Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

Skateboard legend Tas Pappas, during the Q&A session for “All This Mayhem”, at the British Film Institute, London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia / UK 2014

Director: Eddie Martin

Runtime: 96 mins

It’s “wheels on fire” in this fabulous skateboarding documentary

If there is any justice in the world All This Mayhem will do for skateboarding what Senna did for F1 motor racing, by which I mean it deserves to find an audience of people who are not already followers of skateboarding. The film tracks the extraordinary rise and fall of Australian boarders Tas and Ben Pappas who, in the 1990s, successfully challenged the dominance of American star Tony Hawk only to have their worlds come crashing down around them in the most dramatic fashion. There are several parallels with Senna and, in fact, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King both worked on that movie.

Like Senna, All This Mayhem is a combination of talking heads and recorded footage obtained from various sources. As a non-boarder I was duly impressed by the skills of this sport’s stars, though for me the boarding footage didn’t quite have the dramatic impact of, for example, Ayrton Senna’s incredible drive at Monaco in the rain or his on-track entanglements with Alain “The Professor” Prost. Where director Eddie Martin’s film really hits paydirt, however, is in the off-ramp footage of the wild Pappas brothers and, surprisingly, the interviews – especially those featuring Tas Pappas himself. Watching the scenes of the very young Pappas brothers and their friends made me nostalgic for a youth that I myself didn’t experience – wild and carefree – and in the interviews recorded for the film Tas Pappas is passionate, funny and rueful.

Tas describes himself and brother Ben as “bogans”, the Australian equivalent of the American term “white trash”. Domestic violence was part of the background to their upbringing, with their mother apparently giving their father at least as good as she got. After a spell learning “death blows” in martial arts training, Tas, and brother Ben, gravitated towards the vertical ramp skateboarding scene in Melbourne’s suburbs, a sport that clearly enabled them to express their individuality. The two of them were devoted to developing their skills, though had somewhat different approaches. Ben would work on his “lines”, repetitively working on a move until he had nailed it, whereas Tas was more inclined to “barnes” it – to decide upon some tricky move and just go for it. Once they had dominated the local scene, they somehow managed to scrape together the cash to head to America, with the explicit intention of dethroning American star Tony Hawk.

Tas Pappas (centre) with friends, following the UK premiere of All This Mayhem, at the British Film Institute.

Right from their early days, drug use – cocaine, speed, marijuana, magic mushrooms – was a part of the scene and performances on the ramp were routinely done under the influence of one or other substance. Clearly some of the boarders felt that drug use enhanced their creative skills on the ramp. Whether or not this was true, the Pappas brothers were soon vying with Tony Hawk for the top spot at boarding events. Their talent helped to revive vertical ramp boarding, which had been in something of a decline. However, the brothers were somewhat disdainful of Hawk’s performances, believing that the American  organisers often gave him undue credit for good but unadventurous moves (again, there are parallels with the disputes with the sporting authorities in Senna – and indeed in Rush, too). In 1996, at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, Ben Pappas was unable to perform to his best due to a back injury. This left Tas and Tony Hawk to fight it out. Hawk, again, played it steady but Tas decided to barnes it. He scored highly but broke his ribs in a fall. Hawk and Tas Pappas were now tied. Ben Pappas raged at the judges, because he couldn’t understand why Tas hadn’t won. In the event, there was a playoff and, for a second time, Tas barnesed it. He won.

In Senna, some motor racing fans felt that Alain Prost had been somewhat unfairly depicted. However, that is nothing compared to the pantomime villain that Tony Hawk is made out to be in All This Mayhem. Apparently Hawk told Ben Pappas that he felt he should have been judged the winner at the Hard Rock Cafe event. Ben then verbally laid into Hawk. Torn between playing the magnanimous victor or supporting his brother, Tas opted for the latter, telling Hawk to “Fuck off Hawk, ya fucking wanker!” I don’t know how fair the portrayal of Hawk is, but this last line led to a huge burst of laughter and applause in the audience around me, many of whom were obviously boarders or fans of the sport. Hawk is also the recipient of Tas’s disdain for willingly allowing the sport to be turned into a branch of showbiz, doing any number of inane stunts for money, whereas Tas is committed to the rebellious individualism of boarding’s street roots.

Following Tas’s victory at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, he and Ben fell into a pattern of wild partying, a period that became even more extended after Tas was diagnosed with a back injury. Eventually, Ben decided to head back to Australia but got arrested at Sydney airport after cocaine was found in one of his skate shoes. Of course, he was told that he would not be allowed back into America, which meant he could no longer compete on the international stage. Depression gave way to heroin abuse. A relationship with a fellow junky resulted in her death at Ben’s hands, and his suicide shortly afterwards.

Tas managed to get himself straightened out for a while, motivated by Ben’s death and his own fatherhood. However, after taking speed at an event as a way to deal with pain, he slipped back into old habits and eventually got arrested for the same crime as his brother – attempting to enter Australia in possession of cocaine. Tas was imprisoned in 2008 and released in 2012.

All This Mayhem is really a story of a loss of innocence, of young lads who mistakenly thought they could remain wild young rebels forever. Tas and Ben Pappas could just as well have been early tragic rock stars as skateboarders, pioneers without a route map to guide them through the dangerous realm of success. By the same token, when Tas champions the purity of devil-may-care individualism, with no thought of monetary gain, against the ESPN-sponsored showbiz events, it is hard not to cheer him on.

Rating: 10/10

Correction, 15th June 2014 – I originally inadvertently referred to the Pappas brothers getting involved in the “Sydney” boarding scene, when of course I should have said “Melbourne”

 

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Tracks_2013

Australia / UK 2013

Director: John Curran

110 minutes

 

Most of us occasionally wish we could get away from other people for a while. Anyone who has deliberately gone seeking solitude, however, will have discovered just how elusive that is. Other people seem to turn up in the remotest places. So it was when, in 1975, Robyn Davidson set out to trek across the Australian desert with just three camels and her black labrador, Diggity, to keep her company. Tracks, written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran, is based on Davidson’s 1980 book recounting her epic journey.

We never truly learn what motivated this extraordinary trek, but a number of possible factors are provided. The opening scene hints at a traumatic childhood event, intercutting images of Robyn walking across a shimmering desert landscape with flashback images of the young Robyn making some kind of painful departure from home (later, we learn that her mother’s suicide and the failure of her father’s business meant she had to go and live with an aunt, leaving her father behind with the pet dog that was to be put down). In one monologue Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) refers to her dissatisfaction with the “indulgent” lifestyles of those around her, to her own inability to stick to anything she tries, and to a desire to be alone. In Alice Springs, the starting point for her journey, Davidson experiences misogyny and witnesses anti-Aborigine racism, all of which suggests further reasons for wishing to escape into the desert. Indeed, it is telling that the first person who behaves with kindness and generosity is a camel farmer of Afghan descent.

Having spent many months learning how to work with camels, Davidson still needs to raise funds to buy enough camels and to cover the cost of supplies. When her solitude is interrupted by a rather unwelcome visit from some friends and their companions, a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), leaves her the magazine’s contact details. He tells her they would jump at the chance to sponsor her trip in return for some journalistic coverage. Initially reluctant, she eventually gets in touch and the deal is made. Consequently, she balks when her journey is interrupted at intervals by the appearance of Smolan in his Land Rover, asking her to pose for photographs. At one point her relationship with a group of Aborigines is compromised when Smolan is spotted taking photographs of a secret ceremony. But is not just Smolan who disrupts Davidson’s journey. She is a curiosity for passing tourists, especially once the news of her adventure starts to spread, and eventually other journalists want in on the action.

Even in the outback Davidson is unable to full escape society’s absurdities. She is refused entrance to the area around Ayers Rock / Uluru on the basis that camels are not allowed in. When asked what the issue with camels is, the (white) warden tells her “This is a sacred site”. Meanwhile, camper vans full of gawping tourists with cameras are allowed through. Aboriginal society also turns out to be a man’s world. Davidson is told she cannot cross a sacred site unless accompanied by a (male) aboriginal elder. Fortunately, an elder by the name of Eddie (memorably played by Roly Mintuma) offers to help and the two strike up a good relationship, to the extent that she asks him to escort her a little further once they have left the site. When a dead kangaroo needs slicing for food, Eddie takes the knife from her, telling her that this is the man’s job. This is the one aspect of the film where I would have liked to have had some inkling of Davidson’s thoughts. It is hard to imagine that she would have approved of such male domination, yet she always appears respectful to the aborigines she meets. Later, when Davidson is about to cut up a kangaroo herself she hallucinates Eddie’s presence and stops what she is doing.

At one level, the film is a metaphor for life. It is about the necessity for compromise, cooperation, and the need for other people. Davidson has to compromise the purity of her ideal (a journey alone) in order to obtain the means to pursue it (the sponsorship deal, with its attendant consequences). She wants to be self-sufficient on her journey, but ultimately is only able to survive with the assistance of others. She wants to make her journey without other people, but strikes up important relationships with Eddie and Rick. At another level, Tracks is an odd-couple road trip movie, where Robyn Davidson and Rick Smolan are the mismatched couple. To begin with her proud, uncommunicative misanthropy is in stark contrast to his eager, puppy-dog chattiness. Eventually, however, she comes to value his presence and accept his help, and he feeds misinformation to his fellow journalists so that she is not being hounded by unwanted attention.

The Australian outback is, of course, a cinematographer’s dream, and Mandy Walker doesn’t disappoint in this regard, providing us with some stunningly beautiful images of this incredible part of the world. Garth Stevenson’s music soundtrack is rhythmic and hypnotic, but never intrusive. There is some mystery about the authorship of the screenplay. According to ABC News Marion Nelson is a pseudonym, and they speculate that the author might be the “fiercely private” Davidson herself. At the heart of everything is a splendid performance by Mia Wasikowska. Even though the film doesn’t attempt to pin down Davidson’s inner motivations, Wasikowska herself depicts a variety of emotions, by turn being tough, defiant, vulnerable, frightened, and confused. Even though we know Davidson survived her journey, the sense of danger that is portrayed is very real. One suspects that the location filming would have posed a real challenge, and this is the second strong performance this year by a female actor in a strange – to them – environment (the other being Scarlett Johansson wandering around Glasgow in Under The Skin).

As a survival story, Tracks makes for an interesting comparison with All is Lost, which was released just a few months ago. They are of course polar opposites, being, respectively, tales of desert and ocean survival, one featuring a woman as its central figure and the other a man (incidentally, Tracks passes the Bechdel Test – just). The central protagonist in each case is a tough loner with a minimal backstory (none in the case of All is Lost) whose survival ultimately depends on help from others. Both are very fine films, but for those who found the lack of other characters and lack of emotional variation a little hard to take in All Is Lost (I don’t count myself among such viewers) then Tracks should be rather more appealing in this regard. Certainly, I think it joins Walkabout and Wake In Fright as one of the great outback movies.

Rating: 9/10

 

Hunter_ver3

 

Australia 2011

Director: Daniel Nettheim

102 minutes

 

The landscape of the Australian outback has contributed to many cinematic gems, such as Walkabout, Wake in Fright, and the Mad Max series. Based on a novel by Julia Leigh, Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter adds to this trove of fine Australian landscape movies, only this time we are not in the outback but the forests and mountains of Tasmania. The action starts, however, in a lounge at Paris Orly airport, where Willem Dafoe’s Martin, some kind of mercenary hunter, is being briefed by the representative of a shadowy biotech company. His task is to find and kill the last Tasmanian tiger, bring back vital samples of blood, tissue, and organs, but to dispose of the carcass so that it will never be found.

Arriving in Tasmania, Martin takes accommodation at the home of the Armstrong family. However, Jarrah Armstrong, a scientist and an environmental activist, has long been missing in the wilds. His wife, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), spends most of her time in bed, dosed up on all manner of medication that is brought in by the rather ambiguous figure of Jack (Sam Neill), who lives nearby. Martin’s initial interactions are with Lucy’s children, nicknamed “Sass” and “Bike” (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock). Martin tells Jack and the children that he is a university researcher investigating the Tasmanian Devil.

At the local bar, Martin meets a group of loggers who make it clear that newcomers are not welcome. After his first day in the hills Martin discovers that his vehicle has been vandalised. Later, after Martin has managed to cure Lucy of her drug dependency, the loggers return to threaten the Armstrongs and their friends, who have been celebrating a ban on logging. Although Martin continues to pose as a university researcher, the young boy Bike seems to intuit that he is searching for the tiger. Bike gives him clues as to where the tiger might be which, after a while, Martin starts to take seriously. But why does Bike know where the tiger can be found?

The Hunter is possibly not a film for those who like their action fast: there are various scenes of Martin tracking carefully through the wilds, setting traps, waiting, and looking thoughtful. However, throughout the entire film there is always a palpable sense of underlying menace, and eventually this menace takes physical form. Dafoe is utterly convincing as Martin, the hunter. He looks suitably tough, a man who can handle himself when alone in the wild, but who can also stand up to human adversaries. Despite this, Martin also seems to be quite cultured. Early on we seem him luxuriating in a nice bath whilst listening to opera. When he arrives at the Armstrongs’ home, he is clearly perturbed at the filthy bathtub he is presented with, as well as the lack of hot water. He fixes the broken generator in order that he can get hot water and also power up his computer. The difficult task of mending the generator gives him the opportunity to bond a little with Bike, who rarely speaks. As he spends time with the Armstrongs, Martin’s character softens and becomes more likeable. We are left to wonder if he will find the tiger and, if so, whether he will really kill it. How will we feel about him if he does?

This is a very effective slow-burn thriller that also delivers an ecological message, but without ramming it down the audience’s throats. If you didn’t see it on release it is well worth searching out.

Rating: 8/10

 

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Director: Ted Kotcheff

Australia/USA 1971 (restored 2009)

114 minutes

The primatologist Frans de Waal has written critically of “veneer theory”, the idea that human morality is just a thin layer over an amoral or immoral core. The 1971 cult film Wake in Fright, now restored and showing in some London cinemas, addresses a similar idea – if you take a cultured man out of his familiar civilised environment and place him in a much rougher place, how long will he last? The answer, apparently, is not very long.

The film opens with a slow 360-degrees panning shot of the Australian outback, demonstrating just what an extraordinarily huge wilderness this part of the world is. In the tiny town of Tiboonda schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is packing up for the Christmas holidays. Grant describes himself as a slave of the education system and means this literally. In order to get a job he has had to deposit a thousand dollar bond, and must then agree to be sent wherever the education department sends him until he has paid back the bond. Grant plans to catch the train back to Sydney to meet his girlfriend, but has to make an overnight stop at Bundanyabba (the “Yabba”), another outback town. Grant himself is a handsome man with a cut-glass accent; there is a touch of the Peter O’Toole about him. At a bar Grant meets the local policeman, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who gets Grant drunk and introduces him to the bar’s popular pastime, in which people bet large sums on the outcome of two tossed coins. After some initial wins, Grant sees an opportunity to win enough to pay back his bond. Of course, he loses all the money he has and finds himself unable to get back to Sydney.

Grant is initially taken in by Tim (Al Thomas) and then by “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence). He falls into drinking with them and their male friends, and before long he is joyously engaged in a kangaroo hunt, whooping and hollering as their car careens through the outback in pursuit of the animals. When sober, however, Grant knows that he has to get out. For the men of the Yabba, who have no obvious way out, it seems that alcohol is how they get by. Their bonding is real enough, but based on immature behaviour and fuelled by booze, and the women’s role presumably is to clear up after them. To be fair, there are only three women who feature at all in Wake in Fright. There is Grant’s hotel receptionist (Maggie Dence), who seems to spend all her time sitting in front of a fan and dripping water onto her skin in a manner that seems quite erotic, although she herself appears permanently bored. There is also Tim’s wife (Sylvia Kay), who clearly is sexually frustrated. The third woman is Grant’s girlfriend (Nancy Knudsen), who only appears in his daydreams – emerging from the surf – and in the photograph he carries with him (where she his holding a surfboard). These images of water, of course, are in stark contrast to the stiflingly hot and dry environment in which Grant finds himself.

Ultimately, whilst this is not a horror movie as such, Grant’s incarceration in the Yabba is so oppressive as to be horrific. Gary Bond turns in a convincing performance as John Grant, alternating between civilised calm, drunken blokishness, and desperation. Aside from Bond, the stand-out performance here is Donald Pleasence as the educated but alcoholic Doc Tydon. Tydon, you realise, is the man that Grant could become if he stays in the Yabba.

Rating: 10/10