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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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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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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Bruce Beresford Bildungsroman Bonanza: The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Susannah Fowle, Sheila Helpmann, Patricia Kennedy, Candy Raymond, Hilary Ryan, Barry Humphries, John Waters, Sigrid Thornton, Kerry Armstrong, Julia Blake

At the time of The Getting of Wisdom’s release, Bruce Beresford was best known for directing muscular, rowdy entertainments like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and Don’s Party. The latter film, adapting to the screen a play by Australia’s premier playwright David Williamson, was a step towards respectability for Beresford after his near professional ostracization following the Barry McKenzie films, and he was awarded a 1977 Best Director AFI Award for his efforts. The Getting of Wisdom seems an even more decisive step towards respectability, courting association with the dominant commercial aesthetics of the Australian New Wave: indeed, with its period setting, girls boarding school location, and literary origins (based on Henry Handel Richardson’s 1910 novel), it’s immediately evocative in its surface details of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, released two years earlier and likewise set in Victoria at the tail end of Queen Victoria’s reign. However, The Getting of Wisdom’s a lighter yet more full-bodied blend than Weir’s artful, enigmatic melodrama. And while its focus on a young woman protagonist and feminine milieu outwardly suggests a significant departure from his earlier work, in its focus on culture clash the film is consistent with not only Beresford’s prior films but also subsequent ones like Breaker Morant and The Club.

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Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

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Director: Carl Schultz

Stars: Wendy Hughes, Robyn Nevin, Nicholas Gledhill, John Hargreaves, Peter Whitford

Last week one of the weaker Australian films of 1983, Phillipe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, was spotlighted here on Down Under Flix. This week’s spotlight falls on one of the best local releases of 1983, Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You, based on a novel by Sumner Locke Elliott. The film’s critical status is evidenced by its sweeping of that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, where it won 8 gongs out of 13 nominations, including awards for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress for Wendy Hughes (one year after her nominated work in the superb Lonely Hearts), and Supporting Actor for John Hargreaves (two years after his nominated work in Hoodwink), against impressive competition from The Year of Living DangerouslyMan of Flowers, and Phar Lap. But I’m not sure Schultz’s film has persisted in the public consciousness as strongly as those others have, bolstered as they are by the auteur credentials of Peter Weir and Paul Cox, the star power of Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, and the national iconography of the thoroughbred hero of the nation.

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