Saturday, February 26, 2011

World Cinema: The Aussies Are Alright

The Oscars are coming up this weekend. When perusing the list of nominations I realized that there are a lot of talented individuals up for awards in the acting categories; this might even be the most talented lot of nominees in years. One of the best nominated performances amongst the exceptional ones recognized by the Academy is Jackie Weaver's villainous turn in ANIMAL KINGDOM. Before getting nominated for Best Supporting Actress (an award likely to go to Melissa Leo), Weaver was best known as an Australian television actress. Even though she isn't likely to win the award, this is still a big step up for the veteran actress. Weaver's quick change of fortune is indicative of a trend that seems to be giving greater opportunities, importance and recognition to Oz's films and industry talents.

I'm not saying that the Aussies haven't been players in the film industry until now. Directors Peter Weir, Baz Luhrmann and Jane Campion have all done well for themselves and there hasn't been a terrible shortage in respectable Aussie performers either, but the new breed seems to be quietly integrating themselves into the mainstream in a way that others hadn't previously.

Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat are the success stories of today. Both made daringly entertaining, high-quality films (CHOPPER and THE PROPOSITION respectively) that won them the attention of Hollywood.

Hillcoat went on to direct 2009's critically acclaimed THE ROAD, an adaptation Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel. He followed this up with a much-seen promotional short for the video game "Red Dead Redemption" entitled "The Man From Blackwater". His next project will be 2012's THE WETTEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, based off the book of the same title. The film, which tells the tale of a family of depression-era bootleggers, already boasts an impressive cast including Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce and Mia Wasikowska and is sure to be one of next year's most anticipated.

Dominik began his Hollywood career with THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. The film garnered two Oscar nominations and is regarded by many (including myself) to be one of the finest Westerns in the post-UNFORGIVEN era. The director has yet to make a follow-up film, but has a couple projects in the works; One being an adaptation of George Higgins novel "Cogans Trade" and another called BLONDE, a semi-bio-pic of Marilyn Monroe. COGAN'S TRADE is currently filming and also has a target release date in 2012. His film is also expected to grab quite a bit of attention next year, especially considering its high-profile cast, which features the talents of Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Mark Ruffalo and Sam Rockwell. In the film, Pitt will portray a mob-enforcer tasked with investigating a heist that took play during a protected poker game.

I would be remiss not to mention the role screenwriter and folk music legend Nick
Cave has played in this Aussie resurgence. Cave has worked with Hillcoat on both THE PROPOSITION and WETTEST COUNTRY. His work impressed execs so much that they asked him to turn in a revised script of the yet-to-be-produced CROW remake. Cave has also made a name for himself as a serious sountrack composer, turning in scores for THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and THE PROPOSITION.

The next group of players coming out of Australia made themselves known in the past couple years. First came Nash Edgerton's noirish thriller THE SQUARE, which received international acclaim. The film was co-written by Nash, a professional stunt coordinator and his actor brother, Joel.

Joel also appeared in the above-mentioned ANIMAL KINGDOM, which is directed by David Michod, who, along with the Edgertons and Spencer Susser (director of HESHER) make up the company Blue Tongue Films. Before their recent forays into feature films, the group has honed the skills making shorts together, mostly for fun. Many of which can be viewed at their official website . I'll include one here though, entitled SPIDER, for those interested.

There are no directorial projects on the horizon for the guys at Blue Tongue Films. HESHER (co-written by Michod) will be hitting theaters shortly, but it, along with ANIMAL KINGDOM premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival. I would be thrilled if these talented individuals continued to make films in their homeland, but I would be almost equally excited if they were offered higher-profile Hollywood projects because I have little doubt that they'd be able to handle it. Either way, I'd like to see them back at work. Their gravitation toward higher acclaim and recognition is inevitable.

Another Aussie film that received some attention last year, though not as positive as the Blue-Tongue Films, was RED HILL.

The film is further proof that Australians have a penchant for producing quality westerns. Red Hill doesn't possess the high-drama of THE PROPOSITION, but it is an effective B-styled revenge thriller.

Now, back to where I began. Jacki Weaver is an excellent, deserving actress and I'm sure her Oscar nomination is a great personal triumph, but it's great for another reason. ANIMAL KINGDOM is an Aussie film, but it's also a fantastic, masterfully- crafted debut feature. It deserves a whole slew of awards and nominations, but one Oscar nomination, especially in such a high-profile category, is quite a boon to the country's film industry. Personally, I feel that the quality of the films they are putting out rival, and in some cases even surpass, the quality of films being put out by other large, international markets, including the United Kingdom, France and Mexico. A new Aussie resurgence might be on the way. I've got a box of decade-old Koala Yummies on ice for such an occasion.

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