Backtrack (2015): Sixth Sense in the Outback (Review)

Adrien Brody in Backtrack

Backtrack is a splendid combination of horror and mystery. Set in Australia it deals with death, memories and how some things refuse to be forgotten. In some ways it could be seen as  The Sixth Sense in the outback. There are, however, many other films that contribute to this intriguing story and at least one book. (It had overtures of The Survivor by  the late James Herbert.) At least one sound effect came from Takashi Shimizu‘s The Grudge and it scared just as effectively  in this  film as the one  it originated in. 

Written and directed by Michael Petroni (The Rite, Queen of the Damned) Backtrack is first and foremost a mystery.  Starring Adrien BrodySam Neill and Robin McLeavy the film slips the horror in where it fits. Sometimes resulting in a good old “jump scare” and other times leaving the viewer disturbed and not a little creeped out. 

Before singing Brody’s praises (he does a marvelously understated Aussie accent that is spot on) let us look at McLeavy.  This actress is no stranger to the horror genre. Her second feature length film was the brilliantly brutal and quirky The Loved Ones (2009). She was also in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which really is rather schlocky compared to this offering) and while she “plays it straight” here she does her usual excellent job of selling her role.

McLeavy plays the local “PC Plod” who Brody’s character confesses to in the film.   Robin is completely believable as the rather serious cop who has little patience for what she sees as messing about.

Brody’s character is a psychologist who has had more than his fair share of tragedy.  His daughter is struck by a truck and killed while they are out together. Before that though, some of  his past is so awful that he has “mis-remembered” it.

A young girl shows up in his office and the mute child silently asks for his help.  This triggers events that begin to veer into the supernatural, or even paranormal, and Peter Bower (Adrien) is determined to get to the bottom of this issue.

Brody is so convincing with his subdued Aussie accent that if one had never seen him in anything else they would assume he came from the land down under.  The Oscar winning actor shows just why he won that little gold man in this film.  His suffering and fear are apparent but never over the top. The actor is just brilliantly spot on whatever the emotion.

Sam Neill plays a psychiatrist who is treating Peter and once again this Irish actor performs his magic on screen. Neill and Brody interact beautifully together and it helps to move the story on very well.

In terms of story to avoid spoilers the plot  cannot be described in too much detail. There is a daughter’s death,  a 20 year old train wreck and childhood secrets that have been forgotten over time. These secrets manifest themselves in many ways and ultimately it seems that they have been altered with time.

Director Petroni moves things along at an almost leisurely pace but never quite eases up on the tension. There are no false scares here.  Petroni wants us uneasy and slightly afraid in varying degrees.  Once the first reveal is made things pick up nicely and the horrible secret of Peter’s childhood does appear.

Once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, one can look back on the film and with a little help from Petroni it becomes clear that all has been signposted from frame one.

Backtrack is a 5 star film.  It may be slowly paced but the scares work well and the childhood revisit is both horrifying and tragic.  Airing on Netflix at the moment, this is a great find. Check it out and see what you think.

Slow West (2015): Michael Fassbender’s Whimsical Western

Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck
Written and directed by John Maclean (his first feature length film) this 2015 movie stars Michael Fassbender and Jodi Smit-McPhee and the film can be best described as a whimsical western. Slow West has been somewhat oddly listed as an action thriller and western on IMDb. This over two hour long blackly comic romance story definitely does not fall into action thriller territory, despite its sizable body count.

Smit-McPhee is Jay the 16 year-old son of Lady Cavendish who follows the love of his young life from Scotland to America. Fassbender is Irishman Silas Selleck, bounty hunter and brute (according to Jay), who shows up and helps Jay travel across the country, for a fee of $100. Young Cavendish is following the trail of Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father John (played by Rory McCann who was Michael “Yarp” Armstrong in Hot Fuzz) who inadvertently killed Jay’s uncle back in Scotland.

There is a $2000 bounty on their heads dead or alive. This is why Silas has hooked up with Jay, he is a bounty hunter and Selleck plans to follow Cavendish to his lady love and collect the reward. Along the way, Jay sees a Native American village that is burnt to the ground, and a lot of death.

While Slow West can be best described as whimsy on horseback, this film is not at all an average “oater.” It is odd, quirky, insightful, tongue-in-cheek and, in places, laugh out loud funny. Maclean has given us a look, in some ways, at how the west really was. Unlike most standard cowboy movies where everyone either has Californian accents, or midwest (think John Wayne or Hank Fonda) the director gives us an Irishman, a Scot, an Englishman posing as a minister, a moralizing thieving German, two would-be Swedish robbers and a group of what look to be inbred hillbillies, a’la Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch railroad posse.

Perhaps the oddest nationality to show up in the middle of the American West are a trio of Congolese singers. Each man appears to have some sort of issue with mobility. One is on an old-fashioned wheelchair, another has a crutch and the last is seated on the ground. This surreal scene takes place in the middle of the prairie and the three men are singing as Silas and Jay ride past.

Cavendish stops to listen. “Did you like our music,” the man with the crutch asks. “Yes,” replies Jay. “It was a song of love,” replies crutch-man. “Aw, love is universal, like death,” says Jay before riding off. This odd little exchange (which feels a little Terry Gilliam-ish) also seems to foreshadow future events.

There is quite a lot of that in this film. A bullet-hole in a suit, a playful poking in the chest with an index-finger gun barrel in a game…Speaking of games, in a flashback to Scotland, Jay and Rose are playing a game called “A 1000 Ways to Die.” “Pick yours,” calls Rose and Jay chooses Bow and Arrow, another foreshadowing of a future event in the American West.

While the film has all the trappings of the old west, it also features things that feel more like a satirical pastiche of the genre. The music that accompanies the film feels like something one would hear in a French film. The style of the clothes looks almost “Sergio Leone” in origin and all the handguns, with the exception of the Swedish woman’s derringer are long barreled and huge.

These same “hand cannons” are also very, very loud when they go off.

There are some “messages” in the film. The thieving German “author” that Cavendish meets, after running away from the “brute” asks Jay of his journey. The young man tells of the burnt Native American village and the German reacts eloquently:

“A race extinct, their culture banished, their places renamed. Only then will they be viewed with selective nostalgia. Mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art…and literature.”

– Werner (Andrew Robertt)

After this grand expression, the two men break bread and when Jays wakes in the morning his host has stolen everything and left. On the ground is an egg on a piece of paper with an arrow drawn on it and the word “West.”

The film is slow but musically so. It has a pace of a slow waltz and at no time is the tale boring. Eclectic and wandering the film includes a funny tale, from the hillbilly bounty hunters, of a hand written wanted poster and a dead bear.

This UK/New Zealand film looks brilliant and entertains almost effortlessly. There may be a big body count (17) but the violence is not overly gory and in at least one instance, is very amusing. Newcomer Caren Pistorius is brilliant as the object of Jodi Smit-McPhee’s character’s affection.

Michael Fassbender looks like a young Burt Lancaster in this film, all square-jawed stubble, and one keeps expecting to hear Lancaster’s voice when the actor speaks. If ever there is a biopic on Lancaster Fassbender should play the man.

The only complaint about the film concerns the accents or lack of them. Cavendish may not sound overly Scottish, but being of the “gentry” he would have been well educated and elocution lessons would have been a matter of course. Fassbender only sounds Irish when he is drunk. Only the Swedish couple and the German have accents that “fit.”

This film is funny, tragic and odd. It is also fun. There are a number of things that are amusing, Rose’s inability to get the butter to set is one. The tiny square of wheat, or rye, outside the cabin during the climatic fight scene another.

*Sidenote* It would be interesting to see if Selleck’s name was chosen because of Tom Selleck’s many Louis L’Amour western roles.

Fans of whimsical and clever films will enjoy and appreciate this splendid looking and entertaining movie. Digitally shot, Slow West looks spectacularly crisp and clear. This is a 5 out of 5 stars film for clever originality and a cracking musical score. The odd “buddy” film should not be missed.

BattleBots Redux on ABC Just Glossy UK Robot Wars but Still Fun

Still photo from BattleBots of Warhead
In 1998 the UK aired the first gladiatorial contest between robots with Robot Wars, shortly after; two years after, BattleBots, the American version hit TV screens across the pond. Now ABC is offering this redux of a fan favorite from the US which is really just the UK Robot Wars with American hype, gloss and more than a touch of glamor but still good fun. In both shows the names of the fighting machines are, perhaps, the best part of the show.

Nightmare, Warrior Clan, Plan X, Razorback, Wrecks and Bite Force are just some of the names that viewers will come across. A blend of new challengers, such as the Brit team and their bot Warhead, facing old favorites like Bite Force. The one annoying thing about the American version of the show is the tendency to declare that the US did this first, “Beginning in San Francisco…” may be true but the first TV show started in England with much less of that glossy finish that overshadows BattleBots.

Robot Wars was filmed in what felt like an old warehouse somewhere with seats brought in and clear safety plexiglas sides set up so the cameras could see that action. One thing about the earlier Brit iteration of the show was that the UK hazards were much worse than the new ABC version’s. The deadliest trap in the arena in BattleBots must be the hammer and the screw feels a bit useless so far.

Not having seen the original US series, which ran from 2000 to 2002 and, according to a commenter on the IMDb message board, featured a Playboy model as presenter, perhaps the first time around the hazards were worse. One thing that has not changed are the contestants who all posture and preen as well as “talk trash” for the camera while showing off their creations.

Just like the old Robot Wars, entirely too much time is spent on hyping the battle. BattleBots tries to give the show a boxing ring atmosphere with an announcer who builds up the opponents with a blend of tired humor and a play on words that just wastes time. After a build up where the hosts explain that these new bots are better and more dangerous, there is a bit of disappointment when reality shows that these gladiator robots are not much different from the one’s featured in the British version aka Robot Wars.

One can be forgiven for believing that British ingenuity is a bit more advanced than the US in terms of robot design. Never mind that the two chaps from Bournemouth ended up having their bot, named Warhead, beaten in a humiliating display of predatory acumen by their US opponent. A simpler machine, and fan favorite, cleaned their collective clock in an impressive bout that shows what works best in BattleBots, or its predecessor Robot Wars; the bouts themselves.

Take away the expert, who is in reality just a sportsman who has been hired to provide color, and the gorgeous all-tanned female co-host and her male counterpart and the show is still infinitely entertaining. Robot geeks and nerds may love the hype and the glitzy glamor of the ABC BattleBots redux, but the bottomline is the cheering fans who get excited by a bit of robotic mayhem.

Gladiators who “kill” their opponents with showers of sparks instead of blood and where gears, cogs and pieces of bots are flung across the arena after being forcibly ripped off. A bloodless and almost G rated fight to the death that may survive a bit longer than the first 2000 version. BattleBots airs Sundays on ABC and can be seen later on Hulu.

Life in the Real Desert: Flowers and Recovery

Flowers in the Desert
Whilst recovering from my altercation with a dark blue sedan and the curbside of Love’s Truck Stop, the real desert has been full of life and a profusion of flowers have surrounded me. Just on the property alone a wealth of pink and white flowers are sprinkled along the edges of the hardpan plot.

Blooms are sprouting from cactuses or cacti, along with the more traditional plant type bushes. The mesquite trees, which protect their yellow drooping flowers with thorny guardians, are filled with the sound of bees. These little pollinators are of such a number that their businesslike drone is almost deafening. Amazingly, despite the impressive decibel level that they emit, it is difficult to spy one.

The temperature in the local area has dipped, it initially became cooler around Easter and has not risen too much since. Handy if one is biking to and from town, but a bit chilly at night. Of course, as I am still recuperating from my accident, I’m not doing a lot of biking and most certainly not taking the 12 mile plus round trip to town and back.

Riding around the neighborhood and averaging about three miles per trip, I am pleased to note that in terms of control and exertion, my recovery is going very well. Unfortunately, the right leg still has a knot the size of Texas on the shin and at night, after a day of “limited” activity, both legs are painful enough that sleep becomes impossible despite pain pills.

Regardless of the amount of time spent getting better, and the lack of Internet access, life is limping along. Meeting lovely people who populate neighborhood, even as the general number of residents is in decline as it’s time for the snowbirds to migrate back home, and discovering that people can be kind and thoughtful and generous.

Tyson Wells Visitor Office winding down
Tyson Wells Visitor Office, winding down and soon out?

It has been an interesting time. Returning to the land of my birth has been…different. Moving from Las Vegas to Arizona has been almost foreboding. In terms of losing bits of myself, it has been frustrating and not a little annoying.

One week after arriving I lost my late father-in-law’s sweater. A favorite “in-between” garment that was a comfortable as an old glove. Taking a tumble, my first in the real desert, down a small wash, the thing went awol and I’ve never found it. Despite backtracking on the day it happened and searching the area repeatedly, the sweater has apparently departed to parts unknown and by now has most likely fallen to pieces.

Thus far, in a short three month time period, I’ve lost: A favorite sweater, hat, pocket knife, my prescription glasses, and my “cheap” reading glasses. Twice, not counting being forced off the car park surface by a car which would make it three times, I have fallen over while traversing the hardpan desert floor. Each time personal injuries were increased exponentially.

In terms of loss, television has become another missing component along with proper Internet. As someone who has spent a lot of time and effort increasing their profile on the net as a writer, both personally and professionally, this loss is the most devastating. Due to sporadic web access regular contact with my daughter has also been, temporarily, lost.

Entering the world of the self employed while relocating to a remote area of the Southwest has been an interesting move. Picking a part of the desert where there are no cinemas locally or nearby was not planned for and having no vehicle to attend screenings has been another “setback.” Rather annoyingly, most, if not all, the screenings from one studio rep are all over two hours away via car.

These “setbacks” are a bother but not overly so. Obstacles are made to be overcome. Time spent watching and writing about films and television is now spent writing the book I’ve promised myself for years. There are other books impatiently queuing up for their turn so I am still working. The biggest difference in this change of circumstance is the change in financial status.

Flowers in the desert, taken outside Quartzsite, AZ
Cactus flowers, which make me think of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and John Wayne’s character.

This too shall pass and until then I will keep plodding along, writing, doing chores and healing and I will stop and enjoy the real desert flowers, while they last, on my road to recovery.

9 April 2015

GTA V Online Continues Breaking Player’s Hearts While Breaking Records

GTA V Online Continues Breaking Player’s Hearts While Breaking Records

While players of Rockstar Games’ latest offering, GTA V, have been heartbroken by the problems with Cloud Servers, the game has been breaking records as well as getting a place in the Guinness World Record book.

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