July 7, 2020

rumplestiltWith Rumplestiltskin, Cannon Films intends to launch a series of musical fairy-tale movies, faithful to the original sources. Certainly nothing wrong with that idea, although it seems imitative of Shelley Duvall’s successful Faerie Tale Theater series on the Showtime cable television network.

Some of Duvall’s shows are a lot of fun, and they dare to mix big-name directors with cleverly cast actors. Her series does seem overly enamored of its own campy, anachronistic style, which produces some cheap laughs.

If this first Cannon fairy tale is representative, the upcoming movies may take a more respectful approach. Rumplestiltskin is quite straightforward, true to its period, without any campy updating.

Billy Barty, the brassy actor who has been playing little­-people roles for many decades now, plays the gnarly, magical elf from the Brothers Grimm story. Amy Irving is the comely miller’s daughter who dreams of marrying a prince, and John Moulder-Brown is that very fellow.

The crux of the story: Word has got ten about that Irving can spin gold from straw. The greedy king (Clive Reville) – he sings, “I’m greedy, yes indeedy” – demands that she perform the deed, and locks her in a castle vault with a bale of hay and a spinning wheel.

She knows she can’t do it, and her tears attract Rumplestiltskin’s attention. They work out a series of deals, which culminate in a sorry promise: If Rumplestiltskin will use his magic to transform the final batch of straw into gold, Irving will give him her first-born child.

You may remember some of this from your own Grimm adventures. The film treats it all in a stately style that is a little dull. It’s a reasonably nice­ looking production, and clearly aimed at children (there aren’t the over-their-little-heads gags that the Showtime series features), but it may be too deliberate for the young crowd raised on television’s fast pace.

Amy Irving is sweet. She’s surrounded by family: Her mother, the wonderfully weathered Priscilla Pointer, plays the wicked queen, and Amy’s brother, David Irving, wrote and directed the film. The best that can be said for his work here is that he seems fully appreciative of his sister’s beauty.

First published in The Herald, May 28, 1987

“Comely” again, hmm. If I’m understanding it right, Cannon pulled the plug on releasing the other installments to movie theaters, and they went straight to video instead (David Irving directed two of the other titles). They were shot in Israel, and included Puss and Boots with Christopher Walken, and Little Red Riding Hood with Isabella Rossellini. There are stranger projects in the Cannon roster, but not many. Billy Barty also appeared in the Snow White chapter. Moulder-Brown was the young leading man of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End.


Burke and Wills

July 6, 2020

burkeandwillsThere is a built-in irresistibility about the stories of explorers, especially that particular brand of hero and madman who “goes where no man has  gone before” strictly for the sake of getting there first.

So many of these treks, whether to the top of a mountain or a polar end point, were staged not such much for king, country and the general good of mankind but rather the specific obsession of being first. That’s what makes these tales so fascinating.

Burke and Wills tells one of these tales, and a very  good one, too. It’s the story of an ill-fated dash across the continent of Australia – the first time the interior was crossed by white men – called the Victoria Exploring Expedition of 1860. Burke (Jack Thomson) was the Irish leader of the expedition; Wills (Nigel Havers) was the upper-class English scientist.

They and their party marched from Melbourne in the south to the ocean in the north, across a continent of parched nothingness. With a small group, Burke and Wills made it across. But getting back to Melbourne proved an insurmountable task.

The story is told as a stately Lawrence of Australia. The focus, rightly enough, is on the crossing, though we return frequently to life back in Melbourne, where Burke’s fiancee (Greta Scacchi) gazes longingly at mementos of her roughneck explorer, while the financial backers of the enterprise (rather easily caricatured) gradually lose interest in their far-flung adventurers.

At first the explorers are flush with the thrill of the journey, pausing to play a cricket match on a sandy riverbed at their base camp halfway across the continent. They end with a grim death march, struggling to maintain the last vestiges of civilized behavior.

The final blow comes when Burke’s nearly dead troupe returns to that base camp after a four-month march, only to find that the remainder of the party has given up hope and headed back to Melbourne just a few hours earlier. This incredible coincidence can only be justified by history: It really happened that way.

The director, Graeme Clifford, was born in Australia (although he has spent most of his career elsewhere), and has apparently always loved the story. His approach is sometimes overwrought, but he does capture the broad, brown vistas of the outback, and some of the madness of the trekkers.

Clifford could have pruned Michael Thomas’s script a bit. The cutaways to Melbourne life become redundant; worse is his tendency to overwrite dialogue. Larger-than-life Irish characters are always in danger of becoming overripe, and Thomas stumbles with some of Burke’s more inspirational moments – and his love scene: “You’re a foolish, empty­headed little creature … but I must have you!”

The major strength of Burke and Wills is the engrossing true story itself, rendered with all the foolishness and heroism of the mission. There are hints of Burke’s intense motivation to cross the land first, but in the end it springs from the same need as the film’s aborigines to leave their painted handprints on cave walls: the fundamental urge to say, “I was here.” That may be the noblest motivation of all.

First published in The Herald, April 24, 1987

Yes, I do like movies like this. Graeme Clifford came up as an editor before his feature directing bow with Frances; he also did Gleaming the Cube before veering off into TV movies. Jack Thompson is of course a giant of Aussie film, and Greta Scacchi had already made Heat and Dust for Merchant Ivory, thus putting her on the map.

Crocodile Dundee

July 3, 2020

crocodiledundeeThe fact that Crocodile Dundee broke all box-office records in Australia – even topping E.T. – did not automatically qualify it for American distribution. Often, something that is wildly popular in its native country just never quite translates into other markets, particularly the persnickety United States. Look how long it took soccer, ABBA, and Julio Iglesias to break in.

Paramount Pictures, however, obviously believes that Dundee has a real shot in the U.S.; they’ve backed the film with a strong ad campaign and a publicity blitz for its star, Paul Hogan.

You know Hogan, even if you don’t know the name. He’s the chap in the very successful Australian tourism commercials who urges us to say “g’day” and visit the America’s Cup Down Under. Well, it seems he’s just about the most popular personality in Australia, with his own highly rated TV show. Dundee (which he co-wrote), is his first film. Hogan’s regular TV director, Peter Faiman, also directed the film.

Now that “Dundee” is here, it’s plain to see why Paramount has faith in Hogan and the film. It’s an entirely pleasant escapade, very smartly done, and Hogan is as smooth as the crocodile-leather vest he wears.

He plays an adventurer who owns a safari park in backwoods Australia. An American reporter (Linda Kozlowski) hears about his Tarzanesque experiences with crocodiles, and she seeks him out, hoping to get a good story by accompanying him into the wild.

This trek is the first half of the movie, with Hogan in his element: killing snakes, wrestling crocs, dancing with aborigines. And, needless to say, becoming just a bit barmy about the comely reporter.

She has a brainstorm, and drags Hogan back to New York City with her, so he can see how the other 99 percent lives. This brings the film into familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land territory, which has become a subgenre as crowded as Manhattan’s streets. But Dundee still manages to scare up some honest laughs out of Hogan’s encounters with hot dogs, subways, and culture shock (he good-naturedly asks a black chauffeur what tribe he’s from).

The humor is as easy and laid-back as Hogan’s persona, and is not above the occasional unabashed joke. Example: The reporter holds her camera up to take a picture of Hogan’s aborigine friend in the outback. The aborigine tells her not to take the picture. “Oh,” she says, full of mildly patronizing wonder of primitive cultures, “you think it will steal your soul.” “No,” he says, “you’ve got the lens cap on.”

If you think that’s funny, then much of the corny, easy humor of Crocodile Dundee is for you. In any case, it’s hard not to like Paul Hogan, who stands to build himself quite a following hereabouts. Could he be the next Julio Iglesias?

First published in The Herald, October 1, 1986

I know what you’re thinking: Nobody says “comely” anymore. And also, I feel certain this film has not aged well, especially some of these very dodgy jokes. Googling around I see that there’s some awful stuff around transgender and gay characters, the defense of which would undoubtedly suggest that at least part of the joke is on Hogan’s character – but probably not enough. Can’t deny the brilliant marketing scheme, which turned Dundee into a huge stateside hit, a crafty bet on Paramount’s part. 


Encounter at Raven’s Gate

July 2, 2020

encounterraven'sgateEncounter at  Raven’s Gate begins just the way science fiction movies are supposed to begin. In lonely Australian farm country, a burned circle is found in a hayfield. Some sheep  die of dehydration, though water is nearby. Dead birds rain down from the night sky.

Cool. Obviously, something bizarre is about to be revealed. Don’t expect an explanation, however; the answer isn’t spelled out, although the movie suggests it may have something to do with visitors from outer space. No, this film is more interested in creating a mood, a sinister atmosphere.

The atmosphere swirls around a farmer (Ritchie Singer), his bored wife (Celine Griffin) and his ne’er­-do-well younger brother, Eddie (Steven Vidler). Eddie has just been bounced out of jail and works at his brother’s place as part of his probation.

While the movie tantalizes with hints of the supernatural, it also unfolds some pretty odd doings among its supposedly normal characters. For instance, Eddie’s barmaid girlfriend is being romanced by a frustrated policeman, an increasingly demented opera lover who seems to have wandered out of Blue Velvet.

The other film that comes to mind while watching Raven’s Gate is The Last Wave, an Australian film of the 1970s that also traded in dark, biblical warnings. The difference is, Last Wave director Peter Weir was masterful in subtly building a sense of dread. Raven’s Gate director Rolf de Heer (who wrote the script with producer Marc Rosenberg) throws rounder punches.

But make no mistake, this movie has some spooky stuff. The camera has a disembodied, fluid presence, which gives even the simplest scene a disconcerting feeling. And now and then some character will simply lose it completely, as when a man turns to a corpse that he’s just placed in the passenger seat of his car and says, reaching for the seat belt, “Now, we’ve got to buckle up.” Creepy – and worth a look, for fans of the genre.

First published in The Herald, February 1, 1990

The film was originally released in Australia as Incident at Raven’s Gate. Rolf de Heer has of course gone on to an extensive career, including high points such as Bad Boy Bubby (you haven’t seen this? oh boy), The Tracker, and Ten Canoes. This one I’d like to see again – despite my measured reaction, it sounds like my kind of thing.

The Fringe Dwellers

July 1, 2020

fringedwellersThe Fringe Dwellers, reportedly, is a movie that Aussie director Bruce Beresford has wanted to make for a long time, ever since reading the 1961 novel by Australian author Nene Gare. He had to wait for years, but having since conquered Hollywood – or, at least, having made a name for himself – with Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart, Beresford could pack his clout under his arm and return to Australia to get the job done.

That The Fringe Dwellers was a tough sell is not surprising. It’s about the shapeless lives of aborigines living on society’s fringes, figuratively and literally. In particular, it’s about one extended family attempting to move up a notch in the social ladder, seen through the eyes of the teen-age daughter who is the prime instigator of the upward mobility.

This girl, played in an impressive debut by Kristina Nehm, is ambitious and caustic. There’s a wonderful shot of her standing at twilight, looking wanly at the prefabricated suburban house that might be hers, if only her family would rouse themselves into it. The family’s move from their fringe shack to this new home is the main narrative thread, upon which incidents from the lives of these people are played out.

This rambling story structure – a bit like the ramshackle homes in which the aborigines live – allows for some flavorful episodes. The girl’s early, almost offhand romance; the father’s disastrous gambling with the rent money (the latter an unfamiliar concept); the occasional foray into otherworldliness by one of the older, tribal aborigines; the mother’s visit for afternoon tea at her white neighbor’s house, where she eats all the scones (“Because they were there”) and keeps the cloth napkin the hostess hands her.

It’s all reasonably well-formed, but Beresford doesn’t quite find the key to making the film very compelling. He clearly identifies with these characters, possibly because he makes movies with the same kind of shrugging, no-­sweat amiability with which they lead their lives. This combination, however, makes for some pretty listless storytelling.

And, as charming as much of the film is, there are whiffs of condescension when it comes to the portrayal of the simple-but-happy aborigines. The mother (Justine Saunders) complains, “All this education just makes you want things.” Sometimes the movie seems allied with her view, while the proud, angry daughter comes off as unsympathetic. Maybe Beresford meant to be ambiguous; but the movie isn’t strong or sharp enough to support both points of view.

First published in The Herald, March 7, 1987

Reading this now, having not seen the film since ’87, I worry that the condescending whiffs might seem more glaring today. There’s a note in the Wikipedia page for this film that says Aboriginal activists walked out on the screening at Cannes, but without details. It was shot by Donald McAlpine, yet another talented Aussie DP. Despite my opening paragraph, this film was actually made before Crimes of the Heart.


The Lighthorsemen

June 30, 2020

lighthorsemenThe Australians make good horse movies. And why not? As  in America, the horse was an essential element in exploring and settling a huge continent; it’s part of the national folklore, and the Australians, like the Americans, enjoy celebrating the horse in film.

Aside from the Man From Snowy River films, one of the better Australian horse movies was Phar Lap, the true story of a champion race horse. Now that film’s director, Simon Wincer, has chosen another true story to tell, and this time it’s an excuse to get dozens of thundering hoofbeats into the act.

Oh, there are some people in it too. (Though Wincer is rather less good with men than with horses.) The Lighthorsemen is based on the events leading up to a battle in Palestine in 1917, when the British were fighting the Turks for control of the crucial town of Beersheba. When the town refused to fall to the British forces, the battle culminated, as does the film, in an incredible dash, by an elite group of Australian cavalry called the Lighthorsemen, straight into enemy fire across four miles of unprotected desert.

In many ways the entire film exists for this final gallop. The 90 minutes leading up to it consist of conventional war-movie action, specifically about four proud Lighthorsemen and the green recruit (Peter Phelps) they, break in. The new guy has to wrestle with the strict code of the tightly knit horsemen, as well as his unexpected inability to shoot the enemy. He also gets a romantic idyll, in the form of the nurse (Sigrid Thornton) who tends him at the Army hospital.

The most interesting part of the movie before the finale is a side plot about a British intelligence man (Anthony Andrews) who must concoct a ruse to divert the Turks from the impending attack. It’s a clever episode, and Andrews (the star of Brideshead Revisited) gives a sly performance.

The movie as a whole is a simple­minded affair, old-fashioned in the manner of Phar Lap. The final charge is stupendous action filmmaking, as a company of horses gallop at full steam across the plain, directly Into the teeth of enemy fire. The men whoop and holler and brandish their sabers; and the horses wind up stealing the show anyway.

First published in The Herald, May 8, 1988

A sad postscript to this film is that actor Jon Blake, who plays Scotty, was injured in a car accident at the end of shooting in 1986, which left him with permanent and catastrophic brain damage. He was coming on as “the next Mel Gibson,” and his family was awarded a large settlement based on the potential of his future earnings. He died in 2011. 

Yes, I’m posting two Simon Wincer horse movies in a row. This movie was shot by Dean Semler, who had done The Road Warrior and would win an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. He would also return to horses – how to these things happen? – as the DP on Appaloosa and Secretariat. Lately he’s been working for Adam Sandler’s factory. The life of a cinematographer is funny.

Phar Lap

June 29, 2020

pharlapFirst things first: For those who don’t know what a Phar Lap is (I didn’t), an explanation is in order. Phar Lap was the great Australian racehorse who trounced his competition in the years 1928-31. When he was brought to America in 1932, Phar Lap won his first race, then died – foul play was hinted. Phar Lap is the story of those years, from the purchase of the horse – a skinny colt with good blood­ lines, he cost about $800 – to his final trip to America.

The true story has all the elements for a good movie: the early, dispiriting years, followed by success because of faith and plenty of elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations (Phar Lap became so unbeatable that he was once the subject of an assassination attempt from a speeding car). Still, one may be forgiven for suspecting that the film takes its inspiration from racetrack movies as much as from historical record.

The characters include the clean-faced stableboy (Tom Burlinson) who really loves the horse the most; his sweet girlfriend (Georgia Carr); the miserly American owner (Ron Leibman); his classy, sympathetic wife (Judy Morris); and the tough trainer (Martin Vaughan) given to saying things like, “Don’t tell me I’m training that horse too hard – I think I know a thing or two about horses,” etc.

The pleasantly surprising thing about Phar Lap is that only the stableboy and his girl come off as horse-yarn stereotypes. The owner and the trainer turn out to be more complicated. The owner may be something of an uncouth lout, but he has his moments of grace.

And the trainer is torn between his pride – in developing Phar Lap at a time when nobody else had faith in the horse – and his need for money. To pay off his dreams of a horse-training empire, he must work Phar Lap – who becomes a reliable winner – until the gelding is in danger of burning out.

That the characters are something other than black-and-white is probably the work of playwright David Williamson, the screenwriter of Gallipoli, The Club, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Williamson’s intelligent script provides some villains, though, in the form of an Australian Racing Club which insists that Phar Lap carry extra weight to make the races closer.

Director Simon Wincer doesn’t instill much snap into the proceedings. It’s more of a handsome film than an exciting one. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who shot Tender Mercies, has managed some impressive period photography.

Unfortunately, the film (the most expensive ever made in Australia) comes at a point of over-saturation in the genre of come-from-behind movies. I’ve just about had it with slow-motion replays of races won at the finish line, with reaction shots of spectators brushing away tears, all scored to a ripoff of the music from Chariots of Fire. Phar Lap doesn’t do any of this too badly, but we’ve seen this kind of thing one too many times.

First published in The Herald, April 1984

Wincer has had a long career (his last work was 2011’s The Cup, a horse-racing movie), with the notable miniseries Lonesome Dove included. Burlinson had been in The Man from Snowy River the year before this film came out; Judy Morris’s long acting career also includes writing the screenplays for Babe – Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Also in the cast is Gia Carides, who went on to a long career. This is the first day in a week of Australian films on this website, and there will be more horses.