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A Shadow from the West?

[I]t sure feels like we are being attacked simply because we are a big fat juicy target – not for any wrong doing. We haven’t even been greenlit yet! It feels as if we have a large Aussie cousin kicking sand in our eyes…or to put it another way, opportunists exploiting our film for their own political gain.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: Still reeling from MGM’s dismal cashflow situation and the departure of Guillermo del Toro, The Hobbit now faces another threat from — according to Peter Jackson, at least —an Australian actor’s union muscling in on Kiwi turf, and potentially sending the Land of Middle-Earth over to Eastern Europe.

The link above is PJ’s account of where things stand. I understand he’s management in this instance, but, speaking as someone who’s very pro-union in general but has had issues with some specific organizing tactics in the past, his summary sounds eminently plausible to me.

Man in a Box.

A man of dubious character, a desperate and beautiful woman, an illicit romance, a cuckolded criminal, some arsonists-for-hire, and a ginormous bag of money: Clearly, this is not going to end well. But as with most exercises in noir, it’s all in the telling. And, while you could argue that Nash Edgerton’s The Square sorta loses its footing in the last fifteen minutes or so, it’s still a reasonably decent Aussie thriller in the vein of other recent neo-noirs like A Simple Plan, Fargo, or One False Move. No need to rush out and see it, I don’t think, but it’s definitely worth adding to the Netflix queue, if you’re a fan of the genre.

This particular tale of the evil that Men do and the fickleness of Fate begins with a tryst — Underneath the overpass and watched by their respective canine companions, two lovers enjoy a brief flurry of passion in a parked car. (As in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, this is the fleeting moment of ecstasy that sets up the tale of woe to follow.) The man here is Ray (David Roberts, most recognizable to me as one of the “other” captains in the Matrix sequels), a married construction foreman not above taking a few kickbacks on the side. The woman is Carla (Claire van der Boom), also married, who works at the local beauty salon and spends her nights deflecting the advances of her thug husband’s creepy, ne’er-do-well friends.

The trouble emerges when said husband, Greg (Anthony Hayes), brings home a ginormous satchel of blood-soaked cash one night, and Carla happens to notice him — unbeknownst that he’s being watched — stowing it away in the attic space above the bathroom. Now that kind of money could change lives, and if she and Ray got their hands on it…They could skip this town, flee their respective spouses, and start anew. Ray has doubts when he hears of the plan (and seems less happy that a decision point has been reached anyway.) But if his choice is Carla and the Big Steal or a return to his loveless marriage and workaday construction life…well, that’s really no choice at all.

And so Ray and Claire enlist the aid of a professional but vaguely dodgy-seeming arsonist (Joel Edgerton, the director’s brother and Uncle Owen of Episode II) and his in-over-her-head girlfriend Lily (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence) to set off a fire that will give them a cover story for when they abscond with the missing loot. But, the best laid plans and all that. Inevitably, something goes horribly wrong…several things, actually. And not only that, but somebody else seems to know about The Plan, and starts blackmailing Ray after the fact. Is it Eddie (Damon Herriman) or Leonard (Brendan Donoghue, eerily Bale-like), one of the aforementioned creepy friends? Or is it one of the guys at his site, like Ray’s #2 Jake (Peter Phelps)? Whoever it is, Ray needs to lock him or her down, before a suspicious husband or an agitated arsonist take matters into their own hands…

That should give you the gist of it — The Square is one of those movies where a seemingly simple criminal plan, through happenstance, incident and a steady confluence of minor screw-ups, just takes one wrong turn after another. (In a way, this is a grimmer Aussie version of The Ice Harvest, except now Xmas is a summertime holiday.) And to its credit, not only do the characters rarely do dumb things in this story, they sometimes do surprisingly smart things: See, for example, Ray’s detective work in his office involving the scented card. Of course, smart, dumb, or otherwise, the gods tend to laugh at the plans of men, and, in this particular world, Edgerton is a cruel master indeed.

In fact, the Fates are so remorseless here that Ray and Claire’s frozen run of luck starts to bleed out into the population at large. It’s not just the supporting cast who have to worry: Bystanders and even pets just minding their own business also have catastrophic events befall them as the story moves on. (C’mon now, the swimming incident was gratuitous.) For what it’s worth, this anything-can-happen-to-anyone feel of The Square was anticipated by Spider, an Edgerton-directed short shown just before The Square here at the Landmark E-Street, about a man’s disastrous attempt to kiss-and-make-up after a recent feud with his girlfriend. And when the writer-director of your movie is also a full-fledged stuntman, you have to expect that some really bad things might happen in the story.

In any case, I have some quibbles with the very end of The Square, which I can’t really talk about in specifics without giving the game away. (To speak in general terms: basically, unfortunate happenstance even trumps plot dynamics at the end — The story doesn’t build to an inevitable conclusion so much as more bad stuff happens.) But, up to that point, The Square is for the most part a crisp, atmospheric, and laudably intelligent neo-noir from the Land Down Under. My advice: You better run, you better take cover.

28 Hours Later.

By way of Kris, a recent survivor of the apparent zombie apocalypse that took place in Sydney, Tom Coates of Plasticbag has collected a gallery of some of the day’s more amazing pictures. (FWIW, ten years ago, Coates’ Barbelith was an inspiration for starting GitM.) I particularly like this one, the bridge, the funhouse, and the weird Matrix-y kitchen.

Dusty and the Black Sites.

“Eventually, the agency’s network would encompass at least eight detention centers, including one in the Middle East, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maximum-security long-term site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that was dubbed Strawberry Fields, officials said. (It was named after a Beatles song after C.I.A. officials joked that the detainees would be held there, as the lyric put it, ‘forever.’)

Charming. The NYT gets a window into the CIA’s top-secret “black sites” program courtesy of former #3 man Dusty Foggo, who — irony alert — is currently serving a three-year term in a Kentucky jail on fraud charges associated with Duke Cunningham. (I presume Kentucky’s finest have yet to break out the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on this joker. Speaking of which, “[n]othing exotic was required for the infamous waterboards — they were built on the spot from locally available materials…The cells were constructed with special features to prevent injury to the prisoners during interrogations: nonslip floors and flexible, plywood-covered walls to soften the impact of being slammed into the wall.“)

Grow Young or Die Trying.

As seen in front of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (twice), Brad Pitt goes back in time in the trailer for David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and also featuring Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond. (Until it officially is released, this is the Spanish-language version.) Looks intriguing…and is it just me, or is it exceedingly strange to see Swinton and Blanchett in the same film?

Also in today’s trailer bin: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino look for two full hours of that Heat magic in the second preview for Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, also starring Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, 50 Cent, Brian Dennehy, and Donnie Wahlberg. (I’m not sold yet, even if Inside Man‘s Russell Gewirtz is the scribe.) And, over in former Soviet Union, the new international, R-rated trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted pops up on the grid, with James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Terrence Stamp, and Thomas Kretschmann. Definitely maybe…although Night Watch had a good preview too.

Update: I neglected to post this one the other day: Uptown girl Nicole Kidman and cowboy Hugh Jackman find love during World War II in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s historical epic Australia. Not really my cup of tea, but you never know.

Ex-Pats United.

It’s not just here at home. Sen. Obama takes the Americans Abroad primary 2-1 (65%-32%), winning most of the countries around the world (Ex-pats in Israel and the Philippines opted for Clinton.) Thanks, Kris, and all the other Obama voters out there across the seas. Update: Clinton did well in the DR as well.

Howard’s End.

“Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward.” Dubya loses an important conservative ally on the international front as long-standing Australian PM John Howard is voted out of office, to be replaced by Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party. “Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, has also promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, leaving the U.S. as the only industrialized country not to have joined it…Rudd promised to pull Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq in a phased withdrawal, and to quickly sign Kyoto. Howard had rejected withdrawal plans for Australia’s troops in Iraq, and refused to ratify the pact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Ozzie ozzie ozzie! Welcome back to the reality-based community, y’all (and here’s hoping we catch up with you next year.)

The Bloody Business which Informs.

Scots meet Aussies in the trailer for Geoffrey Wright’s gangsterland update of Macbeth, with Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, and Lachy Hume.

Greenhouse Doghouse.

Shunned by Dubya and spurred on by Bill Clinton, the rest of the world comes together to limit greenhouse gases and extend the Kyoto treaty. “Brushing aside the Bush administration’s fierce protests, all the industrialized nations except the United States and Australia were near an agreement Friday night to embark on a new round of formal talks aimed at setting new mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the existing pact known as the Kyoto Protocol expires.

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