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.

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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.

The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford, 1978)

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Ethel Richardson’s 1910 novel about a free-spirited 14 year old country girl refusing to be sculpted and made to fit a mould of British Empire-influenced respectability was adapted with its most important themes and spirited sense of humour intact by Bruce Beresford in 1978. At the time the young director had just finished the seminal Don’s Party (1976) and, before that, a pair of crude Barry McKenzie vehicles starring a young Barry Humphries who would feature prominently in this, Beresford’s first attempt at a film striving to address heightened literary sensibilities.

It’s the turn of the century in rural Victoria’s Warrenega where the unfortunately named Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susannah Fowle) is about to be shipped off to Melbourne’s prestigious Ladies College. Laura is ridiculed for her frightful red bonnet by the College’s representatives on the train journey and upon arrival finds herself immediately at odds with the school’s airs and graces. The stern and uppity Mrs. Gurley (Sheila Helpmann) assaults her with a litany of rules and regulations before she’s even had time to catch her breath. It’s a clear indicator of the kind of superior attitude that saturates these hallowed halls.

Laura has a love-hate relationship with most of the students; she’s not incapable of taking part in their irreverent, playful, girls-own activities but when it all boils down, she’s viewed as an outsider, earning gently mocking nicknames like “Tweedledum” and “Ram’s Bottom” in the process. She’s an ugly duckling pressed into the company of graceful swans, yet continues to flabbergast and then infuriate students and teachers alike with her blasé attitude and direct, unrefined manner. She shows startling aptitude for the piano as well which will cause a jealous division later on, but in a world where conformity most pleases the teachers, her eagerness comes across as impertinence; her politeness as naivety or ignorance.

Laura’s modest origins are a source of constant stress; her mother runs the local post office in Warrenega and the fact of it becomes a dirty secret she attempts to divert focus from to ease the embarrassment. To her credit she quickly develops a tough outer layer, able to turn the tables on newcomers in her second year, grilling for points of weakness with which to exploit them down the track. But she experiences guilt immediately afterwards – surely a reaction much closer to that of the true Catholic the teachers would like her to become!

Much of the success of The Getting of Wisdom hinges on its performances and debutante Fowle was a great choice to personify the memorable Laura. She’s funny, moving and engaging with a wonderful naturalness to her performance, a lack of inhibition that immediately has us siding with Laura rather than the majority – teachers included – who often walk around as though balancing invisible books on their heads. The younger cast members are equally good; nestled amongst them are familiar names of today in early roles like Sigrid Thornton and Kerry Armstrong. The distinctive looking Kim Deacon is especially good as Laura’s roommate Lilith, whilst John Waters makes the most of his few scenes as the school’s newest recruit, Reverend Shepherd, whom all the girls are instantly and madly besotted with. An almost unrecognizable Barry Humphries offers convincing fire and brimstone moments as their principal, Reverend Strachey; his public denouncement – via a wrathful hailstorm of public accusation – of a girl caught stealing is an electrifying outburst and memorable moment.

Though not explicit, a harsh religiosity is often inferred; an adherence to purity that ultimately chokes creativity and leads to deception to escape thunderous retribution. After getting herself invited to Reverend Shepherd’s home, Laura resorts to fabrication to infuriate the other girls who’ve gone mad with jealousy and suspect a mortifyingly “sordid intrigue” between them. But it’s a fickle world, Laura discovers, for once her playful deceit is flushed out into the open, the girls are no longer playing. They converge on her like a coven of razor-tongued witches, only jealous that Laura’s time spent alone with the Reverend wasn’t theirs to brag about.

The subtle work of Hilary Ryan as Evelyn, the object of Laura’s obsession later on, can’t be underestimated either. She projects a reserved, dignified grace that snares the vulnerable Laura in her web; the younger girl is tantalised by her maturity, sophistication and ability to deal with men who Laura hates and fears in equal measure. The faint crush Laura develops for her will eventually become another painful but instructive chapter on her path to maturity and finding her true self but for a while, fed by her immature longings, Evelyn proves to be the embodiment of everything Laura aspires to become.

The final two sequences pose fascinating questions in ambiguous ways. From a first-person perspective we see Laura receiving congratulations on her successful transition to accomplished pianist. Everyone is there in fleeting glimpses, a succession of figures that dogged and chided her along the way. But are they real or just wishfully provoked faces conjured from her wildest flights of fancy, a future she’s dreamt up in self-preservation or revenge?

Finally there’s the sight of Laura taking off from the group in a park setting; just off to “have a good run” she tells them. She disappears through the ranks of park revelers – the jaunty brass band, the elegant ladies escorted under sun umbrellas – to a point on the distant horizon. But is she just running away, or towards something specific? Is this closing scene an affirmation of Laura’s free will? Or simply a negation of the limited possibilities of life at starchy institutions of learning like The Ladies College with their active discouragement of individuality? Either way, The Getting of Wisdom remains an Australian classic and one of our more enlightening and entertaining coming-of-age stories.

Sunday Too Far Away (Hannam, 1975)

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Set in 1956, Ken Hannam’s first feature is a landmark depiction of the lives of a close-knit crew of sheep shearers in outback Australia. Ostensibly the story of Foley (Jack Thompson), the film encompasses a series of rich characterisations of the men who are requisitioned by the cordial Tim King (Max Cullen), a local businessman who has long had an ambition to be a shearing contractor and take out a shed of his own. When his old friend Foley unexpectedly turns up after an ill-fated relocation to Brisbane, he decides to win him over, hoping for a snowball effect to claim more of the town’s best shearers in the process, despite most of them having upcoming contracts to fulfill.

Loading up Tim’s car, they head out to the remote Timberoo shed where the bulk of the film takes place. Here Foley and an odd assortment of mostly toughened veterans undertake the daily grind of their trade for six weeks whilst the property’s owner, the “Cocky,” Mr. Dawson (Philip Ross) oversees all, his greatest fear being that one of these brash outlaws will experience a slip in concentration and lop off the testicles of one of his prize-winning rams. Dawson is contemptuous of the men, regardless of their necessity, admitting to his teenage daughter Sheila (Lisa Peers) after the first day that “I’d forgotten what scum they are.”

The men alongside Foley include grizzled old warrior and unrepentant alcoholic, Garth (Reg Lye), comic relief Ugly (John Ewart) and a suspicious outsider from NSW, Arthur Black (Peter Cummins), who seems the only man capable of going toe-to-toe with Foley in the race for the shed’s top dog. Together, through days of sweltering heat and weekends of inevitably hard drinking that flatten out the hours of boredom into manageable lengths of time, the men somehow survive. Colourful references abound to the wretched cooking of their hired gun chef, the ogre-like Quinn (Ken Weaver) who Foley is finally called to act upon on behalf of the mens collective aching stomachs. His plan involves getting the big fella drunk on his beloved Essence of Lemon, bottles of which he ‘borrows’ from Mr. Dawson’s home, before pouncing on the weakened giant at his time of greatest vulnerability and delivering a withering blow.

The single most distinctive feature of Sunday Too Far Away (1975) is its remarkable authenticity. Filmed in remote South Australia at Cariewerloo shearing station once used in Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960), it manages to immerse us in the sweaty, oppressive confines of this place with its constant, rowdy atmospheric clang. For these men, this is a vocation they’ve reluctantly entrusted their livelihoods to and though times are tough they’re duty bound to keep pushing through the pain barrier. With the lens of cinematographer Geoff Burton smothering the men in the heat of battle, there’s no risk of them being unduly glamourised or cariacaturised, the monotony and abrasive physical labour of torrid days spent staving off heat and an endless tide of reluctant ovine adversaries palpable in virtually every scene. The film is as much about male bonding as anything else and it captures the enduring capacity of these men to form a cohesive working unit even under the most trying circumstances.

Thompson has a plethora of memorable roles buried in his back-catalogue but Foley is undoubtedly one of his finest characterisations. Despite his air of invincibility and laconic attitude, a bittersweet aura lingers about him. On one hand his legendary deeds in the shearing sheds have earned him respect, his reputation having spread far and wide, but there’s a subtly-defined emptiness inside him too, rearing its head in moments of silent contemplation. It’s like a yearning for some intangible quality that has escaped him; a direction that might have provided his life with greater meaning. You sense that his imposing physical presence and dominance in the sheds have been a dangerous drawback preventing him from seeking another escape route. His return from Brisbane in the opening scene infers a capitulation; a man who surveyed the horizon for fresh adventures and came to the conclusion that there’s really only one place he can ever call home. He re-enters the fray with his tail between his legs, but quickly picks up his downed tools with the kind of tenaciousness and bravado that exemplifies the outback Australian spirit. As good as Thompson is, he’s more than matched by the rest of the cast who are each afforded indelible moments that, although small, effectively create an assembly of depth out of John Dingwall’s first-class screenplay.

The film finally touches on the shearer’s strike of 1956 as the price of wool forced their wages down; this in turn brought an influx of ‘scab’ labour to town where the frustration and despair of Foley and the men manifests itself in rage that eventually leads to an all-in pub brawl. It concludes this magnificent film with a telling statement on the unity and integrity of ‘average’ Australians who’ll fight like rabid dogs to uphold their dignity, to protect their home ground and maintain their quality of life. The only thing that spoils the effect? Thompson’s god-awful singing of the theme song – penned by Bob Ellis – over the front and end credits. Talk about pained screeching! Jack’s vocal work sounds like the emissions of a sheep or five ensnared in a barbed wire fence, baa-ing for swift mercy. Luckily everything in between these two grating outbursts more than makes up for Jack’s crimes against good musical taste.

Gross Misconduct (Miller, 1993)

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You have to wonder if Australia’s own variation on Fatal Attraction is now just a discredited footnote in the career of Naomi Watts. Surely she’s long suppressed all recollection of her demented schoolgirl act in Gross Misconduct (1993), directed unremarkably by George Miller (not to be confused with the George Miller who directed Mad Max). Too early, here, are signifiers of the impending subtext-rich pop psychology laid out: the opening tracking shot through a gloomy mansion at night trawls past an elaborate series of lit candles – a danger sign in any film, for only a certifiably mad person would go to all that trouble – before resting on a naked Jennifer (Watts), dreamily pleasuring herself in an inviting four-poster bed. Jennifer, it turns out, is a gorgeous blonde with an angelic countenance and a murky past. She lives with her wealthy father (Adrian Wright), her mother having died in a crash that he apparently still blames himself for, though in stock thrillers such as these car-crash deaths are never what they seem and either serve as red herrings or risible clues to later crimes.

Jennifer’s eye lingers longest on the man at the head of her University classroom; he’s art history professor Justin Thorne (Jimmy Smits), an American who has adopted Melbourne as his base. As well as being his most devout student, Jennifer doubles as babysitter for Justin and his wife Laura (Sarah Chadwick), allowing her unlimited access to their home where she creeps to his bedroom to inhale the scent of his clothes and smile knowingly at his stash of condoms. She’s besotted with the man, but this lustful admiration shows signs of crossing over dangerous borders into that strictly cinematic realm of obsession. It’s here that innocent gestures are misconstrued and ordinary men become objectified and vilified in the same breath. Justin’s life is about to be tossed down a well, but as a man it’s clearly his own doing. He’s that dangerously appealing type: rugged, effortlessly charming, and intelligent without a need for spectacles; he even moonlights as a saxophonist in a jazz club, giving Jennifer yet another reason to adore him. As if they don’t see enough of Justin in class, Jennifer and her friends congregate at the club as well, speculating about whether he’s the type to stray (undoubtedly yes, the consensus seems to be), tossing lurid visions into the gulf of Jennifer’s quickly unravelling subconscious.

When Justin offers a lift home after a night of babysitting, Jennifer makes her first real move, bemoaning her lowly status on the first rung of Plato’s ladder of love. A hesitant, probing kiss, which Justin neither resists or reacts to, is the dangerous first move in a game that will bring about his moral downfall. The inevitable sex act occurs, though Justin admirably resists many more advancements beforehand, and it’s under unusual circumstances that it finally takes place. It’s a standout sequence too: a stormy night reaching full steam, Justin’s harsh pronouncement met with violent rage from Jennifer – the kind that can only be quelled by physical restraint. Naturally this close proximity draws the calamitous spectre of arousal to the surface and neither party, it seems, is fully cognisant of what happens thereafter. The scene is rife with unsubtle metaphors such as Justin’s raging office hearth as a stand-in for his lust as it’s stoked to new heights; even more obvious is the branch bursting in through the window, symbolic of an alien, irrevocable intrusion into Justin’s life as they lay draped in moonlight, sweating and misty-eyed with confusion.

Always more comfortable on the small screen than in features, Smits at least emerges with his dignity intact, though even he must have been pondering the wisdom of his decision to be a part of this production at times. Case in point is the scene where Justin enters his lawyer’s office, only to be greeted with an ad-libbed limerick poking fun at the sexually provocative nature of his faltering reputation. Smits must have been tempted to turn tail at this point whilst perusing the finer details of his contract in search of an escape clause. For the alluring Watts, this is most likely a regular first casualty on Retrospective Night, the one credit long ago blotted out from her CV with a slathering of liquid paper. She has our full attention as a luscious, coquettish enticement in the throes of schoolgirl lust; she’s less convincing however when having to summon more complicated emotional responses from beneath the pulpy excesses of the unhinged vixen desperate to lose her virginity in the idealised way she describes in her diary.

The film’s straight-faced manner actually works to its benefit, even if its flirtation with aberrant psychology is fatuous and simplified to grease the tracks of Justin’s histrionic fall from grace to come. The construction and more intimate detailing of the film, adapted from a play by Lance Peters, feel wonky and absurd; note the soap-opera moves to a window to deliver or receive monologues; the accused and accuser interacting in the middle of a trial; the tacked-on incestuous overtones to explain all. A few simple alterations along the way might easily have plugged gaping holes in its interior logic.

The wrap-up too has its failings, bringing with it an almost unforgivable whiff of cheapest melodrama. And yet for reasons I can’t logically explain, Gross Misconduct remains a film with “guilty pleasure” scrawled all over it in jagged red lipstick strokes. In retrospect it’s easy to heap scorn on it, but there’s undeniable entertainment value here, if not staying power. For that reason, it’s actually worth savouring – surreptitiously, of course.

Running on Empty (Clark, 1982)

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Australian youths of the 1980s were apparently just as likely to fall prey to the same foolish distractions as those of today if John Clark’s mostly unintentionally hilarious Running on Empty (1982) is any indication. This was only ever going to be a cult film, with its undernourished treatment of hotted-up cars, schoolboy vendettas, abnormally high hair and fake Italian accents.

On the backstreets of Sydney, the dastardly Fox (Richard Moir) is ruler and king, disposing of all challengers on the illegal drag racing scene with ease. In the opening sequence we watch in horror as his latest opponent is propelled to a fiery death as the crowd scurries away. Fox’s girlfriend of sorts, and a seemingly reluctant one, Julie (Deborah Conway), soon catches the eye of another prospective racer in Mike (Terry Serio). When Mike is caught in the act driving her around and getting a bit frisky, Fox sends in his loathsome, meat-headed minions to rough him up and propose the kind of challenge that has no escape clause. He must race Fox three times with the stakes rising exponentially with any loss.

Mike is unable to avert defeat the first time around, so with the now sympathetic Julie and his mechanic Tony (Vangelis Mourikis) in tow, they head for the wilds of the outback to drum up some mug racers to thrash, thus building a bank with which to make the necessary upgrades for his car. It’s the only conceivable means of out-dueling Fox, and after running into some double-dealing rednecks who reduce his beloved transportation to a ghost of its former self he calls on the aid of Rebel (Max Cullen), an aging and blind James Dean wannabe who looks like he just stepped out of a malfunctioning time machine.

Mike returns for a second bout with Fox but the latter’s underhanded tricks lead to a disastrous outcome for Mike’s car which, beyond all repair, has to be put out to pasture. For the third and final encounter, the most drastic of measures is required to overcome Fox’s seemingly invincible Dodge. Mike now has to suck up his humility and go crawling back to Rebel to ask permission for the use of his immaculately restored Chevy to give him a chance at reaching the winner’s podium.

Though this simplistic film follows a predictable path, it has achieved some notoriety as a minor cult hit, the type of film that people with a tendency for falling head over heels for fast cars will lap up the drool-inducing associations it conjures. The recurring themes have been put through the wringer in far superior variations, of course: dethroning the arch nemesis (always an unconscionable bastard of the first order) to achieve glory and get the girl; then there’s speed as an unsubtle metaphor for breaking free from the constraints of authority.

This was Clark’s first and only film; seemingly he vanished without a trace after putting together this curiosity – a film set in Sydney and, bizarrely, funded by The Film Corporation of Western Australia. Barry Tomblin’s screenplay is mostly witless and superficial in an almost deliberately B-grade manner. Witness Fox’s admonishment of Tony prior to beating him up: “What a lot of sauce from such a little piece of spaghetti.” Tomblin too is credited with no other project in his career. Perhaps he and Clark got sucked into the same vortex whilst daring to imagine a sequel.

Luckily our hero Mike is a sympathetic firebrand, the kind of fundamentally decent guy we’ll readily root for under these circumstances. His reluctance to back peddle is endearing in the way that a dog wrestling with a bone for hours wins your respect for its sheer tenacity. Serio has charisma of a crude sort, and enough good looks to earn him a passing grade. It’s no surprise however that pop singer Conway’s career haemorrhaged soon after. Mourikis makes for a lovable offsider, suspicious accent and all, whilst Moir doesn’t even get a chance to chew up the scenery, so bare are the landscapes – both literal and metaphorical – of Tomblin’s limited imagination.

Cullen deserves special mention for his funny but excruciatingly awful portrayal of Rebel. His speech is littered with corny American sayings spouted with an accent that wavers in and out like a dodgy shortwave radio signal. And yet somehow he’s hard to hate, especially with that camel tied up in his vacant lot and a propensity for referring to everyone as “cat.” Then there’s the random appearances of Penne Hackforth-Jones and Graham “Auntie Jack” Bond as a couple of ludicrously attired, impotent police officers who look like porn actors teeing up their paper thin personas in those shakily overheated few moments before they rip off their shirts.

The final showdown between Fox and Mike is over fairly quickly, with a thoughtful, wordless pause inserted before the charcoal burning final image that – in a film supported by far sturdier framework – you couldn’t resist labeling ‘iconic’. It ends this forgotten film – cherished by an odd few – on an exultant, audacious high.

Newsfront (Noyce, 1978)

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With its wealth of archival news footage seamlessly integrated into an absorbing period drama, Philip Noyce’s 1978 feature debut, Newsfront, can rightly be lauded as a milestone of Australian cinema. Boasting a cast of the highest calibre – a mix of emerging heavyweights and fresh faces about to make their mark – it casts venerable light on the tireless work undertaken behind the scenes of news reporting in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.

The film opens in black and white with footage from historic newsreels, including Chico Marx leading troops through a rendition of Waltzing Matilda; following is a press conference with Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the newsmen, whose task requires them to track the most noteworthy stories down, setting up their positions. For the first of many times, Noyce conveys the sense of opening a time capsule and placing fictional figures in the midst of historical events. We meet the head cameraman for leading newsmakers Cinetone, Len Maguire (Bill Hunter), and his assistant, a recently emigrated young Englishman, Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood). On the other side of the fence is rival Charlie (John Ewart), star cameraman for Newsco, who’s nearing fifty, with battles aplenty in the field behind him and the scars to prove it.

Though the two companies are competing for the same audience in cinemas across the land, an affectionate camaraderie exists between them. Instead of hurled insults there are tender reproaches, an unspoken credo of men united in a common cause. Both sides even socialize together without any awkwardness, the sentiment of a singular purpose uniting them in the face of social upheaval. Grounded in reality these men barely conform to any fictional identity, and the clever insertion of footage from so many key events shaping an evolving nation provides the film with almost documentary-like dimensions to validate them further.

The only bone of lustful contention comes in the form of Cinetone employee, Amy Mackenzie (Wendy Hughes); Len has designs on her but she remains the casual interest of his brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) who keeps her at arm’s length and happens to be Newsco’s amiable head honcho. Once on the same side, Frank has ascended the ranks of Cinetone’s chief rival and now harbours ambitions of reaching an international audience. With adequate funding to achieve it, he heads for America in a whirlwind move, leaving Len to his humble devotions and a crestfallen but philosophical Amy behind. Len has his own fledgling marriage to Fay (Angela Punch-McGregor) to contend with, one soon soured by her remoteness and his own wandering eye. Len is indifferent to her religious devotions too, creating a potentially irreconcilable rift.

The edges between fiction and reality are effectively blurred by the sleek, uncluttered screenplay on which Noyce collaborated with Bob Ellis; there’s not a single rough transition between the two time-frames, even when the recreation of the era switches from black and white to colour, as it does on numerous occasions. History serves the quiet heroism and dignity of these men well, amassing the footage that Australians, in the pre-television dawn, became dependant on for contact with the rest of the country; crucial too were the social issues encroaching upon news headlines as we evolved through another important change of government and a wave of anti-communism which sparked a national referendum. Especially memorable is the brilliantly evoked Maitland floods of ’55, a sequence in which Noyce’s footage feels every bit as bona fide as the original black and white vision of the time. As the late 40’s and 50’s are negotiated with subtle fast-forwards, the threat of television suddenly looms large for both sides, but the integrity of these men is never undermined by a lack of commitment or motivation to serve public need above all else.

Hunter’s overpowering presence holds every scene captive to his laconic, distinctly Australian authenticity; given the rare opportunity to shrug off colourful character roles for a lead, he thrives; there’s genuine poignancy in many domestic scenes that might have easily been supplanted by mawkishness with a little less refinement. He’s a highly sympathetic central figure, despite his brother’s assertion that he’s the perfect company man – loyal and unambitious. The emerging Hayward offers occasional comic respite at Len’s side whilst Hughes is luminous, as ever, whether captured in colour or monochrome by Vincent Monton’s intuitive camerawork. A young Bryan Brown has a decent supporting role too as a headstrong, politically-motivated editor; in fact, not a single bit player hits so much as a wrong note under Noyce’s assured direction.

Rich with historical context and believable characterisations, Newsfront is a dramatic success on every level; a telling tribute to the work of Australians in an important era of media relations and the way we finally began accessing the world through a wholly visual medium. A sparkling, auspicious debut for Noyce – who would be Hollywood-bound a decade later in the wake of the commercially successful Dead Calm (1989) – Newsfront remains a landmark film from the Golden Age of our cinema’s history.

The Devil’s Playground (1974)

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A pointed examination of both the nurturing capabilities and detrimental effects of Catholicism, Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground (1974) was shot in Geelong for just $300,000 and effectively drew upon experiences derived from his own brief flirtation with a godly vocation, spending nearly two years inside a seminary in his mid-teens.

Set in 1953, a trio of central characters become the subject of focus: firstly, young student Tom (Simon Burke), a chronic bed wetter who’s being gradually distracted from his religious devotions; he becomes representative of all the boys and their increasingly common lapses, innocence on the cusp of corruption from the wider world. Tom’s own weakness finds a physical outlet in his constant masturbation, a topic often humorously referenced by the boys whose close proximity to puberty draws stern-faced, dire warnings from the Brothers, who in turn seem oblivious to the silly smirks their grave lectures inspire.

Much loved Brother Victor (Nick Tate) is well aware of the restrictive code that dominates his Catholic duty but in Tom and the other boys he sees a means of gently guiding still-impressionable youths beyond the constrictive boundaries of this place by treating them with almost fatherly devotion. A reckless drinker when off his leash and devoid of any social skills around women, Victor can’t imagine life anywhere else for himself. On a basic level – call it devotion or loneliness – he clings to his faith with all its inherent beliefs of fostering a community spirit within an educational context.

As with any film worth its salt dealing with Catholic faith, the all-encompassing force of guilt is evoked. Yes indeed, as sure as the day is long, Catholic guilt will endure, and Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) is a provocative symbol of the deep-seated conflict the notion inspires, a model of starkest repression. He’s also Brother Victor’s polar opposite. A formal, harsh taskmaster who never allows himself to get close to the boys – earning their derision at every turn – Francine espouses the laws of God with the calamitous promise of damnation to follow for non-conformists. For him, the Lord’s chosen few are those who regard stringent denial a prerequisite for passing the ultimate theological test; he hovers over them proclaiming “an undisciplined mind is the Devil’s playground.”

On a subliminal level however, Francine suffers at the hands of primitive forces pulling him in the opposite direction. Whilst Victor and another young brother head into town for a football match, Francine visits the public baths where he can’t prevent his eyes from straying, catching unavoidable half-glimpses of female flesh; a form of torturous temptation, they’re enough to send him into paroxysms of guilt, soon manifesting themselves in disturbing dreams of his naked body being ravaged in deep waters by a surreal, swirling mobile of elegant, rapturous nymphs.

A fundamental issue for Schepisi is the division between old school and more contemporary – for 1950’s Australia – methods of Catholic indoctrination. On opposing sides sit Victor and Francine, drawn into direct conflict when a tragedy at the seminary finally causes resentments to boil over. Bemoaning an almost medieval adherence to enforcing rules upon the innocent boys, Victor rails against the increasingly dispirited Francine whose final outburst – a result of his morbid inner conflict – is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

It all becomes too much for Francine, his reluctant body’s unwholesome obsessions slowly overwhelming his spiritual devotions. On the verge of leaving the order, his final declaration is a telling insight into the price paid for his denials: “I hate life” he assures the assembled brothers, “I hate it!”

A visiting missionary priest, Father Marshall (a flawed and overly mannered Tom Keneally) further illustrates the conflicting perceptions attributable to the church; a generally benign and well-liked figure, his homilies turn into fire and brimstone rants, warning of the temptations of evil and ways of being reduced to one of the “howling damned who do not see God’s face.”

On one hand a sombre and sensitive coming-of-age story, The Devil’s Playground is also an unsettling examination of Catholicism, probing its lack of relevance in advancing with the times and moulding the minds of each new generation. Regardless of the decades that separate it from the here and now, Schepisi’s film is as relevant as ever in its assurances of religion’s weakness, that inevitable annulment of rhapsodic but anachronistic eulogizing, bound to turn away as many as it converts.

Though his screenplay is second to none, there’s no doubt Schepisi’s greatly helped by the quality of his actors, particularly the brilliant Tate and Dignam as the two Brothers with geometrically opposed views of how their religious ideals should be imparted to the flock. Young Burke, under the patient and tender tutelage of his director, gives a very convincing debut performance for the most part.

Long acclaimed – and rightfully so – as an Australian classic, The Devil’s Playground is ample proof of its director’s prodigious early talent, whose promise would be further realised with an adaptation of Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith two years later.

 

 

Goldstone (2016)

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Ivan Sen’s sequel of sorts to the excellent Mystery Road (2013) only enhances his reputation as one of our finest current directors. Using social commentary in subtle, intelligent ways, he returns us to the life of troubled detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he enters the sparsely populated Goldstone district on a missing person’s case. Here, corruption is the underlying force determining the nature of interactions and, inevitably, the outcome of all things. A mining deal framed by a sleazy head of operations (David Wenham) and his co-conspirator, dodgy Mayor (Jackie Weaver), hinges on the assent of an Aboriginal elder (David Gulpilil), complicating Swan’s discovery of a link between his own case and the secret spiriting in and out of town of young Chinese women to use as prostitutes. Swan’s progress is interrupted by his battle with internal demons and an ambitious young local cop, Josh Waters (Alex Russell), full of natural suspicions about interlopers and living well off strong personal relationships with the townsfolk.

Pederson has been gifted the role of a lifetime by Sen. Swan is a fascinating, compelling character, flawed in obvious ways and psychologically wounded by past events but possessing an iron-will determination to do his job even if he gets side-tracked in an occasional alcoholic fog. His belligerence and resistance to the authority of the land are never exhibited in clichéd, overly demonstrative ways. Sen’s dialogue, as it was in Mystery Road, is superb, distinguished by its economy and a rare ability to create credible, animated moments for even brief characters. His subtly inflected social commentary is telegraphed through Swan who, with just a handful of tossed barbs, provides a heartfelt, corrosive reminder of alternate views of unacknowledged aspects of our country’s past and present.

It’s a testament to both director and actor that Swann resonates as he does; as a powerful voice of reason and conviction, compelled by a social imperative, an internalised agony and a sense of aching with the impotence generated by casually cruel injustices. Russell is superb as the confident but malleable young cop, whilst Weaver and Wenham are an acidic duo as the instigators of the town’s descent into a cesspool of degenerative greed and exploitation; neither is above remotely decided upon ‘elimination’ as a means to an end.

Sen’s vision for his characters in Goldstone (2016) is deeply embedded in the context of their surrounds; the landscape binds every perspective with reminders of the harsh and barren place into which anything, including moral perspectives, can evaporate without a trace. Working as his own D.P., Sen propels his camera skyward to further impel us with a bird’s eye of this often falsely beautiful terrain traversed by Swan. His now trademark overhead view – employed judiciously and to delirious effect on occasion – feels remarkably fresh and organically empowering as a descriptive tool. It’s also sensuously inclusive of his audience who are never jolted out of the film’s narrative slipstream in which immersion becomes natural and willingly sought. Sen, as with previous films, composes his own score, and his work here – sparsely used for maximum impact – is his finest yet. It brings moments of transcendence and pain alive with vivid, evocative aural colours that tap into Swan’s fluctuating emotional states within key scenes.

One quibble about the film might be Sen’s slight concession to the creation of a stock action scene moment; it mostly plays out without a hitch even if a couple of slightly unfeasible scenes around it put the most minor dent in the compellingly strong narrative. Otherwise, Goldstone works on almost every level; the material is confidently handled by Sen, the sobering tale full of complexity, nuance and rendered with a deep respect for history, his land and an eternal, soul-searing pursuit for justice. Here’s hoping for Swan’s return in a third feature.

 

Romper Stomper (1992)

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Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper was a landmark Melbourne film in the year of its release, 1992. Who can forget its in-your-face portrayal of an ugly behavioural extremism provoked by the ever-changing multi-cultural face of the city, especially the expanding Asian contingent in the western suburbs?

It’s here that a gang of dole-bludging neo-Nazi skinheads have claimed the working-class suburb of Footscray as their own, fearlessly protecting its turf against interlopers. They have no qualms about brutally doling out punishment to any “gooks” who happen to stray into their realm. Hondo (Russell Crowe) is their charismatic leader but his charges are a mostly witless bunch of followers; loyal to the cause but with the combined mental ages of your average teenager. Only Davey (Daniel Pollack), Hondo’s reserved best mate, differentiates himself from the rest, his haunted eyes reflecting a quiet intelligence beyond his subservience to Hondo. When Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a disturbed young woman unwittingly walks into Hondo’s local hangout, The Railway Hotel, he’s instantly attracted. Before long he has even caused a public nuisance by shattering a store window just to steal a coat she randomly takes a fancy to.

Though Romper Stomper provoked a storm of outrage at the time, it never sets out to glamourise the skinhead gangs, unless one considers random racist theorizing and public displays of idiocy essential components of a desirable lifestyle. Raw depiction of their toxic, adrenalised rage, that can only lead to self-destruction ultimately, becomes crucial in informing Wright’s anarchic debut feature. In the film’s most memorable highly-charged set-piece, outrage at the slipping away of White Australian values is amplified to fever pitch as a confrontation at the Railway – which a group of Vietnamese are negotiating to buy – spills over into a massive street brawl.

The skinheads are the aggressors initially but an urgent call for backup sees carloads of Vietnamese youths from the nearby streets converging upon the site. A bloody, brilliantly staged ten minute sequence spills out into the streets and then the skinheads’ hideaway where they backtrack in systematic retreat, finally outnumbered. Filmed in-close by cinematographer Ron Hagen with an immediacy that will leave you struggling to catch your breath with the intensity of the hand-to-hand combat, it does beg one question as the skinheads’ hideaway is finally torched: where the hell are the police during all this? They do finally arrive on the scene but it’s well after the majority of the participants have dispersed.

Hondo wants revenge more than anything but his posse is suddenly exposed as a fragmented shell of underprepared young men who, rather than having their instincts sharpened by confrontation, have become dulled by both its associable dangers and the unexpected ferocity of the surging Vietnamese youths. With unwanted clarity, Hondo begins to sees himself as a lone force who will inevitably have the bear the full brunt of responsibility, the others solely dependant on him for direction and survival. His mood worsens as their dwindling core group holes up in an abandoned warehouse; he even turns on Gabe, especially after a raid on her father’s opulent home goes awry, the spoils that were within easy grasp stupidly squandered as they’re sent scurrying into the night, tails between their legs like frightened animals.

The towering presence of Crowe and his impact on the response the film generated can’t be understated; he’s a frightening figurehead for these disaffected, misguided youths, intimidation stamped in every glare and tirade against the tainted bloodlines invading a homeland he sees slipping beyond the domain of whites. McKenzie, in her stunning feature debut, is able to exactingly evoke the duality of Gabe’s inner turmoil with its conflicting forces of strength and vulnerability skillfully meshed to form an empathetic, fascinating composite. Pollack’s post-production suicide still leaves a bittersweet stain on memories of the film now, his dignified performance another real key to its success. Ultimately, Davey proves to be a crucial counterweight to triangulate against the dynamic, extreme personalities of Hondo and Gabe, and it’s he who shows greatest courage when it matters most as the unstable moral low ground of the trio threatens to shift and leave them grasping for purchase.

The years have hardly dulled the impact of this remarkable and increasingly relevant film. Though it can be viewed as an unsettlingly brutal and honest snapshot of Melbourne’s west, the broader implications contained within are hard to shake off. Indeed, Romper Stomper remains a persuasive reminder of the capacity for ugly, primal instincts to assert themselves amidst the squalor and congestion of urban life; to create a platform for tiny spot fires that, spreading into a blackened pool of racial hatred and misunderstanding, have a genuine capacity to begin and sustain a war of attrition that, as history tells us, has no end.