The Cars That Ate Paris (Weir, 1974)

The novelty of encountering an incongruous name and lush surroundings will soon wear off for an interloper, Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), when he stumbles into the small Australian country town of Paris with his brother George at the wheel.

Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, made just a year before Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), is a seriously bent, occasionally hilarious black comedy with interspersed elements of satire and horror. His Paris is a struggling, rundown little nowhere town, filled with ramshackle houses and rusty sheds and populated by a very peculiar bunch of locals, led by their Mayor (John Meillon).

George doesn’t survive the opening car crash and, traumatized by the accident, Arthur’s required to stay in town until his recovery is complete. Leaving however isn’t as easy as it sounds; coupled with a phobia of driving – a result of an earlier crash which saw him charged with but acquitted of manslaughter – there’s also the resolute determination of the locals to prevent him from leaving, the Mayor declaring to his fellow council members that “we’re keeping him!”

The people of Paris enjoy causing car wrecks; this, however, is only the first part of their ghoulish modus operandi. Dead bodies are but a minor inconvenience, such as that of a significant figure later in the film whose decapitation is declared a ‘shooting accident’. The Parisians soon set about cannibalizing the leftovers of wrecks for precious parts to stimulate their insulated economy or else creating bizarre overhauls – a series of re-fitted, colourful creations that roar through the streets at night causing mayhem.

These revelations are bad news for poor Arthur whose indoctrination includes being forced to move in with the Mayor as a surrogate son after exhibiting the slightest hint of wanting to make a run for it out of town. As he’s bluntly informed: “Nobody leaves Paris!” The gentle, reserved Arthur is hardly a man of action and meekly acquiesces. He becomes an employee and lasts one day as a hospital orderly where the patients are mostly “veggies” – past accident victims exhibiting degrees of brain injury – before becoming the town’s parking officer.

The Cars That Ate Paris is a rollicking example of carefree, uninhibited filmmaking from a young director nearing his prime, pursuing an outlandish vision with an admirable single-mindedness. True, Weir’s screenplay is somewhat undisciplined and uneven, creating a film that’s extremely rough around the edges, but in many respects it’s the lack of restraint that’s so exciting. There is plenty of satire, conceived not with a sharp wit, but rather a rusty scalpel; yet you can’t help falling for its reptilian idiosyncratic nature as the film progresses.

The action which culminates on the night of the Pioneer Ball – ludicrous but amusing costumes included – becomes a madcap free-for-all as the rebel element in town, revolting against the Mayor’s harder line on making Paris a more respectable place, run amok. Through this, Weir is not only setting up a spectacular finale but restating the intimations of horror sprinkled throughout the film’s first half as a full-blooded assault on the senses; vehicular homicide included!

There are some very effective creepy moments early on, establishing an undercurrent of disquiet as we come to terms with the nature of this town’s bizarre operations as a post-crash assemblage of men swiftly goes to work to salvage the car parts and leave a ravaged husk behind. Likewise, there’s a typically fine accompanying score from composer Bruce Smeaton which is inclined to emphasize the eeriness of the drama rather the satirical elements.

Camilleri is perfect as the wimpy, almost effeminate, softly-spoken Arthur whilst Meillon exudes dignified presence in the face of change as the fading Mayor. They’re ably supported by a colourful supporting cast that includes Max Gillies, Bruce Spence, Kevin Miles and a young Chris Haywood as the talkative hospital orderly.

Peter Weir would reach far loftier heights with his masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock the following year, but his earlier work, culminating with The Cars That Ate Paris, is worth revisiting for more than just its curiosity value. Macabre, hilarious and above all entertaining, this is a notable and highly original early work from one of our great directors.

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The Last Days of Chez Nous (Armstrong, 1992)

Director Gillian Armstrong’s emotionally wrought The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) proved to be a continuation of her exploration of the female experience, paring back the wilting strands of an unhappy marriage in suburban Sydney. Working from an original screenplay by one of our country’s living treasures, writer Helen Garner, Armstrong typically provokes cathartic performances from her lead actresses, especially Lisa Harrow as Beth, a struggling writer whose fragile life is teetering on the brink of despair.

Her husband is J.P. (Bruno Ganz), a morose, dissatisfied Frenchman nearing fully-fledged citizenship and yet wondering aloud what he’s doing in this barren, lost country. Their marriage is faltering, their nearly loveless communication unnoticed – or maybe ignored – by Beth’s teenage daughter Annie (Miranda Otto). Returning to the fold is Beth’s sister Vicky (Kerry Fox), back from an unsuccessful jaunt to Italy on the trail of a potential boyfriend. Soon she confesses to Beth to being pregnant, weighing her harried sister’s life with an unwanted distraction.

Immediately the equilibrium of the household is upset, with Vicky sparking concern in J.P. about the directionless state of her life, with no employment or prospects. Beth’s own work is suffering under the strain of her husband’s pointed criticism, who accuses her writing of a lack of realism. She’s also harbouring a fear that her ageing father (Bill Hunter), with whom she’s always had a strained relationship, will die without them ever seeing eye to eye. Beth proposes a road trip for the pair, giving her both space from J.P. and allowing them to see a bit of the country whilst hopefully reconnecting on some level. With Vicky and J.P. holding down the fort, the inadequacies of their unfulfilled lives compel them in the other’s direction, a complicated synergy evolving. Though racked by guilt they embark on an affair, acting out their unhappiness in a mutual betrayal and paying little heed to the inevitable ramifications once Beth returns.

Lisa Harrow is magnificent as the resilient Beth, anchoring the film with a powerhouse portrayal of a woman trying to juggle the multi-faceted demands of her life. It’s obvious that control of her marriage has been slipping through her fingers for years, but rather than cave in, she finds an inner strength to carry on and diverts the pain welling inside with a primal roar of anguish. Armstrong’s strength as a director has always been the authenticity with which she brings the stories of ordinary women to the fore, and Beth is one of her most memorable characters – alone beside a husband who treats her with disdain and can no longer bring himself to make love to her. Similarly, her relationship with her father is no sturdier, their trip negated by her admission in a diary entry that “he’s given up trying” to make things better.

The choices these people confront are never less than uncomfortable ones, weighing ethical concerns with the need to extract a glimmer of happiness from their passive, stagnating lives. Whilst Ganz is superb as the irascible, disconsolate fish-out-of-water, he’s the hardest to feel sympathy for, having seemingly dug his own grave by wantonly submitting to this life in a foreign land whilst ignoring avenues of escape.

Fox is brave as the flirty and gregarious Vicky whose vivaciousness belies the meltdown she’s destined for once the pall of dissatisfaction protecting her is breached by J.P’s tentative advances. Desperate for acknowledgement, she puts her relationship with Beth in dire jeopardy, unable to comprehend the falling out that awaits. The difficult choice regarding the fate of her baby is still vivid in her mind as well, making her a more vulnerable target.

One of the film’s standout scenes sees Beth, in her hotel room, and Vicky, back home, watching the same show – a documentary on birth – in the grip of contrasting emotions. It’s a devastating moment, Beth reflecting longingly on the innocence and joy that seems to have evaporated from her life whilst Vicky contemplates the stark reality of her painful choice. Then there’s Beth’s father watching the same thing, and in a dismissive, symbolic gesture, quickly changing the channel to a football match.

A film about emotional isolation and the cost of frayed relationships that put ties of blood in jeopardy, The Last Days of Chez Nous remains one of Gillian Armstrong’s finest dramas, aided immeasurably by Garner’s insightful screenplay and an appropriately melancholy, jazz-tinged score by Paul Grabowsky. Though Armstrong misses a couple of chances to end the film with a perfect last shot, the wistful, almost elegiac acknowledgements of the closing scenes are still powerful ones and resound with universal truth.

Kangaroo (Burstall, 1986)

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It’s easy to imagine this being considered a highly prestigious project at the time; adapted from an esteemed literary source – D.H.Lawrence’s barely-disguised autobiographical re-telling of his brief flirtation with Australian post-war society – Kangaroo would have seemed like a highly worthy arthouse project with enough appeal to ensnare the masses. The acquirement of real-life partners, Colin Friels and Judy Davis, to play Lawrence’s surrogate Richard Somers and his feisty German counterpart Harriet, must have seemed like a stroke of genius. But though they take to their roles with genuine conviction, the aloof and sporadic observations of Lawrence’s outsider mentality seemingly damned the project to critical failure. The weighty original tome itself has long been regarded as a waffling, self-indulgent curiosity and one hardly ripe with cinematic possibilities.

There’s still much to recommend about Kangaroo (1986) however, not the least of which is its wordy dialogue courtesy of English screenwriter Evan Jones, best known for his superlative adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1971), one of the greatest films this country has ever produced. Even in lesser, contextually subservient scenes, Kangaroo brims with ideas and potent insights – incoherently assimilated as they may often be. The man at the helm was the, by then, much experienced director Tim Burstall whose last feature project this was to be after a career that included a trio of noteworthy contributions to the Australian renaissance of the 1970’s in Stork (1971), Alvin Purple (1973) and Petersen (1974).

The film opens with a brief prologue on the Cornish Coast in 1916, setting the stage for change. Here, Somers, a controversial novelist whose latest work has been labelled pornographic by the suspicious locals, ponders an escape from the tyranny of English authorities who condemn his artistic achievements and accuse him of dubious political leanings or even being a spy for the Germans. A few short years later we see the couple setting up stumps in Sydney, hoping for a fresh start, where the eyes of the locals are trained like lasers on outsiders like Somers who carries with him a certain and obvious ‘air’ of superiority.

He may be hoping for a degree of anonymity but unfortunately his reputation precedes him and his notoriety draws the interest of various factions looking to gain an edge in a battle for the hearts and minds of a country on the brink of colossal social upheaval. His neighbour and instant best friend amongst “the beastly suburban bungalows”, Jack Calcott (John Walton), facilitates contact with the famed figure of ‘Kangaroo’ (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the leader of a group of Fascist revolutionaries who harbour spirited but dangerous notions of stirring a young, malleable nation into action. Opposing this group are the unionists, an equally passionate lot who are just as desperate to win Somers’ approval. Their mouthpiece, Struthers (Peter Cummins), wants to insert the famous writer into a role editing a major newspaper where he can influence change from their artificially created pulpit whilst artfully composing reactionary headlines.

Not surprisingly Somers gets in over his head, refusing to side with one group or the other. At the same time, a battle on the home-front adds to the tension with Harriet disturbed by the impassioned but misguided tug-of-war for her husband’s ideological loyalties. Neither of them, having transplanted their lives half-way around the world, can find much solace in Australian life either. An intense dislike of the place eats at their souls, with Somers assuring his wife of having now gained first-hand knowledge into “why the ancient Romans preferred death to exile”.

There’s a staid austerity about this mostly forgotten film which both distinguishes it and marks it for disappointment. The characters are allowed many moments of vivid discourse but ultimately feel propped up to extol the virtues or inadequacies of ‘ideas’ as dictated by Lawrence’s sometimes less than flattering observations of Australian life and its people. Friels can’t avoid a certain remoteness in his portrayal that derives directly from Lawrence’s intellectual superiority; it feels like another variation on the tortured artist driven from his homeland to a savage place populated by men whose ambitions far exceed their capacity to bring about meaningful change. Davis, who earned an AFI award for her performance, transforms Harriet into something far more complex than what is written on the page. It’s another memorable turn from her, despite a German accent that might be unkindly branded ‘dodgy’, and even grating at times.

The countdown to violent confrontation as lawlessness descends feels like a futile contrivance to enliven the film, but Kangaroo, despite its shortcomings, still manages to create a few moments of genuine engagement, mostly through empathy for the valiant, suffering Harriet and the forceful conviction of Walton’s contribution as Calcott. The film is perhaps a failure, offering affected dialogue in place of compelling dramatic momentum, yet the strong performances and literate embellishments of Lawrence’s dalliance with Australian life certainly give it some distinction and an everlasting level of curiosity for its enigmatic interpretation of a lone chapter in a major writer’s life.

Dingo (de Heer, 1991)

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Funded partially by French interests, necessitating an obligatory subplot set in Paris, Rolf de Heer’s forgotten drama from 1991, Dingo, remains an earnest metaphor and impassioned exhortation for preserving the wildest dreams of ordinary men. When a herculean aircraft appears, almost close enough to touch, over the Western Australian dustbowl town of Poona Flat in 1969, the locals race after it like a gang of sweaty kids in pursuit of a tinkling ice cream van on a 40 degree day. The assembled crowd are soon treated to an impromptu performance by a group of jazz musicians, led by the famous Billy Cross (Miles Davis). One boy in particular, John Anderson (Daniel Scott) is transfixed by the sound of this exotic music wafting over the deserted plains. Summoning all his courage he approaches Cross who, noticing the stars in the eyes of his newest pupil, tells John to look him up some day should he ever venture to Cross’s home base in Paris.

Stepping forward in time we meet the adult version of Anderson (Colin Friels). Still tethered to the surrounds of Poona Flats he’s now a respected trapper, in the process earning himself the nickname ‘Dingo’. He has a wife, Jane (Helen Buday), and two young kids but has never been able to relinquish the secret yearning that first took hold on that surreal day in 1969. He plays the trumpet well, his mournful tunes reverberating against the nearby mountains when he has the chance to sneak away from his duties as husband and father. Through intermittent scenes in a talent agency in Paris we learn the degree of John’s persistence where the owner and his wife marvel at the regularity of the letters pouring in from the oddly named Australian. For years it seems Dingo has been sending them his songs in the hope of discovery and coming face-to-face once more with their most famous client, the man who ignited his pipe dreams of fame.

In casting the always watchable Friels, de Heer was taking few risks, trusting in the actor’s abilities to project an everyman’s veneer whilst allowing access to a credible mix of unlikely partners in jazz and the outback. It’s this unusual union of subject matter that gives the film its original slant, an imperfect but intriguing balance of incongruous elements. John’s passion for his hobby has survived many trials – the latest one being a prank by mate Archie (Steven Shaw) whose faked telegram sets an exultant John off on a mad spending spree, convinced he’s finally hit the big time with the first sale of one of his songs.

Ultimately Dingo is about a man beholden to his dream, to follow it through to its natural conclusion, a course of action which, regardless of the outcome, constitutes success. For though real life and its stifling constructs – a place from which Dingo could continue to live securely in perpetual motion, never venturing beyond its borders – monopolise his attentions, the allure of something greater continues to exert an influence on his subliminal yearnings. Persisting even against the tide of scorn from his mates and the veiled condescension of his loving wife, Dingo continues to imagine an odyssey that culminates in a miraculous encounter with his hero upon a Parisian stage.

In a sense the acquisition of Davis feels a bit like stunt casting. His name alone ensures notice, but his outlandish, almost bizarre appearance with its faintly female characteristics makes for a larger-than-life aspect that doesn’t quite gel with Friels’ expert characterisation. Reputation as a performer aside, Davis simply looks disinterested (in what was, sadly, the last year of his life) and out of his depth with his few dialogue exchanges coming across as decidedly wooden.

De Heer’s third film may not be a major achievement – his follow-up, 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby would be the one that provided him with far greater success and notoriety – but it’s a noteworthy one nevertheless. In its finest moments Dingo compellingly reflects the deep-seated pining burrowing into our brains, demanding a reaction – but from which, more often than not, passivity segues into terminally crippled dreams that, for most of us, only ever play out in our heads.

The Tall Man (Krawitz, 2011)

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In 2009, despite serious misgivings, filmmaker Tony Krawitz decided to venture onto Palm Island, off the Queensland coast, with a mission – to reverse a coin of common perception; to tell the lesser known side of a tragic story that began on November 19, 2004. On an ordinary day, a drunken Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, was arrested for a minor infraction by towering white police officer Christopher Hurley, referred to by the locals as “the tall man”. Some 45 minutes later Doomadgee was dead in the local police station.

A subsequent post mortem report made reference to a slew of internal injuries – including an almost split liver – that are usually equated with those suffered by car-crash victims. In the ensuing weeks these startling medical facts reached the wider community. The reaction from the locals inspired a predictably primal encore. Both Hurley’s house and the police station were effectively reduced to cinders as seething resentment took shape in the form of destructive retribution.

The Tall Man (2011) is compiled of interwoven, affecting interviews with family, friends and other figures pertaining to the court cases that contorted the Queensland courts over a number of years. A sobering context, which details the blighted history of Palm Island itself, is also provided as a necessary counterpoint to its ailing current condition. The director, using Chloe Hooper‘s book of the same name as the basis for his investigation, may be accused of blatant proselytising in orchestrating a campaign that refutes the innocence of Hurley. But by broadening the coverage of this tragedy he confronts the many ambiguities, allowing room for conclusions that any average person would naturally arrive at. Till now, it’s been the simplified newsworthy outcomes that form the basis of public knowledge – a flawed, semi-blind perception reducing nuance to footnotes that require concerted digging to make sense of them and their ramifications.

The murky morality surrounding the guilt or innocence of this officer is complicated by dubious testimony from a drunken local, Hurley’s own untainted past record working in Aboriginal communities and the high probability of conspiratorial manipulation by the Palm Island officers and their superiors – the kind of behaviour that magnetically draws suspicion when brought to light. All of these elements are organically integrated into the narrative by Krawitz in a compelling manner.

The Tall Man is a first-rate documentary, offering an impassioned, humane perspective of Doomadgee’s tragic story whilst keeping away from the emotional fuse that, once lit, might unnaturally skewer audience reaction. The failings of the legal system are rightfully put under the microscope: who does it really serve and why? Krawitz has constructed a compelling real life tale that, reduced to its basic components, whether factual or inferential, underlines most emphatically a sense of its pervasive sadness.

Toomelah (Sen, 2011)

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Director Ivan Sen’s follow-up to the head-scratching, frustratingly abstract Dreamland (2009) sees him back on home soil to tell a personal tale of how the endemic indifference of our country has created a void into which countless lives empty out like broken vessels. In the Aboriginal township of Toomelah, a dusty outpost and former mission straddling the New South Wales-Queensland border, a fearless young 10 year old, Daniel (Daniel Connors), is getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Given the flick from school because of his threatening behaviour towards another boy, he hangs around local drug-dealer Linden (Christopher Edwards) hoping to be taken seriously as a future member of a roughly assembled gang of wannabes.

Daniel’s parents are not exactly role models; his mother, like most members of the community, sits around doing little between scoring drugs, whilst his father is an inveterate drunk whose only inclination is to sit on a gutter feeling sorry for himself. Trouble arises when a man just released from jail, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), muscles in on Linden’s turf, placing Daniel in the middle of a potentially volatile situation. Even though the conflict is treated as another lazy distraction for these people by Sen, a sense of genuine tension is created as the two men are seemingly set along a path towards an eventual confrontation.

Idleness breeds contempt in this remote place in which people are helpless to assist their own cause; educationally and financially constrained, they sink deeper into apathy. Toomelah (2011) makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the underlying humanism of Sen’s vision offers a much needed counterpoint to the despair that grips like a vice. The ghostly remnants of the town’s past life as a mission strike a poignant note too in stirring painful recollections of the older members of the community, their identities equally confused or misplaced by discriminating government policies.

Using his own sparse compositions to create a sombre undercurrent of musical support, Sen has fashioned a film that cuts close to the bone in its examination of this profoundly sad and troubled place. The mostly non-actors occasionally do the film a disservice but their verbal interactions – spiced with plenty of profanity from the mouths of the very young – are mostly believable. Daley-Jones, an impressive lead in Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards (2010), imposes his striking physical presence once again. Young Connors is undoubtedly the film’s centrepiece however; the way he holds his nerve in certain scenes, conveying the ambivalence and confusion of youth is actually quite remarkable.

Though a languid portrait of idleness that takes pains to illuminate the stasis in which this tenuous community exists, Toomelah is still strangely compelling viewing. The constantly moving camera – and fleeting out-of-focus shots that you become so used to you cease noticing them – reflects a place in which repetition is its own defence against the struggle of everyday living. Toomelah will not be to everyone’s tastes but despite glaring flaws, it’s a brave and important film in the same vein as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). This too is a grimly persuasive social document that will provoke and sadden in equal measure. The balance of perspectives it offers ultimately is a perfect compromise: it’s inflexible, in never allowing its naturalism to be polluted by commercial considerations, and yet offers a tantalising hope for something better – the hope of re-embracing a rich and varied culture – in its final moments.

Idiot Box (Caesar, 1996)

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From the seedy fringes of Australian suburbia, director David Caesar dredges up a portrait of idle and vanquished lives in his second feature Idiot Box (1996). Two moronic dole bludgers, Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) and Mick (Jeremy Sims), spend their life stuck in a familiar loop. Highlights of their day include a walk to the local bottle shop or terrorising a neighbour’s guard dog. With little cash and no means of transportation, their lone ‘big idea’ comes in the form of robbing a bank. Mick has even concocted a recipe for sure-fire success, one that avoids the stereotypical failings he’s made note of in run-of-the-mill Hollywood films.

A cynical hothead who treats his live-in girlfriend Betty (Susie Porter) like a piece of errantly-placed furniture, Kev’s notions of carrying out the perfect crime soon begin to take on the weight of something tangible. At the same time, Mick tries to crack on to the pretty young wide-eyed bottle shop attendant, Lani (Robyn Loau), whose overbearing but dim-witted brother will later become entangled in the pair’s criminal delusion. Coincidentally, a series of bank robberies has a pair of hotshot detectives (Graeme Blundell and Deborah Kennedy) baffled, scouring through the files of lowlifes in the region to come up with viable suspects. Inevitably, it seems, their compasses will be pointing in a certain direction as the fates of our protagonists and others converge.

What mostly prevents Caesar’s profane, kinetic drama from devolving into grotesquery is its coal-black streak of humour. The constant banter between Kev and Mick may be crude and juvenile but it’s genuinely funny too, and rings with a degree of depressing but undeniable truthfulness. Whether recreating a robbery scenario in their living room with a toilet brush in place of a gun, or snatching a donation tin from a guy in a koala suit – which sets off a madcap foot race – these two malcontents are constantly pushing the boundaries of an oblivion that’s closing in further with suffocating intent each uneventful day.

Stylistically the film has plenty going for it with Caesar’s astute cinematic sensibilities really coming to the fore. The narrative moves quickly, settling into a rocking, rasping rhythm all its own. There are consistently interesting set-ups, camera movements and quick cuts that bring immediacy to what, in other hands, might have been a stale, navel-gazing drama. At times Caesar may slightly overdo it; certainly the wild diversity of music choices, though generally effective, often create jarring transitions between scenes, but the unsettling, abrasive tone Caesar is aiming for comes across loud and clear.

Idiot Box is an uncompromising look in the mirror, a vision of vanquished men hamstrung by a lack of education, prospects or the intelligence to extract themselves from the morass of a suburban hell. Beyond the dark stain of its often coarse but very Australian humour there’s an indelible imprint of stunted lives vanishing to the beat of a silent drum; of a writer taking deadly aim, not only at the ruthless, oblivious world around us, but more transparently, at ourselves most of all. Idiot Box proves that we’re our own worst enemies, treading water in a tenuous impersonation of living.

Mick and Kev are worryingly symptomatic of a recognisable surburban malaise. They’re pathetic drongos – misfits who’ve sacrificed a few too many brain cells to the almighty God of Alcohol. They may be great for a laugh, but Kev in particular is sliding dangerously close to the point of internal combustion. He despises boredom, he says. He may dream of robbing a bank by force, but is it to reap a financial bounty as a means of improving their chances of survival? Or simply to alleviate the drudgery of their directionless existences?

This remains Caesar’s finest hour as a writer and as a director, providing social observation camouflaged as nihilism, supplemented with lashings of brash, misogynistic futility; all relayed with a potency he hasn’t been able to replicate since. It may swell with ugly external markings and be an unlikely candidate for consideration as a defining film of its time, but Idiot Box works perfectly on a visceral level. It’s something akin to being told a viciously funny joke whilst having your head rammed down a toilet bowl.

 

The Man From Snowy River (Miller, 1982)

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Iconic images spring to mind at the mention of The Man From Snowy River (1982) – the other George Miller’s most lauded film: the two romantic leads on horseback locked in a first meaningful embrace as the scenic backdrop brings them into stark relief. The two figures were actors soon to become far more familiar in the years to follow: a young Tom Burlinson as Jim Craig, the noble-intentioned mountain lad any mother would be glad to see on the arm of their daughter, and Sigrid Thornton as Jessica, the fiery-tempered daughter of a wealthy-by-good-fortune American, Harrison (Kirk Douglas). A second image, recalled most vividly by the film’s most ardent fans, and just as vividly burned into our consciousness is the spectacular sight of Jim powering his noble stead down a breathtakingly steep mountain face in pursuit of the pack of renegade wild brumbies as part of the thrilling set-piece that brings the film to a rousing close. But just how kind has the passing of years been to this audience-friendly adaptation of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s most famous poem?

In the desolate Victorian countryside, Jim works alongside his father Henry (Terence Donovan) on their modest mountain property. But when tragedy strikes and Henry is killed in an accident, setting one of their best horses free, Jim must learn to survive on his own. Into the nearby township he heads searching for honest labour, though he’s immediately scrutinised with suspicion due to his humble origins. His earnestness and work ethic win favours with Harrison however who offers him a position as a stablehand where he diligently takes to his lowly tasks despite the mean-spirited ribbing of his co-workers, especially the spiteful Curly (Chris Haywood). In his spare time he works equally hard at impressing Harrison’s lovely but feisty daughter Jessica.

Left behind with the men called away on an arduous ride, Jim decides to try and win some brownie points by breaking in Harrison’s expensive colt, the last offspring of Old Regret. It backfires however when the pack of wild horses passes by, distracting the colt who roughly dispatches Jim and escapes. Upon his return, a furious Harrison assembles every handler in the surrounding districts, including the legendary Clancy (Jack Thompson), convinced the potential loss of his colt is Jim’s doing. Can the young mountain lad make amends and win the heart of Jessica in the process? The outcome is hardly a surprise, but the journey is undoubtedly an adventurous, spirited one relayed with a uniquely Australian voice but with enough universality to ensure broad appeal.

Burlinson’s screen debut set him on the road to stardom and rightly so for he embodies the fresh-faced Jim with the combined vigour and exuberance of youthful impulsivity. It’s true, he doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with his acting range but he has the appealing good looks and requisite physical presence to dissuade any notion of him being unable to cut it once a bit of equine mastery is called for.

Douglas laps up his duel roles with a strange kind of relish, especially in the case of Harrison’s brother, the colourful, one-legged Spur. Early on he’s designated as the comic relief, the hoary loner devoting much of life to panning for fool’s gold whilst Harrison, who unjustly disowned him, willingly clasped at circumstances engineered by fate. Jack Thompson seems underutilised as Clancy, spoken of in glowing terms as the greatest horseman in the land, and who Harrison pleads to lead the charge to retrieve his prized colt. But Clancy falls back into the ruck when push comes to shove, deferring to Jim whose show of strength not only proves to Jessica his worth as a man, but also to the wider community – spotted as it is with vocal detractors – of his credentials as a horseman ready to assume a man’s responsibility before his time.

Who doesn’t recall the film’s score? For this we can thank the talents of composer Bruce Rowland whose lyrical main themes have become as inextricably bound to the images as anything else, musically representing the film’s purest spirit with its wide open spaces and simplified evocation of freedom.

Perhaps the name of Paterson’s poem conjures an image of grace and perfection that can’t be matched by the reality of the film. More than 30 years on, The Man From Snowy River remains a thrilling ride; part tentative first romance, part rite-of-passage for its young hero. Though it’s not without shortcomings, we’re probably all guilty of appraising the film, in hindsight, with a nostalgic fondness that conveniently consigns its slightly dated elements into the background. And I’m no different, for those iconic images we most readily associate with it are undeniably memorable and testament to the film’s enduring appeal.

The Heartbreak Kid (Jenkins, 1993)

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Stories that reflect Australia’s embrace of multiculturalism are, thankfully, more common place on cinema screens these days, but more than 20 years ago the same could hardly be said and a piece like Michael Jenkins’s The Heartbreak Kid (1993) emerged as a breath of fresh air. The film stands the test of time in two respects: firstly in that it provides enlightenment of deeply rooted culturally relevant issues – streamlined though they may be – whilst simultaneously maximising chances for a feel good hit in the very commercial appeal attached to it.

Plucked from obscurity, 18 year-old Alex Dimitriades was chosen for the role of Nick Polides, a headstrong, volatile student with grand aspirations of making it big as a stud on the soccer field. Sadly, at his Melbourne high school little progress is being made in abetting those dreams, for he’s unable to even convince the staff to resurrect the notion of a representative soccer team. In a climate ruled by an ingrained religious devotion to Aussie Rules, soccer comes off as an impoverished second cousin long excluded from this particular school’s curriculum. Nick seethes when confronted by the embodiment of this attitude in Mr. Southgate (William McInnes), the footy coach who early on is pitched forward as an all too-obvious adversary; he’s the most vocal dissenting voice in the staff room, a crowd of one rallying against the intrusion into his playground of a game demeaningly referred to – by the community at large at that time – as ‘wog ball’.

Luckily for Nick, a guardian angel steps in to fill the breach in the form of young teacher Christina Papadopoulos (Claudia Karvan) who senses that Nick’s misplaced anger might best be redirected into more productive outlets. Brushing aside the mocking laughter of her fellow staff members, she puts her hand up to coach a hastily assembled soccer team whilst admitting, in the same breath, to not possessing a skerrick of knowledge about the game. But with the cocksure Nick as her guiding hand, she’s able to at least set the wheels of change in motion.

Nick is won over by Christina’s noble decision to stand up for his motley crew of ethnic outcasts. But in the course of their combined efforts to form a cohesive sporting unit, deeper feelings develop. His attraction to Christina begins its pubescent conversion from the lusty fantasies associable with a schoolboy’s crush to serious consideration of Christina as “his girl”. Impropriety aside, he may be just deluding himself. Certainly Nick’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of her would scare off most women, but for Christina – not much older than her students at 22 and still able to relate to their fickle crushes – negating external factors begin to take their toll, alleviating the implausibility of the scenario.

She can certainly relate to the overpowering parental control that Nick is hardly alien to – the type that suffocates with good intentions but leaves precious little leeway for personal freedom to flourish. Raised to respect and adhere to her parents’ wishes, Christina has her life plotted out on a circumscribed path, including a pre-determined husband-to-be, Dimitri (Steve Bastoni). There’s even a model home chosen for her by Dimitri without any consultation that offers little room to breathe, being right across the street from her parents’ home! Having another decision taken out of her hands adds to the sense of subtle manipulation; it’s a façade of compliance as honour, the kind with a firm foothold in tradition, but which the free-willed Christina must reduce to old-world memories if she’s ever going to become her own woman.

Karvan is terrific in this early role that followed her initial breakthrough in The Big Steal (1990). She has that intriguing youthful mix of fresh-faced beauty and yet with the hint of a tomboy in her short hair and ability to pull off a fetching run over a muddy playing field in skimpy shorts and a soccer jersey.

It’s a very physical performance from Dimitriades, in more ways than one; early on he’s a ball of energy, unable to suppress his outrage at the school’s denial of a soccer team. In this way, he’s also living in the shadow of his father George (Nick Lathouris) who once played for the Greek national team. The innate pressure associated with fulfilling parental expectations is a universal one but it has special connotations with those of ethnic minorities in Australian society where the weight of overcoming an implied racial mistrust is ever present.

Jenkins, who jointly adapted the screenplay with the author of the original play, Robert Barrett, does a decent job of relaying how these pressures come to bear on both Nick and Christina. Funnily enough, he’s never made another feature, working exclusively in TV ever since. There’s an element of manipulation and cliché as to how the relationships are pushed to the edge of fragmentation, but the issues they raise have hardly lost their relevance.

It’s fascinating to watch Nick’s perspective alter as his schoolboy crush takes on more meaningful proportions. For a while he just sees Christina as an idyllic object of privilege, the ones not afforded him; an unattainable goddess representative of his cultural ties to both Australia and his ancestry. For Christina, Nick himself may seem unrefined, but she’s attracted to his impulsive, giddily unpredictable nature; a young man yet to explore his potential but equally moved by the prospect of passion as pain. Raw and rebellious, he represents an unlikely outlet to release her stresses, and a polar opposite to the calculating, money-obsessed Dimitri. If her feelings were based on little more than unleashing some suppressed sexual frustration then their relationship would be doomed to a spectacular but swift end. Slowly however, Christina has to put aside the distracting fact of Nick’s youth to understand the reasons she’s really attracted to him and address whether he has any of the qualities she really desires in a man.

And what of the moral implications of a teacher engaging in sexual relations with one of her students? Well, there’s certainly a murky area of grey to consider here, though it doesn’t draw a whole lot of attention other than from Nick’s dad who is appropriately disconsolate at the thought of such a strict moral breach. We can assume that most people have few qualms about such a relationship when the ages of those involved are so close, but what a different light might have been shed on these trysts had the sexual roles been reversed? The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly hot and heavy though it’s hard to know how seriously to take the exultant choral music overlaid across the first of them. Both actors are game however and because of that fact, The Heartbreak Kid mostly defies the juvenile associations of its title. Hopefully it will be remembered as a piece of slick entertainment that also provides some valuable commentary and insights into the rapidly changing makeup of Australian society.

Ned Kelly (Jordan, 2003)

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Beyond every shifting guise appropriated by the late Heath Ledger there exists the bittersweet temptation to look back with poignancy, to ponder the creative heights all too briefly scaled. In Ned Kelly, Australia’s most notorious outlaw and anti-hero of legendary proportions, Ledger communed with a kindred spirit, a man who would sacrifice everything to erase the besmirching of his family’s name. And like Ledger, Ned too was a man destined to perish at a tragically premature age.

Gregor Jordan’s film is undoubtedly the most polished and dramatically satisfying re-tread of the Kelly story, offering a welcome balance of drama and portraiture of a necessarily self-serving nature. And despite the presence of Naomi Watts as the fictional, designated love interest – the girl who fancies Ned but can offer no alibi for fear of disgrace – she’s wisely kept to the margins, saving the drama from being cheapened by populist expectations.

The film begins with an oblique shot, later revealed to be Ned’s proudest moment when, aged 10, he saved another boy from drowning. We’re then transplanted to 1871 as a young Ned has his first brush with the law, accused of stealing a horse. From there his struggles and those of his family – with whom troubles with the law have been commonplace – are etched in broad, persuasive strokes. Ned himself is a brawler, earning money with his fists, but just as he’s about to move on, a fateful night intervenes.

Whilst engaged in a tryst with the English girl (Watts), who exists far beyond his social strata, a lily-livered copper with a personal grudge against Ned, Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), visits the Kellys only to leave with a whipping from Ned’s family and friends. But the battle lines are drawn as Fitzpatrick sets his false story in motion: Mrs. Kelly (Kris McQuade) is taken into custody and the search for Ned and his gang begins. The police want their man and will adopt any means to track him down. Similarly, Ned must resort to reluctant bloodletting to avenge the injustice of his mother’s incarceration and there’s no going back once his bridges are burned. Reparations can no longer be considered, for “wasn’t it now war?” For his deeds, which included taking the lives of a few obstinate officers, Ned has a world record bounty placed on his head. But though seemingly everyone who’s ever known him is arrested, nobody gives up the ghost for the sake of the exorbitant sum – such was the high esteem in which Ned was held.

Ledger makes a first rate Kelly, convincingly conveying the basic decency of a man oppressed by the authorities: principled, loyal and resolute. His intermittent voiceover is employed to good effect too, like a ghostly reminder from beyond the grave of Ned’s ability to endure, to evoke heated dialogue about the legitimacy of his legacy more than a century later. The accents are a little dodgy, especially that employed by Orlando Bloom as Ned’s valiant offsider Joe Byrne, but it never hurts the tone established by Jordan and his cinematographer Oliver Stapleton who captures the sombre, almost colourless Victorian bushland with a discerning eye.

Big names like Watts and Geoffrey Rush as the staunch Superintendent recruited from South Africa to lead the hunt for Ned, become bit players for it’s the classic confrontation of the persecuted opposing the unjust that commands most attention. Yet for all the failings of the film to flesh out complementary sub-plots, it’s this adherence by screenwriter John Michael McDonagh to a universal ideal that provides the drama with the impetus it needs to rouse our emotions. Another vital ingredient is the score by Klaus Badelt who contributes possibly the finest of his career to date, other than the more sublime moments of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006). The main theme, in particular, is an appropriately stirring elegy, yet remains admirably understated in most incarnations, never overpowering the images.

Ned’s seething and defiance reach an emotive peak in the brief sampling of his Jerilderie Letter composition; there’s also a wonderfully doom-laden lead up to the final showdown, in which Ned and his gang face an army of officers in their armour-plated defence. Here, Ned’s narration devolves into bleak musings on his dire predicament as he, and the creatures surrounding him in the woods where he lies in wait, are reduced to elemental means of survival.

You could argue Jordan’s portrayal of Ned is perhaps a little too lopsided, a fact sure to be widely criticised beyond these shores. But reminders of Ned’s heroics, and the iconic imagery they evoke, have penetrated our cultural landscape to such an extent that anything less than a biased portrayal would be considered almost sacrilegious. Ned Kelly (2003), tinged with the morose inevitability of its outcome, is a worthy addition to a voluminous body of the work obsessed with affirming a reckless but revered Australian legend.