Crime Film Triple Bill: 33 Postcards (2011), Son of a Gun (2014), and Let’s Get Skase (2001)

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Crime films are a staple of the Australian film diet: the cinematic equivalent of potato or dairy. The country’s first feature length film (and indeed the world’s) was 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, one of many film accounts of Ned and company’s anti-heroic exploits. The genre’s still going strong 110+ years later: the last twenty years especially have produced a bumper crop of Australian crime stories with Two Hands, Chopper, The Hard Word, Gettin’ Square, The Square, and Animal Kingdom, and that’s discounting television, where the genre’s equally fruitful. A cursory survey of films covered on Down Under Flix during its two year tenure reveals a booty of films centred on outlaws – from 1981 gem Hoodwink to 2013’s Felony via a Melbourne gangland Macbeth, siege drama Mr Reliable, prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, and a rather ornate iteration of the Ned Kelly legend – and I could fill another half year of programming on this genre alone. I won’t, because I appreciate some variety in my viewing diet, but below are short takes on three very different crime films, in which criminal protagonists are cast in the guises of tragic heroes, dangerous figures, Aussie battlers, and Falstaffian buffoons.

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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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Double Bill: Bran Nue Dae (2009) and The Sapphires (2012)

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Down Under Flix was created to show love, shine light, and where necessary throw shade on obscure, forgotten, neglected, or under-appreciated Australian films, but I find myself increasingly struggling with the question of what constitutes an obscure, forgotten, neglected, or under-appreciated local film. Obviously some films are clearly immune from this category: Crocodile Dundee, for instance, does not and will never need my help. However, Breaker Morant, on the surface a critically revered and widely liked Australian classic, has by its own director’s admission barely made a dime. What, then, of films like Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires? Both films were liked by critics and audiences. Bran Nue Dae scored 6 Australian Film Institute Award nominations including Best Film and scored Best Supporting Actress for Deborah Mailman, while The Sapphires swept the board winning 11 gongs, including Best Film, Director, Actor, and Actress (Mailman again). Bran Nue Dae earned almost $7.7 million at the local box office and ranks 42nd on the list of most successful Australian releases, while The Sapphires earned over $14.5 million and ranks 19th on that list. Having said that, last year Star Wars: The Last Jedi earned $45 million at the Australian box office – over twice as much as Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires combined – with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Beauty and the Beast on its tail with $37.5 and $36.3 million respectively. In other cold, hard words, while Bran Nue Dae might have been popular, five times more Australians went to see a Disney live action remake of an animated film they’d probably already seen.

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Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997)

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Director: Cherie Nowlan

Stars: Richard Roxburgh, Frances O’Connor, Cate Blanchett

The 1990s were a good time for Australian women filmmakers. On top of the continuing work, both here and abroad, from those who’d emerged or solidified their reputations in the 1980s (e.g. Gillian Armstrong, Nadia Tass, Jane Campion), the decade gifted audiences such films as Proof, Hammers over the Anvil, Floating Life, Love and Other Catastrophes, Love Serenade, Road to Nhill, The Well, Radiance, and Head On, all well-liked if not commercially lucrative ventures from debut or sophomore women feature directors.* Regrettably, some debut or sophomore efforts ended up being swansongs, such as Megan Simpson Huberman with Dating the Enemy, as lamented previously. Cherie Nowlan made her feature debut with Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1997, and while she’d subsequently make only one more feature (2007’s Clubland) she’s been steadily employed in television since, helming episodic television and telemovies both locally (e.g. The Secret Life of Us, Small Claims, Dance Academy, Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly, Rake) and abroad (Gossip Girl, 90210, Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, and the American spin on local crime classic Animal Kingdom).

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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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The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

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Director: Phillipe Mora

Stars: Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Michael Pate, Bill Hunter, Kate Fitzpatrick

Last year marked the end of my long infatuation with superhero films. For almost two decades I regularly made the pilgrimage to the multiplex to see the latest superhero joints, and while I retain some anthropological curiosity about the genre, 2016’s unfortunate double whammy of X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad killed most of my affection for and investment in it. Even so, as a former genre apologist and a writer on Australian film, I’ve long had a hankering to see Phillipe Mora’s 1983 film The Return of Captain Invincible, one of Australia’s very few attempts at a superhero movie, albeit a parody.

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Jack Thompson double feature: Scobie Malone (1975) and The Sum of Us (1994)

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Last month I reviewed two films headlined by the late, great John Hargreaves. Today’s piece spotlights two films from another great Australian actor of similar vintage. To say Jack Thompson is iconic is an understatement. He was one of the brightest new stars of the Australian New Wave, appearing in both lead and supporting roles in stone cold classics like Wake in FrightSunday Too Far AwayThe Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and Breaker Morant as well as interesting flicks like PetersenCaddieMad Dog Morgan, The Club, and The Journalist. He was the first male centerfold in Australia’s Cleo magazine, was awarded the first Best Supporting Actor gong at the Cannes Film Festival for Breaker Morant, was the only logical choice to embody Clancy of the Overflow in The Man from Snowy River, hosted a travel program called Jack Thompson Down Under, and in recent years has alternated between roles in Australian films and supporting turns as men of influence (lawyers, politicians, military men, businessmen) in American films. This piece highlights two star turns from Thompson’s filmography separated by twenty years: 1975’s Scobie Malone and 1994’s The Sum of Us.

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