These two first came to light in a play by Scottish writer Kieran Hurley. Director Brian Welsh saw it and related to it because it took him back to his own years as a Glasgow adolescent hooked on techno music and the raves that were part of the city’s nocturnal scene until the law stepped in.
The film is set in 1994, the year of the quaintly worded Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill outlawing music involving “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This is disastrous news for Spanner and Johnno whose passion for head-banging techno is the first thing we learn about them.
Welsh puts a lot of energy – plus hundreds of extras – into re-creating the atmosphere of mass delirium that envelopes the crowd. The effects are kaleidoscopic, the rhythm unrelenting. It’s a weirdly primitive tribal rite of passage followed by a sobering return to reality the next morning. But to these kids, it means freedom.
There are echoes of 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the Manchester rave scene of the 1980s and ’90s told from the performers’ and promoters’ view. This, in contrast, is about the kids who used the music and its beat as an escape valve. Welsh’s best trick is to make you care about them.
In My Blood It Runs ★★★
Australian director Maya Newell’s In My Blood It Runs draws its moral authority from a child’s voice, says reviewer Jake Wilson. The central figure is Dujuan Hoosan, a young boy who belongs to the Arrernte people in Central Australia, living primarily in Alice Springs in the care of his grandmother Carol Turner (credited as a collaborating director, as are other family members).
Dujuan, who speaks three languages and practises as a healer, has a precocious awareness of what it means to grow up shifting between cultures. While he has a mischievous side, he’s articulate and serious and it’s easy to imagine him as a future leader. But none of this stops him from getting into trouble at school, where his attention frequently wanders, and the lessons from mainly white teachers don’t always gel with what he’s learned elsewhere.
The impression of the Australian education system is far from flattering. Some of the scenes captured by Newell might have been overdone in a work of fiction – as when Dujuan’s teacher reads aloud from a textbook apparently from the 1950s that describes Australia as a “new” country discovered by Captain Cook.
This is history for white people, as Dujuan puts it. Further flashes of history come from archival clips woven in with the present-day footage, painting an often hair-raising picture of how children like him have been treated in the past. The implication is that all this, too, forms part of his heritage – and that his fear of becoming part of a new Stolen Generation is not unreasonable.
The prettiness of the film could be seen as protective camouflage for the frank anger that surfaces from time to time, particularly in Dujuan’s comments towards the end. However, you feel about these tactics, this is an effective film and, in its commitment to its subjects, an honourable one.
The Professor and the Madman ★★
Mel Gibson walked off this project three years ago, before it was finished, writes reviewer Paul Byrnes. He appears here as the Scottish lexicographer James Murray, founding compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, only because his lawyers failed to stop its American producers, Voltage Pictures, from finishing it without him.
The director’s name is fictional. P. B. Shemran is really Farhad Safinia, an Iranian who co-wrote Apocalypto with Gibson in 2006. Gibson acquired the rights to Simon Winchester’s book The Surgeon of Crowthorne in 1998, at publication. He was going to direct it himself; then Luc Besson, then John Boorman.
All came to nought, but Gibson kept at it. His commitment was like that of James Murray himself, who toiled away in Oxford from 1879 until his death in 1915. In late 2016, with $US25 million spent, Gibson and Safinia asked Voltage chief executive Nicolas Chartier for an extra five days shooting – but in Oxford, rather than Dublin, where most of the film had been shot. Chartier refused, claiming the film was already late and over-budget. Gibson and Safinia sued for control, but lost.
Safinia’s original cut was at least 35 minutes longer than this one. It might well have been better, but that would not be hard. The film is a bombastic dirge verging on the preposterous.
Still, Gibson gives full voice to his character, with obvious affection for what Murray achieved, despite the odds. It’s heartfelt. Penn gives Dr William Chester Minor, an American schizophrenic, the “mumblecore” treatment, dropping further into the bass notes of his range as Minor becomes more unhinged. Penn’s performance is a carnival of crazy, a showy compendium of ticks and whirrs, the kind that Academy voters often mistake for good acting.
Minor was a Civil War military surgeon who drifted unhappily to London, pursued by his demons. In 1872, in Lambeth, he shot and killed George Merrett, a stranger, claiming he was pursuing an attacker. Minor was sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he heard about Murray’s dictionary. Murray had appealed for public help to find the earliest quotations for every word in the English language – a mammoth task. The extremely well-read Dr Minor became his most prolific collaborator, contributing notes on more than 10,000 words.
Winchester’s story was already remarkable, but not neat enough for Hollywood. So here we have a dramatic scene, many years after the collaboration began, in which Murray goes to Broadmoor to meet Dr Minor, assuming he is a member of staff. The leg-irons give away the truth. In fact, Murray knew well before they met that Minor was an inmate.
The Call of the Wild ★★★½
In the opening scenes of this adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 classic The Call of the Wild, Buck looks like a typical canine comedian in the Disney mould, says reviewer Sandra Hall. He bumbles through life, blithely creating havoc wherever he goes, but his family loves him.
But his happy days are soon to come to an end. One night, he’s spirited away by a dognapper and shipped north to the Klondike, centre of the Alaskan Gold Rush, to be sold for service as a sled dog. Gone is his sitcom existence as the indulged pet of a doting household. If he’s to survive, he has to dial up his primitive side and acquire the instincts of a top dog.
The film is the first one to be released under the 20th Century Pictures banner, which was established after Disney’s takeover of Fox. But in all the ways that matter, it’s a Disney movie. The director is Chris Sanders, a Disney and Dreamworks veteran skilled in the CGI arts, which are lavishly employed.
Buck is a CGI creation. His animators had a live canine model rescued from an animal shelter – a Saint Bernard and Scotch Collie cross called Buckley – but he’s been brought to life by Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat, who has animated a menagerie of wildlife during his career in Hollywood. Notary put on a motion capture suit and produced the moves that flesh out the essential elements of Buck’s personality, including the jowls.
The result is an odd but pacey mix of Disney’s brand of anthropomorphism and London’s much tougher variety.
You may be wondering when Buck’s co-star Harrison Ford is going to appear. It takes a while, together with one or two serious reversals of fortune involving Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens baring his teeth as a sadistic rich boy turned gold digger. But eventually, he comes to Buck’s rescue.
He, too, is hunting for gold but he doesn’t much care if he finds it or not. Mourning his dead son, he hasn’t much heart for anything. In other words, Ford has snared another grumpy old man role of the kind he seems to have been hankering after since glumly seducing audiences as Han Solo all those years ago. And he does it well.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.