Posted on September 25, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one F-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Animals and humans in peril, sad animal death, references to suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 26, 2014

tracks-movie-posterIn 1977, a 27-year-old woman named Robyn Davidson took a dog and four camels and walked 1700 miles across the Australian desert. A National Geographic photographer met up with her four times to cover it for the magazine. That led to a book, the international best-seller Tracks.  And now it is a film, starring Mia Wasikowska, with Adam Driver as photographer Rick Smolan, and directed by John Curran, whose previous films (“The Painted Veil,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) show a gift for letting the environment be an essential part of the story-telling.  The result is a journey set in surroundings of punishing conditions but spectacular beauty that manages to be meditative and internal, and all the more illuminating for it.

This is the first of two movies based on soul-restoring real-life hikes taken by real-life women that we will be seeing this fall, both based on best-selling books, with Reese Witherspoon’s more high-profile “Wild” coming out December 5, 2014.  While there are flashbacks to suggest that Davidson took on the trip to deal with some family losses, in real life Davidson has not just refused to give a reason; she has insisted that it is a foolish question to ask.  She walked across Australia for the same reason that Mallory climbed Mount Everest.  “Because it’s there.”  Her version of a response: “Why not?”  It’s pretty clear why not.  It is very dangerous.  The terrain is blisteringly hot and with very little water.  If she is injured or lost, no one will be there to help her.  But she is determined to go, indenturing herself with camel dealers to learn how to train camels and earn some to take with her.  When the first one cheats her out of what is due to her, she reluctantly agrees to allow National Geographic to sponsor the trip, though it means she will have to allow Smolan to meet up with her four times to take photos.

This is not the usual travelogue, with adventures that include quirky characters, daunting dangers, and lessons learned, though all are there.  Along the way, she meets up with Aboriginal people, including one who serves as a guide for a part of the journey because it includes sacred land which she is not permitted to travel on without him.  She comes across a farmhouse, and the couple who live there welcome her in a beautifully understated manner.

You’d also expect spectacularly gorgeous and exotic scenery, and that is there, too.  And, with just one person on screen much of the time, a lot of voiceover narration, though that’s not too bad.  Most of all, this is a spiritual saga, a pilgrimage.  Davidson wanted to be alone — she admits that she is much more comfortable with animals than with people.  And she wanted to accomplish something difficult by herself.  It almost seems at moments as though we are intruding in her beautiful solitude.  But mostly, we are sharing it, and feel grateful for the privilege.

Parents should know that this film includes sad and disturbing material including suicide of a parent (off-screen) and putting down animals, dangerous activities, peril, animals shot and poisoned, some disturbing images of dead animals, some strong language (one f-word), and non-sexual nudity (female rear).

Family discussion: Why was Robyn happiest away from people? What was the hardest moment of her trip and why?

If you like this, try: other movies set in the Australian desert, including “Walkabout” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”

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Action/Adventure Animals and Nature Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Movies -- format

The Real Story: Tracks and Robyn Davidson’s Long Walk Across Australia

Posted on September 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Mia Wasikowska plays real-life adventurer Robyn Davidson in “Tracks,” based on the 1980 international best-seller about her 1700-mile walk across Australia with four camels.

A thoughtful interview with Davidson in The Australian describes her:

Davidson is an enigma. With her patrician air, prim frock and cut-glass English accent (she’s spent most of her life in London), it’s difficult to envisage her as the young woman who killed rampaging bull camels in the Australian desert, fought off rats nestling in her hair during a hellish journey with the Rabari nomads of northwest India, became a crack shot with a Savage .222 rifle, and crossed glaciers near her home in the Himalayas. She’s worked as an artist’s model and dealt blackjack in an illegal gambling den, squatted in houses and taken LSD, once having an “exquisite trip where I was Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Despite this big, adventurous life, she has described herself as “basically a dreadful coward”.

She’s whip-smart, can quote Montaigne, Levi-Strauss, Nietzsche and Novalis with the best of them, and slips easily, during our chat, from the plight of nomadic people and the slippery nature of time in a desert, to metaphysics and madness.

There’s an other-wordly, ascetic air about her: she’s described herself as a kungka rama-rama (“crazy woman” in Pitjantjatjara) and a “sausage of angel and beast”, as Chilean poet Nicanor Parra puts it. She loves a motley collection of things – silence, deserts, crows, dogs, stars (she can roll the latter off her tongue: Aldebaran, Sirius, Corvus…). I’m struck by her face, all serene planes and curves and wide Slavic cheekbones; at 62, it remains a miracle of excellent natural design. “It helps to have good scaffolding,” she concedes later during a photo shoot at Bondi, where she poses reluctantly for the camera, framed by a big blue sky and a quietly heaving sea.

Davidson told The Scotsman why she wanted to walk across the desert.

“Why? Why? Why?” Davidson laughs. “The thing that Mia said to me was that no man would be asked that. She’s absolutely right. But then perhaps if I’d been a man people wouldn’t have been so interested in the first place. Who knows? But I think that anyone who steps outside of a boundary or a cliché, it disturbs something in the culture at large so the question is, why did she do it? What does it mean that we didn’t?”

“My sense of myself is that I was a rather unformed kind of person trying to make myself up out of bits of spit and string,” is how she once described it. “Some instinct – and I think it was a correct one – led me to do something difficult enough to give my life meaning.”

Here Davidson and Wasikowska talk about the journeys they took.

And here is an interview with Davidson and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, played by Adam Driver in the film.

Smolan’s magnificent photos appear in From Alice to Ocean: Alone Across the Outback.

Copyright Rick Smolan and Against all Odds Productions
Copyright Rick Smolan and Against all Odds Productions
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The Real Story

The Sapphires

Posted on March 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements, and smoking
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: War violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2013
Date Released to DVD: August 15, 2013 ASIN: B00D2UMHQ0

A very conventional story of a 60’s Australian girl group gains extra power from its context and setting in this fact-based story set to the beat of Motown soul.  Co-written by the son of one of the real-life singers and directed by Wayne Blair, who starred in the play based on their story, “The Sapphires” is clearly a labor of love for all involved and a touching tribute to four women for whom success as performers was just the beginning.

Before it begins, we learn two stark, devastating facts.  Until 1967, the native Australians dubbed “Aborigines” by the British settlers were not classified as humans by the Australian government.  They were considered “flora or fauna.”  And the government had the authority to remove light-skinned native children from their families as part of the program depicted in “Rabbit-Proof Fence” to make them part of the white community.

We meet the future singers as children, three sisters and their cousin, performing at a family celebration in 1958.  The light-skinned cousin is taken to become part of what is now known as the “Stolen Generation,” with no contact with her family.

A decade later, as young women, the sisters still sing together.  Gail, the feisty oldest (Deborah Mailman of “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), the ambitious Julie (pop singer Jessica Mauboy), and the flirty Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) enter a local competition singing American country and western.  Braving the bigotry of the audience, they sing a Merle Haggard song.

The accompanist/master of ceremonies is Dave (“Bridesmaids'” Chris O’Dowd) is a broken-down mess who seems to have burned every possible bridge that once linked him to music, a job, his home in Ireland, or any semblance of self-respect.  But he still knows the real deal when he hears it.  As amateurish as they are, Dave sees what the sisters can become.  They ask him to come with them to try out for a chance to perform for American GIs in Viet Nam for $30 a week.  Soon they have reconnected with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), switched from country to Motown, and passed the audition under their new name, inspired by a ring — The Sapphires. O’Dowd’s shambling charm plays well against Mailman’s protective ferocity and the wartime background and struggles against bigotry add some heft what might otherwise seem like a lightweight jukebox musical.

A girl group with four members under high-stress touring conditions far from home means many opportunities for romance, adventure, and power struggles, plus the inevitable rehearsal montages. “Can you make it sound blacker?” Dave asks.  He switches lead singers, guides them on stage presence, and suggests some different songs.  Both country and soul music are about loss, he tells them, but in country music the singer has given up.  “With soul, they’re still struggling.”  Dave’s passion for the music and his belief in the girls are scary but exhilarating.  So is being away from home for the first time.

The girls learn that performing is about more than great songs and tight harmonies as they are touched by the valor of the American soldiers.  It is not just that the GIs expect a show; they deserve one.  So, The Sapphires add spangles, go-go boots, rump-shaking and a lot of attitude.

That gives them the freedom to open themselves up to new experiences and new ways of looking at themselves.  And it means that we get to enjoy quite a show as well.  When the storyline starts to feel too close to the familiar “VH1 Behind the Music” soapy sagas of backstage tensions and heartache, those fabulous classic soul songs of the 60’s ring out, thoughtfully matched to what is happening off-stage.  “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “What a Man,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Hold On!  I’m Coming,” and many more add tremendous energy and spirit.  They are every bit as entertaining as they were nearly half a century ago.  Equally entrancing is a touching moment when they sing a native song called “Ngarra Burra Ferra.”

The credit sequence updates us on what happened after The Sapphires came home, with an extraordinary record of achievement, photos of the beautiful women who inspired the film, and a concluding line of piercing sweetness.  It would be great to have a sequel, but they deserve a documentary.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references, smoking, drinking, and wartime violence.

Family discussion: How do the racial conflicts portrayed in this film compare to those of the same era in the United States?  What makes them different?  Are you surprised by what the Sapphires did after their tour?

If you like this, try: “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “Dreamgirls”

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Based on a play Based on a true story Biography Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Music Musical Romance War

Interview: Simon Wincer of the Horse Racing Film “The Cup”

Posted on May 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

Australian director Simon Wincer specializes in movies featuring big animals.  His most successful film is “Free Willy,” but his most frequent stars are horses, in films like “The Young Black Stallion,” “The Man from Snowy River,” and the fact-based “Phar Lap.”  His newest film, “The Cup,” is based on the real-life story of the 2002 Melbourne Cup, when jockey Damien Oliver, devastated by the loss of his brother, best friend, and fellow jockey Jason Oliver in a tragic racing accident, rode the Irish horse Media Puzzle, to a triumphant win.  I spoke to Wincer about working with the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who plays the Irish trainer, about the real-life mother of the Olivers who supported her sons even though their father died in a racing accident, and what he wants families to learn from the film.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Raising money to make it was one.  It took a while but they were changing the track where we were shooting the film.  I wanted to capture it as it was before it changed, so we had to shoot some of it in advance.   Then eventually when we did start production, it didn’t take all that long, although because of Brendan Gleeson’s availability—he was just available for a very short window—we ended up having to shoot the film in winter. and of course, it was Melbourne’s wettest winter I think in almost forever.  So the racing sequence had to be abandoned and shot in the spring when the tracks had dried out. It was an adventure, but it was fun.  The weather is always a challenge.  I’ve been to places in the world, as for example, in Turkey where it has never ever snowed on the Mediterranean, and of course we were shooting there and bang! Snow.  I’ve seen it in the desert where it hasn’t rained in five years and guess what happened when we arrived to make a film? We got ten inches of rain, so that tends to happen to film crews, but that’s the whole fun of it.

 It was a very big important story in the news when it happened, but what made you think it would be a great movie?

It was such an extraordinary story, the fact that the mother had been through it twice really interested me, how a woman can be so strong and put under such extraordinary stress in life. I suppose I’ve always wanted to do a film set around Australia’s biggest annual event, which is the Melbourne Cup. In Australia it’s called “the race that stops the nation” because literally everyone in the country stops—this is the Melbourne Cup and every office has a suite, everyone has a bet on.  It’s a tradition and it’s part of our culture. This year it’ll be the 152nd Melbourne Cup, so it’s a very old tradition. It’s a public holiday and all that sort of stuff, so it’s just part of that culture, you know? And that fascinated me to build the story around that; you need a good story to do it and I felt that was the story.

Tell me more about Mrs. Oliver.  She lost her husband and her son and still wanted her other son to keep racing.

She’s a very strong lady.  She was very much part of a racing family and it was just their lives, despite the fact that it’s touted as the world’s most dangerous job. It’s highly dangerous, but it’s just in their blood. She’d seen these two little boys wanting to be like their dad and grandfather.  I think she just wanted Damien to make up his own mind whether he decided to ride or not. She’s quite an extraordinary woman. She’s quiet, but she’s very strong and very, very brilliant to go through that emotionally, which I tried to capture when she walks into the hospital to see her son, flashing back to the memory of her husband, which was exactly what she had been through pretty much. It was extraordinary. I suppose it comes from a slightly different era when values are different and she’s just one of those stoic women, just extraordinary.

I want to ask you the same question I asked the director of “Secretariat,” which is how do you make a race exciting when everyone knows the outcome?

People have said to me in Australia, “God, you know, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking that he wasn’t going to win the race, even knowing that he won the race.” I wanted, first of all, to make it real. I didn’t want it be hokey. Quite often in these horse-racing movies you see the hero horse gallop past and if you look closely, the horses are being gently held by the jockey so the hero’s horse can run past them.  I decided not to do that. Because I’m also a horse person and I’ve been riding and around horses all my life, I can certainly detect something like that, so I just wanted to keep it real.  And I wanted to capture the sound. It’s incredibly dynamic when those horses go fast; I can remember every take, the crew— many of them hadn’t been to the races in their lives—just the excitement to see these things come passed us at extraordinary racing speed and so close together. Everybody just goes, “wow.” So, I wanted to capture that on the screen.  I couldn’t change the result because there it was in history, but I just thought if we could make the staging and the filming of the race dynamic enough, people would get wrapped up in it because they’ve shared in this transformational journey before the race happens, and then they can share it and triumph when he eventually does win.  The race which we restaged is almost identical to the actual race, and I was a slave to that and wanted to do it exactly the same. It’s been viewed by so many people, I didn’t want it to get it wrong, you know?

You had quite a casting challenge, not just to cast actors to play real-life people who were well-known, but also to cast the horses. How did you cast the horses?

We looked at about 800 horses, I think, before we eventually settled. We bought 60 and leased another 40, and again, I wanted them all to match the originals.  In real life Media Puzzle wasn’t an easy horse, it was a difficult horse. Somehow of course, Damien has this incredible relationship with it, so you need to find something a bit special that’s got a bit of attitude and all that sort of stuff.  You have to have several because one could get injured, and you can only do a couple of takes a day when you’re doing the racing scenes.  Then you have to change the whole field.  So we had more than one Media Puzzle. The main one who did the close-ups with the actors was a horse called Spike.  He’s now in another show I did, playing a tribute  to a famous horse called Phar Lap, which is another movie I made a long time ago.  He’s just a wonderful horse because he just has this sort of attitude and you know, he’s a bit of a handful, but that’s what you want because they easily make wonderful trained horses.  He does the most extraordinary act in this new show and it’s quite moving because he’s just so graceful when you see him galloping into the arena in the spotlight, all on his own, no bridle and stuff like that, it’s fantastic—and that’s what you look for, you just look for something just a little bit special with the right look in the eye and that sort of stuff.

Brendan Gleeson is wonderful in the film.

Brendan is another joy, yes, he is one of the world’s greatest actors, I don’t think anybody would dispute that when you look at the body of his work which is extraordinary. When I first talked with Brendan, I was introduced to him by telephone, and I was in Australia and he was in Ireland.  He told me, “I’d just like to clear one thing up, I think that the Irish dialogue needs a little work,” and I said to Brendan, “That’s just what a Texan and an Australian think of as Irish dialogue.”  That sealed the deal, because he was concerned that he didn’t want to change a word without our go-ahead, of course, but his input was fantastic. So, I happened to have to go to Dublin, and Brendan and I were able to spend a couple of days together going through the screenplay and all these scenes and then we were able to introduce him to the real Dermot and then he was able to go down and spend some time with Dermot, just outside Dublin and really get to know a bit about a trainer’s life and boy, he’s just wonderful—I guess when you work with a great actor,  it raises everybody’s game, and it might be playing tennis with someone better than yourself and you rise to the occasion.  I can’t speak highly enough about what a nice man he is and what a pleasure to work with and what he brings to the set, not only the energy and good vibes but just great ideas.

What lesson would you like families to take away from this film?

The theme is how we choose how we to want to live.  Damien chose to do it by riding in this race. I suppose it is the drive and the human spirit.  He was so down and everyone thought he shouldn’t be doing it and he had this terrible losing streak but persistence wins through in the end.  It’s about dealing with adversity in a positive way.  I think if people are lifted up at the end, then I’ll be very satisfied because  while it’s extremely sad, it’s incredibly uplifting at the end when he rides — and that magic moment when you touch the heavens, it’s been forever etched in Sydney Australian sporting folk lore.


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Directors Interview Writers

Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger

Posted on July 13, 2010 at 10:51 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 For thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief teen smoking.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen smoking, drinking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to DVD: July 13, 2010 ASIN: B003F5WOBA

This 2008 Australian film is one of my favorites of the past few years and I am very happy that it is finally available on a US-format DVD. It’s the story of the title character, Esther Blueburger (Danielle Catanzariti), approaching her bat mitzvah and feeling like a complete outcast among the confident and willowy girls at her school. When she meets the free-spirited Sunni (“Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle-Hughes), daughter of an even more free-spirited single mother (Toni Collette), she decides to re-invent herself. Without telling her parents, she starts attending Sunni’s school, trying out a new, cool persona. And it works.

Until it doesn’t.

Yes, lies will be discovered and lessons learned. As coming of age stories go, this one is told exceptionally well, with verve, imagination, an outstanding visual sensibility, and a great deal of understanding and compassion for its appealing heroine.

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Stories About Kids Tweens
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