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Entries in Outback (2)

Wednesday
Jun082016

GOLDSTONE

Stars: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver, Michelle Lim Davidson, Pei-Pei Cheng, Michael Dorman, Max Cullen, Kate Beahan, Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil.
Writer/director: Ivan Sen.

Opening Night Film of the 63rd Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Australian auteur Ivan Sen accomplishes that all-too-rare sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor with Goldstone, a compelling continuation of the journey of damaged detective Jay Swan. Having established a richly atmospheric sense of outback geography and populated it with vivid genre character types in 2013’s Mystery Road, the director recaptures his fluid handling of dusty tough-guy dynamics while succinctly revisiting weighty thematic strands.

As with Mystery Road, classic ‘western’ beats with a strong hint of ‘noir’ intrigue pulse through Goldstone, so named for the one-cop/tin-shed township and its barren surrounds in which Sen sets his action. Seeming to exist only in service of the mining conglomerate that is gutting the sacred land of the region, the pre-fab settlement appears to consist of a police station, a brothel and the mayor’s home office (why such a meagre outpost has a mayor at all is never fully explained).

Young and alone in his new posting is cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell, solid), who has learnt to keep the peace by not ruffling too many feathers, notably those of mining boss Johnny (a slimy David Wenham) and mayor Maureen (Jacki Weaver, bringing her best ‘Barbara Stanwyck’ in a cheerfully untrustworthy role). The status quo begins to unravel after Josh cages a barely-conscious drunk driver, soon revealed to be Sen’s complex anti-hero, Jay Swan.

Reprising the role of the grief-stricken, dangerously depressed indigenous officer is the terrific Aaron Pedersen. Carrying the emotional burden of a father denied his daughter in every shuffle and grimace, Pedersen’s remarkable performance is also one of immensely understated heroic might. As convincing as the hard-as-nails machismo is conveyed, the actor’s best scenes are quieter ones opposite national treasure David Gulpilil, as the elder who re-energises Swan’s sense of self during a journey into the spiritual heartland.

The central narrative involves Swan’s exposing the trafficking of young women, shipped in to stock ‘The Ranch’ and service mine employees under the watchful eye of Mrs Lao (respected Chinese star, Pei-Pei Cheng) and the quest to find a missing girl who took flight into the unforgiving desert. Sen’s script explores exploitation on several levels – the land, its rightful owners and the legacy of abuse and misuse that has been endemic since the earliest days of outback settlement (the film opens with a sepia montage of immigrant labour images from Australia’s shameful past). Goldstone revels in its genre roots, but like Sen’s best work (Beneath Clouds, 2002; Toomelah, 2011) it offers social and cultural insight into the issues and history of minority abuse in Australia. The presence of Pedersen, Gulpilil and fellow indigenous acting great Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978) speaks to the respect afforded the filmmaker and his storytelling by the Aboriginal community.

Coupled with some downbeat moments, Sen’s pacing occasionally feels laboured (an observation that your critic levelled at the mid-section of Mystery Road, too); the beautiful Kate Beahan turns up for an odd cameo as a roadside hooker called ‘Pinky’, doing business from a caravan straight out of ‘Priscilla…’ But these are minor distractions in an otherwise fine dramatic thriller, primed for festival and specialist theatrical distribution both at home and abroad.

Technically, the production is first-rate; superb use of drone cameras allows the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, acting as his own DOP, to capture stunning desert landscapes from towering angles, in a film whose palette and framing reflects the director’s affinity for the red rock and ochre setting.

Sunday
Feb082015

WYRMWOOD

Stars: Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradley, Leon Burchill, Luke McKenzie, Yure Covich, Keith Agius, Catherine Terracini and Meganne West.
Writers: Kiah Roache-Turner and Tristan Roache-Turner
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner.

Rating: 4/5

Feverish fan-boy fanaticism meets film-making fearlessness in the undead ocker shocker, Wyrmwood. Brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner channel their clearly compulsive love for B-movie bloodletting into a debut work that honours the ‘Gore Gods’ of yore as efficiently as it announces the arrival of their own brand of genre genius.

Like death-metal music for the eyes, The Roache-Turner’s bludgeon their audience with a visual and aural onslaught that leaves no skull unexploded in their depiction of a hell-on-earth that is the new Australia. Bold enough to draw upon that hoary old horror trope ‘the meteor shower’ as the narrative kicker, the debutant filmmakers (Kiah gets sole directing honours; both take a writing credit) embark upon a slight but superbly entertaining survival story that pits everyman hero Barry (Jay Gallagher), his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradley, in a ballsy, up-for-anything performance) and new mate Benny (scene-stealer Leon Burchill) against a sunburnt nation of flesh cravers.

Horror-hounds will find the Roache-Turner’s gleeful cinematic nightmare pleasingly familiar. The most influential works are certainly Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive, 1992), which featured the steely blue and rich crimson colour palette embraced by DOP Tim Nagle; Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1992), with its ultra-quick zooms, rapid-fire editing; and, Dr George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), with its ‘vengeful, grieving father’ anti-hero and mastery of open-road car-on-car action. Nods to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and fellow Aussie sibling-auteurs Michael and Peter Spierig’s Undead (2003) are also present.

But instead of a repackaged homage to their teen year favourites, The Roache-Turners afford Wyrmwood its own strong sense of self-worth. One character’s telepathic connection to the zombie hordes proves crucial to the narrative’s effectiveness; the implication that zombie by-products may be the newest renewable energy is a sly masterstroke; and, a revelation (however tenuously defined) that a universal blood type unites the survivors hints at a hopeful outcome for humanity.

Less assured is the establishment of the film’s real-world villains. The zombies terrify on a visceral level, but the vile antics of a disco-dancing, psychopathic scientist (Berryn Schwerdt) charged with assimilating zombie spinal fluid and Brooke’s human blood don’t sufficiently set up the level of conflict required to ensure a convincing third act face-off with a monologue-ing military jerk (Luke McKenzie). Some perfunctory fisticuffs rob the zombies and the audience of the apocalyptic-size melee expected (such as that delivered by Raimi in his third and epic Evil Dead film); it is the only instance where the meagre budget (an astonishing A$150,000) may have handicapped the auteur’s ambition.

Irrespective of its shortcomings, Wyrmwood will prove a horror festival staple for the rest of 2015 and a boys-own party favourite well into its home entertainment afterlife. As spelt out by blokish bushman Frank (a terrific Keith Agius) in one of the film’s rare quiet moments, the Book of Revelations told of the fallen star ‘Wormwood,’ sent plummeting to Earth by the trumpet cry of an angel, decimating all but those God left to determine their own destinies. For all its grotesque hellishness, Wyrmwood is similarly heaven-sent.

Wyrmwood will open the Perth Underground Film Festival on February 12; tickets available here.