Film Reviews: The Babadook & If I Stay

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2 September 2014.

Film Review: The Babadook

Australian screenwriter and director Jennifer Kent has a critical hit on her hands with The Babadook, her feature debut. An atmospheric horror thriller, it is an intense cinema experience which will stay with you all the way home (in the dark in my case) and beyond. I’m definitely going to check the basement for ghoulies before I go to bed, and I don’t even have a basement.

The ever reliable Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as Amelia, a single mum still reeling emotionally from the death of her husband seven years ago in a car crash on her way to the hospital to give birth to their son, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Barely coping with Robbie’s behavioural issues and irrational (but normal) fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet, their lives fall apart when Amelia comes across a mysteriously creepy pop-up book about The Babadook.

Using a modest budget, with some dollars generated by a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign, Kent makes the most of a creepy old Adelaide house, a little CGI, a super scary sound design and plenty of darkness.

Unlike most conventional films of this genre, there’s a real emotional heart to this film, and I found myself genuinely caring for the characters. The performances of Davis and Henshall are superb. See The Babadook (even through your fingers  or under a blanket if necessary) before he finds you.

Film Review: If I Stay

After sitting through this disaster, I figured that the title referred to the question of whether I would stay for all 106 slow minutes of this cheese-fest. I did, but only in the name of film criticism and to save others from wasting their time. Letters of thanks may be sent to the CWD.

If I Stay is actually based on a popular young adult novel of the same name. Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a brilliant cello playing teenager experiencing her first love with the most clean cut baby faced lead singer of a rock band ever, Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley). When inclement weather results in a school “snow day”, her hipster parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) stupidly decide that a road trip with her brother (Jakob Davies) is a good idea.

One inevitable car accident and three deaths later, Mia has an out of body experience running barefoot around the local hospital, watching her family and friends keeping vigil over her comatose body unconvincingly lying in the ICU (hint: don’t watch this film with hospital staff…actually just don’t watch this film).

Will Mia return to the land of the living? Will she go to “the light” (I was cheering for this one)? Why does Mia have to wait for doors to be opened for her, if she is a ghost? What sort of idiot boyfriend would break up with a girl for successfully auditioning for the Juilliard School? Who cares?

Miss Grace Moretz is a talented actress but she is way too good for this material. The rest of the cast, including screen legend Stacy Keach, do their best with a turgid script, which never rises above an episode of The O.C.

I admit that I am not the key demographic for this type of film, but there’s no reason that cinema for teens and tweeners should not be intelligent and thought provoking. If I Stay is neither.

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Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:31  Leave a Comment  
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Farewell Ultimate Warrior

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th April 2014.

This past Monday was one of my favourite days of the year. Not only was it the premiere of season 4 of Game of Thrones (a guilty pleasure) but it was Wrestlemania Monday.

I’ve been hooked on the ultimate soap opera for guys since I was a little kid. My parents bought me a tiny (by today’s standards) black and white television which I had in my bedroom. Late at night, when the then WWF was on, I’d sneak across my room, start the box and wonder at the superhuman displays of strength. Whenever I’d hear footsteps coming my way, I’d switch it off and dart back to me bed, pretending to be asleep.

Things are a bit different now. Thanks to the new online WWE Network (only currently available in the USA so don’t ask) I can literally watch wrestling twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Not that I actually do that. Even for me, there’s only so much lycra one can take.

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Wrestlemania XXX from New Orleans was a memorable event, the highlight for me being the introduction of there inductees into the WWE Hall of Fame for 2014. Headlining the bunch was one of my childhood favourites, The Ultimate Warrior. The following night on WWE Raw, Warrior (now his legal name) appeared in the ring to give a heartfelt speech. The next day, he was dead.

The Ultimate Warrior appeared on the WWF scene in 1987 as a replacement for the “immortal” Hulk Hogan, who was pursuing a Hollywood film career (don’t get me started on his appalling movies). With his face paint, ribbons tied around his biceps and ridiculous musculature (definitely not naturally acquired), Warrior would sprint to the ring and shake the ropes like a mad man.

His feuds with the Honky Tonk Man, Rick Rude and Andre the Giant were legendary and always culminated with Warrior standing victorious. As the Intercontinental Champion, he faced WWF Champion Hogan in the “Ultimate Challenge” at Wrestlemania VI, a match that is regarded as one of the best for that era and saw Warrior winning both straps.

Warrior was notorious for his rambling nonsensical promos on the microphone. Unfortunately, this tendency to say way too much saw his reputation become tarnished after he finally retired in 1998, following several attempts to resurrect his legacy, each with diminishing returns.

As a motivation speaker, Warrior made an almost incoherent diatribe at the University of Connecticut in 2005 in which he made the now infamous claims that “queering doesn’t make the world work” and “homosexuals are not as legitimate as heterosexuals.” Other later speeches exposed further extreme right wing views and were met with claims of racism. His blogs were no better, with Warrior making bile ridden rants about his fellow wrestlers. My hero had let me down.

On April 5, Warrior was accompanied by his two daughters to the podium to make his Hall of Fame induction speech. He spoke about how much he loved his wife and daughters. He acknowledged the crew behind the scenes and thanked Vince and Linda McMahon. Very little was said about his colleagues (Warrior was not well liked by his fellow WWF talent) but in my eyes, simply by returning to the company where he was previously persona non grata, Warrior had showed his human side and was rebuilding bridges with his fans.

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The following night on Raw, Warrior stood in the centre of the ring and addressed his fans and colleagues in a prophetic and haunting speech.

“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalised.”

With that speech, the man Warrior transformed into the Ultimate Warrior and just for a moment, I was a child again, jumping up and down in anticipation of my hero running to the squared circle to vanquish his enemies with the “ultimate splash.” In my mind at least, he had achieved his redemption.

Less than twenty four hours later, Warrior had a massive heart attack and died. Jim Hellwig may be gone, but the Ultimate Warrior will live on forever.

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:26  Leave a Comment  
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Alan and my Acting Career

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th May 2012.

I discovered two things last week. Firstly, my brother likes to search through the funeral notices online in his spare time. Secondly, my agent had passed away.

In the mid-eighties, one of my classmates at Castle Hill Primary School landed himself a role in a movie. I still remember Bradley on the cover of the local paper relaxing in a chair with his feet up. The headline was a dodgy pun about him “sitting pretty” (obviously a Fairfax publication).

The film was an adaption of the then popular school text, Fortress, in which a teacher and students at a remote school are kidnapped by three thugs wearing rubber masks. Eventually the teacher and kids fight back, which is bad news for Father Christmas, Dabby Duck and Pussy Cat who are all dispatched in various gruesome ways.

I’m not entirely sure how this tweener fiction book by Gabrielle Lord was appropriate for children. I guess it was the predecessor of the Tomorrow, When the War Began series or even The Hunger Games books.

I was really keen to find out about moviemaking and straight away befriended Bradley. I quizzed him on every aspect of the filming process on the steps of a demountable classroom one lunchtime and within weeks, I was attending drama classes with him on Saturday mornings.

These classes were run by a Maltese gentleman by the name of Alan Gauci. By sheer coincidence, he had been the principal of the Johnny Young Talent School back in 1980 when my parents sent me to singing, dancing and acting lessons for a term or two.

Alan remembered me, perhaps for my stunning renditions of various versions of Twinkle Twinkle on the violin, Suzuki Method style, at the end of year concert. By stunning, I mean fingernails running down a chalkboard.

The drama lessons were run out of Alan’s house in a converted garage. I remember being really impressed because he owned a video camera, a very expensive high tech item at the time, which was used to film student scenes. Every class would end with a review of our work on TV. Alan, cigarette ever present, would saunter out of his office to comment on our (over)acting.

Alan represented most of his drama students as a talent agent and before long, was my agent too. He’d phone every few weeks with audition details and I’d look forward to hearing his raspy, heavily accented voice because it potentially meant a new adventure and possible some time off school.

My parents were happy to drive me around to auditions and eventually I landed a few small TV roles and then graduated to commercials, lead roles in TV shows and some theatre work. As a kid, the money was fantastic. Alan took ten percent commission, of course. I purchased my first car, a brand new Barina, when I was eighteen, with my child acting career savings.

I’m not entirely sure how Alan influenced my life but I know that he left an impression. I still love the performing arts but not necessarily as a way to make a living. I still hate to watch myself on video. Selling the Barina helped pay for my move to the UK ten years ago. And I wisely gave up the violin in high school.

Thanks for everything Alan. I will always remember your advice and tell everyone that I can ride a horse, even if I can’t, so I have a better chance of landing an acting gig.

Published in: on May 16, 2012 at 12:15  Comments (1)  
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Farewell Whitney, Dr House… Hello Steve Winwood

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 14th February 2012.

This past weekend brought the news of Whitney Houston’s untimely passing. When Michael Jackson died on June 25 2009, the pay TV music stations ceased their regular programming and switched to non-stop Jackson videos. This did not happen with Houston. I’m not particularly surprised. Although arguably as big in the late eighties as The King of Pop, Houston’s days as a viable creative or commercial act were long behind her.

I only own one Whitney Houston CD. I bought it in 1987 with the money I had saved from collecting aluminium cans. I lost interest soon after. In Whitney, that is, not in collecting cans for money. Most of her fans from the eighties probably did the same.

It is always sad when drugs claim a life, regardless of whether they were famous. In Whitney’s case, it is such a waste. The knockout voice had departed but she had real potential for a comeback as an actress. Although I don’t care for the film or Kevin Costner, Houston was showed charisma in The Bodyguard.

 

Why is it that every time I go to the new supermarket, they are playing Steve Winwood’s 1986 hit Higher Love? I hadn’t heard it for years, and then in the space of a few days, twice I’ve found myself singing along as I wander the aisles. They’ve obviously done their research. Somewhere in the world, lab technicians in white coats are testing the effects of Huey Lewis on the shopping habits of rats. Well, the Winwood certainly made me increase my expenditure. Unfortunately for the supermarket, I just bought my usual stuff and then went home to order a copy of Steve Winwood’s greatest hits CD online.

 

Fox announced the cancellation of House last week. After eight seasons, this current one will be the last. As far as I’m concerned, the show had flatlined years ago. Recent ratings would suggest that most people agree with me. There is no doubt that the acerbic Gregory House will go down as one of the great TV doctors of all time, brought to life by the brilliant Hugh Laurie (although someone should have taught him to hold his walking stick in the correct hand).

Although it initially made for fascinating viewing, House was very formulaic. If you were one of Doctor House’s patients, you might want to get another physician. You are guaranteed to get a little better, then much worse, then a little better, then much, much worse, whilst House’s team of medicos misdiagnose you over and over again on a clear perspex whiteboard. Eventually, you’ll survive but only after lots of convulsing.

As ratings began to slide, the producers and writers resorted to more outlandish and silly storylines. Dr House goes to the mental asylum. He finally gets together with Cuddy but they hit turbulence which results in House driving his car into her, er, house. He goes to goal and jumps over a shark whilst waterskiing.

If there are two things I’ve learnt from watching TV, it’s to leave town when Jessica Fletcher arrives, because someone is going to die, and to avoid being admitted to Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (House) or Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital (Grey’s Anatomy). The medical staff are incompetent or way too distracted with each other to keep you alive. Try Eastman Medical Center and ask for Doogie Howser, M.D.