Kriv Stenders double feature: The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005), Lucky Country (2009)

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In a recent interview with The Age, director Kriv Stenders characterises his ability to continue working as a marker of success. He’s not wrong. Sift through the back catalogue of films covered on Down Under Flix and you’ll find an abundance of directors who debuted and bowed out with a single film (e.g. Dating the Enemy’s Megan Simpson Huberman, Beyond Innocence’s Scott Murray, Bondi Tsunami’s Rachael Lucas) or who struggled to generate output following earlier successes. Stenders remains productive and prolific, with a new film, Australia Day, on this year’s festival circuit and a television remake of Wake in Fright in the works. He’s also found a measure of mainstream success with his Red Dog films. The first, 2011’s Red Dog, is a modern family classic, a spunky, funny tearjerker and one of the best local films of the 21st century. Its follow-up, 2016’s Red Dog: True Blue, got a lukewarm reception but it’s a nice old school Australian bildungsroman with a light touch and a canine co-star in the Storm Boy/Blue Fin tradition. The films that launched Stenders’ career, however, are very different animals.

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Lonely Hearts (1982)

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Director: Paul Cox

Stars: Norman Kaye, Wendy Hughes, Jon Finlayson, Julia Blake, Jonathan Hardy

First viewing, via DVD

This review serves as a somewhat belated tribute to the late John Clarke, who passed away back in April (make that very belated…). As one of Australia’s sharpest, savviest satirists, Clarke’s reach and legacy were impressive, as noted in many of the more punctual tributes following his death (this one is particularly good). While not his most famous commodities, Clarke was no slouch on the film front, contributing memorable supporting turns in films like Death in Brunswick and Crackerjack and co-writing two features with another late luminary, director Paul Cox, 1982’s Lonely Hearts and 1996’s Lust and Revenge.

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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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Nadia Tass double bill: The Big Steal (1990) and Mr Reliable (1996)

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Director: Nadia Tass

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Claudia Karvan, Steve Bisley, Marshall Napier, Maggie King, Damon Herriman, Angelo D’Angelo

First viewing, via DVD

As someone who doesn’t own a car, I’m fairly oblivious when it comes to cars and car culture. Even so, anyone who’s ever watched a handful of teen movies will recognise the prominent role of cars and the social cachets and personal freedoms they bestow in rites-of-passage films, from Rebel Without a Cause to American Graffiti to Grease to Dazed and Confused and beyond. Even the first act of Transformers hinges largely around protagonist Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) bond with his new car, before switching priorities to pyrotechnics and robots thwacking each other about.

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Aussiewood: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

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Director: Jane Campion

Stars: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Viggo Mortensen, Shelley Winters, Shelley Duvall, Richard E. Grant

Second viewing, via DVD

The Portrait of a Lady opens with voiceover of modern liberated women (with predominantly Antipodean accents) talking about kissing. A montage follows during the film’s opening credits, showing contemporary women of different cultural backgrounds lying in a circle, dancing, staring into camera, and so on. The film then cuts to Nicole Kidman—as the film’s heroine Isabel Archer—in 1870s England, dressed in period garb, frizzy hair severely curtailed, and hiding away following an unwanted marriage proposal. The film’s opening minutes nicely encapsulate Campion’s interest—an interest that pervades her filmography— in women both past and present, their spirits and agency, and attempts to domesticate and discipline them by various, frequently patriarchal entities.

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Manganinnie (1980) and Blackfellas (1993)

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Director: John Honey

Stars: Mawuyul Yanthalawuy, Anna Ralph, Phillip Hinton, Elaine Mangan

First viewing, via DVD

When Down Under Flix surveyed readers on their Australian film viewing habits last year, 1980’s Manganinnie was the least seen film about Indigenous Australians (98%) and tied with 2003’s Subterano (also 98%) as the least seen film of the survey. But where sci-fi chiller Subterano arguably never made a dent in the first place, Manganinnie was the first production (of just two, alas) of the Tasmanian Film Corporation, was nominated for five AFI Awards including Best Film, Director, and Actress, and made a modest profit. However, the film has been somewhat forgotten, dwarfed in the popular consciousness by other releases of its era such as My Brilliant Career, Mad Max, and Breaker Morant, films that are outwardly more stylish and accessible.

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Aussiewood: How to Make an American Quilt (1995), A Thousand Acres (1997).

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Going into The Dressmaker in late 2015, I expected a tastefully-executed, handsomely-burnished, but ultimately very well-mannered period drama. I certainly didn’t anticipate such a fun, delightfully full-blooded romp, part Merchant Ivory and part Kill Bill. This commercial success and critical darling marked a welcome return to screens for director Jocelyn Moorhouse, whose last Australian film as director prior to The Dressmaker was 1991’s Proof, an equally acclaimed but very different beast. But Moorhouse was no slouch in the interim, producing and collaborating with husband P.J. Hogan on several of his films—including Muriel’s Wedding, Peter Pan, and Mental —as well as directing a pair of American films, How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997).

Following last week’s look at three of Bruce Beresford’s overseas films, this week’s article looks at Moorhouse’s two American films from the 1990s. I’m not sure what types of projects Moorhouse pursued or was offered in the aftermath of Proof, but on the surface American Quilt and A Thousand Acres don’t seem intuitive matches to the subject matter and skill set behind Proof. Rather, they appear somewhat emblematic of Hollywood’s default assignation of “women’s films” to “women directors”; indeed, the year before American Quilt, fellow Australian Gillian Armstrong directed another women’s film featuring American Quilt stars Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis, and Claire Danes, namely Little Women. But both American Quilt and A Thousand Acres have their merits, and their themes would be picked up further in The Dressmaker, a slyer, more subversive Antipodean spin on the women’s film. As a result, American Quilt and A Thousand Acres serve as a bridge between Moorhouse’s debut and most recent Australian work.

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