Archive for August, 2011

10 Reasons We Love RED DOG

Posted: August 15, 2011 in movie reviews

RED DOG is already a phenomenon: both in Australian Box Office, but also in critical circles, and perhaps most revealingly, in terms of WOM (Word of Mouth): I personally have never seen a film so lauded on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Outside of its (obvious) filmmaking virtuosity, I offer Ten Reasons We Love Red Dog:

1) It’s About The Dog.

Unlike psudo Dog Movies like MARLEY AND ME, RED DOG is about The Dog. The romance between the two humans who have a romance is incidental. The Dog is the object of affection, for his Master, his Master’s Girlfriend, and the Entire Pilberra. While we visit all of the humans’ live, we see the entirety of what is known of Red Dog’s life.

2) We like the American Import.

Josh Lucas plays his role with humility. Frankly, he plays second fiddle to Koko / RED DOG (see item 1). We like him for that; we like him for the fact that we don’t really know who he is (so he doesn’t seem like casting for money’s sake) and we like him because, well… he’s just so damned likable. No reason to have anyone else in the role, no matter what the nationality.

3) Beer.

While the movie pretends that miners in the Pilberra didn’t swear like ******* troupers, it acknowledges that they drank like ******* miners. We quickly get over the (clever) way “swearing” is avoided, but if the film had suggested they didn’t drink, we would not have possibly believed anything about these men.

4) Tone.

RED DOG is a true story… according to legend. The way it’s told feels as authentic as a story told, re-told and re-told again… after a few beers (see item 3).

5) Miners.

We’ve seen the soldiers and the shearers, the horsemen and the hell-raisers, the cops and the criminals. But we all know that modern Australia’s economy was and is built on the back of the mines and the miners. RED DOG acknowledges them, lovingly.

6) We like dogs more than cats.

Risky move, making a cat the major villain of the film? Not according to RED DOG’s outstanding box office. We’ll see how it does in Britain.

7) Red.

We love our movies colourful. The fact that “Red Dog” is red may seem incidental to the huge success of the movie, but the overwhelming colour of the advertising campaign, the cinematography and Red Dog himself taps into a sense of colour that has allowed films such as STRICTLY BALLROOM, MURIAL’S WEDDING and CROCODILE DUNDEE be some of our most successful. We like our colours big and bold, and “red” is one of the biggest and boldest.

8) It’s kind of different.

For all its adherence to the tropes of a Dog Movie, there’s a whole lot of idiosyncratic elements in RED DOG, from its plotting (including the character arcs of some of the major humans) through to its visual storytelling and down to the isolated, intimate moments that fill out its story. What this adds up to is this: if someone says to someone “Mate, I don’t need to see another Dog Movie”, the other person can say “Well, this one is different”.

9) Darkness.

There’s none. There is emotional truth, and there are things that may (will!) make you cry, but there is nothing in the film to suggest the common (misconceived, but common) complaint that “Australian films are just too dark”. Likewise, there are no graffiti-filled alleyways, heroin use or prostitution (not that any of these are bad things to have in movies: they’re just not in RED DOG).

10) Joy. Heart. Love.

See items 1-7. There is so much joy, heart and love in this film that you kind of need to see it three times to catch them all. And they’re really all caught up in the magic smile Josh Lucas brings, when he looks at Red Dog (played by Koko, who deserves his own number). So:

11) Koko.

Enough said. Because, really, it’s all about Koko.

Animal Kingdoms

Posted: August 7, 2011 in movie reviews

Red Dog ****1/2

 

There are different ways a film can be A Classic. It can be perfectly crafted (“The Godfather”, “Citizen Kane”); it can be of the zeitgeist (“Easy Rider”, “Modern Times”) or it can demand a hugely emotional response (“ET”, “Breaking Away”.) “Red Dog” is an undeniable new Classic because, like those last two movies, it would be practically impossible – you may need to be a psychopath – to not be – very significantly – emotionally rewarded by it. It is warm, engaging, heartfelt, funny… but more than anything else it is incredibly moving. It is the best depiction of the astute relationship between humans and canines in a long while, and it immediately joins the cannon of great Dog Movies.

 

The fact that it’s essentially true – there’s some license there, but Red Dog existed and the film is faithful to his amazing life – only adds to the film’s wonder. Red Dog entered the lives of a disparate bunch of vagabonds and fortune hunters throughout the 1970s in the Pilberra region of West Australia, and, by all accounts, he touched these lonely men in a massive way. It’s a story of great importance to those of that region, and it’s an extremely Australian story: the combination of outback red dust, Aussie working-man mateship, and a dog that was at least half a very Aussie breed make this untranslatable to any other locale (which was mooted by some American financiers – to Texas! – to no avail thanks to the film’s producer, who might have been hung if he’d allowed Red Dog to go American).

 

It’s an unusual “family” film, in that drinking and drunkenness, pub brawling and the like are featured prominently – but that adds to the film’s authenticity, and, frankly, you couldn’t shoot this story without that element. When these guys weren’t working, they drank. Indeed, it’s really refreshing to see a family-friendly film that doesn’t pander to the concept of being completely vanilla (though I can’t recall a single “swear” word – and boy, the script that would have been if the film had gone down the “totally authentic language” route!)

 

Kriv Stenders, always a fascinating director, tells his story in an idiosyncratic fashion while simultaneously adhering to all the important tropes of a Classic Dog Movie. It’s a modern movie, with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”-style on-screen written identifications of the myriad characters, a small amount of (completely justified and very well used ) CGI, and full of offbeat, intimate moments that add to the overall texture. Suffice to say, the locations make for a visually stunning film (cinematography by Geoffrey Hall) and the soundtrack is full of period song richness supplemented by an excellent score by Cezary Skubiszewski. The cast play to the landscape’s largeness appropriately, with John Batchelor leading the huge and funny Aussie contingent, Arthur Angel beautifully playing the main narrator of the story (a money-chaser from Abruzzi), and Josh Lucas bringing a lovely and warm demeanor as John, a US adventurer who becomes Red Dog’s ultimate and only Master. To cement the film’s status as a new Aussie Classic, the late, great Bill Hunter makes sure to pop up for a single scene, which feels beautifully inevitable.

 

The film is not without a few flaws. Some of the dialogue verges on cliché, the two human “bad guys” are way over the top, and Rachel Taylor (already a Great Screen Beauty) seems to find it impossible to bring any authenticity to her – perhaps overly-contrived – role as, well, a Great Beauty who arrives in the Pilberra (essentially providing a love interest for John). But these are no match for the film’s absolutely massive heart. I was immensely moved by “Red Dog”, and I can’t picture a movie-goer who won’t be. It’s wonderful.

 

Rise of the Planet of The Apes ****

 

An animal movie as distant from “Red Dog” as an animal movie can be, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, a prequel to the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” (forty-three years later!), is an exciting, fun ride that also contains plenty of heart. With a lead motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, the scientific-experimentation ape who, aided by human-inflicted greater intelligence, leads an ape revolution, and excellent back-up from James Franco, John Lithgow and Tyler Labine (“Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil”), this very fast-paced and surprisingly adult film has a fresh, unexpected and exciting tone that perhaps reveals director Rupert Wyatt’s status as brand new to Hollywood (his only other directing credit of note – a good one – being the 2008 British film “The Escapist”). Serkis’ Caesar is yet another Great Leap Forward in the short history of motion-captured performances; this film actually was able to shoot the motion-capture performances on location with the other actors, so, for example, Serkis was actually on the same location with Franco at the same time, performing face-to-face. The story is a little predictable but it doesn’t matter, as it’s told so well. There are many, many scenes of absolutely stunning visual virtuosity (cinematography by the great Andrew Lesnie) and the apes are great. Like “Red Dog”, the film suffers from extremely one-dimensional villains (particularly Tom Felton, who flounders badly with an extremely stock “nasty young man”) and, annoyingly, it occasionally seriously undermines the interior logic it has taken such great pains to establish. It also (unlike “Red Dog”) seems obsessed with being accessible: there’s no true violence or bloodshed here: it has very obviously been constructed to achieve a “PG-13” rating in the United States, and I’m afraid this is to its detriment. But it’s really very, very watchable from start to finish; you care about Caesar and the apes as much as you’ve ever cared about motion-captured characters (Serkis as King Kong!); and the ending is an absolute cracker. If the concept of the film doesn’t interest you, I reckon you should take a punt: you’ll be very nicely surprised at just how good it is.

Tudyk and Labine Go Large

Posted: August 2, 2011 in movie reviews

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil ***1/2

 

A group of college students are headed into the woods for a camping trip involving drinking, pot smoking, skinny dipping, flirting and general rest and recreation. Along the way they are passed by a pickup truck containing two obvious Hillbilly types – suspenders, flannel shirts, old baseball caps, drinking beer from the can while driving – and they get a little freaked out. Like us, they’ve seen “Deliverance” and every other Hillbilly-killer movie that’s come in its’ wake, from “The Hills Have Eyes” to “Dying Breed”. We’re in familiar territory, right? There’s gonna be some killing? Well, the latter is correct… but the former most definitely is not. “Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil” – a Canadian film, though the accents are all from the United States, as befits the genre – is actually not a Hillbilly horror film but a quite wonderful spoof, operating on two particular and complementary conceits: what if the Hillbillies were really nice – just misunderstood by outsiders – and what if we told this story from their point of view?

 

The following satire – only 89 minutes of it, which is about all you need – has way more than the average serving of laughs out loud, and even has a few of those laughs that go on and on, that hurt your gut. Of course, in spoofing the Hillbilly horror (sub) genre, there are certain tropes it has to follow, and blood and guts is one of them. The film is not afraid to get down and dirty with the gore, but every single gory moment is also a wildly funny one: gore is used only as a comedic device, never to gross us out. All the other tropes are represented (and joyfully spoofed) as well, including the classic physical spread of the college students (two blonds, one brunette; one black guy; one guy who looks like a young Tom Cruise), the spooky shack, skinny dipping: you name it, this movie’s got it, but the whole thing is deliriously inverted. As the title characters, Tyler Labine (whom I’m unfamiliar with) and the always funny and reliable Alan Tudyk (who I’m very familiar with) are terrific, playing every situation in unexpected – and unexpectedly touching – ways. A huge hit at the Sydney Film Festival, Australia’s getting the bloody fun of Tucker and Dale well in advance of its September 30th US release – albeit in limited distribution. It probably won’t be up your alley if you’ve never really seen or been a fan of Hillbilly horror, but if, for example, you enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, you’re almost certain to enjoy this. Eli Craig directs his debut feature with love and affection both for the genre and for his extremely entertaining characters.