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.

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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.

Don’s Party (1976)

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Bruce Beresford’s memorable 1976 film has a reputation of bawdiness and vulgarity mixed with explicit nudity that well and truly precedes it. However, few of these seedy, politically incorrect associations have any basis in truth – at least not by modern standards. Rather, David Williamson’s adaptation of his own play is a caustic and often brutally honest snapshot of Australian society at the time; a portrait deftly contextualized by its single night setting and topicality. It’s October 1969 and a party is being thrown by teacher and failed novelist Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his meek, straight-laced suburban wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan). It’s to be a night of revelry and celebration for the polls have closed on Election Day and a Labour victory spearheaded by Gough Whitlam is presumed by all, unseating the Liberals and their leader John Gorton (who makes a neat cameo at the start of the film).

Don’s guests are a colourful, quintessentially Australian bunch. There’s brash and opinionated Mal (Ray Barrett) and his scowling, resentful wife Jenny (Pat Bishop). Simon (Graeme Blundell) is clearly the odd man out with his plastered down hair, pipe and safari suit. His ditzy wife Jody (Veronica Lang) seems like a fish out of water too but she’s far more willing to be enveloped by the group than her husband who, when not making slightly embarrassed neutral small talk, stands around awkwardly in the background as if awaiting summons.

Making a head-turning entrance is artist Kerry (Candy Raymond), a gorgeous, sensuous, dark-eyed vixen who draws the attention of every male eye with her magnetic presence. Her naturally jealous, uptight dentist husband Evan (Kit Taylor) makes the best of the situation whilst barely tolerating those around him who he clearly views with suspicion and contempt. Recently divorced photographer Mack (Graham Kennedy), flashing naked snaps of his ex-wife, is present too. Not far behind him are obnoxious lothario Cooley (Harold Hopkins) and his latest acquisition, Susan (Claire Binney), barely out of her teens and tagging along like an eye-catching but cheap adornment.

Dipping in and out of conversations we see the group overlapping spiritedly: it’s like a cross-section of suburbia with all of our definably Australian traits poking through. Supplementing these are pompous, brash, overbearing moments of posturing that lead to arguments and even the odd naked entanglement. But nearly everything that occurs is undeniably authentic, as is the atmosphere created. The film may seem exposed somewhat by its theatrical origins, but there’s hardly a wrong note in Williamson’s screenplay, even though you could argue some of the blatant sexual propositioning does seem ‘of the era’, or exaggerated at least for the purposes of a little provocation.

The transformation that occurs is a gradual but not entirely unpredictable one. As the night kicks off, the partygoers become consumed by the occasion: there’s buffoonery aplenty; outrageous tall stories are related; sexual proposals both blatant and delicately worded come thick and fast; loud political debate is injected as an adjunct to the most frivolous observations – both setting off another round of egos jostling for superiority in the next conversation. But as the evening wears on, the group dynamic begins to change. With razor-sharp perception, Williamson effectively peels back the social masks, the array of facades keeping civility in place. The quick-witted jibes are soured by personal effrontery; subtle at first, but burrowing deeper as it becomes obvious that the most pointed observations are striking particularly sensitive nerves. Watching the inevitable implosion is compelling stuff, though there’s a grotesquery about it that is slightly uncomfortable too. Fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, the shock political defeat after promising early indications, petty frustrations and foiled sexual conquests, the party begins to come apart at the seams with nearly everyone reaching boiling point.

Strip away the peripherals that colour your first impressions – the fashion, the hairstyles, and the ghastly décor – and the commonality of Williamson’s characters and themes become most apparent. Each actor wears his or her character like a glove in what amounts to a perfect ensemble. But Barrett and Hargreaves are ultimately the most important figures, with the juiciest roles; Barrett makes Mal both loathsome and pitifully pathetic, whilst Don is weak-willed and subservient, yet hard to hate. Despite the lewdness and brazen sexual objectification, there are strong parts here for the women too – especially Jenny and Kath, the most disadvantaged, emotionally destitute partners who, despite initial impressions, are wallowing in decaying, loveless, deeply unsatisfying marriages that persist for the sake of appearances and little more. The film’s ending is neither evasive nor subservient to any commercial consideration; it’s dark, sobering and uncompromising.

Don’s Party has hardly dated at all; instead it confirms itself as a telling document of hilarious, and yet deadly serious social commentary and one of the great films of the 1970’s. Williamson’s brilliant, savage dialogue sparkles and in exposing us to a few uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our mundane domestic lives, he and Beresford continued cementing their reputations as emerging creative figures of real note.

 

 

 

Spotswood (1992)

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Mark Joffe’s endearingly quirky period comedy has somehow been relegated to the anonymous ranks of films long forgotten, despite some noteworthy attributes. If nothing else, Spotswood, released in 1992 – just a year after The Silence of the Lambs – reveals the depth of Anthony Hopkins’s commitment to scouring the globe for projects that interested him. From Hannibal Lecter he progressed to Errol Wallace, a genial, mild-mannered independent consultant asked to assess the financial feasibility of Ball’s Moccasins. Here, he finds a modest, small-knit community of employees whose lackadaisical work ethic seems like an extension of the social activities most people reserve for the weekends. In the film’s funniest line, Wallace describes his first impression of the place as “like visiting my grandfather’s house and finding it full of people”.

Run with the feathery, lenient touch of founder, Mr. Ball (Alwyn Kurts), the company is quickly sinking into a trough of fading profits and irrelevance in the changing world of the 1960s. Though the old man talks enthusiastically of modernisation, his office display windows tell a very different tale – of someone deluded by past success and headed for an inevitable brush with insolvency. Only one person has his eye on the bigger picture; company salesman Kim Barrett (Russel Crowe) has ambitions to take over and reshape Ball’s from the ground up, and he has no hesitation in steering Wallace in the appropriate direction to set the old man’s downfall in motion.

Beyond the quaintly observed eccentricities of these people, another central story evolves parellel to that of Wallace. Lowly employee Carey (Ben Mendelsohn), fondly referred to by his father Robert (Bruno Lawrence) as “a dreamer,” allows his crush for Mr. Ball’s glamorous daughter Cheryl (Rebecca Rigg) to blindside him. In the process he loses sight of the one girl offering him genuine attention, the homely, tomboyish Wendy (Toni Collette). Their easy mateship is a barrier that anyone with minimal insight would be able to pierce after the first few hints of interest. But not poor affable Carey, who’s constantly being shown up for his deficiencies in making sense of the opposite sex by cocky best mate and local Lothario, Frank (Dan Wyllie).

The neat and gentlemanly Wallace gradually comes to understand what makes this community tick even as an instinct within encourages detachment, to view the workers as static numbers that need trimming for his final report. Due to the dire state of affairs in Ball’s financial records, his stay becomes an extended one. This allows him to observe the locals in greater detail, and naturally the more he sees of them the more he appreciates their simple values and enthusiasm for life. Such things may not translate into efficiency on the shop floor but they’re the oil that keeps the machinery in – admittedly slow – motion, and for Mr. Ball, the boss we’d all love to have, that’s all that matters. Wallace even gets roped into becoming a participant in their remote controlled slot-car rally, much to the chagrin of his icily remote wife Caroline (Angela Punch McGregor).

An innutritious haze of antiquity hovers over Spotswood like a mist, with cinematographer Ellery Ryan capturing both the essence of a forgotten period and the murky industrialized playground of Melbourne’s west. Here, where it’s all smokestacks and powerlines, the sun seems on permanent vacation and every surface and item of clothing seems muted by the drab design of soiled browns, greens and yellows.

The star-studded cast, many in roles before they became famous, are outstanding. Hopkins is as efficient as ever, though in a role he could sleepwalk through (even on a bad day). Mendelsohn, confirming his natural predisposition to playing awkward, ungainly young men at the time, is the perfect choice for Carey. Crowe, even as a secondary character, reveals the first signs of a signature arrogance that would define his screen presence in so many subsequent roles; interestingly, his appearance here was sandwiched between his initial breakthrough, Proof (1991), and the star-making Romper Stomper later in 1992. This was Collette’s very first feature film and she displays a striking naturalness in limited screen time, replete with that winning, toothy smile that would carry over into mega-hit Muriel’s Wedding two years later.

Spotswood certainly doesn’t cover any new ground, but it never falls victim to that common affliction of self-consciously inserting peculiarities into its characters in an effort to blot out their potentially fatal ordinariness. Rather, it exudes genuine charm and affection for these salt-of-the-earth workers mired in menial jobs they’ve learnt to embrace rather than anonymously wither away.

The resolution proves to be both an equitable and thoroughly believable one. With economic realities hovering over him like a noxious, forbidding cloud, which way will Mr. Ball duck to worst the worst repercussions? Ultimately, the answer itself is the best summation you could provide for Spotswood: a delicately poised equation that pits dollars and cents against the most fundamental notion of human dignity, and keeps this genuinely moving fable-of-sorts grounded. Though unassuming and rough around the edges – no more evident than in the sight of a boom mic straying into one shot in Wallace’s home – Spotswood deserves a re-evaluation; in short, a small film with a very big heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cactus (1986)

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It’s always fascinating to see an artist removed from his or her comfort zone, as acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert was in Paul Cox’s 1986 feature Cactus, written by the director with Norman Kaye and Bob Ellis. Having to rely on her instincts whilst coping with the demands of performing in another language, Huppert slowly begins to loosen up after the awkward early scenes in which her slightly stilted movements seem more a result of Cox’s fastidious devotion to moving his actors from point A to point B like wind-up toys.

Huppert is Colo, a young French woman holidaying alone in rural Victoria with friends of her family, leaving a waning marriage behind to “find herself”. Things go horribly awry however when she asks friend Tom (Kaye) for a leisurely few moments at the wheel of his car, only to crash it within minutes. A shard of glass pierces her left eye, rendering it sightless, a condition that becomes more dire when a specialist reveals the cancerous impact this will have on her right eye. Colo is faced with the excruciating choice of either having her left eye removed, possibly stabilizing her limited sight in the other eye, or leaving it untended, resulting in total blindness.

Feeling ever more isolated in a foreign country, she’s consoled by Tom and his wife Bea (Monica Maughan) who integrate her more substantially into their daily life as she contemplates the world from a new, but dwindling, perspective. They introduce her to Robert (Robert Menzies), a blind friend who devotes much of his time to tending the mass of cactus plants on his property. He becomes not only a friend but a symbolic assurance of her capacity to beat down the demons that claim her at night, tiny sparks of tangled memory firing in her subconscious with a malicious intent as the fateful crash is relived in her dreams.

Ironically, as Colo’s predicament worsens – with time running out for a rational decision – her “eyes” are opened to the possibility of coping without sight by Robert’s attentive devotion and sensitive probing of her state of mind. As she spends more time in his presence, he becomes a blanket to cling to in comfort, like someone reaching across raging rapids for the reassuring embrace of a figure that’s already crossed to the other side.

Cox’s film begins to take on a more coherent, believable shape as it progresses, though it still wavers on occasion and the subtext of the cacti and their metaphoric usage for Robert’s nurturing, calming side is hardly an enthralling one. At times, some of the sidetracking and below-par support players – especially Sean Scully as the robotic doctor – threaten to derail the interesting dynamic of Colo and Robert’s burgeoning relationship. Then there’s the occasional, bizarrely incongruous scene thrown in for good measure, like a horrible old lady beating a piano to within an inch of its life whilst garbling some wretched comedic ballad in what is one of the more off-putting scenes of supposed domestic conviviality you’re ever likely to see.

Huppert is a great actress, even though she’s often accused of being a clinical technician whose intellectual coldness inhibits access to her characters. She steadily grows into this role, providing more than just exotic compensation for a threadbare plot as the confused Colo whose life is given sharper focus by her unfortunate accident. The amiable Menzies is excellent too, revealing believable vulnerabilities as a man whose own life is altered by his meeting with this defenceless woman, shaking him free of the consolatory aloneness he’s clung to in the darkness until now.

Cox’s direction is infuriating languid at times but impressive when projecting the dark fears that plague Colo. Best of all are the vivid snippets of the accident, a wordless scene of lonely Colo, lost in an anonymous crowd, swaying in emotionless consternation near Flinders St. station, and a slickly edited, nightmarish dream sequence of an eye being surgically cut away from its fleshy hold as decision time closes in.

Though perhaps not one of the more memorable films of Paul Cox’s lengthy career, Cactus retains more than just the curiosity value of showcasing an internationally renowned actress – even more so today – in a pivotal role. This sensitively handled drama, marked by unusual symbolism, rural trappings and the endlessly mysterious allure of Huppert is well worth revisiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My First Wife (1984)

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The late Paul Cox may not have believed it possible at the time of its conception, but much later he considered his dynamic anatomy of a failing marriage, My First Wife (1984) – drawing upon elements of his own life – as a perverse comedy of sorts. Hindsight, with its attendant remarkable healing properties, must have really worked its magic over the years for him to view this harrowing dissection of a loving couple’s disintegrating relationship in such a different light.

John (John Hargreaves) is a radio host and classical musician whose own compositions are being performed a local troupe, including his wife of ten years, Helen (Wendy Hughes). John’s also a perfectionist who seems to have a natural affinity with taking charge of large groups of people as well as his own destiny. However, after another night of fruitlessly trying to convince Helen to make love to him, she decides to confront him with a shock admission: she’s no longer in love with him and wants out of their marriage. It’s a devastating blow to John who finds it an inexplicable confession, a rash conclusion drawn from the pressures of their lives impinging upon their desire for one another.

Much of the blackly comedic material derives from the absurdity with which John views his disintegrating marriage; it seems like an incomprehensible sick joke when he’s first confronted by Helen’s decision, and with her still present in the house it begins to take on the qualities of a haunting. Piercing the heart of his distress is the belief that both of them should be putting the interests of their child before any consideration of their individual happiness.

His perspective is coloured by extreme arrogance however as he admits to occasional infidelities when speculation is raised about whether the reasons for Helen’s change of heart are due to a third party. To some extent it is, with Helen involved in a callously remote affair with one of their co-workers, but no amount of reasoning will placate John, and his breakdown becomes a physical as well as emotional one. Though both make compromises to foster the illusion that something can be retrieved from this mess for the sake of their child, the damage has been done and the marriage is doomed, grinding to a halt in the slew of delusions that have held it together with the faintest of false hopes for years.

Hargreaves gives one of his most dominating performances in a role that asks him to call on almighty reserves of anguish. Impressively, he works his way inside the skin of this idealist whose life is suddenly thrown out of alignment, calm waters muddied by a certainty now removed from its frame of reference. Hughes isn’t asked to produce such extremes of emotional response but neither is she unsympathetic; in asking for release from an increasingly untenable situation, Helen is simply evoking the needs of a disempowerment that has troubled her for years, the weight of commitment and a fading, but pervasive love, preventing her so often from the simpler solution of walking away.

As with his finest work, Cox’s direction adds layers of subtle complexity, with images of a rattling train used as a recurring motif to stress the isolation of these travelers and the temporary nature of their complex interactions. There’s an almost European sensibility at work here in the screenplay by Cox and collaborator Bob Ellis, honing in a man’s suffering for the pure pleasure of watching the volatile reactions it generates. This is further emphasised by the startling, often overpowering use of John’s operatic favourites which bleed into the film’s soundtrack; especially potent is the use of Orff’s soaring Carmina Burana which saturates many scenes, a perfect aural accompaniment to John’s wordless surrender to his darkest fears; for added effect, Cox uses close-ups of John’s face to marginalize his distress and give it context in his suddenly cloistered, isolated world, clinging to the pain of rejection.

It’s not impossible to understand why the director sees My First Wife as a strange type of comedy; presumably it was a grim catharsis for him, projecting such personally relevant material before the eyes of the world. His reflections on the fickle nature of relationships are ones easily identified with however and this remains a bleak and powerful film with a spellbinding central performance from the late, great Hargreaves at its core.