Nadia Tass double bill: The Big Steal (1990) and Mr Reliable (1996)

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Director: Nadia Tass

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Claudia Karvan, Steve Bisley, Marshall Napier, Maggie King, Damon Herriman, Angelo D’Angelo

First viewing, via DVD

As someone who doesn’t own a car, I’m fairly oblivious when it comes to cars and car culture. Even so, anyone who’s ever watched a handful of teen movies will recognise the prominent role of cars and the social cachets and personal freedoms they bestow in rites-of-passage films, from Rebel Without a Cause to American Graffiti to Grease to Dazed and Confused and beyond. Even the first act of Transformers hinges largely around protagonist Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) bond with his new car, before switching priorities to pyrotechnics and robots thwacking each other about.

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Aussiewood: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

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Director: Jane Campion

Stars: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Viggo Mortensen, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Richard E. Grant

Second viewing, via DVD

The Portrait of a Lady opens with voiceover of modern liberated women (with predominantly Antipodean accents) talking about kissing. A montage follows during the film’s opening credits, showing contemporary women of different cultural backgrounds lying in a circle, dancing, staring into camera, and so on. The film then cuts to Nicole Kidman—as the film’s heroine Isabel Archer—in 1870s England, dressed in period garb, frizzy hair severely curtailed, and hiding away following an unwanted marriage proposal. The film’s opening minutes nicely encapsulate Campion’s interest—an interest that pervades her filmography— in women both past and present, their spirits and agency, and attempts to domesticate and discipline them by various, frequently patriarchal entities.

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Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)

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Director: John Honey

Stars: Mawuyul Yanthalawuy, Anna Ralph, Phillip Hinton, Elaine Mangan

First viewing, via DVD

When Down Under Flix surveyed readers on their Australian film viewing habits last year, 1980’s Manganinnie was the least seen film about Indigenous Australians (98%) and tied with 2003’s Subterano (also 98%) as the least seen film of the survey. But where sci-fi chiller Subterano arguably never made a dent in the first place, Manganinnie was the first production (of just two, alas) of the Tasmanian Film Corporation, was nominated for five AFI Awards including Best Film, Director, and Actress, and made a modest profit. However, the film has been somewhat forgotten, dwarfed in the popular consciousness by other releases of its era such as My Brilliant Career, Mad Max, and Breaker Morant, films that are outwardly more stylish and accessible.

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Aussiewood: How to Make an American Quilt (1995), A Thousand Acres (1997).

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Going into The Dressmaker in late 2015, I expected a tastefully-executed, handsomely-burnished, but ultimately very well-mannered period drama. I certainly didn’t anticipate such a fun, delightfully full-blooded romp, part Merchant Ivory and part Kill Bill. This commercial success and critical darling marked a welcome return to screens for director Jocelyn Moorhouse, whose last Australian film as director prior to The Dressmaker was 1991’s Proof, an equally acclaimed but very different beast. But Moorhouse was no slouch in the interim, producing and collaborating with husband P.J. Hogan on several of his films—including Muriel’s Wedding, Peter Pan, and Mental —as well as directing a pair of American films, How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997).

Following last week’s look at three of Bruce Beresford’s overseas films, this week’s article looks at Moorhouse’s two American films from the 1990s. I’m not sure what types of projects Moorhouse pursued or was offered in the aftermath of Proof, but on the surface American Quilt and A Thousand Acres don’t seem intuitive matches to the subject matter and skill set behind Proof. Rather, they appear somewhat emblematic of Hollywood’s default assignation of “women’s films” to “women directors”; indeed, the year before American Quilt, fellow Australian Gillian Armstrong directed another women’s film featuring American Quilt stars Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis, and Claire Danes, namely Little Women. But both American Quilt and A Thousand Acres have their merits, and their themes would be picked up further in The Dressmaker, a slyer, more subversive Antipodean spin on the women’s film. As a result, American Quilt and A Thousand Acres serve as a bridge between Moorhouse’s debut and most recent Australian work.

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Aussiewood: King David (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Last Dance (1996)

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With 1982’s Barbarosa, Fred Schepisi became the first of the Australian New Wave directors to make the pilgrimage overseas, kickstarting a trend of Australian directors selling their wares abroad.  George Miller followed with his contribution to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gillian Armstrong with 1984’s Mrs Soffel, Peter Weir with 1985’s Witness, and so on. The trend continues to this day (seen most recently with David Michod’s Netflix film War Machine and the Spierig Brothers’ Jigsaw), with directors pursuing bigger budgets and diverse opportunities outside the confines of the Australian film industry. This article is the first in an ongoing series that will highlight some of the lesser-known or neglected ventures of Australian filmmakers working overseas. And given my established fascination with Bruce Beresford’s work—as discussed here and here and here—I’ll kick off by looking at three of his lesser known overseas productions: King David (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), and Last Dance (1996).

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Ned Kelly (2003)

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Director: Gregor Jordan

Stars: Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton

Second viewing, via DVD

This week marks the 137th anniversary of Australian outlaw and beloved anti-hero Ned Kelly’s doomed last stand at Glenrowan, Victoria. In June 1880, Kelly and the other young men comprising the Kelly Gang—brother Dan Kelly and friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart—fought police at Glenrowan Inn wearing their now-iconic DIY head and body armour. Byrne, Hart and the younger Kelly were killed during the siege; Kelly himself was wounded and arrested, and would be hung in Melbourne Gaol in November that year.

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This Sporting Life: Dawn! (1979), The Club (1980), and The Coolangatta Gold (1984)

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Sport has long occupied a key place in Australian culture. As noted by Daryl Adair in his essay ‘Making sense of Australian sport history’, the earliest British migrants used sport to maintain links with their country of origin, while subsequent generations helped forge a national identity on the world stage via their sporting prowess. Adair also notes that Australia’s coasts and surf culture have facilitated an array of water-based sports, and in recent years the AFL, among others, has contributed to the reconciliation agenda as a prominent employer of Indigenous athletes. In light of this national pastime, this week Down Under Flix spotlights three sports-centric films from the late 1970s and early 80s.

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