Down Under Flix took a break over December and early January while I traveled overseas for Christmas. But while you can take the Australian film reviewer out of the country, you can’t take the Australian film reviewer out of the Australian film reviewer, particularly when they also took Australian films to review out of the country. If that makes sense. Either way, here are some short reviews from my Christmas season viewing, all interesting films worthy of full reviews at some point.
In Brian Trenchard-Smith’s BMX Bandits (1983), a trio of teens (Nicole Kidman, Angelo D’Angelo & James Lugton) stumble across a box of walkie-talkies that belong to a group of criminals prepping a heist. The criminals attempt to reclaim their property, but the young bandits are armed with the power of BMX. BMX Bandits is a film beloved by those or a certain demographic, and rightly so. It’s a fun, spry flick that brims with charm and spunk and attitude. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith, a stalwart of Ozploitation action films like The Man From Hong Kong and coming off of the maligned Turkey Shoot, keeps things light and poppy, and Manly NSW and its surrounds have never looked as good as they do under John Seale’s loving lens and Nicole Kidman’s BMX tyres. BMX Bandits may ultimately be cheesy kids film schlock, but it’s the lovingly made, gourmet pizza version of cheesy kids film schlock.
Carl Schultz’s Blue Fin (1978) is the second Greg Rowe-starring Colin Thiele adaptation covered on Down Under Flix in recent months, and while it doesn’t carry quite the same prestige as Storm Boy (listen to my podcast with Andrew Peirce), it’s a terrific film in its own right. The now teenage Rowe plays Snook, the son of a crusty tuna boat captain played by Hardy Kruger. Snook wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and work on the water, and the film follows Snook’s nautical rites of passage. Rowe does good work in a cast of great Australian character actors (including John Jarratt and Hugh Keays-Byrne), injecting the right amount of teenage stubbornness and surliness into Snook without becoming tiresome, and while the very foreign Kruger initially feels an exotic fit (imagine if, say, Christoph Waltz played an Australian tuna boat captain today and you’re about halfway there) he ultimately proves sound casting. Blue Fin’s a bit more “genre” than Thiele’s other famous Coorong-set coming of age tale, turning into a nifty survival story in its final third where Snook gets to prove his mettle and worth. Much of this material was shot subsequently by Bruce Beresford, but director Schultz, later responsible for Careful, He Might Hear You, does a very fine job overall with this coastal Bildungsroman.
Tim Burstall’s Attack Force Z (1981) opens with the text “The events depicted in this film are an honest and unflinching account of the type of operation carried out by our unit during the war” with the signed endorsement of the President of the Z Special Force Association of NSW. This Word War II film follows its titular Australian commando unit as it carries out a rescue mission on a Japanese-occupied island. Director Burstall, best known for raucous comedies of the 1970s like Stork and Alvin Purple, was a late hire replacing original director Phillip Noyce. He does a serviceable job with this modest actioner, but never really elevates the material; Noyce or BMX Bandits’ Trenchard-Smith might have infused the film with more life. As it stands, Attack Force Z’s probably of most interest today for its teaming of Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, then young stars on the ascent following Mad Max and My Brilliant Career. Both deliver good if unremarkable performances, as does kitsch import John Phillip Law (of Danger Diabolik, Barbarella, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) as the ostensible lead. While the aforementioned opening text hails the film’s authenticity, there’s a marked ceiling on how authentic a 1981 war film could be. Ultimately, Attack Force Z feels a bit like one of those men-on-a-mission movies Roger Moore made between James Bond flicks, albeit lower budget and lower fi: it’s entertaining, somewhat pedestrian, and ultimately disposable. Star Gibson would subsequently shepherd two of the more visceral portraits of 20th century warfare to the screen in We Were Soldiers and Hacksaw Ridge, not to mention headlining the superior Gallipoli that same year.
Like Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe’s pre-Hollywood filmography is a mix of instant classics and smaller curios. The Silver Brumby (1993) directed by John Tatoulis (Beware of Greeks Bearing Guns) is in the latter category, but that’s no slight. Based on a series of children’s books by Elvyne Mitchell, the film employs the framing device of farmer/author Mitchell (Caroline Goodall, who also chalked up appearances in Cliffhanger and Schindler’s List that same year) telling her daughter the story of the silver brumby and its struggle to survive and thrive amidst humanity’s worst tendencies. Crowe plays The Man, a personification of those tendencies in constant pursuit of the brumby, but not in an outwardly moustache-twirling way. The Silver Brumby is an Australian family film with a classical feel in the Storm Boy tradition, though where the scene-stealing pelican was a supporting player in Storm Boy, in Tatoulis’ film the titular brumby serves as protagonist. Viewers’ mileages will likely vary based on how much they enjoy watching horses galloping and grazing across Snowy Mountains countryside in slow motion and in various states (i.e. ebullience, distress, and so forth) but it’s hard to deny it’s a handsomely made, beautifully shot film.
While I profess to being a big fan of Mad Max maestro George Miller, there are still some gaps in my Millerography, one of the most notable until now being Lorenzo’s Oil (1992). The film is based on the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone (played by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) and their son Lorenzo, who develops the debilitating disease adrenoleukodistrophy at a young age, and chronicles the parents’ fight to find a cure for their child’s fatal illness. While the plot reads like a standard “disease of the week” weepie telemovie, in Miller’s hands the material becomes something much richer that avoids the easy sap and saccharine of the genre. Much like All the President’s Men, the film revolves around and is propelled forward by research and information. Miller and co find ways to make this visually compelling and gripping, investing the Odones’ search for a cure with the gravity and weight of an epic quest narrative. Sarandon was rightly Oscar nominated for her work here (as was the screenplay) and while Omaha, Nebraska’s own Nick Nolte doesn’t always convince as an Italian, he nails the emotional timbre of his role. Lorenzo’s Oil sideswiped me; it’s a deeply felt, unflinching, and at times buoyant film.
I’m surprised it’s taken this long to feature a Rolf de Heer film here on Down Under Flix. Long before I developed an affinity for Australian films generally, I had an affinity for this particular Australian director on the basis of such films as Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me to My Song, The Tracker and Alexandra’s Project. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2004) is somewhat anomalous in De Heer’s filmography – a 9.5 million dollar international co-production told on a larger scale than typical for De Heer’s work – and yet anomaly is par the course for this filmmaker. Richard Dreyfus headlines as Antonio Bolivar, the titular old man who spends his nights in the Amazonian jungle reading romance novels to escape the “barbarity of mankind”. When a jaguar starts killing off the locals, Bolivar is tasked by the reptilian mayor (Timothy Spall) with hunting and killing the animal. In Jaws, Dreyfus gave one of the most enjoyable film performances of the 1970s and of popcorn cinema in general, and it’s a kick to watch the actor take arms against another apex predator in The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. Bolivar is a mellower, distinctly less manic creation than Jaws’ Hooper, but Dreyfus brings a similar off kilter charm to the character (with nice support from Spall, Hugo Weaving, and Cathy Tyson). The film is a similarly odd duck: an arthouse drama with attributes of a pulpy creature feature and crowdpleaser. Though set largely in the present, the film adopts a novelistic approach to time and place, slipping back and forth in time continually as Bolivar’s past memories and impressions colour and inform his present actions and outlook. While sometimes this approach clutters the storytelling, overall I like the flavour that comes from an idiosyncratic Australian voice presenting an epic foreign tale on a larger canvas, but with an independent’s frugality, sense of the intimate, and laser-focused preoccupations (see also Paul Cox’s Molokai).
Regular programming will resume soon here on Down Under Flix…