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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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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Down Under Flix 2016 Review

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It’s that time of year when film critics and commentators, both legit and impostors like myself, assemble their end-of-year lists praising and burying the year just gone. Given Down Under Flix’s focus on Australian films, particularly older ones, attempting a global review of the year in cinema is well outside my jurisdiction. Instead, I’ll be listing my top five new Australian releases of 2016, followed by the top ten films covered on/for Down Under Flix over the past seven months.

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Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Barry Crocker, Barry Humphries, Donald Pleasance

First viewing, via DVD

In Les Patterson Saves the World, reviewed back in September on Down Under Flix, screenwriter and star Barry Humphries’ intoxicated elder statesman Les Patterson teams with covert secret agent Dame Edna Everage to stop an international terrorist plot to poison citizens worldwide through toxic toilet seats. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view 1974’s Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – also written by and co-starring Humphries, and pitting the titular larrikin Barry McKenzie against a Transylvanian plot to bolster national tourism by kidnapping and manipulating the Queen of England – as a dry run for the later film. Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is ultimately the more successful undertaking, though its commercial success did little good, at least at the time, for director Bruce Beresford – returning to the fold after 1972’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie – who was treated as a pariah and had difficulty securing work afterwards.

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The Fringe Dwellers (1986)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Kristina Nehm. Kylie Belling, Justine Saunders, Bob Maza

First viewing, via DVD

Bruce Beresford is undisputedly one of the great Australian filmmakers. Between 1972 and 1981, he helped usher in and worked at the coalface of the Australian film renaissance, helming a succession of classics and quasi-classics. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Don’s Party, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant, The Club, and Puberty Blues all bear his name as director, and together constitute a remarkable straddling of genres and high/low art divides, from the broad ocker fare of the McKenzie films (which repulsed the cultural elite but still managed to net a Gough Whitlam cameo) to the earnest heritage drama of The Getting of Wisdom. He adapted Australia’s most topical playwright (David Williamson) twice, helped popularize our greatest dame (Edna Everage), and tackled politics (Don’s Party), adolescence (Puberty Blues), sports culture and commerce (The Club), and Australian-British historical relations and colonial identity (Breaker Morant). Beresford’s subsequent career has alternated between overseas films, including the Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy, and a handful of Australian productions & co-productions including this week’s film The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe, Paradise Road, and Mao’s Last Dancer.

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