Cactus (2008) suffered the fate of many (actually probably most) contemporary Australian films. It received a bit of press at the time of release, reviews in most quarters, a quick cinematic release and then disappeared from view relatively quickly. At least that is how I recall it going down.
The film jumps straight into the action, filling in absolutely no backstory. And it works too with the opening sequence being one of the film’s most successful. We see a man enter into another’s house, beat him up, drug him and bundle him into the boot of an old car. This is all done essentially in silence, save for the odd grunt of effort. The car is started, we see an extreme close-up of the odometer ticking over, and we are away. The entire thing tears you out of your seat and plonks you straight in the world of the film. The car makes its way out through the city, through the ever-changing Australian countryside, from lush valleys into eventually into what is essentially desert. Much of these early travelling shots are shot quite nicely from a ‘first person’ point of view. Eventually, as the film travels along, we learn more about what is taking place. More, but never near everything. The kidnapper is a man hard up for cash, trying to save his family with this big money, out of character job. His victim is in trouble with the two men that he is being taken to. Who these men are and the nature of the trouble are never revealed, though it is heavily hinted to be gambling related. The film is uniquely Australian. Much of the Ford vs Holden shtick throughout would probably be lost on overseas viewers, whilst the film adoringly takes in much of the countryside that makes Australia so unique. The central story though and its sorta road movie delivery, is definitely more universal.
The ending of the film I think is distinctly flawed, taking on a somewhat strange, ‘pulpy’ revenge bent that is hard to buy given what has taken place over the preceding 80 or so minutes. It is almost a curse when a film builds up so much anticipation of just how the story is going to be tied up, that it is really difficult to satisfactorily conclude what has occurred. Part of the issue is that it was always going to be necessary to expand on the taut, minimalist world that the film had created. It would be a bold film indeed to follow just two pretty silent blokes in a car right to the end. Aside from the two main characters, the supporting roles are very minor. It is a little bit of a shame really because they are populated with really good actors who manage to engage a lot in the short time they are onscreen. Bryan Brown, Shane Jacobsen and Daniel Krige all excel in bringing their barely written characters to life. I think in the end it does hurt the film a little when one of them (or two, or even three depending on how you want to look at it) come back to play quite a large role in the film’s ending. It would have been richer had there been more depth and time onscreen to explore these three characters. Plus it just would have been nice to see more of the fantastic country cop that the legendary Bryan Brown crafts in his very short screentime.
The two lead performances are very good though. Travis McMahon as John, a silent, ‘man with no name’ type (anti)hero is excellent. You can see the mental strain his job is taking on him, not helped by his victim continually trying (and often succeeding to get inside his head). John definitely gains a measure of revenge at one point though, when in a quite hilarious scene, he employs torture by Wiggles tunes (for those that don’t know, The Wiggles are an iconic, bright skivvy clad, Australian children’s music group). Probably the best performance of the film does come from his victim Eli though. David Lyons is really good in the role, as a smooth talking and cerebral bloke, smug and overly proud of what he has achieved in life, the money he has cheated his way into and the women he has bed along the way. It’s not all bluster though, because in his character’s lower moments, Lyons is able to convey the sheer shittiness of his situation and the fear of the unknown that he is hurtling towards. These two, thanks to the script as well as their very good performances, build up a really quite cool psychological relationship with plenty of back and forth and a power dynamic that continues to shift til the very end.
Despite my misgivings, Cactus is a cool, highly original film that I would definitely recommend checking out. It never reaches dizzying heights, but thanks to its impressive cast, dry sense of humour and pretty countryside it does manage to be worth your time.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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I’m too old to be going to bed at 4am after finishing my last whiskey. That said, I was feeling surprisingly chipper after a phenomenal vegan pie I grabbed from the awesome Rubyfruit Cafe in Leura on my way to the feature film screenings for this year’s Blue Mountains Film Fest. I believe this is the first year that features have featured at the festival, and hopefully this is a part of the program that continues to develop, because the three on offer were varied and enjoyable.
Leading off was the documentary profile of legendary Australian musician Joe Camilleri entitled Joe Camilleri: Australia’s Maltese Falcon. I knew only a little about Camilleri, mainly through his time as a member of The Black Sorrows, so I found this doc to be really quite informative. I definitely was not aware just how broad and long running his career had been. The film was a quite engaging love-in of Camilleri. The man himself was a very intriguing interview with a magnetic presence. The film features a reasonable amount of insight into Joe’s early personal life and formative influences. Joe and those around him speak of his life as a first generation migrant, growing up in a suburban home of 10 kids. We also learn that Joe quite amazingly left school at the tender young age of 13 and worked a myriad of rubbish jobs on the journey to where he finds himself now.
The doco does delve a little into Joe’s later adult life, at times being a very personal account of his life’s regrets. But mainly, and understandably, this is a portrait of a very prolific Aussie artist. The film also manages to get that difficult balance that all music docos face – getting the ratio of performance clips to talking – just right. This film is definitely worth checking out if you ever get the chance. If like me, you only really know of Joe through the Black Sorrows, there is a lot more to him both personally and professionally than that and this film is an enjoyable way to learn more. Here is a preview to whet your appetite.
Second up on the feature film program was Daniel Krige’s Australian produced horror flick Redd Inc. One of the great things going for this film is the cracking premise. We’ve all had days at work when we feel like death… or feel like murdering a colleague. In Redd Inc. six strangers wake up in a strange room, handcuffed and chained to a desk. They are in for a very bad day at the office. The film takes some interesting twists and turns, so I won’t go into too many plot details at the risk of spoiling things for you. In broad terms though, these six people have been imprisoned by an escaped psychopath who gives them the impossible task of somehow proving that he was innocent of the murders he was convicted. I have heard people say that Australia makes no genre films. Which is just false, of course we make em. Plenty of them are good too. Like this one.
I must admit that I don’t watch a lot of modern horror film, but I found this an enjoyable, if hard to watch at times, ride. Redd Inc. really ramps up the gore, and to help achieve this facet of the film, the filmmakers enlisted Tom Savini. For those non-horror nut readers, Savini is the makeup/special effects maestro behind stone cold horror classics Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th amongst many other films. Getting Savini onboard was a good investment, because the onscreen gore really pops (all too literally in one scene) and looks a whole lot better than many films with much higher budgets. The performances are good too, led by the menacing Nicholas Hope as Thomas Reddman. Director Daniel Krige has brought to the screen a really slick film. It is not easy to maintain interest, both visually and narratively, when the action is confined to the one room, but Krige achieves that with aplomb.
The film was followed by a Q and A, with Aussie actor Rhys Muldoon interviewing director Daniel Krige, which was highly enjoyable. The two had a really good rapport and Muldoon took the discussion in some interesting directions, discussing horror influences and the themes of the film.
Closing out the feature film program was Letters from the Big Man, which the night before had picked up the Gold Yowie for best feature. The film follows Sarah (Lily Rabe), a woman who is looking to escape her past, or at the very least an ex-boyfriend. She takes a contract doing surveying work in a forest and it is there that she discovers a sasquatch. Or more precisely, the sasquatch allows himself to be discovered by Sarah.
One of the undoubted stars of this film, especially early on, is the scenery on display. Steadicam shots follow from on high as Sarah’s car journeys away from civilisation and along winding mountain roads. The journey continues through river rapids, in another sequence featuring breathtaking scenery. After these initial journeys through this forest, Sarah settles in to a small cabin, as does much of the story that follows. A lot of the incredible scenery, dense forests, and even just some of the tone of this flick reminded me a bit of Kurosawa’s stone cold classic Dersu Uzala. The film looks really sharp throughout. It is really well edited, with fades and cuts, especially nice are the early sequences cutting between Sarah and the sasquatch’s daily routines.
One of the ways in which Sarah’s increasing discovery of the world of the sasquatch is conveyed, is through the artwork she creates during her time in the forest. Initially she draws shadowy figures, staring out from the forest. These pictures evolve into more fully formed sketches and paintings of the mythical creature. It is great to see a new take on the cinematic sasquatch develop through the film. The sasquatch who reveals himself to Sarah is an ethereal being of sorts, with ESP-like powers to manipulate subtle energies and emotions in humans. They are essentially physically stationary presences throughout the film, but comforting rather than menacing presences. One character explains that they exist “between realities”. And somehow director Christopher Munch has managed to really draw out this existence beautifully.
At one point during the film, snippets of a stage performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest enter the equation. When a friend watching the play with Sarah asks her what the hell it was about, she replies “magic and nature, nature and magic”. I’m not suggesting that Letters from the Big Man is a work quite on the level of Mr Shakespeare’s. But despite some side-roads into a government conspiracy and a sorta-romance, like the play this film is about “magic and nature”. A pretty interesting exploration of those themes too.
That is all she (he?) wrote from the 2012 Blue Mountains Film Festival. It was a hell of a time. Hopefully I will be back on board writing the Online Cinema for the festival’s website (if you haven’t checked that out yet, then go here and do so) and reporting from the festival again next year.