Sunday, August 7, 2016

Take Me Outback: A Cinematic Mini-Return to Australia

I'm back after another long hiatus. More notably, I'm back from my adventure in Australia, which was a phenomenal experience for me academically, professionally, and personally. I'll post more about the Australian film industry in the future; it has a fascinating history, one that is markedly different from Hollywood.

But, in the meantime, as a welcome back, here are five Australian films that I watched recently while I missed the Land Down Under. Three of them are more recent films, while two are classics from the early days of the Australian New Wave. The three more recent films are currently streaming on Netflix, while the latter two are available via Hulu Plus.

Mystery Road (dir. Ivan Sen, 2013)

The predecessor to Goldstone, which opened this year's Sydney Film Festival (and will hopefully receive a US release soon), Mystery Road finds by-the-book detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) investigating the death of a young Aboriginal girl in a rural Queensland town. Johnno (Hugo Weaving), an officer working on a major drug bust, discourages Jay from looking too deep into the murder, which leads Jay to uncover a deep web of deception and crime that inherently takes advantage of the town's Aboriginal community.

Director Sen, himself an Indigenous filmmaker, shows a deft hand at weaving political commentary into the thriller genre without sacrificing tension or stunning visuals (in addition to writing and directing, Sen also served as director of photography, editor, and composer for the film). Instead, the issues of Aboriginal struggle become an inescapable texture to the story, at once forming the basis of the plot without underlining its significance. That's a delicate balancing act, but Sen pulls it off with aplomb. Pedersen, as in the sequel, is magnetic and truly brilliant as Jay, a man torn between his sense of duty to the whole community and his Aboriginal heritage. Weaving, too, is reliably shifty as Johnno, and Ryan Kwantan does fine work as one of the murder suspects. If a few of the film's twists and turns are a bit too predictable, there's still pleasure to be found in how those revelations ripple outwards. B+

(I'm also eager to rewatch Goldstone now, especially since both films share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. I'm curious to see if seeing Mystery Road changes my opinion of Goldstone.)

Tracks (dir. John Curran, 2014)

In 1977, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) set out on what was believed to be an impossible journey: to walk from Alice Springs in central Australia to the Indian Ocean, a journey of 2,700 kilometers through the most inhospitable terrain of the Outback. Her journey was documented by her own writings and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), and she was accompanied by four camels and her dog. Robyn's journey was motivated by a desire to get away from city life, and her perilous trek became a sensational story by the time she reached the shores of Western Australia.

Robyn's story is certainly befitting of the film treatment, and director Curran (The Painted Veil), working from Marion Nelson's adaptation of Davidson's memoir of the same name, does the rugged terrain justice in his dusty, sun-drenched photography. Wasikowska, too, delivers one of the finest performances of her career, proving that she is more than capable of carrying her own film without the assistance of CGI landscapes and Mad Hatters (this is a hint, Hollywood). The "find yourself" narrative is presented better than many films of this kind, though the relationship between Robyn and Rick feels a bit undercooked (especially since the film feels the need to emphasize it whenever they share the screen). Overall, though, it's a testament to Robyn's tenacity, the ferocity of the Australian landscape, and Wasikowska's talent. A-

More after the jump.

Charlie's Country (dir. Rolf de Heer, 2014)

David Gulpilil is, without a doubt, the most famous Aboriginal actor in the history of the Australian film industry. His recent collaborations with de Heer - The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006), and now Charlie's Country - have brought international attention to Indigenous cinema, with Ten Canoes being the first film ever shot completely in Indigenous languages (various dialects of Yolngu Matha). Charlie's Country gives Gilpilil a showcase role as Charlie, an isolated Aboriginal man in the Northern Territory who struggles to maintain his cultural identity in his increasingly white-dominated community. Charlie repeatedly runs afoul of law enforcement, raising the question of whether his culture can even survive in modern Australia.

The film is structured purely around Charlie, following him as he has his guns and handmade spears confiscated, falls ill, and finds little ways to rebel against local law enforcement. Gulpilil - who co-wrote the script with de Heer - delivers a phenomenal performance, at once prickly and sympathetic, angry and humorous, confident and desperate. de Heer wisely doesn't provide many auteurist flashes or visual flair, instead keeping the cameras glued to Gulpilil and his supporting cast - which includes Ten Canoes star Peter Djigirr as Gulpilil's close friend and Luke Ford as a local police officer. The film is a powerful testament to the crisis facing Aboriginal culture today, as well as to Gulpilil's considerable talent and career. A-

The Last Wave (dir. Peter Weir, 1977)

Peter Weir became a household name (for cinephiles, at least) after the Hollywood successes of Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, as well as his mid-1970s art film Picnic at Hanging Rock. The Last Wave, his follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock, often gets overlooked, likely the result of it coming between the latter film and his WWII blockbuster Gallipoli (which made a star of Mel Gibson). It's plot also may contribute to its relative obscurity: a corporate tax lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) is tasked with defending five Aboriginal men in a murder trial, but wonders if the case is connected to the recent strange weather patterns and mythical dreams he has.

At once a courtroom drama, disaster film, and social issues film, Weir's film defies easy categorization or explanation. The opening scene of an Outback school enduring a powerful hailstorm - with no clouds in the sky - is more bemusing than terrifying, and no one but the Aboriginals seem to regard the weather patterns as odd or ominous (amazingly, nearly 40 years later, this still feels relevant to the climate change debates). In fact, much of the film is downright hallucinogenic: the cinematography is smeared and surreal, while the soundscape is littered with didgeridoos that resist Western melody. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film's central conflict is ambiguous, but Weir's visual storytelling, along with Chamberlain's and David Gulpilil's performances, provide plenty to enjoy. A-

Walkabout (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

Roeg would find more notorious success with later films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth (starring David Bowie), Don't Look Now (featuring an infamous sex scene with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and Bad Timing (starring Art Garfunkel), but his directoral debut Walkabout remains his best. Loosely based on a novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, the film focuses on two unnamed siblings - a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg) - as they survive in the Outback after their father (John Meillon) commits suicide. They encounter an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil, in his acting debut) who is on his walkabout - an Aboriginal ritual in which a sixteen-year-old boy must survive six months on his own in the wilderness - and together the trio stay alive in the inhospitable desert.

The film tells its story in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with scenes edited in such a way that the viewer questions when - and even if - events happened. Though this can certainly frustrate, it also allows Roeg to heavily emphasize the Outback in a way that very few films had before it. Shots of the dusty terrain overwhelm many frames, and various wildlife wander in and out of scenes as always-present extras. Regardless of the protagonists' efforts and actions, the landscape is relentlessly the dominant force of the film, unkind to the white children and Aboriginal boy equally. Roeg's film may frustrate more often than not, but it's a journey worth taking for the gorgeous imagery on display. B

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