Oculus: quite a frightful sight (in a good way)!

oculus movie Putting my head above the parapet to share some quick reflections on Oculus, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan’s superb horror flick from last year worth looking into.

As the puns suggest, it is about a mirror. A haunted mirror. It is no laughing matter.

Dr Who‘s Karen Gillan and Aussie Brenton Thwaites play Kaylie and Tim, reunited after Tim’s got out of a psych clinic years after a horrific incident of apparent domestic abuse.

The movie cleverly merges that past trauma, with young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan giving wonderful performances, with the present as the nature of the mirror is revealed.

Illusion, obsession and confusion reign. Horror results.

Do not watch this movie if you’re feeling down.

Unlike this year’s similar and, indeed, similarly superb, Aussie effort Babadook, there’s precious little hope or light to be found here — it is perhaps my only quibble, from a thematic basis. But the narrative plays out truthfully and unapologetically.

I loved the quiet, building dread of this movie (enhanced by its subtle score), and the brilliant editing as timelines meet — no cheap, screaming string section; no gotcha! jump cuts.

The relationship between brother and sister is well drawn, their actions and reactions believable and intelligent. And by the end of the movie, boy, did Kirstyn and I hate that mirror.

Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff is also among the cast, but in this instance, it’s a case of no cigar for her character.

It’s great to see some clever, psychologically astute horror films around. Another recent viewing was this year’s Irish movie The Canal; alas, it didn’t hold together as tightly as the two mentioned above, and was soundly let down by its bob-each-way ending. Worth a look, though — there’s a public toilet that Candyman would be proud of.


Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V: all class

bell shakespeare henry vBell Shakespeare played Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s last night with Henry V, and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. A play within a play, both ring true: it’s an absolute triumph for the creative team, headed by director Damien Ryan, with an ingenious set built by Malthouse Theatre.

The stage is set in a London classroom during the Blitz, 525 years to the day after the battle of Agincourt, where a teacher distracts those sheltering from an air raid with an improvised performance of Henry V. But first, there’s a quick grounding in the history leading up to the English king’s ascension with some help from the blackboard and others of Shakespeare’s tales: clever.

The set — three bookshelves, a ladder and assorted odds and sods, such as cricket bats, a mop, and crowns and dresses made of newspaper, and smart use of the play itself in book form — proves versatile and evocative, backlit with bomb flashes seen through shattered windows.

The play within a play is a superb device, as the actors portray the makeshift cast — primarily students — putting on Henry V, yet being pulled out of the play by events in their world: the mirroring, the splicing, are brilliantly handled. Ghosts and a downed German pilot, his parachute become part of the set, are just some of the echoes that enrich the drama.

Lighting is superb, and the sound is also well crafted, balancing Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ against Henry’s ‘we few’, putting the actors to work on percussion and choir, and signalling the transitions between Blitz and Shakespeare with bombs, planes and sirens.
bell shakespeare henry v
The actors do a great job of handling this meta performance, with all bar Henry (Michael Sheasby) handling multiple Shakespearean roles as well as their 1940 characters.

As Kirstyn noted afterwards, it also allowed the performance to skip scenes, with the understanding that they have been played as the crew while away their terrible night, finding comfort and distraction in the Bard.

And the ending, with only ghosts remaining … a song and that feeling of futility evoke memories of that final ‘God Bless America’ of the Deer Hunter.

In much the same way as 1984, played at the same venue earlier this year, struck a chord with the dangerous, hypocritical idiocy the Abbott government is inflicting on this country, so Henry V has provided a counterpoint to any jingoistic overtones of the 100th anniversary of World War I. None of which is to question or belittle the valour of those on the ground, but rather, the original impetus for the conflicts: the reason for the rattling sabres to be drawn, and the consequences that last long after they are cleaned and sheathed.

The play is touring until 15 November: catch it if you can.

These Final Hours: time well spent

these final hours movie posterThese Final Hours is what it says: the last hours of Earth, burning to ash as a planet-killing meteorite does the business — the science feels a bit dodgy, but the story is superb.

In the tradition of On the Beach, this beaut Aussie flick traces how James (Nathan Phillips), who admits, finally, that he’s made a few bad choices — hence the prison tats, the wake of disappointment he trails after him — chooses to while away his last moments. Among the options are with his girlfriend at the beach, waiting for the end; with his other girlfriend at a killer party; or less likely, with his sister and her family, or with his mother. Others have chosen different courses: suicide, violence, hedonism, and desperate survival tactics such as wrapping a house in aluminium foil or digging bunkers.

James is en route to party away his fears when he chances upon, amid the anarchy, a young girl in need of help — for once, he makes the right decision. Rose (a delightful Angourie Rice) brings with her conscience and a sense of sacrifice — yes, this road movie is about redemption and finding a sense of self-worth where perhaps there was none. Rather than wanting to numb himself to the pain of that last moment — that last realisation — of mortality, James is given the option of embracing it, and being a better person for it.

There’s a sepia tone, a summer heat, infusing the film, and the soundtrack is well crafted — a jazz number out on the farm, dance for the pool party at the end of the world, and nothing anywhere else but the natural sounds of the world ending. The absence of music adds to the atmosphere and enhances the attempts to drown out reality.

There’s a voice on the radio counting down the hours as the planet boils and James dashes from one event to the next, meeting himself everywhere he goes, with the perceptive Rose riding shotgun.

There is a wonderful conversation between James and his mother that says so much without having to say much at all; the reactions of the characters not only to the apocalypse but to James are convincing and telling.

Written and directed by Zak Hilditch, it’s a relatively minimalist movie, intensely focused, offering tension and pathos in equal measure. As one of James’s girlfriends, Zoe (Jessica De Gouw), says at one point: it’s beautiful.

  • Check it out at the These Final Hours website.


  • Cherry Bomb: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ pop

    cherry bomb by jenny valentishHa! See what I did there? Doesn’t matter, I’m sure Nina Dall would still roll her eyes at such a naff header (and damn you, unsmart quotes).The fact remains, her ‘autobiography’ makes for a compelling read.

    Nina Dall is one half of punk-pop duo The Dolls, the other half held down by her somewhat more brightly clad cousin, Rose. Their rise to fame from suburban Sydney pub band to international touring act is the subject of Cherry Bomb (Allen & Unwin), as told by Jenny Valentish.

    Claim to fame: I worked with Jenny when I pulled a stint at J Mag, and she now holds the fort at Time Off in Melbourne. She’s been interviewing musos since she was 16, and has knocked around in front of a few Marshall amps in her time as well. All that experience is put to good use in Cherry Bomb, where the world of the band on the rise is brought to realistic life — ambition, stress, creativity, publicity. Sex. Drugs. Spats.

    The story is told in Nina’s first-person point of view, in retrospect, so she can throw in the occasional tease about something that was to happen, or a dollop of background, or an aside. Sometimes those little asides break the flow, especially early on when they pop up in the middle of dialogue and a dinosaur like me has to go back to remember what the conversation was about. But mostly, it works — Nina’s voice is engaging and authentic, her vocab showing she’s not as dumb as everyone thinks.

    Sure, she’s got issues. Both the cousins do. Family secrets and questions of self-esteem run thick and acidic through their co-dependency, but maybe that’s what makes them a winning team, even if maybe you don’t want to share a taxi with them.

    Circling the pair is their aunt, a faded rock star who offers an in to the industry when they need it, and the producers and love interests and hangers-on all looking for their cut.

    I got a chuckle that Jenny was able to take her love of utes and country music muster experiences, as outlined on one of her blogs, and put it to good use here.

    Jenny’s got a great turn of phrase and an eye for detail that inform Nina’s observations.

    I pictured Kane’s wife as nagging him frequently, in a dithery voice. She’d be wearing one of those satiny dresses that women buy in provincial boutiques, with the pattern of a seventies casino carpet. Thin blonde hair, spindly wrists. You couldn’t even hate her.

    The text is broken up with artefacts: a faux review of Nina’s parents’ separation; record reviews; lists. It gives Cherry Bomb almost a scrapbook feel. Each chapter — check the heads for song titles — is introduced by a salient quote from aunty Alannah’s autobiography Pour Me Another. They make you want to read that book.

    australian women writers challenge logoIn the back, Jenny provides a soundtrack for each chapter. And yep, Cherry Bomb is in there. It’s no surprise the Runaways are mentioned, either, although now I’m doubting myself for thinking Kristen Stewart did a job in the movie. Damn you, Jenny, and your acerbic ways!

    This book — Jenny’s first fiction title — totally rocks. Read it loud!

  • Jenny is appearing at Bendigo Writers Festival August 8-10.
     

  • More reviews linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge
     

  • Only Lovers Left Alive: pollution is a real pain in the neck, yeah


    only lovers left aliveJim Jarmusch takes the long, slow road to a vampire movie aimed squarely at what happens when you use up resources, but yet, there will still be music.

    Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) features Eve (Tilda Swinton), well read and generally wonderful, reconnecting with her significant other, Adam (Tom Hiddleston). She travels from Tangier, leaving behind good old mate Christopher Marlowe — played with the usual aplomb by John Hurt — to Detroit, where the collapse and abandonment mirrors Adam’s depression. Adam’s a muso of modest but enduring renown, and things are looking all right for the reunited lovers until Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up to rock the boat with her over-eager, insatiable consumerism.

    Because things are already tense for the children of the night, with the blood supply as tainted as the environment. Resources are getting scarce. The good stuff is in demand. And the food chain, and decency, are such fragile things.

    It’s a slow-burner, shot almost doco style as Adam and Eve drive through derelict suburbs, living their lives in splendid and not-so-splendid isolation.

    The vampire culture is wonderfully (under)drawn, with its own peccadilloes and gentle in-joke references. Living in the shadows, observers trying to find safe ways to interact, to leave a mark, however anonymously … the settings mirror the desolation, even Tangier — necessarily by night — an empty place where people offer only what is not needed. And the leads capture the mood perfectly. Swinton’s nuanced performance is a delight, and Hiddleston has the disaffected rock star air down pat.

    It’s crafty, too, how at least one certain prop never gets to satisfy the Chekhov law, although perhaps that’s a Jarmusch law. Along with the music, of course.

    As the predators prowl the decaying streets, the message is there in the coyote howls: nature will have its way, so we’d better look after it.

    Neil Jordan’s Byzantium: delicious!

    byzantium, vampire movie posterNeil Jordan made Tom Cruise look good in Interview with the Vampire, but Byzantium is even better.

    Saoirse Ronan chews up the celluloid as a 16-year-old vampire, on the run with lusty Gemma Arterton, who looks in her period flashbacks as though she just stepped out of a classic Hammer Horror movie (and indeed, there’s a nod to Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness in the film).

    Writer Moira Buffini has delivered a script that these two actors totally inhabit, Ronan with subtlety and tender beauty, Arterton a force majeure of hedonistic pragmatism. The familial relationship between the two, of freedom vs control, change vs habit, of nurture and protection, is a joy to watch as Ronan’s Eleanor stretches her 200-year-old adolescent wings.

    In the background is the threat of a patriarchal order who don’t like women rocking their boat, with events set in motion by Johnny Lee Miller as bounder and cad, and Sam Riley as an understated hero-figure.

    The casting is superb, the sets suitably atmospheric, and there are nods to vampire forerunners in Ruthven and Carmilla. The vampirism here is well drawn and consistent, drawing on a Caribbean version called a soucriant (read more in this excellent New York Times review).

    The story is kept simple and is simply told, set to a soundtrack of classical and folk songs, and gorgeously presented by Jordan and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, allowing us to bask in the beauty: to sink in its warmth like Bathory into a bath.

    Definitely in my list of the best vampire movies.


    Intruder: a dog can be a girl’s best friend

    Intruder by Chris BongersBrisbane writer Chris Bongers has the knack of keeping it down to earth, even when it’s something as horrifying as waking to find a home invader in your room.

    In Intruder (Random House), Bongers uses the terrifying incident to unveil and transform the secluded life of 14-year-old Kat.

    Kat lives at home with her piano-playing, bakery-working father, with both of them haunted by the death of her mother.

    The shadow of the child welfare department hangs over them after an earlier incident, and next door lurks the ‘witch’, the best friend of her mother who has given Kat reason to distrust her.

    The intruder is a catalyst for Kat to examine her family and her beliefs and to take charge of a life lived on autopilot. Along the way, she finds new allies: a good-looking lad at the dog park, and her new defender, an ugly but endearing mutt called Hercules.

    Bongers does a wonderful job of bringing her characters to life with all their foibles; her descriptions of Herc and his interaction with Kat are priceless.

    There’s a lot of charm in this yarn, mixing humour and tension in a believable scenario that unearths home truths and serves up a warning about the dangers of jumping to conclusions. It also contains a message of the power of family and trust to overcome even the most dire of situations.

    Kat and dog might not be superheroes, but they make a winning pair.


    australian women writers challenge logoThis is the fourth of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. signed on for four, but it’s only June, so let’s push on and see what else I come across …
    Previous reviews:

  • The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres