|by Andrew Howe
We Australians like to call our homeland “The Lucky Country”, but when it comes to success on the silver screen it’s been anything but. Year after year local filmmakers turn out memorable, low-budget films, only to see their creations crushed beneath the relentless march of the Hollywood juggernaut.
Australia is widely credited with producing the world's first full-length feature film (The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906), but you can count the other notable Australian films released prior to 1975 on one hand. That decade, however, saw something of a renaissance in Australian cinema, with talented directors such as Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford turning up the heat. Weir and Phillip Noyce are the only filmmakers from this period who achieved any lasting international success (few Australian directors appear capable of building on their breakthroughs), but the groundwork laid by these latter-day pioneers was the best thing to happen to the Australian film industry since its inception.
The worst thing to happen to the Australian film industry was the release of Crocodile Dundee, circa 1986. Featuring a sizeable budget (by Australian standards) and the services of one Paul Hogan (whose career had previously amounted to nothing more than a string of mildly amusing television comedy specials), the film was an international smash, and brought Australian cinema to the attention of the world.
It proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, however, for to this day many foreign moviegoers still view that light-hearted piece of fluff as representative of both the Australian film industry and the type of film we Aussies are given to praise, and any attempt by yours truly to rectify the situation by reeling off a list of quality Australian efforts is invariably met with a blank stare.
When it comes to local performances by “name” actors, the situation isn't much better. I can’t remember the last time Mel Gibson appeared in an Australian film, and you probably won’t see Russell Crowe’s heels for dust now that he’s hit the big time (Hugo Weaving still shows his face with pleasing regularity, but then a major role in The Matrix does not an international career make). I can't exactly blame them, since the call of cash is a seductive tune, but it's unfortunate that they can't emulate Guy Pearce, who still exhibits a certain loyalty to the country that set him on the road to renown.
To make matters worse, Actor’s Equity guidelines state that any film shot on Australian soil must feature a certain number of Australian actors. This is a laudable notion, but has the following undesirable side-effects:
i) the filmmakers can select any Australian actor they like, which means that the Australian equivalent of the second-tier show their faces with monotonous regularity; and
ii) whenever somebody decides to shoot their straight-to-video masterpiece Down Under, fine Australian actors get roped into the proceedings. This is why you will spot excellent local thespian Barry Otto in the likes of The Punisher and The Howling III, which does little to raise him in anyone’s estimation.
The lion's share of the blame, however, can be laid at the door of the international distributors, for there are many Australian films which, if afforded the appropriate publicity, would have received the respect they deserve. In light of the recent international recognition afforded The Dish and Chopper, I believe the time is right to cast an appraising eye over some of these films, in the hope that someone, somewhere may heed my words and rescue these fine works from the abyss.
Before we begin, a few notes:
i) This essay is devoted solely to films by local filmmakers – the fact that George Lucas shot his latest opus in Sydney does not make it an “Australian” film (and you could mount an argument that Moulin Rouge's connection to the world's largest island is tenuous at best).
ii) Australian films are, without exception, low-budget affairs. If your taste doesn’t run to movies bereft of big-screen action and the latest in special effects, you won’t find much of interest here.
iii) Unlike many British films, Australian releases tend to feature little in the way of unfathomable slang, and the accents are rarely as impenetrable as, say, those of ninety-percent of the performers in a Welsh film. For those who detest subtitles, rest assured that they are definitely an optional extra.
So, without further ado, it's on to the films. They're in no particular order, and what better place to start than:
#1 - Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
Blessed with a title that sounds like an exercise in low-rent pornography, Bad Boy Bubby was not a commercial success upon its 1993 theatrical release. I'd like to say that it found salvation within the welcoming arms of VHS, but it sank without trace in that medium as well. This is both unfortunate and understandable, for while it is a remarkable film that was deserving of international attention, as a marketable commodity it defies the efforts of even the most accomplished celluloid spin-doctors.
Lest you think I exaggerate, I present the following plot synopsis for your edification:
Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is a grown man who lives in a dilapidated apartment with his rough-hewn mother. What sets Bubby apart from your average university-age freeloader is the fact that he's never been allowed outside the apartment, and can only communicate by repeating phrases he's picked up from those around him. After an extended opening sequence which gives the viewer cause to wonder whether the entire film will be set within the dank environs of that damn apartment, Bubby escapes into the Australian night, intent on experiencing the wonders of the real world. The remaining screen-time is devoted to chronicling his adventures, which include (but are by no means limited to) finding true love, committing armed robbery (weapon of choice: a dead cat), making a name for himself as a budding serial killer, experiencing the joys of non-consensual sodomy, and finding fame and fortune as the front-man for a pub-rock band.
Like I said, Miss Congeniality it ain't. However, what it is is an absorbing, fascinating black comedy that is unlike anything you've ever experienced, the kind of film that leaves you with equal parts head-scratching and bemused admiration. It is by no means as difficult as you might expect, and for that we can thank a script that, while undeniably experimental, holds the viewer's enjoyment in high regard, and an astonishing performance from Nicholas Hope.
Hope hasn't exactly become a household name in the years since the film's release, but Bad Boy Bubby provides sufficient laurels for a lifetime's rest. The title character is every actor's worst nightmare - since Bubby can't communicate in a traditional sense, an uncommon degree of physical expressiveness is required to service the role. Hope's efforts in this area would, in a better world, have earned him plaudits from coast-to-coast - Bubby is a child in a man's body, mixing a child's curiosity with a man's natural urges, and Hope never allows the slightest self-consciousness to slip through the cracks. Childlike wonder, wild hilarity, hangdog remorse: he takes everything the script can throw at him in his stride, with results that are alternately touching, amusing and disturbing. You don't exactly empathise with his character, but you do find yourself supporting his quest for enlightenment, and as a result the script's more outlandish conceits become surprisingly digestible.
Writer/director Rolf de Heer's opus is a grab-bag of memorable moments, mixing down-home Australian humour with something a little deeper. The film's pace is not exactly frenetic, but it's never boring, with interest maintained by the unusual (and occasionally likeable) characters that populate the film's urban landscape, and several arresting set-pieces. The script doesn't shy away from the less palatable aspects of its premise - violence, voyeurism, profanity and incest all have their moment in the sun - but it's never gratuitous, since it's simply an extension of the film's twisted internal logic. It also deviates from the "Experimental Filmmaker's Handbook" by providing us with a traditional narrative (a journey of self-discovery bracketed by a scene-setting opening and a satisfying, suitably implausible conclusion), neatly side-stepping the potential for viewer alienation.
Bad Boy Bubby is a one-of-a-kind release - I honestly can't think of anything to compare it to, but that doesn't mean it should remain the province of film-school students and art-house mavens. It's a memorable, affecting and quietly exceptional tale of a stranger in a very strange land, a film which invites the viewer to become immersed in its warped world for the duration, and believe me when I say that it's an offer you shouldn't refuse.
#2 - Shame (1987)
Asta Cadell (Deborra-Lee Furness), a leather-clad lawyer on a two-wheeled holiday, earns an unscheduled layover in an Australian country town when her motorbike breaks down. She befriends a rather fragile local girl, Lizzie (Simone Buchanan), who is in awe of Asta's self-assurance and big-city attitude. Lizzie is not alone in her frayed appearance, and it transpires that the favourite pastime of the local lads is raping the young women of the town, to which the adults (including the local law-enforcement officer) turn a blind eye. From there the film works its way to a harrowing climax, as Asta defends her new-found friend from her harassers while attempting to break through the barriers of resignation and the notion that “boys will be boys”.
The film rises or falls on whether it can convince the viewer that the basic concept is at least marginally plausible, and its budgetary limitations and lack of big-name performers ensure that it is, for the most part, chillingly believable. Every atrocity slams home with the force of a tyre iron, and there comes a time when you find yourself howling for vengeance, wishing you could step through the screen to mete out a little vigilante justice of your own.
The script wisely allows us a little payback on occasion, provided by Asta, who assumes the status of an avenging angel. She's no action-hero, however - she rearranges a few faces, but in the end is as powerless as the rest to prevent the events from cascading to their inevitable conclusion.
And that is what nails the film home, for it never allows itself to devolve into a standard tale of salvation. Apathy, it tells us, has killed more innocents than bullets or bayonets, but a lone voice can never stand against the rising tide of those who would see no evil, even when it's as close as their bathroom mirror. The mindset that allows a culture of degradation to flourish is explored in sufficient detail that events never occur for no better reason than to advance the plot, and the result is an independent film that exists, not to experiment, but to tell its story in a fashion that invites the viewer to become invested in the proceedings, free of the trappings of budgets, stars and Hollywood endings. It won't change the world, but it's a well-paced, powerful attempt to canvass an important issue, and that makes it more than worthy of our attention.
(Note - I am led to believe that this film was remade for U.S. television, and that it was unremittingly dire. Avoid at all costs.)
#3 - Metal Skin (1994)
Following the release of the critically-acclaimed Romper Stomper, writer/director Geoffrey Wright found himself teetering on the edge of the big time. It appears he had little interest in seeing his name in lights, however, because his follow-up, Metal Skin, was a premeditated box-office failure. Possessed of zero commercial appeal, it's a dark, arresting ode to suburban hopelessness which retains the oppressive atmosphere and gut-punch impact of its predecessor.
Road-rage specialists tell us that the single greatest cause of violence on our suburban streets is the empowering effect of a couple of tons of steel - behind the wheel, even the meekest man is king, with an excessive amount of lethal horsepower at his disposal. Joe (Aden Young) is such a man - by day he's a socially-retarded misfit, living with his mentally-unbalanced father in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town. By night he's the lord of all he surveys, cruising the streets in his lovingly-maintained mobile padded cell.
On the other side of the tracks there's Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn), a roguish, philandering good-time guy, who's currently shacked-up with his fragile girlfriend Roslyn (Nadine Garner). Roslyn is dealing with the physical and emotional scars left by her unwilling participation in one of Dazey's accidents, and is reaching the stage where she's had about as much high-octane posturing as she's prepared to stand. The major players are rounded out by Tara Morice (Fran from Strictly Ballroom) as Savina, a female version of Joe who has decided to major in witchcraft, praying to the dark gods for the love of Dazey while fending off Joe's earnest but uninviting advances.
The performers bring a pleasing intensity to their roles, but my highest praise is reserved for Aden Young. Absent from our screens far too often in the last decade, his powerful, brooding performance provides the film with the required weight. We've all known someone like Joe, the kind of person who evokes equal parts anger (at their inability to function in a social situation) and sympathy - they're not, when all is said and done, a bad person, and the blame for their situation must invariably be shared by those who have reinforced their lack of self-worth. It's no surprise, then, that we initially support Joe in his quest to secure some measure of acceptance amongst his peers, but as the film wears on his edgy, simmering personality threatens to boil over into madness, and Young's depiction of this unsettling metamorphosis is central to the film's success.
A student of the David Fincher school of atmospheric filmmaking, Wright continues his love affair with washed-out visuals and choppy cuts, and jangles our already-frayed nerves with an unsettling aural accompaniment (a squawking bird is guaranteed to have you reaching for the sedatives). The world according to Wright is a dank place, coated in a layer of grime, illuminated by lights that are either unnaturally bright or incapable of penetrating the gloom, lending everyone a sickly, unpleasant appearance.
As scriptwriter, Wright refuses to romanticise or glorify: there's no heroic undertones or last-minute victories on the drag strip, but rather a long, painful slide into oblivion, a trial-by-fire that holds little hope of redemption on the other side. It's obvious that Wright harbours little compassion for his creations, and while his clinical, detached tone denies the viewer the opportunity to become invested in the proceedings, it makes for a confronting, turbulent ride. There's no respite for the film's two hour duration: it lurches from one intense scene to the next, delighting in seeing how far it can push its lab-rat protagonists before they crack under the pressure. Eventually they do, and the result is a gripping finale which proves that you don't need big-budget stunts to leave the viewer dazed and reeling.
Metal Skin is by no means an enjoyable film, and its uninviting characters and straightforward narrative further reduce its appeal. It is, however, a stylish effort which features honest, believable performances and several arresting scenes, so if you're in the mood for a hard-edged meditation on the folly of youth then I advise you to grab your partner, fire up your street machine, and petition the owner of your local drive-in for a double with The Cars that Ate Paris. It won't improve your mood, but I guarantee you'll be sticking to the speed limit when you leave.
#4 - Bliss (1985)
"This is the story of the vision splendid". With these words Harry Joy invites us to take a vacation with the legion of the damned, and ninety minutes later we realise we've travelled no further than our own front door. Long considered unfilmable, Peter Carey's novel was transformed by Carey and director Ray Lawrence into a stunning tale of alienation, madness and redemption. Mixing black comedy with arresting dream sequences and an insightful commentary on the human condition, it's a witches brew that courses through the veins like quicksilver, steaming towards the rotting heart of modern-day self-absorption.
After suffering a near-fatal heart attack, Harry Joy (Barry Otto, in a career-defining performance) becomes convinced that he's been consigned to hell for his sins. Blessed with a loveless marriage and children who view him as a liability, he amasses evidence that everything he once held dear has become twisted beyond recognition. Eventually he realises that the only thing that has changed is his perception, and that he's been given a rare gift - the ability to see things as they truly are, and the motivation to script a new ending to the story of his life.
If this sounds like another life-affirming parable in the vein of Regarding Henry, rest assured that Carey comes to bury, not to praise. Joy's quest for redemption takes him from the ashes of home and hearth to the solitary depths of the Australian bush, encompassing situations both instantly recognisable and disconcertingly surreal. Like a latter-day Dante he travels through a suburban landscape twisted by greed, lust and madness, cataloguing human folly but powerless to prevent the doomed souls from marching inexorably towards their bitter reward.
The film exhibits a profound distaste for the human race, but allows a certain affection for God's creations to slip through the cracks nonetheless. We may be damned, but that doesn't mean we have to go gently to our place of execution, and the moving, bittersweet conclusion reminds us that, even in our darkest hours, there will always be a reason to believe.
Some might consider that a sell-out, but don't turn your back on Carey's creation for too long - we made our beds long ago, and Bliss makes us lie in them, strangling us softly as we wait in vain for the coming of the dawn.
#5 - Looking for Alibrandi (2000)
Set in suburban Sydney, LFA charts the trials and tribulations of a seventeen year-old Italian-Australian living through the trying days between adolescence and womanhood. Josie Alibrandi (Pia Miranda) has been raised by her mother (Greta Scacchi) and grandmother “Nonna” (Elena Cotta), her father having departed for greener pastures shortly after her conception. Her extended family have preserved their old-country traditions, but time spent in the company of her peers and a healthy dose of youthful rebelliousness have left her torn between an ingrained sense of familial duty and a burning desire for independence. Matters are complicated by her attendance at a swank private school, where your father’s occupation is the most important indicator of your social status; the attentions of no less than two potential suitors (each from opposite sides of the tracks); and the re-appearance of her father (Anthony LaPaglia) after a seventeen year absence.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a big-screen version of Dawson’s Creek, but nothing could be further from the truth. If this was a major Hollywood production we would probably have been treated to a star turn by Mena Suvari, and that would have been our loss because Pia Miranda plays Josie like she was born to the role. The character calls for a delicate balancing-act, since Josie projects both street-smarts and vulnerability in equal proportions, but Miranda’s open features and expressive vocal delivery ensure she’s never less than convincing. Her natural affability enables those who have left their school years far behind to become invested in her quest for enlightenment, ensuring the film exhibits an appeal far beyond its ostensible target audience.
The story also encompasses the lives and loves of Josie's family and friends, so it is fortunate that the remaining protagonists benefit from the efforts of several capable actors. Scacchi is the epitome of every young mother who has forsaken the pleasures of a carefree existence for the benefit of their offspring, while Cotta is deeply affecting as a woman who has reached the tail-end of a life which never fulfilled its early promise. Matthew Newton and Kick Gurry turn in likeable performances as Josie’s love interests, and LaPaglia sings far above his range in a small but important role, never allowing inappropriate sentiment to tarnish his portrayal of a man who discovers that we never stop paying for our past.
Lest I make LFA sound like a po-faced rumination upon human suffering, rest assured that this is, at its core, a reasonably light-hearted exercise. Melina Marchetta’s script is adapted from her novel of the same name, and anyone who has been privy to the inner workings of Australia’s European community will be smiling in recognition at many of the scenes depicted herein. There is a decidedly unfunny subset of Australian comedy which relies upon exaggerating ethnic traits for effect (The Wog Boy is a prime example), but LFA’s approach is considerably more restrained. The script may poke fun at its targets, but it never mocks, and this ensures that the humour is rarely strained or contrived. It’s not a brand of mirth which will have you rolling in the aisles, but rather a gentle humour which is rooted in the fortunes and foibles of everyday existence.
I’m not sure if director Kate Woods is a Wes Anderson fan, but the film’s conclusion echoes Rushmore’s, in both the closing scene (catchy music and dancing) and the fact that it provides no easy answers or assurances of a better tomorrow. It’s an honest ending to a film which eschews the trappings of corny sentimentalism for the duration, and ensures you leave the cinema with a smile on your face, secure in the knowledge that we’re all in it together.
It may be a little film, but it speaks from the heart, and in a better world its message would have been sent to the world. As it is, the rest of the planet will have to be content with The Breakfast Club IX, leaving us with one more reason to call Australia home.
#6 - Innocence (2000)
In an age when a trip to the multiplex so often results in another soulless blockbuster or impenetrable art-house disappointment, Paul Cox's Innocence is ninety minutes of rarefied mountain air. Infused with a genuine love for its characters and the warmth of a fireside embrace, it is a film for everyone who knows that we will always be too old for lies.
Andreas and Claire were star-crossed lovers in the heady days of youthful optimism, European vacations and al fresco lovemaking. Fifty years later they meet once more, having lived lives of marriage, children and heartfelt loss. They realise their love has endured, albeit in a different form, and despite the fact that Claire is still a partner in a forty-five year marriage they rekindle the flame anew.
Done poorly, this premise is a one-way ticket to schmaltz and soap-opera emotion. However, a ring of truth pervades the events depicted herein, and the film holds a mirror to everyone who has ever wished they could meet an old flame one last time, and wondered what they would say.
The film stars Charles Tingwell, a veteran of Australian cinema and television since the 1950's, and Julia Blake, who has been quietly building an acting resume since 1977. They bring a quiet dignity to their roles, and their low-key performances are the film's greatest asset - each brings to mind a loveable, stubborn grandparent, a person whose emotions and inner yearnings have become buried beneath a gentle walk into the good night. Their bodies are frail, their voices infused with the weary resignation which comes to us all at the tail-end of a long and trying life, but there are moments when their advanced years appear to be little more than an ill-fitting garment, leaving their youthful passion obscured but intact.
There are many highly-paid screenwriters who could learn something from Cox's script, for it replaces manipulation and plastic sentiment with something far more powerful - honest, sincere emotion. This is a deeply affecting, insightful film, and there are moments which will tear the heart out of all but the most hardened of souls. Several scenes are almost too painful to contemplate - Andreas attending the exhumation of his wife's grave as the cemetery is moved to make way for a real estate development; Claire's husband's heartfelt attempts to make amends for several decades of self-absorption - but there are also some touching meditations upon the physical and emotional changes wrought by the passage of time (Cox continuously juxtaposes images of the young lovers with their aged counterparts, and while it's hardly original it makes for some poignant and affecting comparisons). We are adults, the film tells us, and should behave as such, and there are moments which make you long for the day when the pointless facades and petty insecurities can be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Innocence is a rare gift, its aching, bittersweet tune leavened with warmth, compassion and the knowledge that no matter where we go, or how far we travel, the people we have loved will be with us always, for no emotion that powerful can ever truly die. It's not about stars, and it's not about budgets - it's about the truth, and the tragic, glorious arc of an ordinary life in an uncaring world.
I have been known to end reviews with the words "It won't change your life", but this is one film which may do exactly that. Seek it out any way you can, for it knows no boundaries, and reminds us that, at the close of day, we are always too old for lies.
#7 - Angel Baby (1995)
Harry (John Lynch) and Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie) live their lives on the margins of society: plagued by deep-seated psychological problems, it appears that a "normal" existence (marriage, family, mortgage) will be forever beyond their grasp. All of this changes when they meet at a support group, and after a whirlwind romance they move into an apartment, Kate misses her period, and a fulfilling future beckons from afar.
Emboldened by their unexpected success, they decide that responsible parents-to-be shouldn't be dependent upon medication, so they flush their pills and prepare to face life on their own terms. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent that a daily dose of mood-stablisers was the only thing keeping them from the abyss, and from there events spiral downwards to a gut-wrenching, if not unexpected, conclusion.
Angel Baby's success can be laid squarely at the door of the two leads, whose bulletproof performances make the film's unusual premise surprisingly palatable. John Lynch is an Irish actor best known for his role as Daniel Day-Lewis' offsider in In the Name of the Father, and his disarming, earnest manner elicits the required level of sympathy. Harry hovers on the fringes of normality - he has to make an effort to function in everyday social situations, but his heart's in the right place, and Lynch's note-perfect portrayal of Harry's inner torment could be used as a training video for method actors the world over.
Kate is less appealing, since her violent mood-swings are a sharp contrast to Harry's less obvious afflictions, and in supporting Harry's quest for a loving relationship she becomes a catalyst for his downfall. Romper Stomper proved that McKenzie is a natural at playing frayed, abused females, and she stakes her claim for greatness with another edgy, versatile performance.
After a mildly diverting first half, writer/director Michael Rymer takes his foot off the brakes for the second. The mounting pressures of everyday life bear down upon us all, and anyone who has ever felt their grip on reality start to slip away will be in a state of shock by the time the closing credits roll. Harry and Kate's slide into madness culminates in several intense, shocking scenes that will have you clamping your hands over your ears, begging for the screaming to stop, but Rymer's got our measure because it never does. Add to this a couple of touching, resonant scenes (Harry and Kate reaching for the sky, wishing they could leave their earthly concerns behind, and an extended birth sequence) and a case study in using popular music to enhance the on-screen action (the use of an Enya lament at a critical juncture is particularly inspired), and you've got a film that leaves you desolate and aching, wondering whether a brief moment of glorious emotional satisfaction is worth the price exacted by the inevitable fall from grace.
Rymer won't give you the answer, but perhaps that's for the best - peace of mind, like so many things in life, is a vastly underrated commodity.
#8 - Short Cuts - The Best of the Rest
Puberty Blues (1981)
In 1981 an entire generation of Australian adolescents received a crash-course in sex-education from a couple of wannabe surfer chicks and their depressingly superficial cronies. Filled to the brim with sun, surf, panel vans and "rooting", the film repels accusations of exploitation by virtue of its honesty and abrasive charm. It's definitely a product of its times (I don't think I've heard anyone say "dead-set" for over a decade), and the once-shocking sexual content will be almost laughable to a child of the Pepsi Generation, but it retains a certain appeal for anyone who spent their formative years in an Australian public school in the early 80's. For everyone else, it's a period piece worth considering.
Siam Sunset (1999)
Unfairly maligned by many critics upon its release, Siam Sunset is an underrated gem. It concerns an industrial chemist's pilgrimage to the Australian outback, seeking an answer to the natural disasters that plague his waking hours. Marketed as a comedy, it’s packed with bizarre scenes and a fine line in deadpan humour, but its meditations upon bereavement raise it above the status of a forgettable exercise in light entertainment. Featuring an understated performance by Linus Roache, a twisted narrative and a truly satisfying fate for the chief villain, it's a distinctive effort that is deserving of a second chance.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Featuring a theme which has become the pan-pipe aficionado's version of Stairway to Heaven, Peter Weir's first outing of note defies any attempt to write a review without mentioning the word "haunting" at least once. Heavy on style but light on substance, it atones for its leisurely pace and shaggy-dog ending with its hypnotic, mesmerising visuals and memorable score.
Money Movers (1979)
Bruce Beresford's foray into the heist genre is notable for a couple of brutal shoot-outs, and an even more brutal dose of torture involving a pair of bolt cutters, a toe, and an unfortunate absence of anaesthetic. It's no Reservoir Dogs, but sometimes a short, sharp and straightforward shock makes for a refreshing change of pace.
Two Hands (1999)
If Money Movers isn't Reservoir Dogs, then Two Hands tries a little harder to emulate Quentin and his ilk. Peppered with surprise twists, down-home performances (it was one of Heath Ledger's first roles, and no list of Australian films would be complete without mentioning at least one that features Bryan Brown) and a few bizarre conceits (it opens with a yarn by a guy who's digging a hole in Hell), it's a stylish little flick that almost broke the surface in the States. Despite a few contrived plot devices (what kind of idiot leaves 10 grand on the beach while they go for a swim?), it motors along quite nicely, and features a number of intense scenes that are worth the price of admission alone.
Breaker Morant (1980)
Since I've taken the time to mention one Bryan Brown film, perhaps it's worth canvassing another. Breaker Morant is a deceptively simple tale of three Boer War soldiers accused of murder, and the self-serving prosecution that brings them down. Morant's innocence is open to debate (the Canberra War Memorial offers visitors the chance to cast their vote, and last time I checked it was evident that he enjoys a certain level of popular support), and this uncertainty adds a layer of intrigue to the proceedings. Edward Woodward turns in one of the finest performances of his career, while Brown proves that there was a time when he deserved better than roles in the likes of Cocktail, leaving us with a thought-provoking film that, in its own way, delivers as much of a kick to the teeth as Gallipoli.
Idiot Box (1996)
Writer/director David Caesar's account of the misadventures of a couple of unemployed losers winds up being a one-note idea with no particular place to go, but is worth catching for a couple of likeable performances in the lead roles and several hilarious scenes (most of which, unfortunately, won't mean much to anyone who isn't well versed in Sydney's Western Suburbs subculture). I predict that Caesar will be one to watch in the years to come, so this film may one day be afforded the status of a stepping-stone to greatness.
True Love and Chaos (1997)
Take one road (in this case, the long stretch of nothing that separates the Australian east coast from Perth); several unusual travellers (an English migrant, a flake with a talent for karaoke, the grizzled front-man for a bar-band, a blonde with the IQ of a gnat, a kleptomaniac and a psychotic nutter); and a veritable treasure-trove of up-and-coming Australian actors (Miranda Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, and Noah Taylor, with the ubiquitous Hugo Weaving thrown in for good measure), and you've got a recipe for a day-trip to the back of beyond. It's little more than a collection of scenes, rather than a coherent whole, but its diverse characters and a host of memorable moments raise it from the depths of road-movie hell.
The Interview (1998)
Tony Martin puts the screws to Hugo Weaving, who may or may not have committed the heinous crime of which he is accused. Set almost entirely within the confines of a police interrogation cell, it's an absorbing film which is a little too static for its own good, but the fine performances and claustrophobic atmosphere make for an intense, if ultimately unfulfilling, experience.
Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior) (1981)
OK, so you've probably seen this film, but I couldn't resist the urge to include it anyway. Age has wearied George Miller's creation, but it's still one of the most atmospheric action flicks ever to see the light of day. Featuring a nominee for the greatest villain ever to snarl his way across the screen (an astonishing performance by Vernon Wells, who went on to nothing better than roles in the likes of Commando) and stunt work that almost makes you believe CGI is overrated, the final action sequence still puts most of the competition to shame. Razor-sharp boomerangs, hockey-masks, lethal head butts, gyrocopters, wrist-mounted crossbows - if you ever require evidence of the creative bankruptcy exhibited by the likes of True Lies, you'll find it here.
Australia lost more men as a percentage of the population to WWI than any other nation, and its soldiers were renowned for their fierce fighting spirit and "larrikin" attitude (which translates to a lack of respect for authority, especially when it came to British officers). Featuring an impossibly young Mel Gibson, Gallipoli chronicles Australia's participation in one of the British war machine's greatest bungles. Featuring the standard war-movie narrative (set up the characters, ship 'em out, hit the audience with the horror of war), the film rises above the formula through its likeable characters, a realistic portrayal of the sheer madness of trench warfare, and the soul-destroying final shot. Gallipoli veterans are revered in Australia (at the time of writing, there are still a handful left alive), and Peter Weir's enduring creation leaves little doubt as to the reason why.
Postscript - Balancing the Scales
Since the title of this essay is "Great Australian Films You've Never Seen", it stands to reason that the reviews are generally positive. Lest you gain the impression that Australian filmmakers are incapable of churning out utter drivel, I present the following (by no means exhaustive) case for the prosecution:
We've had killer sharks, killer alligators and killer whales. But a killer feral pig? How Russell Mulcahy snagged a gig at the helm of Highlander after puking up this pile of dross is one of life's enduring mysteries.
Anything starring Yahoo Serious
When Shane McGowan slurred "God help me through this day" on Jesus & Mary Chain's Stoned and Dethroned, I sometimes think he'd just sat through a back-to-back showing of Young Einstein, Reckless Kelly and Mr. Accident.
Better than Sex
David Wenham and Susie Porter indulge in 3 days of horizontal folk-dancing while blathering inanely about bedroom life. Many critics applauded its honesty, which suggests that they should be getting out a little more.
Running on Empty
Everything Metal Skin wasn't.
The Heartbreak Kid
Kid falls in love with his teacher and breaks some hearts. Alex Dimitriades later redeemed himself with several fine performances, but few will ever entirely forgive him.
Crocodile Dundee I-III
I rest my case.
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originally posted: 07/28/01 12:01:57