Aussiewood Double Bill: Last Orders (2001) and Words and Pictures (2013)

Roxanne

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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Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997)

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Director: Cherie Nowlan

Stars: Richard Roxburgh, Frances O’Connor, Cate Blanchett

The 1990s were a good time for Australian women filmmakers. On top of the continuing work, both here and abroad, from those who’d emerged or solidified their reputations in the 1980s (e.g. Gillian Armstrong, Nadia Tass, Jane Campion), the decade gifted audiences such films as Proof, Hammers over the Anvil, Floating Life, Love and Other Catastrophes, Love Serenade, Road to Nhill, The Well, Radiance, and Head On, all well-liked if not commercially lucrative ventures from debut or sophomore women feature directors.* Regrettably, some debut or sophomore efforts ended up being swansongs, such as Megan Simpson Huberman with Dating the Enemy, as lamented previously. Cherie Nowlan made her feature debut with Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1997, and while she’d subsequently make only one more feature (2007’s Clubland) she’s been steadily employed in television since, helming episodic television and telemovies both locally (e.g. The Secret Life of Us, Small Claims, Dance Academy, Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly, Rake) and abroad (Gossip Girl, 90210, Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, and the American spin on local crime classic Animal Kingdom).

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Samson & Delilah (2009)

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Director: Warwick Thornton

Stars: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Scott Thornton

Warwick Thornton’s period Western Sweet Country is rolling into Australian cinemas on a wave of fairly unanimous acclaim (not quite Paddington 2 unanimous acclaim, but widespread nonetheless) following a successful festival streak in 2017. Thus it’s timely to revisit Samson & Delilah, the 2009 film which saw Thornton graduate from shorts to features and announced him as a vital Indigenous Australian filmmaker of the same calibre as contemporaries Rachel Perkins and Ivan Sen.

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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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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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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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Romantic comedy triple bill: Dating the Enemy (1996), Danny Deckchair (2003), I Love You Too (2010)

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To some viewers, Australian comedies are a warm blanket providing comfort and joy. For some, they’re an acquired taste, the cinematic equivalent of Vegemite. For others, they’re only marginally preferable to arsenic, and for others still arsenic would be the preferred beverage of the two. Personally, I like local comedies just fine, though I’m not naturally predisposed towards them and have only seen the better known ones. In other words, I’ve seen The Castle, but not The Craic; I’ve watched The Wog Boy, but never Hercules Returns.

Throughout February and March, Down Under Flix will shine a light on thirteen Australian comedies, mostly from the 2000s. The noughties were a curious period for local comedies, a decade that yielded some big successes – The Wog Boy, The Dish, Crackerjack, Kenny – but also many duds, often from the very same creative teams. On first glance, there’s no holistic identity uniting the comedies of that period. The major comedies of the 70s – Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – rejoiced in their newly forged opportunity to present Australian identity on film (even when covertly attacking it, as per Barry Humphries’ work) and embraced the sex and the sauce thanks to the liberal attitudes and censorship of the time. The major comedies of the 80s – Crocodile Dundee and Young Einstein and Les Patterson Saves the World – commodified that Australian identity for a global audience. And the major comedies of the 90s – Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – gave voice to misfits and social outcasts: suburban battlers and drag queens and plump downtrodden wallflowers all fell under their purview. The comedies of the 2000s, in contrast, appear less interested in cultural politics and national identity, less significant, and less meaningful overall. The outcasts had found expression, Australia’s global branding was secure, and Australian voices had pervaded both national and international cinema for three decades. What was left?

We’ll be chipping away at that question over the next few weeks, starting with these three romantic comedies. The rom-com is a genre that hews close to formula, with predictable outcomes and often diminishing returns, but when executed well can provide solid popcorn entertainment and sometimes even strike deeper chords. While none of these three films are stealth classics, for fans of the genre – and those fans are legion – they provide the usual comforts as well as some sneaky Antipodean charms.

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