Wednesday, 25 May 2011


Whenever film critics seemed to 'discover' Australian cinema, Bill Hunter always seemed to be right there in the middle of the films they were discovering. He was, in some ways, the Australian everyman; the guy who could play the everyday Aussie and bring out all his virtues and some of his weaknesses too, and do it convincingly. He's also, to me, the kind of guy who, were he not on the wrong side of the world, would have made a great Scandinavian detective. The Aussie cinema boom that received the most attention was the early and mid 1990s, with the success of films like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in all of which Hunter played a major part. In fact, his performance in Priscilla, as Bob, does to Guy Pearce, Terrence Stamp, and Hugo Weaving exactly what Jack Nicholson did to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

But an earlier explosion in Aussie cinema began in the mid-70s, and although Hunter's success in Peter Weir's Gallipoli was widely noted, his best work, to me, was two movies he made with Philip Noyce: Heatwave (1982) with Judy Davis and Chris Haywood, which to me is a seriously underrated thriller, and one of my favourite 'small' movies of all-time, Newsfront (1978).

Hunter gives a standout performance as a newsreel cameraman who refuses to bend with the times and sell out to television. Noyce does a brilliant job of mixing in years of post-war Aussie history and the conflict between Hunter (as Len Maguire) and Gerard Kennedy as his more adaptable brother. Haywood is there too, as his assistant. It's about changing times in Australia, and in the news industry, and it ends with Hunter and his newsfilm camera being the only person covering the infamous USSR vs Hungary water-polo match at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a match which took place after the Russians had put down the Hungarian uprising. But what it's really about is staying true to old-fashioned ideals, to a sense of Australian mateyness which seemed to be fast disappearing, if it had really existed when it mattered, which may have been the point of Gallipoli too.

Part of the reason I was drawn to the film was that I was working at the time for UPITN, a television newsfilm agency, which had evolved from Fox Movietone news (in fact, just two weeks ago, Reece Schoenfeld, who had started with Movietone, headed UPITN, and left to found CNN for Ted Turner, died, and I couldn't get British papers interested--but he personified the same news ethos that Hunter does in Newsfront) and we covered the world on 16mm film, which was shipped to London, edited, scripted, and then shipped (and later satellited) around the world. I was doing the scripting and the sending, and I could empathise with Hunter's predicament, trying to hang onto news values in a faster-moving world that wants more entertainment. Sound familiar today? It's a fine film, and I recommend it without reservations.

Looking through his credits I see a couple of television mini-series that interest me, a 2000 remake of On The Beach, in which Hunter plays the PM, and 1995's Blue Murder, an Aussie police thriller. I'll look forward to catching up with Bill Hunter.

Monday, 16 May 2011

AGE OF HEROES: Assault On Familiar Territory

Is Sean Bean our era's Jack Hawkins? If that thought has ever occurred to you, then he is a perfect fit for Age Of Heroes, a well-crafted little war film which manages to lifts parts of virtually every familiar bank-holiday boys-own war movie of the past three generations, including but not limited to The Guns Of Navarone, The Eagle Has Landed, and The Dirty Dozen. Of course, because this is austerity Britain, we are limited to only eight heroes, but that's the price you don't pay. Sadly, there is very little that's new included in the mix, and what little there is doesn't really improve the movie, but if you can suspend your need for originality, Age Of Heroes is well-made and reasonably entertaining. But really, even the fil's poster is a compendium of throwback!

Supposedly this is the true-life story of 30 Commando during WWII, as created by Ian Fleming in his pre-James Bond days. As played by James D'Arcy, Fleming's role appears less to create the unit than to emphasise the class distinctions between the men in it (and indeed, within it) and the war's plotters. Nothing wrong with that, especially when Fleming comes out on the wrong side. There's a little bit of romance hinted at, and I'm not sure why unless it's to persuade us that Fleming isn't all Bullingdon Club, but otherwise he does serve another purpose, which is to explain everything to death, in case the 'intricacy' of the story is too much for you. Fleming demands an eight-man team, which is interesting because the eighth man, as played by Danny Dyer, is someone who's not supposed to be there, but persuades Bean, as Captain Jones, to let him in the unit.

The mission is to capture German radar technology in Norway, thus the cast is enhanced by both a 'Norwegian Yank' and a beautiful Norwegian Norwegian underground fighter. The film follows the usual format: put the unit together, bond (or James Bond) during training, take on the mission, and get away, and it has all the usual twists and turns, none of which would be hard for Ray Charles to see coming. Bean, for example, has been talked into the 'one last mission' which virtually assures he will not return; his wife is having a baby in the meantime, as if the odds weren't already stacked against him in movie terms. Why they all carry American Thompsons is another query I'd like answered; Fleming wants them to fight like 'red indians' not Chicago mobsters.

The oddest thing about the film is the enemy. The Germans seem oddly unaware of what the potential target might be; they are too busy committing atrocities in the Norwegian mountains, and filming them for the WWII equivalent of You Tube. This film-within-a-film technique might be an attempt to position Age Of Heroes for Sundance, particularly as the Germans are equating the Norwegians with terrorists. The German commander for some reason doesn't dress in mountain gear, and Askel Hennie tries to look like William Forsythe at his most demented, both violations of movie military procedure. And what's weirdest is that when he holds a gun to one of the Brits, Sean Bean doesn't shoot him, but shoots his comrade.

No, that isn't weirdest. Bean and his sarge make a stand to allow Dyer, the woman, and the radar to make a getaway, but we never see the result. Dyer's escape seems predordained; if Fleming is the perennial upper class, Bean the doomed officer class, Dyer is the modern football hooligan turned respectable hero, the Daniel Craig as James Bond 21st century Brit. In dramatic terms I suppose we can live with that ambiguity, but for film sticking so close to conventions, we expect to at least see his fight, if not his heroic death (or potential escape for Age Of More Heroes). As I said, it's frustrating that a film made so well, its action handled so deftly by director Adrian Vitoria, has so little new to say. Jack Hawkins might have something to say about that.

Friday, 6 May 2011

JOHN SHANNON'S POISON SKY: A Forgotten Friday Entry

It was a couple of years ago I wrote about John Shannon's Palos Verde Blue for my American Eye column in Shots (you can link to it via this post), so when this earlier (2000) Jack Liffey novel crossed my path, I read it with great interest, to see where Liffey was then, and how Shannon wrote about him.

In some ways, The Poison Sky is a better novel, particularly for the way it backgrounds Liffey's own life and character somewhat, and brings to the foreground his observations. In this he reminded me of Lew Archer, and the careful way in which Ross MacDonald kept Archer's perceptions relatively neutral; he served as an unusually accurate and detailed observer, but he kept the reader on an even footing. Rarely do you have to filter what you are seeing through your own apprehension of Archer's prejudices or blind spots. And when Liffey is hired to find a runaway boy who's hooked up with an extremely defensive and secretive religious cult we are in prime Archer territory, and Shannon handles it brilliantly. Liffey's empathy brings out people's true feelings, and his cracking wise doesn't hurt either, but the story is never about him. The big question, however, is why the cult seems to be coming down on him so hard.

The other plot concerns the boy's father, who has been the victim of an industrial accident at work, and has been researching Bophal online. Of course the stories overlap, and that is where Palos Verdes Blue displays a surer hand; the entry of hardened criminals into the story and the action climax in The Poison Sky are a hard trick to pull off, and Shannon can't do it without changing the tone somewhat, to the point where Liffey himself seems almost a different character. That may be what you have to lose when you're that close to Lew Archer, but if Liffey is more his own man in later novels, it means the story proceeds more seamlessly. Where the comparison with MacDonald holds up further, and what is the same in both the Liffey novels I've read, is the way social concerns are central to the story, and the crime. There isn't the buried past which always seems to resurface in MacDonald (James Lee Burke has now cornered the market in that) but Liffey's cases always seem to confront society's ills head on, and we need more of that.

So in the end I discovered what I'd set to, how Shannon was writing and what Liffey was like then. If it's impressive to create a character like Lew Archer, it's even more impressive when he becomes a character like himself.