Aussiewood Double Bill: Last Orders (2001) and Words and Pictures (2013)

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Fred Schepisi was among the first Australian directors of the New Wave era to make the pilgrimage to Hollywood. Following his empathetic portraits of coming of age in a Catholic seminary in The Devil’s Playground and Aboriginal persecution in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schepisi transitioned into American filmmaking in the early 1980s with such eclectic films as the Western Barbarosa, science-fiction film Iceman, and Plenty, an undeservedly neglected gem in Meryl Streep’s early filmography. In doing so, he helped pave the way for other New Wave Australian directors to work across the pond in subsequent years, including Bruce Beresford with Tender Mercies, George Miller with his segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gillian Armstrong with Mrs Soffel, Peter Weir with Witness, and so on. While Schepisi has made two excellent films in Australia since then – reuniting with Streep on Lindy Chamberlain drama A Cry in the Dark and adapting Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm – he’s worked predominantly overseas, and his CV is peppered with quality product – Roxanne, The Russia House, Six Degrees of Separation – along with some missteps or misguided attempts at commerce. The two films discussed below, 2001’s Last Orders and 2013’s Words and Pictures, represent both a palpable hit and a peculiar miss on their director’s part.

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Down Under Flix’s Christmas 2017 viewing

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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.

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Aussiewood: Ricochet (1991), Blue Ice (1992), The Real McCoy (1993)

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This latest installment of Down Under Flix’s Aussiewood series chronicling the adventures and misadventures of Australian filmmakers abroad deals with Russell Mulcahy. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Mulcahy on this website – see my review of his 2003 sports biopic Swimming Upstream – but it’s my first time writing about the director’s signature action fare. Following his inventive creature feature debut Razorback (1984) and the cult success of Highlander (1986), the stalwart music video director looked to be on an upward trajectory as a filmmaker. However, Mulcahy was fired two weeks into production on the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Rambo III (1988) because he wasn’t shooting enough close-ups of its hubristic star, and the subsequent production and release of the much-maligned (and deservedly so) Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) was a ghastly, pained process. RicochetBlue Steel, and The Real McCoy followed those professional debacles in quick succession, and these three films feel like exercises in directorial penitence: they’re moderately budgeted, straight-down-the-line mainstream features and are largely inoffensive, discounting the innately quippy immorality of the Joel Silver era of action cinema that Ricochet slots into.

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Aussiewood: Mister Johnson (1990)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan, Beatie Edney, Edward Woodward

First viewing, via DVD

My admiration and fondness for Bruce Beresford’s work is well-documented: see my previous reviews of such diverse fare as the excellent The Fringe Dwellers, the entertaining The Club, the red-headed larrikin stepchild Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and the decidedly mixed bag of American films that is King David, Crimes of the Heart, and Last Dance. Beresford has done stronger work overseas than those three median efforts; indeed, based on the one-two-three punch of 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, 1990’s Mister Johnson, and 1991’s Black Robe, Beresford should be heralded as one of the finest working directors of that period. As it stands, Driving Miss Daisy reaped all the glory (and the inevitable post-awards backlash) and Black Robe’s reputation has blossomed steadily over time, but Mister Johnson was and remains virtually unknown. Beresford himself notes that it was “the best reviewed film I ever made by far, and seen by no-one” (There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 166).

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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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