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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Musical comedy triple bill: The Night We Called It a Day (2003), Thunderstruck (2004), BoyTown (2006)

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Last week, Down Under Flix kicked off a month on comedies from the noughties and thereabouts, highlighting a triptych of Australian romantic comedies. This week’s featured trio are linked by a shared focus on music, milking comedy from real-world entertainment lore, rock ‘n’ roll hagiography, and satirical jabs at manufactured pop music.

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The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001)

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Director: Paul Cox

Stars: Derek Jacobi (narrator), Leigh Warren & Dancers (dancers)

First viewing, via DVD

As Mario Andreacchio’s Paul Gauguin biopic Paradise Found attests, the lives and work of international artists are not beyond the purview of Australian filmmakers. In 1987, Paul Cox directed an acclaimed documentary about painter Vincent Van Gogh, titled Vincent, which featured narration of the artist’s letters by John Hurt. In 2001, Cox released a similar project, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, trading letters for journals and easels for the stage to chronicle the mental deterioration of another tragic artist, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Derek Jacobi, who also appears in Cox’s film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, serves as narrator for this feature.

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The Cup (2011)

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Director: Simon Wincer

Stars: Stephen Curry, Daniel MacPherson, Brendan Gleeson

First viewing, via DVD

Whether you see it as the race that stops the nation or the race that divides the nation (there’s valid argument for both), and whether it’s the gravitational centre of your day, a chance to go all Caligula, or simply background noise, there’s no shaking that the Melbourne Cup’s a big deal. For non-local readers: it’s a major horse racing event (along the lines of the Kentucky Derby or Royal Ascot) that’s been running in Australia for over 150 years. It’s such as big deal that it’s somewhat surprising the Cup hasn’t featured too prominently in local films, though the prohibitive cost of recreating the event is obviously a factor. Crime comedies Horseplay and The Hard Word (both 2002) spring to mind as recent films to feature the event, albeit in a supporting role. Simon Wincer’s 1983 film Phar Lap, about the titular champion race horse, is probably the best-known film to feature the event. It’s fitting, then, that Wincer takes directing reins of 2011’s The Cup.

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Age of Consent (1969)

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Director: Michael Powell

Stars: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Lonsdale

First viewing, via DVD

In the 1940s, British director Michael Powell, in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, made The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among others. All four are jewels in the crown of British cinema: look at any list of the greatest British films ever made and you’ll find them featured prominently. By way of example, see this list from Time Out and this one by the British Film Institute (this list also features Carry On… Up the Khyber ranked directly above The Killing Fields, making it mandatory reading). While Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom also features on these lists and is today held in esteem, this voyeuristic psychological thriller was reviled by critics and cultural commentators on release and the filmmaker was ostracized wholesale from the industry. Later that decade he made two flicks in Australia: the 1966 comedy They’re a Weird Mob and 1969’s Age of Consent.

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Sirens (1993)

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Director: John Duigan

Stars: Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer, Ben Mendelsohn

First viewing, via SBS on Demand

Timing’s a funny thing. I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my line-ups for Down Under Flix a couple of months in advance, and John Duigan’s Sirens (1993) has been on the itinerary for a while now. Little did I anticipate that the same week I watched Sirens, star Kate Fischer would be thrust somewhat dramatically (and invasively) back into the media spotlight. Consequently, more people have probably read about, thought about, and googled Sirens in the last week than in the last decade.

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Swimming Upstream (2003)

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Director: Russell Mulcahy

Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer

First viewing, via DVD

A quarter of a century ago, Russell Mulcahy’s music video for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ became the first ever screened on MTV. As a music video director, Mulcahy helped define the form and helmed many of the medium’s most iconic, bombastic clips, including Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and a good portion of the Duran Duran catalogue. As a filmmaker, he’s best known for genre fare (action, sci-fi, horror), from Ozploitation gem Razorback and cult classic Highlander to recent episodes of TV’s Teen Wolf.

Suffice to say, when I think of Russell Mulcahy, I think of smoky visuals, dramatic backlighting and shafts of light, killer swine hating on humans, sword-fighting immortals decapitating each other, Christopher Lambert as a Scotsman, Sean Connery as an Egyptian, and Queen. A modest drama about sibling swimmers pressured into competition by an abusive, alcoholic father doesn’t spring to mind, but Mulcahy defies pigeonholing with Swimming Upstream.

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