Cinema review: Strangerland - a perfectly serviceable dose of Outback gothica
Strangerland Cert: 15A
Reviewed this week are Strangerland, Trumbo, Point Break, Dad's Army and Goosebumps.
Few landscapes brew an ambience of warped unease quite like Australia. Way before Wolf Creek (2005) or Bad Boy Bubby (1993) creeped us out in the Outback, Ted Kotcheff's Wake In Fright (1971) held a disturbing mirror up to rural Down Under, while Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout banished us on an unnerving dream quest the very same year.
That sense of arid weirdness is alive and well under director Kim Farrant who, along with writers Fiona Seres and Irishman Michael Kinirons, make a strong case for safe suburban mundanity.
Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes are Catherine and Matthew Parker, whose ailing marriage is kicked while it's down after their teenage son and waifish daughter go missing in mysterious circumstances. Dust storms, local delinquents and small-town gossip offer no help to their search and the investigations of noble local cop David (Hugo Weaving). That said, there are things unspoken by the couple that suggest they may not be helping themselves either. All the while, the uncompromising desert environment has a stopwatch on the youngsters' dwindling survival odds.
Award-winning Kerry cinematographer PJ Dillon understands the terrain's role in all this but also that of the kitchen sink and hall door. Between its creeping tempo, eerie imagery and committed performances (Kidman excels), Strangerland is a perfectly serviceable dose of Outback gothica. Unfortunately, there are moments in the third act where it flirts with all-out silliness and nearly derails because of it. 3 Stars
In selected cinemas
Cinephiles will know of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who refused to be bullied by hysterical anti-communist paranoia during Tinseltown’s heyday. In 1947, Trumbo was vilified after refusing to co-operate with a committee of the US House of Representatives that believed the big screen was being used as a propaganda tool by nasty commies.
Despite being one of the industry’s most bankable talents, Trumbo did a spell in jail before being blacklisted due to his ties with the US Communist Party (leftist capitalists or champagne socialists, take your pick). Shunned by studio associates, he kept writing under a pseudonym, nabbing Oscars for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) that he was unable to collect in person.
Like Adam McKay (The Big Short), Jay Roach is a film-maker of comedic leanings (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents etc) who finds himself courting awards nods via a foray into fact-based drama. Most of Trumbo’s accolades, however, are for acting (Bryan Cranston, above, as the titular scribe and family man, Helen Mirren as journalist/nemesis Hedda Hopper), which is an indicator of its shortcomings elsewhere.
Trumbo doesn’t tap into the sense of the era ruthlessly enough. It’s too innocuously lit and putters along inoffensively. Cranston is fine, and as an example of a functional, breezy biopic, it rates highly. Just don’t expect to be swept off your feet by intrigue, pizazz or resonance. 3 Stars
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 Point Break film fell into the category of crappy-but-classic.
Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze swaggered on surf and land, FBI agent vs bank robber wafting testosterone and adrenaline at each other. It was all very macho and watchable and must have made an impression on Ericson Core who has remade it for a new generation.
This time Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey) is a freestyle motocross star who joins the FBI and whilst on probation sees a link between daring heists that take place in Mumbai and Mexico. Suggesting that the heists are not only linked but part of the legendary eco-daredevil event series the Ozaki Eight, Utah predicts that the next one will take place in the south of France and in order to check it out he is plopped under the wing of nonplussed agent Angelo Pappas (Ray Winstone).
Some daredeviling later and Utah has infiltrated the gang of extreme-sport eco-warriors he believes responsible for the heists. Whilst some of the minions have doubts, gang leader Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez) accepts that Utah shares their values and pretty much straight off includes him on their missions. Fortunately, as well as moto-cross and turbo surfing, Utah is a
dab hand at base-jumping, sheer-face snowboarding, wingsuit flying and free climbing. So it works out great, especially with a bit of romance in the shapely form of Samsara (Teresa Palmer).
Director Core worked on camera for films like Fast and Furious and what he learned there is evident in this Point Break. It looks spectacular, the sports and stunts, all done by champions in each field, are well-devised and well shot. But the story is weak, the characters underwritten and if they aren’t that pushed about their own mortality, we sure are not. Ridiculous but spectacular. 1 Star
Dad’s Army, the TV show, ran from 1968 until 1977 and has inspired a love so enduring that re-runs can get as many as three million viewers. Scenes from it make comedy top ten lists and the cast were household names to several generations. It is presumably mostly to these adoring fans that Oliver Parker’s film is pitched because otherwise its raison d’etre is not immediately apparent. The star-studded cast and nostalgia factor make it sweet, but are not enough to make it great.
The film opens in 1944 and the Home Guard stationed in Walmington-on-Sea are about to be called on to play a pivotal role in D-Day. Made up of the too old and too dim they practise assiduously but are widely ridiculed as having no purpose. This then will be their chance to shine. It will be a chance to shine in a national light too for Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has appeared to write about them in The Lady magazine.
Winters’ appearance coincides with the announcement that there is a German spy in the area and whilst the audience makes the connection quickly, the Home Guard do not. They are too taken-up with impressing the glamorous Miss Winters and assuaging the jealousy of their determinedly dowdy women folk.
What made the comedy work on a level beyond its apparent simplicity forty years ago was a very British kind of class-based identity search that is not as relevant today.
There are echoes of it in the film but mostly the comedy trades on slapstick, farce, misunderstandings and double entendres of the jam roly-poly, slipping-her-a-sausage variety. Toby Jones (above) does a really nice job of capturing without imitating Arthur Lowe’s famous creation, Capt Mainwaring, the bank manager who wanted to matter. The cast includes
well-known faces like Bill Nighy playing Bill Nighy aka Sgt Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Corp Jones and Michael Gambon has fun as the very geriatric Pvt. Godfrey. CZJ sizzles away dutifully and the paternity mystery of Pvt. Pike (Blake ‘Inbetweeners’ Harrison) is solved. However, the laughs are sporadic and while it is sweet and has nostalgia value, it’s not totally clear why. 2 Stars
The Goosebumps kids’ horror novels have sold eye-watering figures and spawned all manner of spin-offs and TV shows, making its creator RL Stine a terrifyingly rich man in the process. US box office reports so far of this big budget feature film extravaganza suggest the zeal of his followers is undiminished.
With little involvement here, bar legal consent and a brief cameo, it’s good to see Stine is able to laugh at himself. Rob Letterman’s film sees Jack Black play a kind of pantomime version of the author, twitching the curtains with paranoia lest new neighbour Zach (Dylan Minnette) discover his secret. Zach’s eye has been caught by Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) and before you can say “teenage hormones”, he’s stumbled upon a wall of the author’s horror books, each locked to keep the monsters within confined.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski conspire to have the ghouls released upon US suburbia. Zach, Hannah, Stine and goofy sidekick Champ (Ryan Lee) dash about, trying to avoid death-by-monster as well as find a way to contain the terror tropes (werewolves, zombies, mummies etc).
You’d have to be a real killjoy not to find fun in Goosebumps, between its galloping pace and carnival-esque approach to the horror genre. Some of it is perhaps too scary for very young viewers, but for pre-teens it provides a novel primer for the genre. 3 Stars
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