Posts Tagged ‘Snowtown’

Derided by the public upon its release, Wake in Fright looks today like something of a father figure to contemporary Australian cinema. With recent Australian films such as Snowtown, Animal Kingdom and The Proposition achieving critical and box office success despite their challenging subject matter, it is interesting to think that in the early 1970’s such candid self-reflection was out of bounds. Today Wake in Fright is ready for due consideration as a prominent piece of Australian filmmaking, but the question remains – was it tough for its time or is it still today?

Wake in Fright tells the tale of a middle-class school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who works at a tiny school in a township called Tiboonda in the Australian Outback. Upon closing school for Christmas, Grant gets the train to a local mining town known as “The Yabba”, from where he plans to fly to Sydney. Stopping at a cavernous, yet heaving bar Grant meets a policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who encourages him to drink numerous glasses of beer and gamble, whereupon he loses all his money. Unable to leave “The Yabba” Grant enters into a journey of Heart of Darkness proportions as he begins to mix with the local people, most of whom share the same infectious drinking habit.

Director Ted Kotcheff creates an image of hell out of the outback. The world of “the Yabba” is geographically barren, saturated with alcohol and male-dominated (with only one prominent female character called Janette, who seems to have had relations with all the local men). The situation Grant finds himself in makes it easy for anyone, including the well orientated, to slip into disarray. The film contains a number of distressing scenes including a ruthless cross country Kangaroo hunt and brutal brawls, as well as implying disturbing relations between various characters including a local doctor and alcoholic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who Grant befriends.

Grant’s journey from upstanding school teacher to crazed maniac feels swift and it is naturally portrayed by Gary Bond. The film has pace and like a roller-coaster we are flung through Grant’s descent. The film gives us the feeling that not only is any man susceptible to base behaviour but he has it innately in his physical and psychological make-up. This is emphasised by Grant’s encounters with Doc Tydon, who is respected as a local doctor despite his alcoholism. The direction their relationship takes towards the end is unexpected but not entirely surprising.

The enduring impression of Wake in Fright can be seen in 2011’s Snowtown (based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer) and Animal Kingdom (a crime family story equivalent to Australia’s Goodfellas), in that they represent a national cinema that is fearless in its representation of dark but valid cultural themes. The difference, however, is that Wake in Fright portrays an entire community with an undercurrent of madness; it therefore suggests a disturbing cultural trend on a much larger scale than that of a serial killer or even a crime family. Wake in Fright does not allow the audience member to entirely disassociate themselves with the themes of man’s barbarism – some audience members may feel that it points the finger. For that reason it was controversial in its day and is potentially still a shocker today.

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Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.


David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.


Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.


Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.


Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.


Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.


An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.


Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.


John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.


Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.


Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

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Snowtown, a film based on a series of murders committed near Adelaide, Australia between 1992 and 1999, is a gruelling take on its source material. First time feature director Justin Kurzel casts Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, the domineering serial killer at the centre of the true crimes. Initially Henshall portrays Bunting with a surprising charm and affection towards a family who fell victim to a local paedophile. He takes revenge of behalf of the family, before setting out on a crusade against any person he takes a disliking to. Ultimately Bunting becomes a junky to the violence he creates, enlisting those around him to carry out horrendous acts.

Kurzel’s approach is to maintain a gritty sense of realism, juxtaposed with a heavy dose of tension. He creates a number of particularly violent and disturbing scenes, with characters inflicting shocking acts on humans and animals. He combines these with frequent scenes of characters smoking cigarettes and eating. It creates a sense of squalor in which murder becomes as common place as lunch. Snowtown’s visual motifs bring to mind another recent Australian success, Animal Kingdom. Both films often portray important events in wide shots (sometimes opting for slow motion); this does not overemphasize the intensity of the action and creates a disturbing sense of detachment.

However, despite the comparison to Animal Kingdom being part of the praise for Snowtown, this is also where the film comes unstuck.  Where Animal Kingdom had pace, punctuated by moments of extreme tension Snowtown feels somewhat incoherent and meandering. This problem partly stems from Kurzel’s tendency to create moments with a somewhat contrived sense of tension, relying too heavily on sound rather than action, as well as the film’s passive (though well acted) main character Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).

With its brutal scenes and occasionally difficult pace Snowtown is challenging on several levels. Nevertheless it is well cast and impressively acted, showing moments of great directorial technique. All in all it is a flawed but worthwhile addition to contemporary Australian Cinema, which as a national cinema shows itself capable and willing of taking on tough subjects with creative ingenuity.

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