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On the Road(show)

Australian film series screens life down under

By Jeff Latta

Picture riding an ATV through the desolate Australian outback. To the left, dingoes eat someone's baby; to the right, koalas and kangaroos are in a desperate fight for survival. Suddenly in the midst of this wilderness appears-- a movie theater?

While this scenario is quite far removed from the true picture of our neighbors to the way, way south, it is probably similar to one that appears to the large amount of North Bay folks who haven't had the privilege to journey so far in their lifetime. In an effort to show just what life (and film) in Australia is really like, the Rafael Film Center and Australian Film Commission screens the Australian Film Roadshow June 17-22.

This mini festival is a collection of five films ranging across various genres that have been given little exposure in the United States. Ranging from a lively cartoon to a drama about a real-life court case, these films run the gamut of emotion and style, and illuminate many facets of Australia largely unknown to American audiences.

But another thing these films manage to do is to prove the universal nature of the filmic language. It appears that, with celluloid at least, borders be damned--there are only so many stories to tell and only so many ways to tell them. While this theory has been proven ad nauseam by the big budget blockbusters that crowd our multitude of multiplexes, it is interesting to see just how much a foreign film's core ideas and themes can mirror our own.

Take the clever and quirky comedy Crackerjack. Starring Australian comic Mick Molloy, the film is about a senior-citizen sport known as "lawn ball" popular in the land down under. For the unfamiliar, lawn ball is basically bocce ball, a mixture of bowling and horseshoes played on a lawn. In Crackerjack, slacker Jack Simpson (Molloy) has kept up a membership at the local lawn ball club for the express purpose of possessing one of its lucrative downtown parking spaces. Jack has never played the game, never shown his face at the club and never intends to. But when an evil poker-machine magnate comes rolling into the club to take over, the seniors are forced to call out every able member they can find to form a team to compete in a tournament to save themselves.

Sounds fairly original, right? It is, sort of, and entertaining to boot. But stripped bare, this movie is surprisingly similar to The Mighty Ducks. All the sports-film clichés are there: the unwilling participant who is dragged into the sport against his will but soon grows to love it; the rogue (but amazingly gifted) player who is kicked out of the league but then brought back at the last minute to save the day. Even the eccentric and moustache-twirling rival players make an appearance. Countless other sports clichés could be noted, if one could stop from chuckling long enough to notice them.

The surreal animated offering The Magic Pudding is based on a classic children's novel published almost a century ago by popular Australian artist and author Norman Lindsay. In it, a dapper talking koala named Bunyip sets off on a journey to find his real parents. He soon runs into a wily and excitable sea captain, a stately talking penguin and a bowl of magic pudding. The bowl is unending, can become any food imaginable and also serves up a side order of sarcasm, courtesy of a voice performance by popular Python John Cleese. Bunyip and his new friends team up for the dual purpose of finding the missing koala kin as well as protecting the grumpy pudding bowl from an evil wombat named Bunkle, who believes the magic food is the only thing that can satisfy his unbelievable vegetarian appetite.

With a veritable who's who of Australian actors lending voices to it--Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill and Hugo Weaving to name a few--and a buoyant infectious energy, The Magic Pudding has something for almost everyone. The recurring image of a cantankerous lump of pudding with spindly arms and legs using its own bowl for a hat as it trudges through the forest was enough to keep this reviewer amused for 75 minutes.

But what will provide entertainment for the teenage crowd? Well, if the teenager is an angst-ridden girl, she's got a good shot at enjoying Looking for Alibrandi. Based on an immensely popular novel distinguished for being the book most commonly stolen from Australian public libraries, it is also known for speaking the truth about the teenage experience, depicting the reality of growing up in Australia. The film stars Pia Miranda as Josie, a 17-year-old working-class Italian Australian attending a high-class private school on scholarship. Josie is preparing to go off to college and leave the traditional ways of her domineering mother and grandmother behind, but little things like suicide and a sudden reappearance of a father whom she never knew manage to get in the way. Think of it as Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen with accents. Some of the events are a bit contrived, but the dialogue and reactions are realistic throughout.

The festival is rounded out by Australian Rules, a courageous comedy-drama about a white Australian who befriends Aborigines despite the racist notions of his friends and family, and Black or White, a heavy drama starring Robert Carlyle as a lawyer who uncovers racist corruption in 1953.

While all of these films resonate with so-called American themes, they're not derivative, as lawn ball and talking puddings prove. Such comparisons are not meant as a criticism; rather, they offer another reason to watch the films. For those of us who think that Americans have the movie business locked down, this entertaining collection of cinematic fare will prove otherwise. American film may have led the way and established the rules, but that doesn't mean that Australians can't do it too. And often better.

The Australian Film Roadshow screens Friday-Wednesday, June 17-22, at the Smith Rafael Film Center. 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. Call for times. 415.454.1222.

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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