Tag Archives: outback

True History of the Kelly Gang

1 May

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’: In the outback for a bloody, convoluted crime tale, clad in tulle

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Director Justin Kurzel jazzed up “Macbeth” in 2015, but that endeavor felt too overstylized to bear the bite of the Bard. Reteaming with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard a year later, Kurzel found a better fit for his arthouse violence with the big-screen adaptation of the video game “Assassin’s Creed.” Now Kurzel enshrines Australia’s version of Billy the Kid – Ned Kelly – in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” In past variations the notorious outlaw was played by icons Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003). Here it’s George MacKay (“1917”) in a shag mullet; like its predecessors, the take on Kelly by Kurzel is an alluring, muddled meander punctuated with madness, mayhem and tedious backstory.

The film, based on an award-winning 2000 novel by Peter Carey that played it loose with facts (“Nothing about this is true,” reads an opening overlay) the film is broken up into chapters: “Boy,” “Man,” “Monitor.” In “Boy” we get the lay of the land in two quick shakes as the young Ned (an angelic and androgynous Orlando Schwerdt) drinks in the sight of his mother (Essie Davis, Kurzel’s wife and the star of “The Babadook,” giving a fierce, compelling turn here) performing fellatio in a grimy barn on an expectant officer (Charlie Hunnam). Ned’s cuckold pa (Ben Corbett) who likes to dress in ladies wear, pulls the boy from the sight. Kurzel’s outback, like Jennifer Kent’s Tasmanian territory in “The Nightingale” (2019), is a grim, sexually charged place where violence seems on the edge of erupting in every frame.

Eventually Ned comes under the tutelage of Harry Power (a gruff, effective Russell Crowe), a notorious outback criminal – known as a bushranger, the equivalent of Old West outlaws in the United States. It’s horse thievery that puts the Kellys at odds with Hunnam’s officer and later, and far more drastically, with a sadistic constable (Nicholas Hoult) named Fitzpatrick who ingratiates himself to Ned and the Kellys while quietly poisoning them.

The dance with the law is a dicey one, but ultimately Ned falls outside it and forms a brigade of foppish fancies (as Carey’s book has it) who take no issue in cutting down quarry in lipstick and tulle. As depicted, Ned’s both Robin Hood and cold killer; Kurzel clearly wants to romanticize Ned while bathing him stylistically in blood, scene after scene, which is where the film begins to lose its hold on Ned the human being, sliding into ritualized retaliatory strikes. Kurzel takes some chances with the soundtrack with its occasional infusion of modern rock, and with chaotic body cam POVs that disrupt the gorgeous framing of the lush yet spare outback by Ari Wegner (“In Fabric”). MacKay as Ned is starkly overshadowed by Davis’s fuck-all mother and Hoult’s cunning manipulator – the scene where the two confront each other in tight confines late in the film is a powder keg of tension. The nearly final chaotic shootout, like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with Ned and crew in metallic headgear made from farm plows, is done with gorgeously hallucinatory imagery rendered between bullet flashes and accentuated by a balletic rat-tat-tat. It’s one of the many alluring shards of the “Kelly Gang” that envelop the viewer for a moment, but never collectively get to the soul of the man at the epicenter.

The Nightingale

8 Aug

‘The Nightingale’: Stalking through outback, prisoner fights back against captor’s brutality

 

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Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her surprise indie horror hit, “The Babadook,” is something entirely different (from a mother and her child being stalked by an animated boogeyman), yet every bit as grim and harrowing – perhaps even more so, given that it plays along the lines of the historical. Set in the Tasmanian outback during the early 1800s, when it was still known as Van Diemen’s Land, “The Nightingale” is a power game-turned-thriller following Clare (Aisling Franciosi, who played Lyanna Stark in “Game of Thrones”), a young convict in a penal colony under the charge of a cruel British officer (Sam Claflin, who played Finnick Odair in “The Hunger Games”series).

Whatever the crime landing Clare on incarceration island, it’s not enough to merit the sadism of Hawkins, the man in charge. Initially he only makes Clare sing for him (thus the film’s title), but his demands become more invasive and physical. A flash retaliation by Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) launches a string of grim and mounting disciplinary retaliations that become so barbaric and graphic that the squeamish will likely need to avert their eyes or even take a loo break. (Folks walked out of the Sydney premiere in shock and beyond – feel free to Google it, but be warned that you’ll see some spoilers).

Clare and her husband have an infant daughter, so there’s more at stake than just dignity and doing your time. Not to tell too much, but Clare and Hawkins wind up in the wilderness stalking each other. Hawkins is joined by a small posse of equally malevolent underlings, while Clare follows a reluctant aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Bloody games ensue.

The arc of “The Nightingale” essentially follows a pat revenge narrative, but the innovative Kent once again shoots something masculine and familiar through a different lens. The relationship with Billy, steeped initially in racism (whites shoot indigenous people just for a sideways glance) and necessity (Europeans can’t get a few hundred yards without a guide) blossoms into something more universal and human, casting pleasant shades of Nicolas Roeg’s mesmerizing 1971 Outback drama “Walkabout.” Franciosi and Ganambarr, a dancer by trade, are superb. Claflin is equally compelling, given the merciless nature of his character – though we do learn that the entitled megalomaniac has been slow to rise in rank, a trigger for his fiendish behavior. Also a win for Kent: the lush framing by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk of angry, jagged edges of imperialism and oppression that slice into nearly every frame. Like John Hilcoat’s bleak thriller, “The Proposition” (2005, scripted by Nick Cave), “The Nightingale” is something of a western in which laws, lawlessness, a sense of humanity and amorality all fold in on each other to dark, despairing effect. Kent again conjures up something provocative, disturbing and quite hard to swallow.

The Films of Nicolas Roeg

10 Feb

Going Roeg: Seminal ’70s flicks pushing limits get mini-retrospective weekend at The Brattle

 

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The Brattle runs a short but potent program this weekend remembering the life and works of director Nicolas Roeg, who passed away in November. Roeg, best known for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) starring David Bowie as a stranded and vulnerable space alien, took flight first as a cinematographer and shot many of his own early works. His eye and keen framing are essential to the heightened mood and intrigue of many of the offerings appearing at the Brattle.

Of 16 films by Roeg, the Brattle will showcase three early works as well as Roger Corman’s 1964 cinematic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” starring Vincent Price as the lascivious and paranoid prince – Roeg provides the camera work. The three Roeg-helmed works on the slate: “Performance” (1970), “Walkabout” (1971) and “Don’t Look Now” (1973), a trio that could whimsically be classified as pop, peril and outré.

Bowie wasn’t the only rock star to work with Roeg; “Performance,” co-directed by the free-wheeling Donald Cammell (“Demon Seed”), starred Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as a reclusive rock star held up in a manse with his girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg) and a notorious gangster (James Fox). Hallucinogenic drug trips, mind games and identity swaps propel the psychedelic psychodrama – alluringly so, up to the gonzo, doesn’t-quite-make-sense-but-okay conclusion. Jagger’s role of Turner was based allegedly in part on recently deceased Rolling Stones founder and former Pallenberg lover, Brian Jones. Cammell, the son of a shipping family, painter and a notorious partier, came up with the conceit. Pallenberg at the time of the filming was dating Jagger’s bandmate, Keith Richards, who allegedly became so incensed by the love scene between Jagger and Pallenberg he refused to play on the soundtrack song “Memo from Turner,”which the Stones were set to record (slide guitar master Ry Cooder filled in).

“Walkabout” marks one of Roeg’s more complete and affecting films. It’s a more grounded and visceral affair than “Performance” and something of a massive changeup, as it tails a teenage girl and her younger brother (Jenny Agutter, who would go on to star in “Logan’s Run,” and Roeg’s son, Luc) lost in the Australian outback. Luckily they latch on to a young aborigine (David Gulpilil) on an ordained quest to achieve manhood. The suicide that precedes the desert stranding, the rife sexual tension between young man and ripening female who don’t speak the same language and the mirage-tinged imagery shot by Roeg present a perverse, primitive and poetic palette.

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With the death of Bernardo Bertolucci recently too, much has been made of that now infamous sex scene in “The Last Tango in Paris” (1972) for which the actress Maria Schneider said she was kept disturbingly in the dark. The other most-talked-about such scene of the early ’70s was in Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” when a grieving husband and wife (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) convene in a graphically filmed carnal connection that is at once erotically electric and deeply emotionally felt. The couple have come to Venice in part to recover from the haunting loss of their young daughter. Sutherland’s husband, an art historian on assignment, keeps seeing the image of his red-hooded daughter among the city’s misty canals and dark alleyways. There’s also a string of unsolved murders, and a blind woman keeps telling Christie’s character that she can put her in touch with her daughter. The psychodrama, tinged with beyond-the-grave intrigue, is based on the story by Daphne du Maurier, whose works “Rebecca” and “The Birds” inspired other movies. Sutherland and Christie deliver palpable and nuanced performances, and the imagery shot and assembled by Roeg bring the film to eerie and visceral heights.

Many of Roeg’s later films – none on the docket – that mostly starred his wife, Theresa Russell, were far less critically successful (“Eureka,” “Bad Timing” and “Track 29”), with the standout being “The Witches” (1990) aRoald Dahl adaptation starring Anjelica Huston as the covenant head. Roeg, as much as he tried, never really rediscovered his trippy and experimental roots, but the path he blazed remains riveting, bold and legendary.

The films run Friday to Saturday. For details and tickets, visit the Brattle’s redesigned website.

The Rover

21 Jun

‘The Rover’: Back in ‘Mad Max’ territory, Guy Pearce will kill to get his car back

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In a lawless, post-apocalyptic Australian outback, the remaining shards of humanity fight to survive, often coming into conflict over scarce resources. If that sounds a bit like “The Road Warrior,” it should, both in the coveted use of vehicles as an extension of one’s machismo and the dearth of precious petrol, but what transpires in “The Rover” is less baroque and more intimate and rooted in the now. In fact, it feels strangely more akin to John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition,” which took place nearly a century and a half ago, and fittingly enough the star of that macabre outback western, Guy Pearce, pops up here again, finding himself back in a vast deserted wasteland punctuated with sparse outposts of human occupation trying to cling to civility in an otherwise orderless nowhere.

062014i The RoverPearce plays the barely named Eric, an aloof loner with an ostensible military background. The film opens with the tacit protagonist making a pit stop at an isolated karaoke bar (which looks more like a grimy torture chamber from a “Saw” movie than a place of merriment) for some water and a bite when a speeding truck laden with unsavory lads crashes, and its occupants quickly disembark and carjack Eric’s sleek, lean coupe. That’s it – from there on out, Eric will stop at nothing to reclaim his car. It’s a straight-up one-noter like “Duel,” propelled by Eric’s simmering resolve and the ever pungent question as to what else has to be in that car to make Eric want it that bad.  Continue reading