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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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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Ned Kelly (2003)

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Director: Gregor Jordan

Stars: Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton

Second viewing, via DVD

This week marks the 137th anniversary of Australian outlaw and beloved anti-hero Ned Kelly’s doomed last stand at Glenrowan, Victoria. In June 1880, Kelly and the other young men comprising the Kelly Gang—brother Dan Kelly and friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart—fought police at Glenrowan Inn wearing their now-iconic DIY head and body armour. Byrne, Hart and the younger Kelly were killed during the siege; Kelly himself was wounded and arrested, and would be hung in Melbourne Gaol in November that year.

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Beyond Innocence (1989)

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Director: Scott Murray

Stars: Katia Caballero, Keith Smith

First viewing, via VHS

Scott Murray is one of the premier commentators on Australian cinema. He’s best known as editor and contributor to Cinema Papers and Senses of Cinema, as well as for editing, authoring, and contributing to various volumes on Australian film, including one particularly indispensable resource for my work on Down Under Flix, Australian Film 1978–1994. In the 1980s, Murray directed the film Beyond Innocence, also known as Devil in the Flesh. It was both his theatrical feature debut and swansong, though he’d later helm a music documentary, Massenet: His Life and Music.

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