Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

Movie Review ~ 1917

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved.  Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar?  Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out?  Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button.   What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going.  Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.

Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines.  The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach.  That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me.  Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.

By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties.  Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush.  Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of.  Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death.  The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.

Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes.  That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take.  Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins.  It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.

Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story.  Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands.  Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way.  The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission.  The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.

This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off.  I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level.  Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous.  While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much.  As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons.  First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep.  Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.

The Silver Bullet ~ 1917



Synopsis
: Two young British soldiers during the First World War, are given an impossible mission: deliver a message, deep in enemy territory, that will stop their own men, and Blake’s own brother, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Release Date:  December 25, 2019

Thoughts: Every year around this time it becomes pretty clear who the Oscar front runners are and the pundits start to put their ballots together with ballpoint pen.  There’s always those last slots they keep open, though, for the movies that don’t screen until very late in the season and that’s where a movie like 1917 will play a big factor.  Last time I checked, no one had seen this World War I film from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) yet and that’s fairly unheard of in mid-November.  That creates a bit of an electric excitement because there’s hope this could be a game changer and knock a few sure things off their paths to Oscar gold.  Paired again with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who finally won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049) and supposedly shot to look like it was filmed in one continuous take, Mendes appears to have something fairly mighty on his hands and history buffs are hoping 1917 can succeed where another anticipated war film like 2017’s Dunkirk couldn’t and snag some top prizes come year end.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride

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Synopsis: UK gay and lesbian activists work to help miners during their lengthy strike of the National Union of Mineworkers in the summer of 1984

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: Ever since The Full Monty, working class comedies from the UK have been making their way over to our shores to varying degrees of success. All are pleasing, no doubt but some are lighter than air and ultimately pretty inconsequential. I’m thinking Pride will fall squarely in the middle of the road and am hoping that it hasn’t revealed all of its laughs in the arguably entertaining trailer. With an ace cast like Bill Nighy (About Time) and Imedla Staunton (Maleficent) leading a colorful looking ensemble, if Pride plays its cards right it could join the long list of UK indie sleeper hits.

Movie Review ~ How I Live Now {Twin Cities Film Festival}

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An American girl sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives finds herself fighting for her survival as the UK turns into a violent military state.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The more movies I take in the less surprised I seem to be.  When you think about it, isn’t everything just a variation on the same several plot points across a limited amount of genre categories?  That’s why when I catch a movie that surprises me, I tend to sit up a little straighter in my seat and find that I’m willing to give myself over a little more to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from How I Live Now before I saw it at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival.  I had read a little about it and knew that it was adapted from a YA novel penned by Meg Rosoff but I deliberately skipped watching the trailer and generally avoided anything that might give away too much, lest I go in with certain expectations that wouldn’t, couldn’t be met.  When you’re as in to movies as I am, this lack of knowledge can sometimes be a huge gift and it’s probably the reason I wound up liking the movie as much as I did.

Though she started out 2013 in a blah adaptation of another popular YA novel (The Host – for which my negative review inspired an unhappy fan to say they wanted to punch me in the face), Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan comes back swinging here with a performance unafraid to be unlikable.  She’s a temperamental (read: bitchy) American girl visiting her aunt and cousins in their quaint English countryside estate when nuclear war breaks out in major cities around the world.

That’s about all you’ll need to know before seeing where How I Live Now takes this character and charts her experiences as she struggles to come to grips that her life will never be the same.  Where the first half of the film has the audience reeling at how bitter Ronan’s character is (we get the sense that her widowed father shipped her away for some peace and quiet), the second half turns the tables and easily wins the viewer back to Ronan’s side.

There’s nice support from a largely unknown and young cast who handle the harrowing material very well.  I liked Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible and he does equally strong work here as Ronan’s sensitive younger cousin. George MacKay rises above his characters questionable relationship with Ronan and tiny Harley Bird survives several scary scenes where her character is in grave danger.

The movie struggles with some tonal shifts that may be a little hard for people to roll with.  One moment it’s a dark comedy, the next a survivalist tale before switching to human drama and then into a dewey (and kind eeeewy) romance.  Even so, there was something about how director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps everything afloat and slightly off balance that had me modestly mesmerized.  I wasn’t sure how the movie would end or if I’d even be happy with the resolution but thankfully the wrap-up makes sense as it aligns with everything that came before it.

You probably missed this one during its brief run in theaters but if you happen to be browsing your local Blockbuster (whoops!) I mean, your local Redbox or Netflix queue this one might be a more than pleasant surprise.  After all, it’s always the movies you are least expecting that find a way to sneak up on you.