These Final Hours (2013): Australian Apocalyptic Masterpiece

James and Rose in These Final Hours
Written and directed by Zak Hilditch (Plum Role, Transmission), this 2013 Australian apocalyptic masterpiece, These Final Hours, is a slow jarring yet beautiful look at one man’s last day on Earth after a meteor has slammed into the North Atlantic. As the film starts, “all of Western Europe is gone” as the resultant firestorm caused by the collision marches its way across the globe.

James (Nathan Phillips) has sex with one girlfriend and after drinking tequila, snorting coke and telling her that he cannot face the pain, the young man takes off to an “end of the world” party where his best mate and other girlfriend will be. A crazy man with a machete hijacks James and his car and after he makes his escape, he sees two men have kidnapped a young girl and they take her into their house.

He goes to steal their van and after an internal struggle, decides to save the girl. Rose (Angourie Rice) is an 11 year-old who got separated from her father and she is desperate to get back to him. Once these two meet up, the rest of the film follows their journey and it is their chemistry which helps to move the story along.

These Final Hours is a somber look at one young man’s painful realization that he has wasted his young life. Throughout the movie, James is constantly taken away from his single-minded search to numb the pain of dying by a number of obstacles, the biggest being Rose. While the 20 something Australian “Jack the lad” type discovers that he has made all the wrong decisions in his life, he helps Rose and learns from an 11 year-old girl what the right course of action is for him.

The performances in this film are simply brilliant. Phillips as “everyman” James, who has a propensity to be a bit shallow and self centered, rocks it. His self absorption is tinged with desperation and each time he reaches a fork in his immediate journey, he reacts accordingly, albeit reluctantly. Despite starting out as an unlikeable chap, Phillips enables us to eventually get behind him and support his hesitant moves to do the right thing before he, and the rest of the world, die.

Angourie Rice, who was nominated for best actress for her performance as Rose, is a real throwback to the days of Hayley Mills. Rice, who makes one think of Mills during her Disney years, first started her acting career in 2012 on another Zac Hilditch film Transmissions. While one could compare the young actress to later young performers, like Dakota Fanning or her sister Elle, the youngster has an old fashioned and more vulnerable style than the Fanning sisters and she is more reminiscent of Mills.

The double act of Rose and James keeps the focus on what is important to both of them. Rose never loses sight of her goal; reuniting with dad. James initially just wants to make the party that his best mate Freddy is throwing. Once there, he finally learns what is really important and he has to save Rose from a crazy who believes that the girl is her daughter Mandy, the woman (Sarah Snook) gives the child a pill which makes her sick.

The entire journey of James and Rose is fraught, touching and thoughtful. Throughout most of the film, Rose is the adult, although she can revert to delightful childhood in a nanosecond. At one point, James goes to his sister’s apartment. The building has a pool and as he wants to search for his three nieces and their mother, he tells Rose to go for a swim. “But I don’t have my bathers,” she says. “Just go in your dress,” James says. “Really??” Rose is clearly delighted that she can go for a swim in her clothes.

These moments between the self centered young man who has deserted his one pregnant girlfriend and the innocent Rose make this film work. Hilditch does show a myriad of different ways that people would react to the end of the world. Suicides, mindless partying and sex, murdering family members, prayer, and so on but it is his focus on these two that really works.

In James’ case, he lives almost a lifetime of experience. He grows up, becomes a father, hero and loving partner before the film ends. Rose gets her wish and is able to send James on his way.

It is no secret that I adore Australian cinema. While most films that catch my eye are of the low/no budget horror variety, Long Weekend, The Loved Ones, The Babadook, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, et al, there are other offerings, such as this one that become instant favorites.

Perhaps a steady diet of Australian soap operas on Dutch television helps to develop a taste for Aussie acting and actors that one never quite loses. Whatever the reason, these films set in the outback, like Picnic at Hanging Rock or the more urban 54 Days (another apocalyptic film) all feature storylines and characters that are mesmerizing and addictive.

These Final Hours is a thoughtful look at one man’s journey at the end of the world. Great stuff and much better than a lot of other, bigger budgeted, films about the end. This is a 5 out of 5 stars for originality and for bringing the awesomely talented young Angourie Rice and Nathan Phillips together. Zak Hilditch has brought us a wonderfully odd and touching end of the world picture that fans of Australian cinema should not miss.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014): Zombies in the Outback

Screen shot from Wormwood, Barry and Frank
Written and directed by Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner the 2014 film Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (original title Wyrmwood) features a cast of relative unknowns facing zombies in the outback. Whether utilizing a George Miller “road warrior” backdrop or taking a leaf from the 1984 classic horror film Night of the Comet this low/no budget Aussie horror film packs a full dose of entertainment in every single frame.

It has been compared to Peter Jackson’s 1992 cult classic Braindead, aka Dead Alive but this is an oversimplification based, presumably, on the fact that it all the actors have Australian accents and it deals with the living dead. The hero is not as gormless as Jackson’s protagonist Lionel Cosgrove (played by Timothy Balme) and there is not one lawn mower to be found. It may be churlish to mention that the Lord of the Rings director, as well as his cast, are all from New Zealand, thereby placing the accents just out of Australian range and while the two sound similar they are different. Just as Jackson’s film is from this one.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead shares much more with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. The humor is very similar, and with his hockey mask on, hero Barry (Jay Gallagher) has Bruce Campbell’s eyes, wide, brown and alarmed looking, just like the character Ash’s eyes in the Raimi films. Like most Australian horror films, the violence is over the top, gory, blackly funny and memorable, again very much like Raimi’s.

The plot of this zombies in the outback film, is that everyone who is not an A+ blood type, become the walking dead after a meteor shower. These zombies have flammable blood and breath and their bodily fluids are able to make new zombies. After the meteor shower, petrol aka gasoline and all other petroleum based products cease to burn causing all vehicles to stop running.

Barry gets a call from his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) who has been trapped in her garage/photograph studio in Bulla. In short order, Barry’s daughter and wife become zombies who he kills with a nail gun, Brooke is “rescued” by the military, Barry is picked up by a man named Chalker, who is then killed by Benny (Leon Burchill), the two men meet up with another couple of survivors, and the four set out to rescue Brooke.

The film is darkly humorous and features buckets of blood, a few dodgy looking FX and a freewheeling plot line. Brooke, for example, is experimented upon by the government troops who were meant to save her. As a result she becomes some sort of super zombie/human hybrid who can control the creatures.

“Wyrmwood” does not attempt impress with science or even to rely on a lot of supernatural, or paranormal, hugger-mugger. The zombies come to “life” and infect others. The dialogue features many hysterically funny lines such as Benny’s “Oh! F**k me dead!” A lot of the actors say f**k a lot, every other word it seems, but it adds to the humorous ambiance of the film. This reliance upon stereotypical Australian’s spices up the action and the storyline brilliantly.

The costumes of the intrepid, and rapidly dwindling, heroes of the story consists of Mad Max type combinations. Hockey masks, American football helmets and pads along with a score of different guns. In terms of budget, some of the weapons look better than others and in at least one scene the rifle that Barry points at Chalker is clearly fake.

The low budget does not harm the film at all and is actually part of its charm. The entire thing feels like a throwback to the good old days of heading down to the Drive-In with a six-pack and a group of friends for the $1 a car night specials.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, is a brilliant example of what Australian cinema does so well, low budget horror that is entertaining and fun to watch. 4.5 out of 5 stars for pure old fashioned The Evil Dead and Mad Max viewing. The film is available on US Netflix and should not be missed.

Housebound (2014) Hysterical New Zealand Horror

Poster for Housebound
It is no secret that I adore both Australian and New Zealand cinema, specifically horror. An eternal favorite of straight horror is the 1978, and its 2008 remake, Long Weekend. While the Aussies are adept at making scary films that get right under your skin, the Kiwis have a knack for comedy horror that will make you jump, but more importantly, will make you laugh till the tears roll. Black Sheep, the 2006 film that made genetic experimentation with sheep scary and funny, has now been joined by Housebound.

This urban setting, versus the rural one of Black Sheep, deals with troublemaker Kylie Bucknell who is placed under house arrest, or more accurately confinement, after being caught stealing a cash box from an ATM with her boyfriend. The film promises to be funny from the first few frames when Bucknell’s accomplice knocks himself out with the recoil from a sledgehammer that he ineffectually smacks the money machine with.

Kylie must return to her mum’s house for eight months whilst tagged. The tag monitor, Amos comes to her house to fit the device to her ankle and explain how the whole thing will work. While she must come to terms with living at home again and coping with her annoying mother Miriam, Kylie learns the house is haunted and that the place she grew up in was the scene of a brutal murder.

Amos initially helps the two women try to solve their ghost problem and then tries to help Kylie solve the 14 year old murder.

Morgana O’Reilly, an alumnus of the long running Australian soap Neighbours turns in a brilliantly diverse performance as the teen tearaway with mum issues. Her Kylie can make the viewer crease up, as when she acts completely gormless when Amos explains how he will help the family solve their ghost problem, or keep the audience on the edge of their seat during the more tense moments.

The comedy in Housebound is outstanding. Taking a dental plate from a sleeping suspect’s mouth, a murderer being attacked with a cheese grater, and a tag monitor being caught by what looks like a bear trap are all just part of the comic events in this film.

Rim Te Wiata from another long running Aussie soap, Sons and Daughters, as well as Full Frontal and Shortland Street plays mum Miriam and also turns in an admirable comic performance. Glen-Paul Waru is spot on as Amos, the tag monitor, ghost hunter and all round helpful official who lends a hand to the family.

The film shifts easily from one event to the next. At one point in the film, Miriam and Kylie are explaining that the house is haunted. Amos has turned up because the ankle bracelet alarm indicated that the teen had left the premises. The second that the tag monitor learns of the haunting, he immediately switches to paranormal investigator.

A big shout out to Cameron Rhodes as Dennis. This experienced actor, who boasts credits in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as well as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, turns in a brilliant performance.

Housebound is the feature length debut of Gerard Johnstone who wrote and directed the film. He has managed to subtly shift comedy, mystery and horror almost efortlessly in what is one of the best comedy horror films I have seen in ages. It is streaming on US Netflix at the moment and I cannot recommend this movie enough. A real 5 out of 5 stars as all concerned hit every mark.

31 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

‘Kill Me Three Times’ Simon Pegg Black Comedy on Demand

Simon Pegg as Charlie Wolfe Directed by Kriv Stenders (“Red Dog”, “Boxing Day”) and written by James McFarland (in what appears to be his maiden effort as screenwriter) this black comedy and film noir spoof, with its limited theatrical and video on demand release is quite amusing and gives Simon Pegg fans a chance to see him with a Poncho Villa mustache and dark hair. Starring Pegg, Alice Braga (“Predators,” “I am Legend”), Luke Hemsworth, brother of Chris aka Thor, Callan Mulvey, Sullivan Stapleton, Bryan Brown (“FX,” “Cocktail”) and, an apparently pregnant, Teresa Palmer, the movie moves at a frantic clip and does try a little too hard to entertain.

That said, it is still entertaining, with Alice Braga playing against type as victim and Pegg playing what must be the world’s most incompetent assassin. The story begins with what must be the worst voice over Pegg has ever done. It is not the “Shaun of the Dead” star’s fault, however, it is McFarland’s dialogue. Stiff and clumsy, the opening words of the dying “hit man” are an instant turn off.

If one sticks with the film and ignores the awkward beginning, the movie does pay off. The plot has Braga as Alice Taylor, wife of hotelier Jack (Mulvey). Her hubby is an extremely jealous type and a bit too ready with his fists. Somewhat understandably, Alice has run to the arms of petrol station owner Hemsworth who plays hunky Dylan Smith. Smith may be what Mrs. Taylor prefers, but in the overall scheme of things, he is a muscle bound chap with a diminished brainpan.

The interweaved plot thread has 250,000 Australian dollars going from one person to another. A dentist with a terrible gambling problem, whose wife Lucy (Palmer) sets up her brother Jack’s wife in an insurance scam. Pegg is the other interwoven piece of this plot line and his hired assassin is either too drunk to operate his weapons properly or is the worst shot in the history of killers for hire.

The musical score is reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse offering “Planet Terror” a kind of 70s noir with twanging guitars and synthesizers. Although there is a sort of Tarantino feel in some places, it is Planet Terror that this film’s soundtrack takes it cues from.

Pegg’s character seems to have been written by McFarland as a sort of homage to many of his prior roles. There is even a direct nod and wink to Sgt. Angel from “Hot Fuzz,” “look at his arse.” Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) is a construct of Simon’s other roles, from “Spaced” to “The World’s End.”

This is a problem, along with the stilted dialogue and the accent Wolfe spouts. Since the character is driving an American car, it seems that he may be a “yank,” or at the very least a tourist, but there are those dead give-a-way British pronunciations that mess things up.

Bryan Brown makes an impressive local baddie and although it’s been a long time since “FX” and “Cocktail” the Australian actor still has those impressive acting chops. Teresa Palmer looks enough like Elizabeth Montgomery that if a biopic were ever done, she would fit the lead like a glove.

Speaking of Palmer, she looks to be impressively pregnant and despite Stenders’ best attempts, it is very noticeable. The actress has come a long way since her debut in the J Horror sequel “Grudge 2.”

All the characters in the film almost appear to be stereotypes of Australian types. While this does not detract from the movie itself, it would be interesting to see what the country thought of this decision. Colloquial opinions aside, these “types” work very well for the movie’s plot.

The film feels a little like a noir-ish updating of the 1963 film “Comedy of Terrors” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Both films feature a character that deals in death and both feature another character that refuses to die.

The cinematography is crisp and clear and the scenery is spectacular. Being a hopeless fan of Australian cinema, I liked the film. Pegg’s character is not a nice chap, and despite the inept nature of his hit man and his genuine delight at the turn of events, he still comes over as likeable.

Releasing the film with a limited theatrical run, coinciding with a video on demand option seems to have been a wise move. The film is, perhaps, a bit too eclectic for the main stream and while Simon Pegg fans may like the movie, it may have a hard time finding an audience.

Still worth a look, or two, and overall the blackly comic noir spoof is enjoyable and despite some plot holes here and there, worth the time spent watching it. A solid 3 out of 5 stars.

22 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

’54 Days’ Independent Australian Film Is Truly Gripping (Review/Trailer)

’54 Days’ Independent Australian Film Is Truly Gripping (Review/Trailer)

54 Days, an independent Australian film from Tim R. Lea is a truly gripping bit of work that goes to show just how great cinema is that comes from Oz. It has to be pointed out that of the best horror and science fiction films out of the last 20 years, quite an impressive number have come from “the land down under,” and this award winning festival favorite joins a lot of popular movies that have either become cult favorites or great additions to a film genre.