Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

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The Flip Side (2018)

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I’m a perspectivist. I take from many sources. Struggling Adelaide restaurateur Ronnie (Emily Taheny) has her life thrown for a spin when an old lover, British film star Henry Salbert (Eddie Izzard), goes on a promotional tour in Australia joined by his French girlfriend Sophie (Vanessa Guide). Henry stays with Ronnie and her laidback boyfriend Jeff (Luke McKenzie) a part-time teacher and wannabe novelist who has inadvertently invited them into their home without realising that Henry and Ronnie were involved. His unpublished book Bite supposedly elicits Henry’s interest but it’s really so that Henry can get close to Ronnie again. As Ronnie’s creditors close in on her business and she can’t make the payments for her impaired mother’s (Tina Bursill) retirement home, a road trip beckons and the rekindling of a romance that left Ronnie devastated five years ago… I had forgotten how eloquent you Australians can be. Directed by Marion Pilowsky from her screenplay with L.A. Sellars, this what-if is a play on national stereotypes – Guide has fun as the French floozy, Izzard is a supposedly typical Old Etonian, and the narrative plays  on the outcome of Jeff’s subject – a spider in love with a human woman, with all the dangers of the outback encountered in a reenactment of the novel’s themes as a foursome mess with each other’s heads.  Do we believe that the old romantic partners could ever have been a couple, even on a movie set? Hmm. Even Jeff seems a sad sack. Ronnie learns the hard way that everything Henry says is role play and his career is paramount. It’s light stuff  but in truth it’s more drama than romcom. Overall, a nice tribute to Adelaide and Shiraz with lively performances from a miscast ensemble filling in for some thin setups and occasional shifts in tone. I don’t act. I just be

 

 

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

That’s Not Me (2017)

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I don’t want to be half of something. Polly Cuthbert (Alice Foulcher) dreams of making it as an actor but she’s very picky and when her agent advises her to take the role of an albino on a popular soap opera she turns it down because ‘it would be like blacking up.’ She’s holding out for an audition on an HBO show with Jared Leto. She keeps on working as a checkout girl at a cinema. Her less talented but commercially minded (literally!) identical twin Amy takes the soap role instead and gets the audition with Leto and becomes famous. Polly’s dreams are shattered and she’s mistaken for her famous sister at every turn, and she scrambles to catch up – juggling terrible auditions (where she’s mistaken for Amy), painfully awkward dates and her underwhelming job. Running out of options, she takes an ill-advised trip to the coalface of celebrity dreams: Los Angeles, California where she’s months late for pilot season and rooms with an old drama school friend who had a tiny role in a David Lynch film.  There Polly begins to realise that maybe there’s no such thing as ‘making it’ after all and she comes back to Oz after two terrible days and takes advantage of people who believe she’s Amy – until she gets found out and winds up on the front of a scandal mag … Terrific comedy dealing with a quarter-life crisis in a brilliantly conceived twins psychodrama – why does Polly even want to act, asks a clearly impoverished Zoe Cooper (Isabel Lucas) when she turns up at her doorstep in LA and reveals her own spiralling madness as she empties fish heads on a studio desk in an attempt to get a role in an all-female remake of Jaws? Because her parents told her she could, whimpers Polly. It’s just not good enough:  she hasn’t even acted in anything since 2011. Her sister Amy exacts a wonderful revenge which turns on her ability to act – and it’s ideal. Wonderfully judged script by Foulcher and debut feature director Gregory Erdstein in a story that’s tonally right at every turn. It’s no accident that Polly’s favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life:  let’s not forget (as she has) that it’s all about someone giving up on their dreams to live a suicidally depressing utterly humdrum life. Foulcher is fantastic.

Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

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When Nam volunteer Bill (John Jarratt) fetches up on duty with fellow Fosters drinkers courtesy of local politicians, he’s among a group of special air servicemen led by old geezer Harry (Graham Kennedy), numbed by boredom only intermittently relieved by occasional mortar attacks and booby traps set by the virtually invisible Vietnamese. His girlfriend sends him a barely comprehensible Dear John letter, the guys make a wanking machine for the padre, they get a scorpion and spider to fight to the death, and Bung (John Hargreaves) is distraught by tragic news from home. A night with whores in the city with some black American soldiers lifts the spirits. Rogers (Bryan Brown) loses his feet and jaw in a mine and then Bung is lost, pointlessly, when they take a bridge only to be told it’s not needed any more. This plays more like Dad’s Army than Platoon but under-budget and clearly not shot in Vietnam (it was made in Queensland) the limitations serve to amplify the sheer stupidity of this historic sortie and heighten questions of class and politics by dint of the relentless focus on a small group of men in this most irreverent of tragicomedies. Adapted from William Nagle’s autobiographical novel by director Tom Jeffrey. Artless, in every sense.

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

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Rex (Michael Caton) is dying and his days are spent with his friends down the local boozer and his nights with his dog (Dog). Polly (Ningali Lawford) his Aboriginal neighbour across the street is the woman in his life and they enjoy some banter about his difficult ways. His pain has led him to pursue euthanasia, not legal in New South Wales. He sets off in his taxi to the Northern Territory to the one doctor who is prepared to assist his death. En route he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal drifter who’s also a talented footballer;  and British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) who’s keen to experience life Down Under.  The three develop a very particular kind of friendship on the 2,000 mile road trip. The mordantly witty tone ensures that this never descends to bathos and when Doc Farmer turns out to be the splendid Jacki Weaver you are assured that Reg Cribb’s adaptation of his 2003 play (based on a true story) gets the treatment that it deserves:  a terrifically game cast performing this considered, humane, very contemporary subject of self-determination with great dignity. It even has a twist ending. Engaging and compelling. Directed by Jeremy Sims.

Dead Calm (1989)

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This was the film that introduced Nicole Kidman to the wider world – and she makes quite a splash, even with her original face. She and husband Sam Neill are recovering from the death of their child on a pleasant ocean sailing trip … and then they make the classic mistake of picking up sexy hitch hiker Billy Zane who of course is a total psycho who murdered his fellow sailors in a spree. Taut, brilliant storytelling, expertly directed by Philip Noyce, working from Terry Hayes’ adaptation of Charles Williams’ claustrophobic novel. Beautifully performed and made with an enviable Great Barrier Reef setting and atmospheric score by Graeme Revell. Top notch entertainment.