Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kiwi Smash Dogs

Recently, when I looked up the definition of "eclectic" in Mirriam-Webster, I found the following curious entry -

Definition of ECLECTIC

: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles
: composed of elements drawn from various sources; also :

OK, the dictionary didn't really have a picture of Roger Donaldson under the word eclectic, but it should have. The films he makes run the gamut in plot, from non-fiction political thrillers like Marie and Thirteen Days, to crime dramas like The Getaway (1994) and The Bank Job, to a comedy like Cadillac Man, to a horror film like Species, to a disaster film like Dante's Peak, to a children's movie like Nutcase, to a historical epic like The Bounty, to a wanna-be bartender story like Cocktail. One thing Donaldson can never be accused of is repeating himself. And despite the variety, there is a consistency in quality to Donaldson's work due in no small part to the top-notch acting talent he always manages to secure - Cruise, Statham, Hopkins, Spacek, Rourke, Madsen, Gibson, Olivier to name drop just a few of the A-listers that have been in his films. He is obviously an actor's director. Another common denominator among Donaldson's movies is that they never bore. I certainly admire some more than others, but the pacing and characters of his films always keep me involved. Even the best directors drop an unwatchable clunker occasionally, but Donaldson has yet to make a film I wouldn't view again. In fact, if I could take only one director's canon to a desert island, it would be Donaldson's.
Which brings me to The Roger Donaldson Collection on DVD. The bad news is the collection contains only two of Donaldson's 16 releases. The good news is they are two of his best, including one of my all-time favorites. How good are they? Sleeping Dogs (1977) singlehandedly resuscitated the New Zealand film industry which hadn't seen a movie release since 1962. It was also the first kiwi film to ever secure a release in the States. And if Sleeping Dogs jump started the New Zealand movie industry, Smash Palace absolutely turbo-charged it, bringing worldwide critical praise and putting the country on the map in terms of quality cinema forever after.
Sleeping Dogs is a low-key political thriller about about an everyman, named Smith, whose marriage has just ended. At the start of the story, Smith unhappily leaves home but soon finds a secluded island and gets permission to stay there from a local Maori character who appears to be the owner. Smith proceeds to enjoy his idyllic lifestyle until one day when he is drawn unwillingly into the country's political maelstrom which has been engineered by a corrupt regime.

The film speaks quite well on how easy a democratic government can turn totalitarian by bargaining the public's freedom away with the promise of safety and stability. Although the Machiavellian maneuvers employed early by the conservative government are very familiar, they are nevertheless chilling and effective. All the time I was re-watching the film, I couldn't help but think of the American government's manipulations during the last decade and the trade of power for safety that was made with the public. Needless to say it's a prescient film, but doesn't beat one over the head a la 1984 or other politically dystopian classics. The lead character of Smith, who is played brilliantly by Sam Neill in only his third film, wants no part of the political strife in his country, on either side, and is beyond apathetic to the point of hostile. However, he ultimately is left with no choice but to choose sides even though neither is appealing.
Neill is the perfect choice of actor for the lead as he always seems to carry a somewhat innocent and naive quality to the characters he portrays. And despite playing a somewhat selfish, self-centered man, Neill is likable enough to hold interest and care about what becomes of him. Warren Oates effectively plays one of the villains of the piece, an American colonel who has come to New Zealand with his troops to help fight the anti-goverment insurgency. His understated, presumptive, yet seemingly friendly bad guy is all the more frightening. The scenery of New Zealand acts as another character and provides a nice paradise counter-point to all the political friction and violence taking place. Despite it's low budget, the film is quite ambitious and Donaldson really makes his points quite effectively. I was very surprised at how much this film holds up as it still has a raw, edgy and modern-day quality 35 years after its making.
Score 7.5/10

Smash Palace is a film that does not sound good on paper. According to the 'making of' doc on the DVD, even Donaldson's friends were trying to deter him from making the film after seeing the script. Then again, no one then knew that the secret kiwi weapon known as Bruno Lawrence would be starring in the film. As much as I like Donaldson, I love Lawrence and will watch him in any film no matter how bad. Yes, even Battletruck

Before his untimely passing in 1995, Lawrence had built up an impressive resume of films set almost exclusively in New Zealand or Australia, several of which are all-time favorites of mine, including The Quiet Earth, an intelligent, post-apocalyptic movie, and Goodbye Pork Pie, a fun and quirky kiwi comedy. However Lawrence's best performance, bar none, is as Al Shaw in Smash Palace.

Al is the owner of the titular auto junkyard and a part-time race car driver. He's involved in a slowly decaying marriage with Jacqui, a former school teacher who is portrayed by Anna Maria Monticelli. They have a young daughter named Georgie, played by Greer Robson. Jacqui longs to get out of the junkyard and begs Al to sell which he stubbornly refuses to do. Al's stubbornness will eventually prove his undoing as he steadfastly refuses to accept the reality of his dissolving marriage. As it becomes ever more apparent that Jacqui is determined to leave Al, Al becomes more desperate and irrational.
It's a story that has been told countless times, but what makes this version so strong is the performances and sheer believability of the characters. Al is kind of a jerk, but not so much that you don't feel sympathy for him. Jacqui is a little unreasonable, but that's easily understandable as she feels trapped in her junkyard life. There really isn't any character at fault initially, but neither spouse is paying attention to the other which causes the situation to escalate to the point that one makes an incredibly bad decision from which there is no returning unscathed.

Bruno Lawrence was said to be Jack Nicholson's favorite actor and it's easy to see why. Lawrence has a no-holds-barred acting approach, but a quiet intensity, that is absolutely captivating. His raspy voice and kiwi accent are utterly disarming. Even when he's playing someone less than likable, like Al Shaw, he still has a magnetic quality that keeps the viewer invested. But that's not to imply Lawrence carries the movie by himself. Anna Maria Monticelli is a solid foil as Jacqui and Greer Robson is excellent as the daughter, whom I never caught doing any stage-y kid type acting. Robson has more than a few critical scenes and she pulls them off beautifully whether alone or acting off the adults.
Besides getting fantastic performances from his actors, Donaldson executes more than a few well-placed directorial flourishes. At the beginning and end of the film, there are two very clever mis-directions (both involving automobiles) that take place which really bumped the film up a notch for me. Also there are some great aerial shots, one involving the junkyard early, one in a ravine, that are superb. The pace of the film is near perfect as I never felt it stall at any given point, even though the story unfolds rather slowly, the characters are never dull and keep it moving briskly.
So in summary, despite the rather conventional story, the setting is unusual, the performances are outstanding, the characters are riveting and the direction is excellent. I must have seen the film a dozen times since its release and it's never grown stale. Highest recommendation.

Score 8.5/10

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