DVD Review: Red Hill (2010)

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In stark contrast to the overwhelming frequency with which we witness acclaimed A-list actors who've left the land of Oz for American super-stardom grace our screens in big budget blockbusters, critical darlings or end-of-the-year awards contenders, it's an extremely rare occurrence to see the title of even one Australian film lovingly made from down under appear on the marquee of our local cineplex.

With this in mind, the fact that in 2010 not just one but indeed three movies managed to cross the seas and maneuver through the uphill journey of film festival circuits, studio contracts, theatrical distribution, thrilling reviews, positive word-of-mouth and even award consideration is a sheer triumph that's bold and inspiring enough to rival the plot of any given Hollywood underdog movie.

Yet it's particularly thrilling when you realize that unlike the colorful, feel-good celebrations of dancing to the beat of your own drummer a la few and far between past Aussie breakout hits Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, the provocative trio of pictures that were incidentally all released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment centered around morality driven, dark tales of crime.

Like most of the aforementioned '90s hits, The Square, Animal Kingdom and Red Hill were also all made relatively independently by first time feature directors and in the case of the latter titles, the men at the helm had only previously directed short films before taking on material either written by them or were– as in the case of Nash Edgerton's The Square penned primarily by his brother.

And despite the fact that at their core, the three are indeed crime thrillers, they're all quite different in their approach, which definitely owes to the films' success when it comes to attracting an audience. Throughout Square, Kingdom and Hill, we're never exactly sure where each filmmaker is taking us, thereby making the titles refreshing, unique and eye-opening in comparison to the stock cops and robbers movies we've been served up by studios for decades.

Although all were routinely compared to movies by American masters of the genre – most notably Scorsese, Coppola and the Coens – the Aussies, like their predecessors served their subjects well by blending genres in telling old stories of good vs. evil in a new way.

Using the basic hard boiled fiction standby plots of an unfaithful spouse, greed and murder for hire as the groundwork, Edgerton's neo-noir Square grows increasingly complex as it continues towards its inevitably ironic, dark, lose-lose showdown to tie things up in a way we didn't expect.

Complicated on a different level altogether, David Michod's sprawling Melbourne masterpiece Animal Kingdom employs elements of the western, cops and robbers fare where neither side is heroic, Greek tragedies and Shakespearean family epics in his existential odyssey of a young man at the center of it all.

Yet whereas Michod and Edgerton opted to take the fundamentals of the crime genre – namely the battle between good and evil – and complicate the hell out of it by adding in layers and subplots, Red Hill writer/director Patrick Hughes took the opposite approach via his determination to embrace simplicity to artfully tell a straightforward story of good vs. evil.

And while some have simply written off Hill as a predictable genre picture, particularly because it adheres throughout to the structure of a contemporary western, to some extent, Hughes' decision not to try and over complicate matters with excess characters and subplots made Hill the biggest cinematic risk. Namely, had the other two movies failed, they would've “gone out” with over-ambition to their credit whereas if Hill didn't work, Hughes would've been unfairly dismissed as a man who just made a western.

Granted, I'll be the first to admit that the movie's transparent tagline makes it disappointingly easy to foreshadow the biggest plot twist in the film beyond the surface level meaning. Yet, to his credit, Hughes nonetheless surprises us with the risks he takes in the way he gradually unspools the “big picture” to Constable Shane Cooper (True Blood's Ryan Kwanten) and by extension, the audience over the course of his independently made feature that's set over the course of one long, hard day.

Having survived a gunshot received in the line of duty, Cooper packs up his pregnant wife and leaves the stress of big city policing behind to offer his growing family a fresh start in a desolate, dusty town. But just like the way that nearly retired movie cops must track a serial killer during their last day on the job, on his first day of duty, Cooper finds himself in the middle of an old west standoff upon hearing that a murderous prison escapee is heading to the eponymous town of Red Hill to gun down all those responsibly for locking him up in jail.

While inspired by westerns – complete with a Morricone style score homage that plays in the last act of the picture, Red Hill is especially influenced by the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men as the returning criminal silently tracks down the posse given the order to shoot to kill in a way that rivals a horror movie wherein characters hide in an air vent or try to create an elaborate trap to catch the man.

However, Hill is far from a mere rip-off but rather a love letter to the filmmakers who’ve come before Hughes as we see nods to Mad Max and other films along the way. Likewise, as simple as the set-up is there is nonetheless something powerfully poetic about the level of passion Hughes puts on display in the execution of his fairly straightforward Red Hill.

For while ultimately in the case of the three Aussie imports, Animal Kingdom is the clear masterpiece and the film most on par with other foreign criminal epic fare like A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes, Ajami and City of God, overall and for sheer entertainment value, in the end it's actually Hughes' Red Hill that I feel audiences will be saddling up to view again and again.

And by doing so, hopefully viewers will send a message to studios to lasso up another installment of inventive Aussie indies to add a burst of fresh air to our increasingly stale Hollywood dominated theaters of TV show remakes and 3D gone wild.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Open Season 3 (2011)

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Still the only grizzly in the forest as the second straight-to-disc sequel to 2006’s Sony Pictures Animation studio debut Open Season begins, we quickly discover that Boog the bear is the last member of his increasingly busy circle of woodland creature friends who hasn’t found a date, mate or full time gig.

Feeling dejected after the rest of the pack bails on Boog’s annual “guys trip,” including his free-spirited chatterbox mule deer best pal Elliot, whom Boog had rescued from the hood of a hunter’s car in the first Season, the grizzly packs up his stuffed teddy bear Dinkleman and embarks on his own solo version of the weekend.

Yet once he realizes that telling campfire tales to a stuffed animal isn’t quite as fun as going on the road with his pals as witnessed in previous installments of the Sony franchise, Boog tries to battle the blues with a kid-friendly version of a Hangover style bender.

In another location-based homage to the convenience store utilized in the previous movies, he crashes the just-newly restored, about-to-be-grand-reopened gas station before collapsing in a sugar and salty snack filled heap of candy wrappers, neon slurpy juice, empty chip bags and self-pity.

Wandering in a junk food daze onto the grounds of a traveling circus, Boog is thrilled to come face to face with Doug, a grizzly that on first glance could be mistaken for our hero’s long lost twin.

As opposed to the cliché of those who want to run away and join the circus, Doug has long been plotting to run away from the circus and join the forest. Tired of being ordered around as part of a group instead of becoming the alpha animal in the wild, Doug yearns for an existence that he imagines Boog’s must be like as the sole grizzly dominating all others.

Manipulating the lonely Boog whom we fear would have probably even give up his beloved Dinkleman for a fellow bear friend, particularly after he catches a glimpse of Ursa, a beautiful female Russian grizzly who works alongside Doug in the show, Doug fast-talks Boog into temporarily taking his place.

Falsely promising Boog that he’ll back in twenty-four hours – once he’s scouted out a new “Bearvana” location where he’ll live with Ursa and Boog as a grizzly gang of friends – Doug instead ditches our too-trusting lead at the circus, with the sole intention of taking Boog’s place in the forest and turning Boog’s friends into his servants.

Luckily but amusingly with the exception of Elliot, Boog’s true-blue forest friends aren’t as easily fooled as Doug assumed they would be and sure enough, in true Open Season form, the animals take to the road to bust their bear out of the circus before the show returns to its Russian home.

By creatively blending the franchise’s most memorable characters including Open Season 2’s comical cadre of clueless yet courageous canines so that initially we have two search parties dead set on rescuing the grizzly until they form one rambunctious team, 3’s filmmakers became the series’ most successful in maintaining our interest throughout the movie’s succinct 74 minute running time.

For despite the fact that by now the novelty of a talking animal movie has certainly worn off, particularly for the adults watching alongside their children, there’s an awful lot to admire about Season’s earlier pictures which I recently screened on Blu-ray for the first time in preparation for this review.

Yes, I do grant that neither title captivated me on the level of Sony’s vastly superior, Academy Award nominated animated work Surf’s Up or the charming sensory overload of the studio’s most successful endeavor Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Yet I was nonetheless instantly attracted to the original film’s ingenious set-up of matter-of-fact domesticity, which first introduced us to the nine hundred pound Boog, back when he slept in the garage of and was raised by his adoptive park ranger mother.

While unfortunately, I think Season never regained its footing nor separated itself from its endless competition from movies like Ice Age and Madagascar by deciding to keep the characters in the wild for the most part -- aside from a brilliantly funny recurring gag involving an overprotective weiner dog owner -- the brightly colored eye-catching palette and thematically upbeat familiar storylines proved enjoyable overall.

Yet in stark contrast to the pacing problems that inevitably plagued the other movies, screenwriter David I. Stern livens up Season 3 considerably with engaging tried-and-true subplots that work in everything from road and/or buddy movies to a smart play on The Prince and the Pauper, resulting in a surprisingly engaging sequel that works well from start to finish.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on DVD Review: Merlin -- The Complete Second Season (2009)

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Related Review: Merlin -- The Complete First Season

AKA: The Adventures of Merlin: The Complete Second Series; Merlin: Series Two; The Adventures of Merlin: The Complete Second Season

The first season of BBC's Generation Y friendly Merlin reboot did an entertaining job of introducing the Arthurian inspired players and acquainting us with the rules of the game of Camelot as presided over by King Uther (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Head) where -- and in essence just like a lethal version of Old Maid or Hot Potato -- those found in possession of magical powers lose their life.

And while the ultimately charming series' adherence to predictably formulaic yet altogether benignly satisfying plotlines did begin to grow repetitive near the end of the show's initial thirteen episode run, which undoubtedly accounted for the big drop-off in viewers as Merlin continued, the game changed for the better when a new strategy was unveiled at the start of the second season.

In season two, the writers rely far less on the guest-star of the week approach wherein Merlin (Colin Morgan) inevitably grows suspicious of a new arrival to the kingdom just before spells or romantic enchantments go awry and he has to thwart a plan, unmask a villain or save the day without letting anyone realize he's a budding wizard on par with Harry Potter

And although the anachronistic and often unconvincingly jokey dialogue will still send historians and literary experts reeling, as I argued in the first review, any exposure to the legend is welcome in encouraging another generation to seek out the stories of Camelot.

Fittingly, since more time has gone by since Merlin first met Arthur (Bradley James), the cast's chemistry and male camaraderie seems genuine, even if at times you wonder just as you did in pondering whether Zack and Co. were the only students in Saved by the Bell, if it's probable that all characters would be both always present and able to have as much of an impact on the King's decisions.

Yet to their credit, the writers concentrate on developing the core characters to foreshadow eventual arcs in their relationships with one another as Prince Arthur struggles to acknowledge his deepening attraction to Guinevere (Angel Coulby), the maid servant of his father's ward Morgana (Katie McGrath), despite the fact that Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) eventually returns and declares his affection to “Gwen” as well.

Additionally, the second season ambitiously gets the most creative mileage by hinting about the future while simultaneously revisiting the past when revelations come to light regarding the births of Arthur, Merlin and (more alarmingly!) Morgana that leave all characters questioning just what exactly this new information will mean for them in the long run.

Pondering the paths they've taken and the decisions they'll make in the future, the show's brilliant marriage of the past and the future colliding in the present sets off a dangerous chain of events that pay off unexpectedly in Merlin's daringly unexpected second half of what is ultimately the series' best season so far.

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Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.