From Australian Film

Paranoid Power Rules in ANIMAL KINGDOM

Based on a real life family of robbers in Australia, this film dives deep into crime and the paranoia associated with a family where even the bonds of blood can't guarantee safety.

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Wolf Creek 2: More Mick, More Savagery

Wolf Creek 2. 2014. Directed by Greg McLean. Screenplay by McLean & Aaron Sterns.
Starring John Jarratt, Ryan Corr, Shannon Ashlyn, Philippe Klaus, Shane Connor, & Ben Gerrard. Duo Art Productions/Emu Creek Pictures.
Unrated. 106 minutes.
Action/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER The first Wolf Creek came as a surprise to me being both fully fictional, as well as at the same time being partly inspired by real life Australian serial killer Ivan Milat. With the original’s ending, the news of a sequel was not surprising. However, I worried going in that director-writer Greg McLean, this time joined in writing duties by Aaron Sterns, might simply rehash all the same elements. It’s easy for horror sequels to fall by the wayside, either not exciting enough to match its original or too much of the same thing, or any number of problems.
Wolf Creek 2 is a fun little sequel. Because whereas it does go through many similar motions as the first film, there’s also enough differences to make it fresh, to make it intriguing, and most of all it keeps the character of Mick Taylor going strong. Definitely slightly more gruesome than the original, too. So even if there are times you might find yourself feeling like McLean is beating a dead horse, wait a few seconds. Either the renewed brutality of killer Mick will hook you, or perhaps the plight of a new victim might do the trick.
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On the Australian highway, deep in the Outback, a young German couple are hitchhiking their way through the barren landscapes. When they get to the Wolf Creek National Park, the couple camp for the night. But later, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) shows up. He seems friendly, advising the couple they ought to get moving, as there’s no camping in the national park. Quickly one thing becomes another, and eventually Mick’s killing again.
Afterwards, one of them manages to get away. And in the process, a young British man named Paul Hammersmith (Ryan Corr) becomes entangled with the mad Aussie serial killer. When Mick gets Paul back to his isolated camp, he wants to play a game. So he begins asking Paul some trivia; 10 questions, 5 right answers, then Mick will let him go.
Only problem? Every wrong question Paul gets one of his fingers ground off down to the bone.
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Part of Wolf Creek 2 is very much a chase movie, or the first three quarters of the film is an extended chase sequence. What I enjoy most is that we start off immediately with Mick this time, as opposed to the first movie that stays with the eventual victims for a long time; which is great for that one. Here, we’re starting to delve further into Mick. There’s no massive exposition about his life or his character, but just starting off in his perspective, seeing what he’s up to, it pulls us into his world. Then there’s a shift, and we head to the German tourists. Finally, the lead protagonist Paul ends up in the mix after he sort of winds up in the middle of one of the Germans being hunted by Mick. A stroke of bad luck takes us from one set of characters to a new one. I love when screenplays can sort of psych us out that way, making you feel we’re about to spend a good deal of time with certain characters before pulling the rug out from under our feet. Impressively, McLean and Sterns also setup Paul’s character fairly quick, and that cuts down on any interruptions. The pacing stays tight, tense, and the story moves along without getting held up.
A majorly interesting bit in the film, which is the real meat of it and still doesn’t come until the last quarter, is when Mick has Paul back at his camp. The fact it’s Australia v. Britain here is super interesting, even more so when Mick asks questions for his game about when British convicts were first sent over to Australia, et cetera. You can really feel all the animosity Mick has towards the British. That’s clear right away when he constantly calls Paul a “Pommy cunt” and other variations of the word. But as the scene wears on, you can feel his hate of the British come out. When you parallel that with the way he talked to the German couple, it’s so evident he has got a beef. Perhaps, as a criminal and serial killer, he feels especially sensitive, as he would’ve been shipped over there had he been kicking around England at the time.
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John Jarratt will likely forever be remembered most for his portrayal of Mick Taylor. Simply because it’s a real transformation. You see Jarratt in interviews, special features, making-of featurettes, and he is this sort of quiet, subdued type of man. Then he’ll toss in his Mick laugh, and you can see such a contrast between who he is and where he has to take himself to play the role. He is charming at times, even when he’s busy psychotic. Above all, he is intimidating. He is a tough, powerful, evil man as Mick. Often times in slashers it’s either a masked villain, or someone whose identity is kept secret for a portion of the film. Here, and even in the first, he is out in the open, he is hunting, and there’s nowhere to hide from the guy. He commands your fear. One of my favourite moments in this sequel, which is also sort of funny at the same time, is when Paul makes off down the corridors of Mick’s tunnels, and Mick yells out “You Pommy cuuuuunt” and lingers hard on the last word. While it definitely makes me chuckle a little, it is simultaneously terrifying. The anger in him simmers below the surface almost constantly, and in moments like this it breaks out, almost shaking the frame. Without Jarratt, Wolf Creek and its sequel would be nothing. Wolf Creek 2 is as good as its predecessor, simply because Jarratt gives us more of the character, he lets us have more of the character and more of his horror; he is the horror.
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This is a pretty solid horror sequel; a 4-star bit of slasher cinema. There are many macabre bits to Wolf Creek 2 and though some say the first is more vicious, this one to me is far more brutal than the original. We get a deeper look at the camp of Mick Taylor, the tunnels below, the vast playground of terror where he operates. The first was properly chilling. This one ups the chill a few notches. And when the finale plays out, you won’t necessarily find yourself rolling your eyes like so many other sequels where the villain is stretched on and on, thin to the point of falling apart. No, instead you’ll be wondering what exactly Mick will bring in the inevitable Wolf Creek 3. I’m hoping the third, or the upcoming television mini-series, will dive into some prequel aspects to the story, as well as Mick himself. Being based on Ivan Milat fairly heavily, I’d like to think Greg McLean plans on examining some of what led to Mick as a character becoming as evil as he is now. Either way, this is a solid little flick and worth your time. Big bonus if you find Jarratt scarily entertaining as this bound to be classic horror villain.

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Wolf Creek’s Roots and Serial Killer Aesthetic

Wolf Creek 2005. Directed & Written by Greg McLean.
Starring John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, Gordon Poole, Guy O’Donnell, Phil Stevenson, Geoff Revell, Andy McPhee, Aaron Sterns, & Michael Moody. The Australian Film Finance Corporation & The South Australian Film Corporation/403 Productions.
Rated R. 99 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
POSTER This movie is firmly planted in fiction. No doubt. Even so, Greg McLean’s lead antagonist in Wolf Creek is quite obviously modeled on one of Australia’s most notorious killers, Ivan Milat. Between 1989 and 1992, he tortured, sexually molested, and murdered seven backpackers, whose bodies were then dumped in the Belanglo Forest, which is south of Sydney. As a big fan of the psychology behind criminals, particularly serial killers, I read a fascinating book by Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris called How to Make a Serial Killer. One of the cases they examine is Milat. The book takes a look at nature versus nurture, or rather Berry-Dee and Morris contend that it’s usually, more often than not, a combination of the two elements. The extensive chapter on Milat’s crimes is shocking, almost more so than McLean’s screenplay, which is god damn chilling, and rough in terms of horror. One of the best quotes is from a forensic psychiatrist named Dr. Rod Milton, he says that Ivan “enjoyed the power and the sexual gratification that he got from his victims. I think it was violence for the sake of violence in someone who enjoyed the explosion of violence.”
In Wolf Creek, none of the victims or even the killer gets named for their real life counterpart. Which is good because that takes a certain responsibility off of McLean to keep things completely real to Milat’s life, as well as preserves at least some respect for the victims of the actual horrors. Yet the stories are the same, and this one doesn’t shy away from being brutal, nasty even at times. The explosiveness of that violence in Milat is very present in our killer here. McLean manages to make what others will call ‘torture porn’ into something better, focusing more on the people the killer encounters than the killer himself. Although, sometimes that’s what holds this film back.
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One of the majorly scary parts about Wolf Creek for me is how Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) has all that isolation in the Outback. Just as Milat did. Essentially, he had miles and miles all as his own playground, to do what he wished with his victims. Worse than that he always did the Good Samaritan gig. Like when he encounters the guy and the two women partway through. So once people were out in the midst of nowhere, Milat did his thing with little to no fear of ever being noticed. Scarier still is his pathology as a serial killer. In the Berry-Dee/Morris book there’s another creepy quote that’s always in the back of my mind later on during the film when we see some of the atrocities in his little playground at home: “He would play with the corpses of his victims, posing them in positions that held some secret meaning for him & then secreting the bodies in places & in a manner that would signify something intensely personal to him.” As the corpses of some victims of Mick’s lay around in his garage, where he further tortures his latest victims, just look at how they’re strung up and arranged. Then think about that quote. Maybe there’s something more to it than a mutilated body being posed that way than only convenience, as every killer’s got their own horrifying little quirk that speak to their individual psychology.
Now this brings me to one of my only negative points about McLean’s writing. I do dig the fact we’re given so much time with the eventual victims before what happens in the second half of the film. Because more than some slashers where we get a little lead in before characters start getting axed, Wolf Creek really allows us the time to get to know these people. They feel genuine and real, so their plight is even more troubling. However, other than the killing we don’t get much of Mick. There’s a good little bit where he does the nice guy routine, luring them in, lulling them down to a sense of complacency before striking. But personally, having read about Milat, it would’ve done us good to get a little bit more insight on Mick as a character. Not saying there needs to be a prequel or that the movie needed an extra hour. Just that for a movie with such rich characters, its killer deserves more. Let’s face it, he is one of the major reasons this movie is actually scary. As unsettled as you are knowing something is eventually going to go bad, Jarratt makes Mick into something altogether appalling. The transition from nice to nasty is impressive, as some actors would have that kind of mean streak running through them the entire performance. Not Jarratt. He truly sells Mick’s whole helpful persona, being this foolish, silly kind of guy up until he’s not. With such a solid performer as Jarratt, it’s an even bigger shame the character doesn’t get fleshed out a little more. Still, that doesn’t change the fact Jarratt makes this killer into an intimidating figure.
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The look of the film is great. Everything looks and feels natural. Best of all, the scenery, the design of Mick’s Outback camp/house, is so spot on. And it doesn’t feel like they tried to replicate Leatherface’s house, as so many modern horrors tend to go when creating a lair for their villain. There’s no shortage of macabre delights at Mick’s place. It just isn’t a ridiculously overblown design. Everything is perfect in that regard. On top of that, all the principal photography for the movie was done handheld. This gives things an even more realistic flow and atmosphere. The lighting and everything makes some of the scenes, after things turn frightening, so wonderfully sinister. There’s always a grim and ominous atmosphere even from the start, as there always feels danger might be around any corner, but things definitely kick into gear later on with Mick doing his torture routine. McLean and cinematographer Will Gibson capture a lot of good stuff here. As opposed to a standard slasher we’re instead given something that comes off as much more close to life just by how it’s shot.
François Tétaz composed a score that pairs well with the horror. There are many moments where the only sounds we hear are those plied out by Mick from his victims. Then underneath, Tétaz plucks away with little woodwind sounds and cymbals, other tiny sounds, and that only intensifies those scenes where suspense is running high. A cheesy or shitty score can really detract from a good horror. In this case, it does the opposite. Tétaz draws us in with gorgeous pieces, as well as those small bits that augment what would be a simple torture scene in another film, but becomes something more interesting with McLean calling the shots. For me, the score is a big part of what separates this from other similar movies that focus on the hideous acts of serial killers, and it makes Wolf Creek even more unsettling at the right times.
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Not perfect, but Wolf Creek packs an indelible punch. There’s still terror each time I decide to put this one on. John Jarratt’s charmingly psychotic role is one of the highlights. Overall, though, Greg McLean has given us a pretty good modern horror. A realistic slasher, almost. Using the roots of Ivan Milat to ground the character of Mick Taylor in the real world, McLean presents us with unabashedly brutal horror, as he gives us insight into the terror of a serial killer’s victims. And as the film wears on, so does its haunting nature. This one stayed with me a while after simply because of its raw quality. Not everyone’s cup of tea surely. Yet this is one bit of horror that keeps me glued to the screen.

Snowtown: The Chilling Seduction of the Disadvantaged

Snowtown. 2011. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Screenplay by Shaun Grant. Based on books by Debi Marshall & Andrew McGarry.
Starring Lucas Pittaway, Bob Adriaens, Louise Harris, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Richard Green, Aaron Viergever, & Daniel Henshall. The South Australian Film Corporation/Carver Films/Screen Australia/Warp Films Australia.
Rated R. 119 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Before his wonderfully grim and atmospheric Macbeth adaptation, director Justin Kurzel first wowed me with Snowtown. This is a film dedicated to telling an awful, tragic story, and in the most impressive way possible. Aesthetically, you’ll be hard pressed to find such an intense look at the horrific crimes of a real life serial killer as this movie.
Using the real life killings and crime spree of infamous Australian criminal John BuntingSnowtown examines how the lower class and the disadvantaged are in danger of being prey for emotional/sexual predators, as well as those masquerading in the costume of saviours. When Bunting came into contact with James Vlassakis and his mother, as well her other children, he did so under the guise of being a protector. From there, the group which began surrounding them all became much like a cult of personality, everyone following Bunting as he launched a self-imposed campaign of murder and torture against paedophiles and abusers, some confirmed, others only suspected. Bunting often called his killings “playing”, as well as the fact he and accomplice Robert Wagner ritually played the song “Selling the Drama” by the band Live as they murdered, tortured, and cut people into pieces. While this movie definitely contains graphic, explicit material, Kurzel does an amazing job straddling the line of decency. With regards to movies focused on actual serial killers directors and writers can run the danger of being insensitive, being too overtly nasty, and just generally risk coming off as disrespectful. However, for all its brutality and dark subject matter, Snowtown remains a disturbingly raw and honest look at one of the most terrible men to have ever walked the streets of Australia, or anywhere else for that matter.
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There are so many things at play in this film. Underrated Australian actor Daniel Henshall brings John Bunting to life in an especially dangerous manner. He’s not a big, huge man, but even in his quietest moments there’s this simmering power right below this soft and smiley exterior. It isn’t evident right away. As the movie progresses, you start to understand there’s something very wrong with him. Because at first he’s really a white knight for Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Though we know who John Bunting is, or most of us do coming to the film, there’s still a questionable aspect to his character here. He’s doing what a lot of people say they’d do to paedophiles, rapists. Along the line things start to become clearer, and the fact Bunting is stealing welfare cheques, prescriptions, et cetera, is a little less knight in shining armour. Not just that we see how reckless the judge, jury, executioner routine becomes, as John starts to need less and less proof. Furthermore, he and his pal Robert start to close ranks. Bit by bit they start to kill people closer to home. And all the while there are times you’ve really got to question your own morality, whether some of these people deserved death. Likely if you’re a real good person, there won’t be anything relatable about Bunting or his crimes. I don’t identify with him whatsoever. But seeing some of the troubles of these lower class families it makes you wonder if getting some deviants off the streets wasn’t the right thing. Until things go much, much too far. There’s one murder in particular that is devastating. Then you can see Bunting exactly for the monster he is. What once was the disguise of a vigilante is then revealed to be plain and simple psychopathy.
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What’s incredibly interesting is the relationship between Bunting and Jamie. After we’ve seen the abuse Jamie’s suffered at the hands of his mother’s old boyfriend, and even his own stepbrother, there’s a scene where they’re eating supper together. John casually asks Jamie if he likes “being fucked“, and you can see the young man’s surprise at hearing it so openly. After that he slowly reels Jamie into his grasp. Even to his mother, Jamie says not to fuck up her relationship with John after they’ve had a big argument. He gets indoctrinated gradually. It doesn’t matter that his own friend gets murdered, he goes along. Jamie then finds himself along for a brutal, dark ride. Because in the end, it’s all about the socioeconomic realities of Jamie and his life as a disadvantaged young man, stuck in housing projects, forever doomed to be part of the lower class without any real hope going forward. Along comes Bunting, who knows how to pull a fast one – even if by murder – and figures out ways to scam the system. Sadly, for Jamie, there is nothing else in the way of hope. So inadvertently, after everything he’s seen Bunting do, after his own personal heartache, Jamie becomes this pawn in a series of murders.
There are some gorgeously poignant scenes throughout the screenplay, which Kurzel brings to life. There’s one scene that felt to epitomize Jamie’s situation – he sits near the fire at a big party outside, he just watches as everyone else jumps around, dancing, having fun, and you can really feel the weight of everything bearing down upon him. Another perfectly captured moment is when John’s got Jamie out posing as a dead man so they can get an extra cheque from the government; John sits just behind the young man, peeking out around him, and it’s just about the most dead-on image of Bunting that you can find. He is the mastermind behind all their misery.
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The cinematography is very natural. I love the style of directing that Kurzel uses herebecause we really start to feel a part of this world. As disgustingly gritty as it is, the life of John Bunting and his associates feels all too real. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective Season 1, Top of the LakeLore) is someone whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past handful of years, ever since I first got the chance to see Animal Kingdom. He’s able to make things feel like they’re not simply blocked and set in front of a camera. There’s a wonderful chaos and frenetic feel to his lens, yet contained chaos. His close focus on the characters and their actions take us into their lives. In the slow burning moments, which are plenty, the story moves along so well because Arkapaw allows us to feel directly in every last moment, as opposed to stuck outside looking at perfect frames constantly. Things don’t always need to be steady and centered and composed like an equation. Arkapaw’s camera helps us connect, even if that’s a difficult, horrifying task.
Even better, director Justin’s younger brother Jed is an amazing composer, and he lends his talents to Snowtown with a beautiful score to underpin all the macabre events of its story. His music is this haunting soundtrack, one that makes strange moments in the screenplay feel like dreams. And even with all the realism of the camerawork there are still times where all the various pieces out of the score almost give off a surreal atmosphere.
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There were a couple things I wish were more clear in the screenplay. A few things involving John Bunting’s character I never quite fully grasped that felt a little too cryptic. But overall, Snowtown is one of the greatest films concerning real life crime I’ve seen. It is so brutally, openly honest about its subject matter, and its main subject in Bunting. Whereas some many find it an endurance test at points because of its few graphic bits, this is much more a psychological crime film than horror. At the same time, it is most certainly a terrifying piece of cinema. Both Lucas Pittaway and Daniel Henshall give spectacular performances that make the characters of Jamie Vlassakis and John Bunting feel totally real. The look and feel of the film as a whole makes its plot that much more effective. Also, Kurzel used many locals who had never acted, most from a rough location called Davoren Park (around where many of the murders took place), which further lends authenticity to the whole production; aside from Henshall and Richard Green, everyone else was pretty much picked up from that area. Although a few reviews I’ve seen seem to toss this off as a bunch of boring, slow moving cinema with a shock or two and real life crime as its basis, for me Snowtown is a frank and chilling tale of how the lower echelons of society are susceptible to dangerous influence, and they are at much more risk than alcoholism, getting diabetes, heart disease, any of the normal things you’d hear. Bunting was pretty much evil incarnate. He struck at the weak and the economically crippled, the easier his target the better. Kurzel manages to make an interesting and suspenseful journey out of some of the most shocking murders in Australian history.

Chopper: A Storytelling Liar

Chopper. 2000. Directed & Written by Andrew Dominik; based on the books of Mark Brandon Read.
Starring Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham, Kate Beahan, Serge Liistro, Pam Western, Gary Waddell, Brian Mannix, Skye Wansey, Annalise Emtsis, & Johnnie Targhan. Australian Film Finance Corporation/Mushroom Pictures/Pariah Entertainment Group.
Unrated. 94 minutes.
Biography/Comedy/Crime

★★★★1/2
POSTERMany true stories are often a rosy-eyed view of the life of their subjects. Too often they devolve into hero worship or over sentimentality. Really, what a good biography deserves is truth. Even if that truth has many sides.
Chopper is a film about infamous Australian criminal, prisoner, author, vigilante, Mark Brandon Read – a.k.a “Chopper” Read. The tagline NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD YARN is one of his personal mantras. So, how can a story about a notorious liar find truth? In its depiction of the central character, whose mantra on truth is a huge focus. Using bits of truth and bits of who-knows-if-its-fiction from Chopper himself, director-writer Andrew Dominik explores an interesting chapter of Mark Read’s life, as Eric Bana crawls into the man’s skin, bringing to life his odd habits, his paranoid mind, and his utterly hypnotic foolishness. It’s hard not to like Chopper at times because he’s a vigilante, he likes to prey on criminals. But he is a paradox – a criminal, a murderer, a pathological liar.
Is Chopper Read a good or a bad man? Is he a product of a nasty environment? You be the judge.
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A product of the Australian penal system since the age of 16, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (Eric Bana) does a bid in jail for having kidnapped a Supreme Court judge, in order to try getting his old friend Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) out of Pentridge Prison. Inside, serving in the notoriously well-known H-Division, Chopper kills off a big time criminal in the hopes of climbing the ranks.  Instead of that happening, Chopper finds everyone turns on him. Even Jimmy tries stabbing him, unsuccessfully. With too many enemies after him Chopper has the tops of his ears cut off by another inmate, which gains him notoriety and also a transfer out of H-Division. In 1986, he’s released back unto the world.
Problem is life moves on. But ole Chop, he’s still living inside even on the outside. He’s paranoid, unable to figure out the line between enemy and friend. And soon, the delusional truths in Chop’s head start to work their way into the real world. Then the line between friend and enemy is no longer of importance because there’s no line anymore to separate dreams and reality.
But a few fibs never stopped Chop from telling a good tale, did it?
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First and foremost, Chopper is about appearances; both the film and the man. Everything about Chopper is legit, in terms of his tough guy appeal. At the same time he continually feels the need to pump himself up, one way or another. When he shoots a previous victim after getting out of jail, he brings the guy to hospital, yet then denies it to everyone else who asks. Really, Chop? Well, that’s because he has a specific idea of what and who Mark “Chopper” Read should be to the world. So what’s interesting is how director-writer Dominik decides to tackle the many stories, many of which are true, that Chopper has blown up into half-truths and half-fabrications. We go back through events at a couple points, seeing things as they really are, then through Chop’s eyes – often turned into a more elaborate, more exciting version of events. Because that’s another big aspect of the film, and of the man’s life: Chopper was always, above all else, a storyteller. And this is incredibly clear at the end. Without spoiling the plot and the finale, you can see how Chopper thrives off the social nature of his hardness, of his crazy reputation, because after he’s left all alone, nobody to talk/brag to, Chopper becomes a silent man, full of solitude, and there’s nobody there any longer to listen to his ramblings and his inflated ego.
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I often say that a certain performance is great because an actor was the only one capable of playing the role. When I say that here, in the case of Eric Bana as Mark Read it is the truest I’ve ever felt about that sentiment. No surprise even Read himself suggested Bana for the part. Because he fits the bill. It is a real transformation, especially for those who know Bana in recent years for his performances. He gained weight, rocked the fake tattoos and the goatee, beefs up his natural Australian accent into a more lower class sounding dialect. Then there’s simply the fact he strikes me as genuinely loony. Bana gets right into the skin of Chopper Read; the bravado, the paranoia, the odd sense of humour. You’ll find it hard pressed to even take your eyes off him for a second. The raw magnetism of his character leaks from every last scene. He’ll make you laugh, he’ll also make you uncomfortable, a bit frightened at times. And you will constantly be unsure of what’s to come next. Read’s volatile essence is in good hands with Bana, giving him a human side even under all the machismo and ego.
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Hands down one of my favourite biographies, ever. Nearly a perfect film, as it takes us inside such an enigmatic persona with both style and substance. Lead by an absolutely captivating performance from Eric Bana, giving us chuckles and chills, Chopper is at times horrific, others hilarious, and always it has the ability to hold your attention. Its little quirks are the best, from a scene depicting the subtle effects of speed to the moment where Chop casually hangs a bit of dong for a woman in the bar. See this if you haven’t yet, and make it a priority if you’re a big Bana fan because this is truly the performance which put him on, and will keep him on, the map. Plus, who doesn’t love a bit of true crime? As true as it can get when concerning Mr. Read.