Sunday, 25 January 2015

Great Southern Land Films: The Castle (1997)

The Castle - Australian movie quotes
As you can tell from that write-up, the film falls squarely into the suburban category of Australian films. However, the suburbs are not presented as a soul-crushing place to live, but is celebrated for its sense of community. Darryl is not only fighting for his home, but also his neighbours, two of whom are Lebanese immigrants. There is gentle satire about the obliviousness of the Kerrigans, who don't realise their lack of taste or culture. But it is not a negative thing; the Kerrigans are a happy family who care and love each other without judgement. Even Wayne Kerrigan, in gaol for armed robbery, is still part of the family.

It is Australia land in the land of Oz (it is 26 January here), and what better way to celebrate than with a cracking local classic: The Castle (1997). Directed by Rob Sitch, written by Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy, this presents an hilarious take on the old David-and-Goliath story. It is an early role of Eric Bana, and also stars Michael Caton, Anne Tenney, Tiriel Mora, Stephen Curry, Sophie Lee ('beautiful' Tania from Muriel' Wedding) and the late, great Charles 'Bud' Tingwell.

A suburban Melbourne family, the Kerrigans, live in gentle contentment near the airport. They are upper-working-class who think they live in the greatest place in the world. One day, a property valuer comes to inspect, and the whole street is later presented with a compulsory acquisition order; the airport is planning an expansion project. Darryl Kerrigan, head of the family, decides to fight it, on the principle that 'a man's home's his castle' and he should be allowed to defend it. He gets all the way to the High Court of Australia with a little help from small time lawyer Dennis Denuto and QC Lawrence Hammill.

When Darryl meets Lawrence, he doesn't see any disparity in their lives, though he concedes Lawrence is more intelligent. Lawrence also recognises this quality of the Kerrigan family, and believes it to be worth defending. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarian, and this film celebrates that idea.

This is the Casablanca of Australian films; many of its quotes are now part of the Australian vernacular. 'How's the serenity!' is an exclamation of contentment, usually used when holidaying in Bonnydoon. 'Tell'm he's dreaming!' is used with scoffing derision upon hearing someone's ridiculous offer on your boat or any object you are selling. 'That's going straight to the pool room' denotes a cherished object, like a handmade mug. 'It's Mabo, it's the vibe' should be used when positing a feeble argument why something is unfair.*

I cannot honestly say how this film would be received by non-Australian audiences. It is very well-loved here (and I am surprised that it is not showing on free-to-air television today) for its representation of Australian life; how much of it translates would be interesting to see. According to Wikipedia, it was shot over 11 days, and was made for the grand total of $75 000. It made $10.3 million in Australia; clearly, it went straight to the pool room!

*A court case that recognised native title land rights in Australia. For more information:

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Great Southern Land Films: The Tree (2010)

The Tree (2010) is an Australian-French co-production, based in Judy Pascoe's novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree. After Simone's father, Peter, dies from a heart-attack in his truck on the family's property in southern Queensland, she believes that his spirit now inhabits the giant Morton Bay fig tree that is rooted near the house. Tension occurs when Simone's mother, Dawn, begins seeing a plumber. As the tree drops branches on the house, and its roots threaten the plumbing and structure he suggests that they cop it down.

This film falls into the spiritual outback category of Aussie films. It has a lovely lyrical quality, with its close-ups of the elephant-like bark of the tree. At the top of the tree's trunk is a platform that Simone and her mother snuggle into on occasion, the branches embracing and holding them. The breeze in the leaves whisper responses to Simone's own whisperings. Parts of it reminded me of the close-ups of nature in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, but with a less visceral overtone.

The Tree is an obscure Australian film, despite the calibre of the cast, particularly Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marton Csokas. It is also a French-Australian co-production, a permutation that rarely occurs.

The use of the tree is clever way to explore different responses to grief. Dawn (Gainsbourg) remains deep in her grief for the first half of the film. She can't keep the household together, instead relying on her older son to pick up the slack. Simone (Morgana Davies) is eight, and one could argue that her belief in her Dad's present spirit is misguided, but the film doesn't condescend to her. In fact, it sticks close to her viewpoint, offering no definitive answer to this belief.

After Dawn emerges from her grief after she begins working for a local plumber, played with rugged temptation by Marton Csokas. One night, the tree drops a huge branch into her bedroom; instead of getting angry, Dawn gets into bed, surrounded by the strong branches and leaves and feels comfortable and happy. She, like Simone, feels closer to Peter through the tree.

This complex and intelligence exploration of grief is bolstered by what I consider the film's greatest drawcard: the wonderful, and wonderfully named, Morgana Davies. She is the film's emotional backbone, a weight that her young shoulders carry with aplomb. Her performance is one of the best child performances I have ever seen, and if the topic doesn't interest you, I would urge you to see simply for her.

The rest of the performances are strong as well; Charlotte Gainsbourg is very good as the grieving wife and mother, and handles the vacillating aspects of the character well. Marton Csokas is also good as the outsider who disrupts the family unit. The children are all good, and the dynamics between them are recognisable.

It is not a huge film, but I really enjoyed it; it is quietly beautiful and deep, with a wonderful depiction of Australian country life at the heart of it.

So, has anyone seen it?

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Double Feature: Muriel's Wedding (1994); The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

I have decided that for the beginning of this year I will do a blog series on Australian films. There is no greater reason for this, except that I myself am Australian, and think that our film industry has, and continues to produce some great films. Though a few break through to receive international acclaim, many remain in obscurity. This series, which I am calling 'Great Southern Land Films,' will be a mixture of the famous and the hidden gem.

I have a theory, a very unscientific one, that almost all Australian films can be slotted into two categories: life in the suburbs, and life in the outback (or bush). Films that explore suburban or even city life may engage with themes of alienation, isolation, conformity with either a dark or humourous approach. Films set in the outback often deal with our relationship to the land. There are two subsections to this category: Aboriginal people's complex spiritual connection with the land, and Europeans' problematic engagement with it.,0,214,317_AL_.jpg

Muriel's Wedding falls into the suburban Aussie film category, while Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a mixture of the two, as it deals with a trio of suburban Sydney-siders, two drag-queens and one transsexual, driving into the red centre of Australia. Both films tackle the idea of alienation: Muriel attempts to escape her feelings of alienation associated with Porpoise Spit by going to Sydney to live with her friend Rhonda; Tick, Adam/Felicia and Bernadette enter a land that is like another planet to them, and to the locals they appear to be aliens (at least at first).

Muriel feels different from the other girls in her 'friendship' group. Pretty, thin, and commonly blonde, they constantly belittle the more dowdy Muriel. The scene where they drop her from the group is a wonderfully grotesque, as Muriel bawls in front of them. (Coincidentally, this is one of the best actual crying scenes in a film. Most women in films 'movie-cry,' which means no blotchy face, no open wail, and no runny nose.) Muriel's own family ostracise her; 'You're terrible, Muriel' is a common phrase in the Heslop household.

Tick, Adam/Felicia and Bernadette are not outsiders in Sydney, but are completely bamboozled by outback Australia. As Bernadette tells Adam/Felicia:
"It's funny. We all sit around mindlessly slagging off that vile stink-hole of a city. But in its own strange way, it takes care of us. I don't know if that ugly wall of suburbia's been put there to stop them getting in, or us getting out."
 Interestingly, an Aboriginal group enjoy their performance, but the white locals are far less kind. Adam, dressed as Felicia, goes looking for sex with a group of young men who are less than impressed to find the fit and willing woman is actually a bloke. The culture of rigid gender stereotypes finds its zenith with the ping-pong ball scene in the bar. Cynthia Campos' trick may require more skill than the ability to dress up in flamboyant costumes, but it is far less tasteful and clever. (The character of Cynthia Campos is one of the films' only drawbacks. It borderlines on being racist and sexist). Female sexuality is objectified in her performance, while the gender-bending drag queens are trying to provoke and undermine assumptions based on such stereotypes. The local men know which they are more comfortable with.

Conformity is explored through the institution of marriage in both films. Tick reveals that he is married to the woman who runs the Lasseter Hotel Casino, a circumstance at odds with his current lifestyle, and his sexuality. He also has a son, whom he hasn't seen in years. Adam and Bernadette find his conventional background rather hard to process; is he straight, or gay? Tick's answer is 'I don't know.' Tick wonders what his son is going to think, and whether he will accept his unorthodox lifestyle. The ending to this storyline is very heartwarming.

Muriel spends much of the film wanting to be a bride, believing that marriage will solve all her problems and make her happy. Her glitzy wedding is all she ever wanted it to be, but she has ruined her friendship with Rhonda. Even though Muriel's husband begins to value her as a person, she chooses to rescue Rhonda from suburban drudgery. The last scene of the film is of them saying goodbye to familiar Porpoise Spit places, driving off into an unknown future. Muriel has broken with the traditional idea of feminine happiness, choosing friendship over marriage.

It is interesting to note that most of the posters (such as the one above) for Muriel's Wedding (and DVD covers too) featured a shot of a beaming Muriel decked out in a wedding dress, being showered by confetti. I wonder how many people were surprised by the film's feminist ending.

 Both Muriel and Priscilla are films that present people throwing off the shackles that bind them to conformity and embracing the path less chosen. Perhaps this quality of self-expression in its characters find no greater example than in both films use of ABBA. Reader, you may not know this, but Australia has the biggest fan base for ABBA outside of Sweden. We love their music, and are the home of the parody cover band Bjorn Again. ABBA is mentioned throughout both films: they are Muriel's favourite band, and feature heavily on the soundtrack. Muriel at one point says:
"When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. But since I've met you and moved to Sydney, I haven't listened to one Abba song. That's because my life is as good as an Abba song. It's as good as Dancing Queen."
In Priscilla, Bernadette is constantly decrying Tick and Felicia's love of the group.

ABBA songs are a show piece in each film: Muriel and Rhonda perform Waterloo at a Talent Night while on holiday, while Tick/ Mitzi and Adam/Felicia do their best Anni-Frid and Agnetha impressions for Mamma Mia.

Inside every Australian, be they male, female or both, is a desire to mime along, in costume, to ABBA.

Factoid: the idea for Priscilla came when Stephen Elliot heard someone refer to a drag queen as a 'cock in a frock.' His mind moved in mysterious ways, and came up with the phrase/idea of 'a cock in a frock on a rock.'

Another is that the late national treasure, Bill Hunter, is in both films: his is Muriel's slimy politician father; and the open-minded, tender Bob. 1994 was obviously a busy year for him!