification or catharsis to the murder side of the plot. That to me is an ultimate mood setter and thorn in the side of resolution. The cumulative result of her being found is simply an unrest hanging over the region like a blanket of uncertainty, matters only clouded further by Byrne and the storm he created by not acting right off the bat. Uncomfortable viewing, but beautifully made and not a film one soon forgets after viewing.
Wake In Fright is like one of those clammy nightmares where you are stuck in some godawful place full of ugliness and depravity, and try as you might, you simply can’t escape or outrun the horror around you. Such is the plight of John (Gary Bond) a schoolteacher in a desolate county of the Australian outback, on his way to Sydney for a little R&R on winter break. His journey takes him to a pit stop in Bundanyabba, an ass backwards mining town in the middle of the middle of nowhere. He stops by the bar, where the leathery sheriff (Chips Rafferty) offers to buy him a beer. And another. And another. And another. You see, the Yabba is such an isolated doldrum of a place that it’s inhabitants resort to extreme alcoholism on a daily and nightly basis, which combined with their sun baked brains leads to some harrowing displays of excessive and whacked out behaviour, that poor John comes face to face with. It’s funny that his last name is Bond, because he has the air of sophistication akin to our dear old 007, and it clashes with these yowling yokels like baking soda and petrified vinegar. His composure starts to creak as each pint of lager cascades it’s way down his esophagus, until the line between civilization and primal Instinct starts to scare him. But is it too late by then? He somewhat befriends Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) a raging drunkard who hangs around with a group who do nothing but drink, howl like lunatics, fight and hunt kangaroos. Pleasence is transfixing as a once cultured man of medicine whose soul has been drenched in the endless consumption of beer and calcified by the mad, acrid sun, until the whites of his eyes begin to reveal the decay beneath. The scenes of alcohol drinking in this film are staggering, frequent and very, very disturbing. The lonliness has bred this behaviour and these people know nothing else but inebriation and idle time wasting, their lives reduced to one long episodic bout of day drinking and nocturnal revelry. John veers eerily close to falling directly in line with them and going to far down that path, especially during a nighttime kangaroo hunt that serves as some perverted form of an initiation ritual. I must warn you: not only are the hunting scenes very, very graphic, but they’re completely un-staged. The adage “it’s just a movie” doesn’t apply to these sequences, and the carnage we see unfold is horrifying geniune. The hunts were supervised by the Australian government and conducted in an overpopulated area by experts. None of that makes them any easier to watch. This film serves as an anthropological treatise on what happens to human beings who live in the farthest and most remote corners of the world, left to their own devices by seclusion and time, relegated to near animalistic states that to them is just another day in the Yabba. Billed as a horror film, but the horror comes solely from the human elements, which to me is always far scarier. Deliverence ain’t got nothing on this baby, and we’re lucky we even got to see it at all. Some years after the film’s bitterly received release (Australians were pissed at the depiction of their people, and probably stung deep by the truth of it) it disappeared so far into obscurity that all prints seemed to be gone, and the consensus was that it was lost forever. One day the editor was cleaning his garage on the very day he was going to liquidate everything he didn’t need, and found a single print. This was nearly twenty years after the film’s release, and today you can watch it on netflix Canada. Quite the story, quite the film. Just strap on a thick skin, it’s a sweaty, dusty, boozy rollercoaster that dips to the very rock bottom of the human condition.
Before Russell Crowe blew up big time in North America, he did a few peculiar little flicks in his homeland of Australia. A couple rowdy gang stories popped up, and then he appeared in a little seen film called The Silver Stallion, or The Silver Brumby, which means horse in down-under-talk. Horse flicks are a dime a dozen and can go either way, usually pinning their focus on a target audience of adolescent viewers. This one is more of a visual tone poem than any sort of grand planned narrative, letting the horses do most of the emoting and character work, with the humans showing up now and again to provide their side of the story. An Australian mother (Caroline Goodall) tells her daughter (Amiel Daemien) tales of the prince of the brumbies, a member of a feral tribe of horses who has been separated from his heard and must find a way back. A relentless outback Man (Crowe) is dead set on both capturing and taming the silver Brumby, a quest which leads him to the very precipice of desperation. The horse traverses mountains, plains and many acres of beautiful northern Australian countryside to reunite with his clan. The scenes with just horses are amazing when one considers just how tough it must have been to coherently get them all together and have them interact according to the shots which the filmmakers needed to get. Quite the achievment indeed. The cinematography is pure misty magic, with both animal and nature alike providing some truly unforgettable images onscreen. Crowe is excellent, with a wild glint in his eye, quite committed to the character. There’s an overarching and altogether mythic tone to this film that always left me in awe when I saw it as a youngster. One gets the sense of true lore unfolding in front of us, the camera and script creating a piece of celluloid that’s purely entrenched in Australian storytelling, bringing it alive in the most visually impressive way possible. Very much worth your time, if you can track down a copy.
Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out. At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos.
A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.
What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one.