Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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On Sunday 11 November (Remembrance Day) at 11am, pay tribute to those who have died in military combat through a minute of silence …

Director: Mel Gibson

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vinge Vaughan, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer

Last month I reviewed Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, and it got me thinking about depictions of Christianity in Australian cinema. In Hollywood’s heyday, Biblical epics were a genre unto themselves and a commercial force not unlike today’s superhero films; indeed, adjusted for inflation, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are among the most successful films of all time, far out-grossing anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beyond that genre, classic Hollywood depictions of Christianity were heavily informed by the Motion Picture Production Code (colloquially known as the Hays Code) which prohibited ridicule of the clergy or depicting religion in a negative light. While contemporary mainstream Hollywood fare errs to the secular, earnest depictions of Christianity persist in the faith film, a very American genre that’s enjoyed striking successes in recent years (see Heaven is for Real, War Room, or this year’s I Can Only Imagine). In contrast, in Australian cinema only a handful of films centre on Christian protagonists: The Devil’s Playground, based on Fred Schepisi’s days in a Catholic seminary; A Cry in the Dark, Schepisi’s sympathetic portrait of Seventh Day Adventists Lindsay and Michael Chamberlain following the disappearance of their daughter Azaria; and international co-productions such as Paul Cox’s historical film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien and the abovementioned Black Robe (Beresford also helmed the Hollywood Biblical feature King David). Nonetheless, look at the list of most successful Christian films on Box Office Mojo and you’ll find a number of Antipodean threads: the Chronicles of Narnia films were made in New Zealand and utilised local craftspeople; cinematographer Dean Semler shot Heaven is For Real; Sam Worthington and Radha Mitchell headline The Shack; Australian Christian band Hillsong United is the subject of documentary Hillsong: Let Hope Rise; and the highest grossing Christian film (unadjusted for inflation) was helmed by an Australian actor-director: Mel Gibson.

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Black Robe (1991)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young, August Schellenberg, Tantoo Cardinal, Sandrine Holt

In my mind, the past 40 years have yielded three masterful English language historical films about thwarted attempts by Jesuit missionaries to spread Christianity to new frontiers. Those three films are Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission, set in South America in the mid-1700s; Bruce Beresford’s 1991 film Black Robe, set in Canada in the 1630s; and Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, set in Japan around the same time. These films have experienced differing receptions: Joffe’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was nominated for seven Oscars, and its Morricone score still pervades popular culture; Beresford’s film won a smattering of Canadian and Australian film awards, as well as the Golden Reel Award for highest grossing Canadian film that year, but didn’t exactly set the world alight (later Golden Reel recipients include Johnny Mnemonic and Air Bud, just for context); and shockingly, Scorsese’s film caused nary a murmur on its release, despite its status as a long-gestating passion project from a director widely considered the premier filmmaker of the era. While my focus in this review is squarely on Black Robe (given Down Under Flix’s Antipodean brief and the film’s status as a Canadian-Australian co-production from an Australian director), I am also fascinated by how these films complement and diverge from each other, and will touch on this later.

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AUSgust: Dingo (1991)

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Director: Rolf De Heer

Stars: Colin Friels, Miles Davis, Helen Buday, Joe Petruzzi

This month is AUSgust, a month devoted to Australian film appreciation masterminded by The Curb’s Andrew Peirce. You can read about AUGgust here and follow along on social media using the hashtag #AUSgust. The work of Rolf De Heer is the theme for Day 2, so here’s a review of De Heer’s 1991 film Dingo. You can also read my take on De Heer’s 2001 film The Old Man Who Read Love Stories here.

In a 2003 book advocating against dodgy grammar, Lynne Truss shows how an innocuous description of a panda (“Panda: eats shoots and leaves”) can be warped into something more sinister with the introduction of an extra comma: “Panda: eats, shoots and leaves”. Grammar quandaries aside, that phrase “eats, shoots and leaves” always struck me as an apt description of Australian filmmakers who shoot some features locally before leaving for international pastures and bigger opportunities, a trend that started with the Australian New Wave crop (Beresford, Armstrong, Weir, Miller, Schepisi, Noyce) and continues to this day, with exports of the past decade including John Hillcoat, David Michod, Justin Kurzel, Patrick Hughes, and newly minted blockbuster helmer Cate Shortland. Of directors who have stayed put and enjoyed long and prolific careers locally, Paul Cox and Rolf De Heer are exemplars, though the latter has flirted with international co-productions on two occasions, the first being 1991’s Dingo.

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Innocence (2000)

Innocence

Director: Paul Cox

Stars: Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Julia Blake, Terry Norris, Chris Haywood, Norman Kaye

Director Paul Cox’s final work, 2015’s Force of Destiny, opens with a title card dedicating the film to two departed collaborators: actress Wendy Hughes – star of the superb Lonely Hearts as well as Kostas, My First Wife, Lust and Revenge, and Salvation – and Oliver Streeton, art director on Human Touch and title designer on that film, A Woman’s Tale, Innocence, and The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. This dedication, combined with the film’s subject matter – dramatising Cox’s own brush with liver cancer – and the fact its director died just a year after its release, casts a shadow of mortality over the filmmaker’s swansong effort. Having said that, Cox grappled with matters of mortality throughout his whole career.

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The Jammed (2007)

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Director: Dee McLachlan

Stars: Veronica Sywak, Emma Lung, Saskia Burmeister, Sun Park, Amanda Ma, Damien Richardson, Alison Whyte, Andrew S. Gilbert

Neither critics nor audiences were kind towards Kriv Stenders’ provocatively, hubristically-titled Australia Day last year, though I appreciated it as a work of didactic Oliver Stone-esque bombast on a frugal, non-Oliver Stone budget. One of the three core plot threads in that film concerned a bankrupt cattle farmer (Bryan Brown) crossing paths with a traumatised victim of sex trafficking (Jenny Wu). The Jammed, a 2007 film from writer-director Dee McLachlan, similarly follows three different story threads, all of which converge around the theme of sex trafficking. In one thread, Australian Ashley (Veronica Sywak) reluctantly helps an older Chinese woman (Amanda Ma) search for her missing daughter Rubi (Sun Park); in the second, Crystal (Emma Lung) recounts the story of her enslavement to an immigration agent (Damien Richardson); and the third represents the intersection of these stories, following foreigners Crystal, Rubi, and Vanya (Saskia Burmeister) as they are coerced, forced, and ultimately entrapped into prostitution by threats of deportation, debt, and danger to their lives.

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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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