Thursday, May 28

An excellent film stuck in the bush

New to filmgoers, Marcus Pointon plays a nuanced role as Steve Kelly

Days of steady rain. Merry has already polished all the silverware, and we're both going stir crazy. Time to go to the movies. We click on our local cinema's program guide.

What a depressing line-up. An animation film – I thought the school holidays were over! A Dan Brown story like The Da Vinci Code – don't insult our intelligence! Teenage Vampires – really!

We crossed them off until we had only one left. Shadows of the Past. Never heard of it. Unexciting title. And after Baz Luhrmann's Australia, we'd decided to take a break from Australian movies.

But we didn't feel like driving to another suburb, and in any case the Avoca Theatre seemed to be running yet another of its highbrow, intellectually improving programs. The Ettalong Paradiso it has to be.

We buy tickets for Cinema 5, and set off to find it. The Paradiso is part of the Ettalong Resort, and shares its Mediterranean architectural styles. Looking for Cinema 5, we work our way through a succession of lobbies with increasingly overblown baroque interiors, until we find ourselves in what seems an empty room. Somebody points to the corner. We pull a red curtain aside, and step into what must be Australia's smallest commercial cinema.

But as we walked out, I said to Merry: “That was one of the best movies I've seen for years.

“The critics are going to damn it with supercilious praise, but normal Aussies are going to love it. It's going to be a sleeper – if it can stay on screens out there long enough, word of mouth is going to make it a hit. Something like Lantana.”

So far, I've been right about the critics – of the two who have bothered to review it so far, SBS's Simon Foster was just luke-warm in his assessment (I'll provide links at the end of this post to let you read the words for yourself). Strangely, when he adds an online comment to correct an error, he also says:

And, rest assured, I feel very warmly about the film - it's a lovely piece of Aussie filmmaking.

Why didn't he say that in his review?

In online magazine FilmInk, Annette Basile said:

There are likeable characters in Shadows Of The Past, and a reasonable dose of drama and relationship inter-dynamics, but the largely stiff performances give it a low budget telemovie aura – it's like something you may catch on Saturday afternoon TV during the non-ratings period. Like a lot of Saturday arvo fare, it's watchable.

The review concludes:

Visually unspectacular and suffocating in a low quality country music soundtrack, Shadows Of The Past is loaded with poor performances and cliches. Yet there's still something pleasantly warm and fuzzy about these people - you'll care just enough about them to sit through to the predictable end.

Do you see what I mean about damning with supercilious praise?

Why do I believe the critics are wrong, and that if Shadows can hold on long enough out in the boondocks, it will become an acclaimed film?

Sad movies make me cry, all the way through a packet of tissues. Comedies see me chuckling in the stalls. Dramas see me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails.

When I go to the movies, I sit back and open my mind to an emotional experience. Yes, I've wasted my time with many bad films, but now and then a movie makes it all worthwhile. Shadows of the Past is such a movie.

How miserable it must be to be a film critic, compelled to sustain a detached objectivity while noting down every little flaw in the film. To be unable to give yourself over to the emotional experience, and let the film work its magic on you.

And because you know it's a low-budget movie, you note all the shortcomings to be expected in a low-budget movie.

Director Baz Luhrmann spent $150 million making Australia. It was worth seeing – some of the wide-country landscapes were breathtaking – but most people left the cinema disappointed.

In reply to my email, Shadows of the Past writer and director Warren Ryan told me he brought his film in for just under a million dollars. It was entirely self-funded – nobody else would help, apart from a few companies which supplied equipment – and Warren says he now has a mortgage which would choke a mule.

For me, Shadows provided a more satisfying cinema experience than Australia.

In the tiny Cinema No 5, we settled in our seats just as the opening credits exploded. Exploded is a good word – the background to the credits shows bulls expoding from rodeo gates, with riders trying to stay on for eight seconds, then scrambling clear of hooves and horns.

This is a story about bull-riding, and specifically about Steve Kelly, a former champion bull-rider who spent time in a wheelchair after the fearsome Black Friday tossed and trampled him. Spinal surgery and his devoted partner, Krystal, have restored his health.

But he still has his demons, and three years after Black Friday almost killed him, he has to face them again when a ruthless rodeo promoter pressures him to return for one last ride on Black Friday before the bull goes to stud.

So far Steve is living in a happy domestic scene with Krystal and his daughter Katie, although money is tight. But that happy scene changes, too, at Katie's 15th birthday party when Dannii comes back into the lives of the husband and daughter she left 12 years ago.

Why has she come back? What does she want?

I haven't given the actors' names, because you won't know any (you can look them up on the website, link below). Warren confirmed to me that all but one are up-and-coming unknowns. The exception is Mark Lee of Gallipoli fame, and I thought his depiction of Steve's father was less than convincing.

The romantic themes have a touch of the TV soap opera, but the film is lifted by good acting in all the major roles. And Shadows may have benefited from Warren's inability to afford name actors. Stars are good for the box office, but as with Geoffrey Rush in Lantana, they tend to overshadow the roles they play.

The film's settings are authentic, set in and around Warwick in Queensland – in real life, a town with a strong rodeo tradition.

SBS's Simon Foster said Shadows Of The Past bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Miner’s 1991 dusty family drama Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, or the several incarnations of My Friend Flicka.

That may be so, but for me, the growing tension as Steve struggles to decide whether he will ride Black Friday took me back to the mood I felt when I watched High Noon. Worse, I couldn't get High Noon's “Do not forsake me, oh my darling” to stop running through my mind like an endless tape.

These days, should we talk of films? Soon film will be as obsolete in film-making as linotype machines in newspaper production. The industry is swinging to digital technology.

But unless the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission acts, independent producers like Warren Ryan may find themselves with bigger problems than just having to persuade exhibitors to give them a run – the studios and the big exhibitors may use encryption technology to lock them out of the powerful digital projectors now being installed.

David Tiley, who runs the Barista blog and also edits a subscription website and email service, Screen Hub, for the film and TV industry, has sent me a generously long email outlining the issues. I'll give them some more thought, and return with a new post (perhaps not the next post or two).

---oooOOOooo ---

Warren Ryan sent me this Shadows from the Past screening schedule for the next month:
NAROOMA: Currently playing
ARMIDALE: May 28 onwards
RICHMOND (returned by popular demand): May 28 onwards
NELSON BAY: June 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 in conjunction with the Blue Water Country Music Festival
TOOWOOMBA ( Rick's ICON Theatre): June 19 (evening) and Sunday 21 (2pm matinee) Tickets available to these special screenings from the ICON ticket box only. Two screenings only.
TAMWORTH: July 2 onwards
WAGGA: July 2 onwards
ORANGE: July 2 onwards

You may check out the details of Shadows and view a trailer at

The SBS review can be read at

FilmInk's review is at

And for some interesting reading on High Noon


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