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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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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If music be the food of love… Passion (1999) and Garage Days (2002)

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Director: Peter Duncan

Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Barbara Hershey, Claudia Karvan, Emily Woof, Simon Burke

Troubled pianists were, briefly, a big deal in Australian cinema. There was 1996’s Shine, Scott Hick’s impeccably made biopic of David Helfgott which scored Geoffrey Rush an Academy Award for Best Actor, and then there was 1999’s Passion, a lesser-known biopic of Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger. Peter Duncan’s film chronicles the early stages of the artist’s international career, as the Hobbit-looking Grainger (played by Richard Roxburgh) finds fame but is handicapped in his life and romantic relationships by his predilection for self-flagellation and the “unnatural hold”, to quote the film, that his mother (Barbara Hershey) exerts over him.

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1987 Triple Feature: Dot Goes to Hollywood, Dogs in Space, High Tide

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Every week, another film turns 30 years old. And if you visit movie websites or frequent “Film Twitter”, you’re bound to hear about it. Robocop turned 30? Here are 12 fun facts from The Wrap. Lethal Weapon turned 30? Here are 15 fun facts courtesy of Metro. Predator turned 30? Here’s an oral history from The Hollywood Reporter. Full Metal Jacket turned 30? Jo Blo’s got you covered with a Matthew Modine/Vincent D’Onofrio interview. Not a lot of local films get the 30 year commemoration (partly because they don’t lend themselves as easily to nostalgia-tugging click-bait), so I figured it was time to get into the 30th anniversary business and shine a light on some 1987 releases. I’ve already reviewed several 1987 titles on Down Under Flix, including Les Patterson Saves the World, The Time Guardian, and The Year My Voice Broke; other notable releases include Kangaroo, The Lighthorsemen, and Travelling North. Suffice to say, it was an eclectic year, and the three film discussed below are the very definition of a mixed bunch.

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Tag team review: The Wannabes (2003)

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Director: Nick Giannopoulos

Stars: Nick Giannopoulos, Isla Fisher, Russell Dykstra, Felix Williamson, Chantal Contouri, Costas Kilias, Ryan Johnson, Lena Cruz

First viewing, via DVD

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Down Under Flix’s month-long focus on comedy continues this week with a look at Nick Giannopoulos’s 2003 directorial debut The Wannabes. Danny (Giannopoulos) is the ultimate theatre kid—singer, dancer, actor—bereft of both humility and talent. He gets a job training a quartet of thugs to be children’s entertainers, little knowing their act is a cover for a heist. While the crime gets botched, the crew finds success as a Wiggles-esque group called The Wannabes. Following February’s successful tag team review of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, I’m joined below by Kathryn White, novelist and blogger at Kathryn’s Inbox.

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Musical comedy triple bill: The Night We Called It a Day (2003), Thunderstruck (2004), BoyTown (2006)

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Last week, Down Under Flix kicked off a month on comedies from the noughties and thereabouts, highlighting a triptych of Australian romantic comedies. This week’s featured trio are linked by a shared focus on music, milking comedy from real-world entertainment lore, rock ‘n’ roll hagiography, and satirical jabs at manufactured pop music.

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Oz (1976)

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Director: Chris Löfvén

Stars: Joy Dunstan, Bruce Spence, Michael Carman, Gary Waddell

First viewing, via DVD

The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming’s 1939 film based on the first of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, is a beloved movie. It’s not just a classic children’s film, but one of that great crop of late 30s/early 40s movies – along with Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and so on – that epitomized the very best of the Hollywood machine (a machine which, as several of these troubled productions including The Wizard of Oz attest, was at times a gruelling, erratic beast). The world of Oz has had a robust afterlife and its 1970s and 80s offshoots are especially interesting. They include the African-American musical The Wiz, which became a flick directed by Sidney Lumet starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson; Walter Murch’s dark sequel Return to Oz; and the much lesser known Australian film Oz, subtitled A Rock ‘n Roll Road Movie, directed by Chris Löfvén with music by Ross Wilson, Wayne Burt, Baden Hutchins, and Gary Young.

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