Tomorrow, When the War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began, is an Aussie action flick, as eight high school kids single-handedly face down a foreign invasion. Think “Red Dawn Lite.” It’s beautiful to look at, and the VFX are great, but it always felt like I was watching the feature length pilot for a tv series. A tv series, I’d probably watch, I hasten to add.

But I want to chat about something here; the missing language for us to discuss “alternative” political scenarios, without being accused of racism or xenophobia. Because who would invade Australia, if not Asians? I mean, is that racist? Or is it just an inevitable plot device when imagining a geo-political dimension in that specific part of the world. (Australia largely being surrounded by Asian countries etc. etc.) One of the main Aussie characters is of Asian descent, so its not like all yellow skinned people are painted as nasty Fu Manchu bad guys. So if it’s not racist, is it xenophobic? In the recent Total Recall, Australia had been recolonised by Britain; we didn’t see any raised eyebrows over that. Are we only concerned about xenophobia when its clad in racism? Or was it because Recall was billed as SciFi rather than Action Adventure? And what of the “Red Dawn” remake? With an eye on Chinese box office receipts, the peril comes, laughably, from North Korea. All in all, I suspect we’re in need of new language, or at the very least, a new descriptor for geo-political movies that allows us to play with clearly imaginary storylines, to suspend our disbelief, without us being bogged down in and dragged back to, real world correctness?

For what it’s worth, Tomorrow was filmed in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. The country town of Raymond Terrace was chosen as the major stand-in for the fictional town of Wirrawee, with the Fitzgerald Bridge and historic King Street featuring prominently in the action.

Van Diemen’s Land

Here’s something I believe fiercely: there is no monopoly on suffering. Show me how your forefathers struggled under the yoke of cruel brutality, and I’ll show you how mine struggled more. But perhaps more importantly, whilst the stuff my ancestors did to yours appalls me, the stuff my ancestors did to each other leaves me bereft and numb with pain. Take Australia, for instance. Not today’s incarnation of plucky, inventive, wittily self-confident Australia, but the old one of misery, squalor, sadism and aching loneliness. We rightly gasp at the horror of the Slave Ships that packed shocked, chained Africans in like so much ballast for a six week sailing across the Atlantic, but we’ve forgotten that the first convict Australians traveled in the same slavers’ lethal boats, with the same leg-irons and zero hygiene and merciless overlords, for voyages four or five times longer. If you’ve never read Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore… well, I’m telling you you should.

This came home to me again watching the vivid, disturbing Aussie movie, Van Diemen’s Land by first-time helmer Jonathan auf der Heide. It’s the bloody tale of Irish convict Alexander Pearce and his blundering escape from the Sarah Island Penal Colony in Tasmania in 1822. He’s also accompanied by seven other convicts, each of differing factions and loyalties and generations and heritages, the differences of which come promptly into play once they are isolated in the wilderness. That they are all city folk also means that not one of them is equipped in the slightest for rigors of the Tasmanian outback, and these really ordinary men from a far-flung northern archipelago find themselves completely out of their depth. Thus begins their descent into hell.

Without giving too much away – the story is legendary in Oz – the convicts turn to cannibalism to survive. And we’re used to this kind of subject matter in the movies  too – I caught the entertaining Ravenous on tv again the other day for example. But to cope with it we typically turn the subject matter into burlesque, or campy Hannibal Lector-esque horror. We don’t face it head on, as this film does, from a psychological perspective. I thought it was excellent in its understated brilliance: This could be you, it says. These are all our stories.

Tasmania itself is the film’s nemesis character. Impenetrable walls of foliage, mountain chains like jagged knives, inclement weather, Tasmania is terrifying and majestic, breath-taking and capricious, lovely and treacherous. And compelling. In spite of everything, Van Diemen’s Land really makes you want to visit.

Rogue

It doesn’t happen quite so much these days, but there was a time when you mentioned living in Africa and people thought there were giraffes in the street. I did live in Zimbabwe for a while and I remember startling a zebra once, when out on a morning run (the run being more unusual than the equine, quite frankly). I also can vividly recall the moment, out canoeing on the Zambezi, when I realised that log-shapes in the the water all around me were crocodiles. Good times.

Anyway, I recount this because I caught Rogue on DSTV – a great little Australian movie about a monster croc that’s chewing its way through the good folks of the Northern Territory. It stars Radha Mitchell and Michael Vartan, but there’s also Sam Worthington – pre, but very much on his way to, meteoric fame. In short; there’s a tour boat, it sinks, the ill-assorted survivors struggle to an island, but the island’s going to be below water by nightfall….. And guess who comes out to eat at night?

So what can I tell you? Well to be honest, there’s very little to fault. The characters, though familiar, are well acted and their psychologies feel real enough given the limited amount of time we spend getting to know them. The animatronic croc is great, the scenes are tense and the Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory stands out as a completely gorgeous but utterly ruthless backdrop. (Me, I’d be freaking about the snakes.) Interestingly though, the nocturnal scenes were not shot in the Northern Territory; the director used a specially built island in the midst of a lake in the Yarra Valley in Victoria.

Knowing

I’ve mentioned before how I think Nicholas Cage is the great spawn of Satan, his hairplugs the horsemen of the Apocalypse. He’s as clunky and long-faced as a camel, and no director should ever, ever ask him to run and expect the audience to still take him seriously thereafter. But dammit, he still gets roles in the films I still hanker after seeing. (Aliens blow stuff up – I’m there.) So I knew it’d have to suck it up and take myself along to Knowing.

In this tale, a time capsule dug up from a high school yard includes a note that appears to give the dates, GPS coordinates and casualty rates of all major accidents over the last 50 years. Spooky. Old Nick becomes a bit obsessed by this, and tries to make sense of it all before the whole world implodes. But do you know what? the results are really not half bad. The special effects are engaging, with the kind of gasp-worthy violence you just don’t usually associate with this kind of movie, the supporting cast (including the astoundingly lovely Rose Byrne) are solid, and even Old Nick steps off the ham-gas for a moment and throws out a vaguely nuanced and interesting performance. Grudgingly I’ll capitulate; he’s good in this.

The movie is not without its flaws – some of the things these folks do are unaccountably dumb – and you’ll either love or hate the ending. But you know that’s not why I’m here. I loved the fact that Knowing has a real All-American feel about it, particularly the high school scenes, yet it was virtually all filmed in and around Melbourne, Australia. Not all Aussies loved that, of course – see this report in The Age; as the author notes, why not just set the film in Melbourne? It’s the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world….

Australia

And so to the other big location pic of 2008/9: Australia. I finally caught it on the very small screen – on the way back from Locations Trade Show 09.

And what can I tell you about it? Well, I can see why so many people hated it, why the critics whipped themselves into a frothing rage of apoplexy. It’s a schizophrenic sort of film that swings awkardly between a whole host of genre pics including Crocodile Dundee, Pearl Harbour, Rabbit Proof Fence, Gone with the Wind, Charge of the Light Brigade, anything Disney with a cute kid, anything with John Wayne and cows. I am also strangely reminded of Who Framed Roger Rabbit – to do, more than anything, I think with Nicole Kidman’s cartoon-hammy, wasp-waisted English aristocrat. There’s even some soft porn in there – cue Hugh Jackman, all shoulders and chest, in a bizarre little shower scene. Nothing much in the movie makes emotional sense. But damn it, it does look good; Jackman prods Kidman into exuding a little bit of chemistry, the cattle drive is exhilirating and the Australian outback is hugely photogenic. So, yes, whilst I can indeed see why people hated it, I strangely enough didn’t.

The Ruins

The Ruins starts with the typical premise of standard slasher-horror-fayre; a group of nice, naive, corn-fed American tourists wander off the beaten track and into the arms of particularly gruesome and bloody danger. The difference though is that the predatory threat here is not a mad-eyed axemurderer, but a land-locked island of mobile, talkative, carnivorous plants.

It sounds ludicrous, it is ludicrous, but The Ruins is saved by the utter conviction with which the four American leads – including the wonderful Jena Malone and angular Jonathan Tucker – carry out their roles. Their collective descent from drunken frivolity through nagging unease (sharpened by tequila hangovers) to shock to panic to absolute fear and ultimately madness is believably handled, and the choices they make (leg-chopping aside) feel honest, even if their characters are only lightly sketched by the script.

It’s a beautifully lit film – the cinematography is all bleached and intense. The plant is pretty scary, but that’s matched by the apparently blank inhumanity of the Mayan villagers who won’t let them leave. I also liked the fact that movie’s violence / horror (again, leg-chopping aside) happens so quickly, so violently and so horrifically, that you are left gasping. The Ruins does those flickers of nastiness – “did I really see that?” – really well.

Interestingly, The Ruins was filmed on the Gold Coast in Australia, though you’d probably never tell.

The Hobbit Effect in Australia

Due for release in November of this Year, Baz Luhrmann’s latest opus Australia is set in north of that country just before World War II. It revolves around an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) who inherits a cattle station the size of a small European nation. When rival cattle barons plot to annex her land, she joins forces with a stock-man (Hugh Jackman channelling Crocodile Dundee?) to drive her cattle to market across the country’s most unforgiving territory, arriving in Darwin just as the Japanese airforce begins its bombing attack…..

Noting that following the release of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, tourism numbers to New Zealand were roughly double those visiting Australia during the same period, the Sydney Morning Herald quite rightly trumpets the exciting news that:

Tourism chiefs are to unveil a deal between the film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, its director, Baz Luhrmann and the federal tourism body, Tourism Australia, at a tourism conference in Perth today.

The goal, apparently, is to use the movie to switch the tourism focus back to the harsh but beauteous wilderness that makes up the vast interior of the country. (My quip about Hugh Jackman as Crocodile Dundee was actually semi-serious; the 1985 Paul Hogan movie almost singlehandedly reimagined Australia, Australians and the Australian bush in the global conscience, and it significantly boosted tourism to the vast Outback.) The SMH article notes some of the plans to develop movie tourism around this movie. 

One idea is recruiting travel agents to pitch to travellers the idea of following in the footsteps of the film’s stars, experience the scenery themselves and, perhaps a little of the romance as well.

Well, of course.

So kudos to the Aussies for actually planning this before time, rather than functioning with the “if you build, it they will come” mentality of a lot of jurisdictions.

PS And check out this cute You Tube link to see the genuine excitement of residents of a small rural town when Hollywood rocks up…..