Animal Kingdom (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
J (James Frecheville) passively watched his mother die from heroin overdose. He didn’t know what to pay attention to: the program being broadcast on television or his mother’s last attempts for air. Still under eighteen years old, he felt like he had no choice but to contact his grandmother Janine (Jackie Weaver) because he didn’t know what to with his mother’s corpse. J was reluctant to seek help because his mother did not want anything to do with her siblings (Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford) because she knew of their criminal activities. “Animal Kingdom” was an involving thriller because we were asked to empathize with a minor who had no idea what he was getting himself into. A family is supposed to be a group of people that we can go to and seek comfort but his family is not like our families. They sold drugs for a living and whoever got in the way had to die. Holding a gun to someone’s head was as familiar as offering a helping hand. J living in the Cody household was an uncomfortable experience at best. His uncles had an almost incestuous relationship with their mother. When J’s girlfriend was over, one of the uncles eyed her up and down like a vulture, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. J acknowledged that fear was always in the air but he didn’t know what everyone was afraid of. Were they afraid to get caught by the police? Were they afraid of each other? Perhaps it was both. There was no room for laughter or a harmless joke because the uncles had such volatile personalities. The audiences were like a person tied to a chair and we just waited for them to explode. As the innocent and the guilty dropped like flies, sometimes for no good reason, desperation challenged the characters to reevaluate their loyalties. Enter Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), a cop who saw J as an innocent. He believed J could be saved by putting his family behind bars. Leckie convinced J that he could offer protection but the promise didn’t last for long. Someone had deep connections in the force. Written and directed by David Michôd, “Animal Kingdom” was an Australian thriller of the highest caliber because it was able to draw us in and play with our expectations. Just like animals, especially those that lived in the deepest oceans, the harmless-looking characters ended up the most venomous. Stripped of gangster glamour and incendiary Tarantino-esque dialogue, Michôd made an argument that when crime is added in the equation, like animals in the jungle, people will do absolutely anything to survive. Is there crime in that?
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, this Australian zombie horror-comedy plays more like a science fiction movie more than anything. Rene (Felicity Mason) goes into a farmhouse to escape the zombies that were chasing her after a meteor shower. In the farmhouse, she meets a few others (Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dirk Hunter, Emma Randall) and they must figure out what is happening in the town while trying not to get eaten by the zombies. I didn’t enjoy this movie at all due to a number of things. The characters kept asking, “What were THOSE things? Why are they trying to eat us? Are they dead?” as if they’ve never seen a zombie movie before. Moreover, the characters are very one-dimensional. It would have been so much better if the cops were the cowards and the regular folks would have been the leaders. Taking some of those obvious elements and putting them upside down would have given the illusion that the directors were trying to make a better movie. For a horror picture, this is very light on the scary factor. The zombies are slow enough but did the characters have to be slow as well (mentally and physically)? None of them had actual survival skills and I wouldn’t buy for a second that they would survive if there were real zombies running around. If I see a zombie trying to get to me to eat my brains, I would run so fast, I wouldn’t even think about silly things like leaving something behind. The stupid characters were good at three things: screaming, yelling at each other, and asking redundant questions. Lastly, I’m very frustrated with the fact that there were actual aliens in this movie. It was so random and everything was spelled out for us in the end: why there were zombies and why the aliens decided to visit our planet. What made other zombie flicks so successful (1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and “28 Days Later”) was the fact that there were questions left unanswered. Even if they were answered, those films left a possibility that the truth lies beyond the given explanation. Overall, “Undead” was a random mess of a movie. It is far from creative and it didn’t have enough enthusiasm to keep my attention. I thought “Zombieland” was far scarier and that was a comedy. That should give you an idea with how lackluster this movie truly is.
Road Games (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stacy Keach plays a truck driver who likes to play games on the road with his dingo companion in order to eliminate some of the boredom of long drives across Australia. After hearing about a serial killer on the loose who cuts up and disposes bodies all over the place, Keach begins to suspect a man who drives a green vehicle. Since the two stopped in the same area for the night, Keach sees the mysterious potential killer watching the garbage being collected very early in the morning. (As his dog sniffs the garbage bag of interest in an attempt to get food.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the hitchhiker who Keach picks up and who is eventually taken by the killer. I’ve read from other reviews that Richard Franklin, the director, was a very big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan myself, watching this movie was that much more fun for me because I actively looked for certain shots and twists in the story that could reference to Hitchcock’s works. But even if one is not familiar with Hitchcock’s movies, one could still enjoy this psychological thriller because of the suspenseful false alarms and eventual real dangers that the characters had to face. I thought “Roadgames” was very different from other movies about killers on the road (especially American movies of the same set-up). Franklin took the time to establish Keach and Curtis’ characters before really getting into the scares. They talked and formed a genuine connection, so when the two were finally on the killer’s tracks, we couldn’t help but care and wonder whether they really were on the right track and whether or not they would eventually get caught. My favorite scene was when Keach investigated the number of meat in the back of his truck. That scene was done so well because at first I had no idea what he was thinking. But when I finally caught up on why he was so worried, I was so disturbed and I could remember saying out loud that he should get out of the truck as soon as possible. My heart raced so fast because the camera just lingered there as if something was about to go seriously wrong. The scene after that was also very impressive–very Hitchcockian–the way the character got into his own head and trying to persuade himself that everything was alright (which, of course, was not the case). “Roadgames” is now considered a cult classic cat-and-mouse movie and I believe it still holds up today. I wish more people would see this because it did many things that were so unexpected. Instead of simplifying things for the audience, it actually tried to outsmart us which I found to be very refreshing even though it was released back in 1981.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I like to think of myself as an adventurous moviegoer so I’m on the constant lookout for movies that are vastly different from the mainstream. I’ve heard of the term “exploitation film” before (mainly from Quentin Tarantino because his movies often reference to that genre) but I never really knew what it really meant until I saw this film and did a bit of research about it. I really loved this documentary because I really learned a lot from it. I had no idea that Australia released all these cult classics, some of which have never been released in America. The way Australians made and released these daring movies in the 1970s and 1980s was so refreshing because nowadays, especially here in the United States, those kinds of movies are not made anymore. Once in a blue moon an exploitation flick (or a flick inspired from such like “Wolf Creek”) would be made but it was always under the radar no matter how good or bad it was. Speaking of good and bad, another thing that I loved about this documentary was it put the spotlight on good and bad movies alike and the people being interviewed explained why they thought a particular movie was good or bad (or sometimes even both). It fascinated me and I literally made a list of the movies wanted to check out. Some of them include “Mad Max” (1979), “Turkey Shoot” (1982), “Fairgame” (1985), “Dark Age” (1987), “Next of Kin” (1982), “Long Weekend” (1979), “Road Games” (1981), “Patrick” (1978), and others. The documentary, written and directed by Mark Hartley, was divided into several sections which started from movies about sex and nudity and ended with movies about car crashes and extreme violence. While it did cover a plethora of disparate motion pictures, I was also very impressed with the fact that it found enough time to discuss censorship (or lack thereof) in the era of Ozploitation. I wish this movement would repeat itself here in America because I’m starting to get sick of Hollywood trash being released in theaters weekly. Some days, I just want to see intense car chases with no real story but has a great sense of dialogue (like “Death Proof”) or even a movie about science gone wrong with buckets of blood on the side. Nowadays it’s all about the box office and watching this film really made me feel like the filmmakers wanted to make movies just because they were in love with the process–a reason why some of these exploitation films are so randomly original. I was so excited about the content of this movie, I decided to added some movies on my Netflix (the ones available in America anyway). I just want to see something so risqué and possibly something I can love and recommend to my friends when we don’t feel like going out and spending money.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Australia” focuses on the adventures among an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman), a drover (Hugh Jackman) and a half-white/half-Aborigine (Brandon Walters) before and during World War II. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”), this epic tale is visually astonishing despite some flaws that keep it from becoming a great motion picture. I prefer the first half a bit more than the second half because it’s not afraid to be silly yet it can be so suspenseful to the point where I found myself squirming in my seat, desperately hoping that things will turn out well for the characters in danger. The second half is more about the romance between the elegant Kidman and the rugged Jackman. Although I did enjoy watching their chemistry build the more they interact with each other, there were some parts that I wish would’ve been omitted because it got redundant. I also liked scenes when the Japanese dropped the bombs because, from that moment on, I didn’t know which direction it was going to take. Despite the pandemonium being portrayed on screen, it didn’t become a war movie but instead highlighted the human aspect of the story. I divide the film into two halves because they felt so different compared to each other. I did enjoy both but the second half is a bit weaker than the first. When I look at this film as a whole, I can honestly say that it’s been quite a journey because of how much the characters have changed, especially Kidman’s. In the first few scenes she reminded me of a cold porcelain doll but by the end, I felt like she was a genuinely nurturing mother. I also liked the fact that the issue of racial relations were explored in multiple dimensions. Not for a second did I feel that it was heavy-handed or too syrupy. I read a review that the magical aspects of the film dragged it down considerably. I completely disagree because the belief in magic is embedded in the Aboriginal culture. I think it works here–if not literally then symbolically. I also enjoyed the constant allusion to “The Wizard of Oz.” Both share similar themes such as going on an actual journey that parallels an emotional journey. I was pleasantly surprised with this film because of all the mediocre reviews it received. There really are a plethora of things to see here such as the wildly entertaining stampede scene. Definitely check this one out if you’re remotely curious or enjoy epic movies.