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The direct, uncomplicated yet stylish Roger Donaldson put New Zealand on the filmmaking map in the late 1970s with some modest and homegrown features that made good use of the country's urban and rural landscape. He also first brought preeminent Kiwi actor Sam Neill to the U.S., and later became a well known Hollywood commercial talent with titles like Cadillac Man and Dante's Peak to his credit
Anchor Bay presents Donaldson's first and third self-produced features on an extras-packed DVD double bill.
1977 / 107 min.
Starring Sam Neill, Nevan Rowe, Ian Mune, Warren Oates
Cinematography Michael Seresin
Art Directors Roger Donaldson, Ian Mune
Editor Ian John
Original Music Mathew Brown, David Calder, Murray Grindlay
Written by Arthur Baysting, Ian Mune from a novel by Christian K. Stead
For his first full feature Donaldson goes the action route, trying to depict an entire nation undergoing a civil war on a small budget. The surprise is that he succeeds brilliantly, giving us the impression of a larger conflict with carefully chosen action scenes while keeping us riveted to the personal experience of one hapless citizen caught up in the insanity.
Donaldson has the gift of finding good places for his camera. He doesn't cut as frequently as the up and coming American directors of the day, and he uses telephoto lenses carefully to restrict and control the interior space of his picture. He also has a sensitive touch with his actors, getting excellent work from guest star Warren Oates.
To keep us hooked, Donaldson makes intelligent use of the withheld information tactic. Instead of involved expository scenes we learn about Smith's situation piece by piece. At first it looks like he's leaving his wife, when instead we find out she's left him - to become a resistance guerilla. Soldier Warren Oates enters with a platoon of soldiers and we're confused at first, until he finally drops the information that the New Zealand government is getting "assistance" from the United States.
With few exceptions, we follow and know only Smith's first-person experience. The objective scenes quickly sketch a familiar political ploy: a conservative government squeezes labor, who demonstrate. To deal with them, the government sends in club-swinging police to incite violence that can be blamed on "rioters." Finally, when the demonstrators have become rioters in fact, secret security police create a fake outrage that the government can use to vote itself special powers, essentially turning a democracy into a dictatorship and a police force into an occupying army.
But this extreme turn of events is seen only from beneath, as the innocent and confused Smith is cynically used by both sides. The ruthless special police chief wants to blackmail Smith into a false confession as a rebel and says he'll be allowed to leave the country if he does so. Even Smith is not so naive as to think the cop will keep his word; his reward for giving the government evidence for more repression will probably be a bullet to the head. Likewise, the rebels are able to coerce Smith into following their orders with the threat that he might be executed if he's deemed a threat to their plans.
In other words, this paramilitary fantasy posits New Zealand as any number of countries undergoing civil strife where apolitical individuals are forced to take sides. How would you like to be a citizen of Iraq right now, with your family threatened by both pro and anti- coalition forces?
Donaldson doesn't slight the action, but he also avoids hyperbole. The little group of resistance fighters are harried and chased by a police force that seems to be everywhere at once (the inference is that U.S. advisors are always ready to support repressive regimes) and they're finally run to ground like hares in a hunt. There are no feel-good personal payback scenes; the nasty secret top cop prevails, but he also is prevented from using Smith as a show-trial poster boy for repression.
Editorial. With the Patriot Act now allowing our phones to be tapped and several of our civil rights set aside in the interest of National Security, Sleeping Dogs' fantasy seems more credible than ever. End of Editorial.
Bushy-haired Sam Neill is a skinny twenty-something here, and he's given support by an impressive cast of NZ and Australian actors. Wife Nevan Rowe is extremely effective in a part that's kept to a minimum, and Ian Mune as her lover is even better - the tensions between the two men begin complicated and worsen as the picture goes along. Most movies about involuntary rebels have lots of noble posing and imposed judgments - Sleeping Dogs may not be an overpowering movie, but it has integrity to spare.
This is said to be the first New Zealand-produced feature to be distributed in the United States.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Sleeping Dogs is a sparkling transfer of a film I've only seen in an unattractive flat version. The handsome cinematography makes us think there's no such thing as an ugly landscape in New Zealand.
The main extra is a terrific hourlong docu where most of the principal actors and almost everyone who worked on the film reunite to tell the tale of its shooting. It's all covered in excellent BTS footage, and we get to watch an adventurous film unit inventing their own methods of making movies in a country that had never done so before. These include some unnecessarily risky stunts by people who really don't know what they're doing. The docu was produced by Donaldson and is 16x9 enhanced as well.
There's a full commentary that's almost redundant to the docu, and galleries of art and stills. Donaldson identifies himself as an Australian who came to New Zealand to avoid the draft, and considers the rebellious political aspect of the film to be no exaggeration.
1981 / 100 min.
Starring Bruno Lawrence, Anna Jemison, Greer Robson, Keith Aberdein, Desmond Kelly, Lynne Robson, Margaret Umbers
Cinematography Graeme Cowley
Art Director Reston Griffiths
Editor Michael Horton
Original Music Sharon O'Neill
Written by Roger Donaldson, Peter Hansard and Bruno Lawrence
Sleeping Dogs was a well-made and intelligent low-budget thriller, but the superior drama Smash Palace won Roger Donaldson breakthrough international attention. An improvement in every category, this tale of the breakup of a family is sensitive and shocking, and takes itself into violent territory without becoming exploitative or crude.
Actor Bruno Lawrence also made a big international splash in Smash Palace. He's similar to but a little more complicated-looking than our homegrown Ed Harris. Although Sam Neill ended up in lots of high-profile American work like Jurassic Park, neither he nor Lawrence really became top names. Just the same, they secured a place of pride for New Zealand talent two decades before the Lord of the Rings movies made Kiwiland ground zero for cinematic interest.
Here Lawrence's Al Shaw is an intelligent and caring but tragically single-minded man who loves his wife but no longer knows how to relate to her. When she finally leaves him, the old possessive misery sets in; even though he's sufficiently cool-headed to win his big race, Al knows he's really lost everything. Smash Palace is really a name for the Shaw marriage.
Director Donaldson knows how to keep an edgy tone without resorting to extremes. There's a fairly explicit sex scene that probably qualifies as a matrimonial rape. Lawrence is fully naked in another shocking moment when Al expresses his rage that his wife and best friend are seeing one another by shucking off his clothes and jamming them through the mail slot of the house he's forbidden to enter. It puts us on guard by letting us know that Al's despair is so deep that he no longer cares what he does. During an argument scene, the daughter is shown nervously flicking a flashlight on and off while listening in her bedroom; Al shouts at his wife while holding two eggs in his hands, adding a sense of unease to the rising threat in his voice.
Smash Palace doesn't give any excuses like alcohol or drugs to complicate matters, and Al remains sympathetic to the end. A local band of cops retaliate against his obstinacy in a vigilante action against him that thankfully stops at just a beating and humiliation. From then on it's Al Shaw against the world. Openly admitting he's not in control, he kidnaps his own daughter at shotgun-point and head for "the bush," leaving Jacqui to fret and suffer.
Donaldson's rapport with his actors is even better this time around, with Anna Jemison (actually Anna Maria Monticelli) excellent as a French teacher transplanted to rural New Zealand. Little Greer Robson is also delightful as the anxious and victimized Georgie celebrating her birthday out in the wild. This time around the director also takes advantage of a less extreme story that doesn't require a lot of effort just to maintain credibility. The shooting seems less rushed and more performance-oriented, generating a lot of grabber closeups and beautiful images along the way. The film begins with titles over a predawn highway that evokes the real experience (lens flares into the camera, etc), and a one-shot scene of a helicopter search through a narrow river canyon is breathtakingly beautiful for its own sake.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Smash Palace is presented in a sharp and flawless enhanced transfer that looks far, far better than the pan-scan copy Savant saw on the Z Channel twenty two years ago. There are no subtitles on either film but luckily most of the dialogue is clear enough to be understood by American ears.
Once again the main extra is an exemplary docu where the main cast and crew seem thrilled to talk 23 years later. This time around the film was enthusiastically distributed in America and launched Donaldson in a top career directing the Hopkins-Gibson version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
This double bill has the effect of making the viewer very gung-ho about crazy young filmmakers bucking the odds and shooting movies when the experts say failure is guaranteed. I was concerned to see such long docus - sometimes those things just go on forever with too much detail - but these were of stand-alone quality. Bruno Lawrence died in 1995, but it was fine to see Sam Neill (an avid booster of the NZ film industry) participating so excitedly. This is a really worthwhile disc set that reasserts Anchor Bay's status as a top independent label.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sleeping Dogs rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Smash Palace rates: