A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

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.

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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.

Strangerland (2015)

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The words Joseph Fiennes on a movie poster are enough to strike fear into even the most hardened of filmgoers. He’s paired with Nicole Kidman as the parents of two kids who go missing right before a dust storm envelops the Australian desert town where they’ve moved. The parents have split up and she’s left finding out through reading diaries that her 15-year old daughter is the town slut. When Fiennes shows up he says she takes after her mother. She accuses him of molesting their daughter (called Lily, rather ironically). She tries to have sex with policeman Hugo Weaving and the Aboriginal who had sex with her little girl. The Aboriginals think the children have been taken by some Rainbow prophecy which is really helpful. Fiennes locates his son by the simple expedient of going in the opposite direction taken by the police. The boy is unable to speak, no matter how many times Kidman shakes him, but eventually Fiennes gets it out of him that his older sister went off in someone’s car. In other words, WTF????? Now I need to make one of those nice Rorschach blots like the aliens in Arrival before I get really rude.

Wake In Fright (1971)

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Aka Outback. The infamous Australian film got a restoration in 2009 and is one of only two films shown twice at Cannes. It’s an adaptation by Evan Jones of the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, and it had long been in development hell, starting with a proposed version by Joe Losey set to star Dirk Bogarde. It was finally put together at the end of the Sixties with Canadian Ted Kotcheff in the director’s chair. Gary Bond plays John Grant, a teacher stuck in the boondocks in a teaching job which he wants to leave but he put up a bond of $1,000 for the State position and can’t pay his way out of what seems like slave labour. He takes a train to the Yabba for the only flight to Sydney and gets waylaid by the local copper, Jock (Chips Rafferty) and drawn into the hyper-masculine world of drinking and gambling and losing everything he owns, leaving him stranded. An encounter with a disenchanted alkie Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) makes him want to jump ship but he gets caught up with another drinking buddie Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) and back at his meets his wife and the two try to have a sexual encounter outside the house which he can’t carry through beset both by vomit and images of his girlfriend. He gets taken out on a kangaroo hunting trip with Tim’s ultra macho mates and is goaded into murderous behaviour, stabbing a poor young roo to death. After consuming more drink he wakes up following what appears to have been a gay encounter with Doc and hitches a ride to ‘the city’ which turns out to be another outpost and not Sydney, where he’s aiming to spend Christmas with his girlfriend – with just a dollar in his pocket. He kills a rabbit and then sits it out in Doc’s house with a gun – and puts it to his own head …  This portrait of Aussie men outraged people upon release and is a truly transitional film in the antipodean canon, symbolised by the last screen appearance of Chips Rafferty (he died just before it was released) and the first of Jack Thompson, who plays one of Tim’s gun-toting friends. It did well overseas but not at the domestic box office. Wonder why! Grant’s slide into utterly degrading indecency is graphically portrayed – and for the most part Bond’s performance is one of almost amoral passivity, until push really comes to shove. The kangaroo hunt is awful and virtually impossible to endure. It was apparently carried out by so-called professional hunters whose glee was too much for the crew, who pulled the off switch on the gennie to get them to quit. (Director Kotcheff was vegetarian.) There is a note from the producers at the end of the film stating that it is shown following consultation with animal welfare groups to raise awareness of the dangers to kangaroos …  This is certainly not a film that would persuade one to travel 24 hours to meet these kinds of people. Having said that, I live in the countryside and the guys here are probably nicer than any of my neighbours who lamp badgers and other unfortunates with equanimity. Men, eh.  Bond had a short but startling career and was a well-known performer in musicals. He died aged 55 of AIDS in 1995, just a month after his former partner Jeremy Brett.

The Dressmaker (2015)

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Tone is a hard thing to pull off in a movie. Black comedy is probably the  most difficult of all but when it works it’s rewarding. This starts like a western with a train pulling into a wretched early Fifties Outback town of shacks and small minds but instead of a gunslinger or a sheriff disembarking it’s a dressmaker: her weapon of choice? A Singer sewing machine. The music underlines our anticipation of tumbleweed blowing through the unmarked streets. It’s rare enough to hear the names Vionnet or Balenciaga but in this context it’s disturbing. Kate Winslet is Tilly Dunnage, newly returned from Paris by way of Spain and London and Italy. “Why would a beautiful and clever girl like you come back here?” an old crone neighbour asks her. Turns out she was banished as a young girl, accused of murdering a boy whom we see in flashbacks. She has no recollection of killing him and her alkie mother Molly (Judy Davis) engages in verbal fisticuffs with her about that and everything else as Tilly cleans her up, gets a shedload of clients and changes the way all the women dress; the policeman (Hugo Weaving) apologises for sending her away while testing her textiles; a rival dressmaker turns up halfway through; and a sexy neighbour Teddy  (Liam Hemsworth) makes a relationship possible, if only temporarily. This is a compelling revenge western, with Winslet relishing the possibilities of the femme fatale/sharpsewer in this genre-busting adaptation of  Rosalie Ham’s novel  by director Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan. Laughs are to be had at the effect of a great dress on an Aussie Rules game, a screening of Sunset Blvd., the Cinderella transformation of Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into ‘Trudy’ and a supreme act of sabotage. A dish best served cold, performed with great galloping gusto by all concerned.

Gallipoli (1981)

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How fast can you run? How fast are you going to run? How odd that in 1981 two period  films about athletes should have a contemporary soundtrack for the running sequences … for this was the year that also brought Britflick Chariots of Fire with a Vangelis score, released 6 months earlier. It’s World War 1. Teenage Western Australian sprinter Archy (Mark Lee) persuades rival Frank (Mel Gibson) to join up with him and an extended period of time focuses on their training for the ANZACs in Egypt. When we get to the Turkish battlefield we can feel the heat and dust and our immersion is in no little part due to the production and sound design and editing, a marvel of achievement. There might be those who carp at some historical inaccuracies about the Battle of the Nek but for Australians this episode of senseless killing looms large in the psyche and was revisited recently by Russell Crowe in his directing debut, The Water Diviner. Playwright David Walliamson’s screenplay was inspired by a book by Bill Gammage on the subject: we can infer that the purpose of the sprinters in the trenches to communicate with the Poms has an allegorical function beyond the immediately dramatic. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene is used to extraordinary effect amongst all the other classical pieces and new music by Brian May (the Australian composer who scored Mad Max). Russell Boyd’s cinematography is simply superb. Gibson of course became a megastar on the strength of this and Mad Max. It was a tough film to get funded and Weir’s initial proposed story did not go down well. Rupert Murdoch came to the rescue. Peter Weir is a great director who makes incredibly poetic mainstream films and doesn’t work enough as far as I’m concerned. I love everything he does. You will not forget the freeze frame finale in a hurry.

The Last Wave (1977)

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To be both prescient and portentous is a terrible thing, apparently. You end up making beguiling films, like this one, in my mini-Peter Weir fest. Tony Morphett and Weir’s screenplay (there’s another credit to Petru Popescu who presumably did a rewrite) bears all the hallmarks of a man who’s been writing little TV shows for too long and is relishing the prospect of something truly cinematic. Richard Chamberlain is the tax lawyer who winds up defending an Aborigine (David Gulpilil from Walkabout) and his friends in a tribal murder case in the heart of Sydney. He is beset by premonitions and meanwhile there are weird floods occurring all over the shop.This is Marmite cinema – you either buy it or you don’t. And considering one of my favourite movie is Wolfen, to which it bears some similarities, this is for me. Try it. You might like it.