Sunday, June 30, 2013

June Quick Picks and Pans – Australia Month

Proof (1991) Writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s debut film features great early roles by Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe.  Weaving stars as Martin, a blind man who documents his world through photography.  He befriends Andy (Crowe), a busboy at a restaurant, and tasks him with describing his photos in an effort to confirm that the images represent reality.  Martin’s housekeeper Celia (Geneviève Picot) constantly toys with him, rearranging his furniture and hiding his things to push buttons. 

Proof is a fascinating character study populated by emotionally stunted individuals.  Martin and Celia, stumble around in the dark, but fail to connect.  They’re prisoners of their ambivalence toward each other.  Martin is embroiled in a perpetual struggle to make sense of reality, which involves an inherent mistrust of people.  Celia is in love with Martin, but resorts to elaborate mind games and deception as her primary tools of interaction.  Proof is at once an amusing portrait of human eccentricity and a painful exploration of dysfunctional relationships.   

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

Red Dog (2011) Based on a book by Louis de Bernières about a legendary canine that roamed a small mining town in 1970s Northwestern Australia, Red Dog blends fact and fiction to create a bittersweet story of love and community.  Director Kriv Stenders and writer Daniel Taplitz spin a contemporary folk yarn (sort of a postmodern Old Yeller), which packs a surprisingly emotional wallop.  As the eponymous, wayward dog ingratiates himself to the town’s diverse inhabitants, he becomes an agent of change amidst the harsh landscape, provoking a series of serendipitous encounters.  Red Dog hooks you with verve and humor, which does little to soften the blow of its emotional climax. Maybe I’m just a pushover for this sort of thing, but it’s hard to imagine not being affected by this simple, yet effective story.  If you have a pulse, or if you’re a dog lover, like me, you’ll want to bring the Kleenex.

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Kenny (2006) Director/co-writer Clayton Jacobson takes an unsavory topic for his mockumentary, and manages to make it engaging.  Shane Jacobson (who shares co-writing credit with the film with his brother Clayton) does a terrific job as Kenny Smyth, a likeable working stiff who finds solace working for a portable toilet/waste disposal company.  We witness his challenges and minor triumphs as he contends with crap, literally and figuratively in his personal and professional life. 

Kenny’s strength is also its weakness.  The acting by the performers (including Shane’s real-life father and son), is spot-on, and the everyday situations he encounters in his job seem entirely plausible.  It was easy to forget the film was a complete fabrication, and not someone’s actual life.  As a result, I wish the filmmakers had thrown in a few more absurd artistic flourishes.  The material also seems to be stretched thin at times, and scenes with Kenny stuck in his day-to-day grind get to be a bit redundant.  While the Jacobson brothers could have easily left some of the footage on the cutting room floor, the end result (pun unintended) is amiable enough, and definitely worth your time.  I was glad to have had the chance to meet Kenny.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Dead End Drive-In (1986) This intriguing film from director Brian Trenchard-Smith recalls Escape from New York, with Joe Lansdale’s novel, The Drive-in thrown in for good measure.  The film is set in the near future, after society has suffered a global economic collapse.  Rampant unemployment and restless youth are the norm in this changed social milieu.  Government officials resort to extreme measures to deal with the rising incidents of juvenile delinquency.  Young people are lured to the Star Drive-In to spend their idle time.  There’s just one catch: once they enter, they can’t leave.  They become prisoners of the state, left to eke out an existence in their new walled compound while movies play in the background (including scenes from Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot).  Dead End Drive-In sneaks in some social commentary, seeming to equate Australia with the drive-in, an island isolated from the rest of humanity.  Ned Manning plays the protagonist, Crabs, who just wants to escape, disgusted by the contingent of white supremacists that have taken over the drive-in.  It’s a silly premise that somehow works.

Rating: ***.   Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Escape 2000 (aka: Turkey Shoot) (1981) How could something so wrong seem so right?  Brian Trenchard-Smith directs this piece of dystopian exploitation, set in the future world of 1995(!).  Under the regime of a fascist dictatorship, dissidents are placed in internment camps for re-education.  Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey play political prisoners, watched over by a sadistic head guard (Roger Ward).  I don’t need to overstate that Escape 2000 isn’t for everyone.  It’s exploitation through and through, packed with gratuitous nudity, rampant violence and over-the-top gory deaths, but I had a heck of a lot of fun with it (probably more than I’d care to admit).  It’s a variation of The Most Dangerous Game, along with shades of 1984, wrapped in a sleazy, but oddly entertaining package.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Long Weekend (1978) Peter and Marcia (played by John Hargreaves and Briony Behets, respectively) embark on a camping trip, under the auspices of rekindling their strained marriage.  Instead, they find every possible opportunity to argue.  Director Colin Eggleston, working from Everett De Roche’s screenplay, suggests nature has become an antagonist, possibly as a reaction to the couple’s disintegrating relationship.  Long Weekend plays a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with Frogs, with its conflicting themes of marital discord and the natural world in revolt.  It all gets a bit tedious by the last third.  There’s only so much time you can spend with two bickering main characters before it gets really uncomfortable, but this was probably the point.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Inn of the Damned (1975) The Australian film industry experienced a renaissance in the 1970s, stretching boundaries and breaking new ground.  Unfortunately, the revitalized industry also allowed for this dud, which attempts to combine the western and horror genres and fails miserably at both.  It’s two (count ‘em), two rotten stories in one!   Writer/director Terry Bourke borrows liberally from spaghetti westerns and sociopath- in-the-house movies to tell the story of a remote inn where the guests keep vanishing.  At least a half-hour could have been snipped from the bloated running time of nearly two hours.  The standard western outlaw subplot contributes nothing to the terror and only adds to the tedium.  You might feel damned after watching this flick, since the only thing you’re liable to experience is an overwhelming sense of boredom.

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD

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