Saturday, July 12, 2014

Australian Audient: Garage Days

This is the latest in my 2014 series Australian Audient, in which I'm watching movies with a lot of kangaroos in them. 

Yep, you read that right.

I finally watched Alex Proyas' Garage Days, which had gotten bumped from April, then May, then June. July was its time to shine, and shine it did ... sort of. It shined a little.

Review forthwith.


My wife, who is now working in the Australian film industry, has given me reasons why not a lot of Australian films have been huge commercial successes. Her standard explanation is that many Australian films don't paint on big canvases, but rather, concern themselves with the plight of drug addicts living in slums, and the like. I haven't seen a lot of Australian movies that feature that exact subject matter, but it's easy to imagine what she's talking about, and why what she's talking about would not translate to financial success. People don't really want to flock to movies like that, especially at the prices Australian cinemas are charging these days.

For some reason, I imagined that Garage Days would be a prime example of my wife's phenomenon.

It wasn't a logical conclusion. The film's director is Alex Proyas, the Egyptian-born Australian filmmaker known to us for high-budget and high-concept Hollywood films like The Crow, Dark City, I Robot and Knowing. (I know there's a comma in the title I, Robot, but it threw off my list.) There's no reason to think he would completely abandoned his essential aesthetic just because he was returning to his home country to make a smaller budget film. (And it was only a temporary return, as the 2002 Garage Days falls exactly in the middle of the four titles above, chronologically speaking. It's still his middle film to date if you consider that he started in 1989 with an Australian film called Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, and has a film called Gods of Egypt coming out in 2016.)

Still, I imagined this was Proyas' contribution to this alleged wave of unprofitable Australian independent films about marginalized characters, and the fact that it was about a band only further emboldened my idea that everyone would be strung out on smack.

Well, Garage Days isn't like that at all. In fact, in terms of style, it most closely resembles not Proyas' other films, but the films of his fellow countryman, Baz Luhrmann. As I was watching Garage Days, it felt more like the next film by the man who made Strictly Ballroom than the next film by the man who made The Crow.

The story focuses on a fledgling Sydney band trying to make it big, but having to overcome a soap opera's worth of internal strife among just the four of them. Freddy (Kick Gurry) is dating Tanya (Pia Miranda), but they've grown apart and feel they're really more like friends. That doesn't mean there's no controversy when Freddy shares an unexpected kiss with Kate (Maya Strange), the girlfriend of his bandmate Joe (Brett Stiller), who has been blowing Kate off and may be cheating on her. However, Kate may also be pregnant. They're all trying to get the attention of an agent, and a sleazy one comes into their path when Freddy spots Shad (Martin Csokas) cheating with the girlfriend of the lead singer of a high-profile band he represents. The band wants not only to get noticed, but win a spot in a big music festival -- but only if they can work out their own problems first.

Despite the bevy of potentially crushing personal betrayals between the characters in Garage Days, it's actually an incredibly light and bouncy movie -- which is what prompted my comparison to Strictly Ballroom (a film I also watched for this series, back in March). That's quite the surprise from Proyas, whose naturally moody tendencies explain his hiring on The Crow, and who was also personally distraught for a very long time after Brandon Lee was accidentally killed on set. Knowing what I know about Proyas, what's most joyous about this film is that it seems like a sort of catharsis for the director -- as if he has chosen to be happy and optimistic rather than continue to dwell on hurtful things. (Of course, his only ticket back to Hollywood was via dreariness in the form of I, Robot and Knowing.)

Garage Days is bursting with color and vibrant technique. As just one example, the film's characters are introduced through a technique I'm not quite sure I've seen before, where they freeze in the frame, and the camera "ebbs" in and out on them, changing up the angle on and proximity to the subject as their name and title flashes across the screen. I knew at that moment that this film was something alive and playful, not something moribund and depressive.

The problem with the movie, though, is that it doesn't amount to a whole lot. It's basically a series of comic episodes (the tone never strays toward dark) that relate to the story arcs of the characters and their ambitions within the band and in the world. It's got a ton of Aussie charm and it's cheeky as hell. Yet it's pretty insubstantial, ultimately. Certainly, it's not designed to be substantial, but it's insubstantial even beyond its fundamental insubstantiality.

However, it sure is likable enough, and that's what caused me to ultimately give it a marginal thumbs up rather than a marginal thumbs down. The most interesting throughline is the romance between the characters played by Gurry and Strange, who have excellent chemistry and get us to root for them effortlessly. This was probably the part that reminded me of Strictly Ballroom the most -- beyond the generally ecstatic production design and everpresent pop music score. (Half the budget must have been spent on getting the rights to familiar songs, which include selections from The Cure, The Violent Femmes, and Aussie rockers AC/DC.)

While no one performance is particularly polished, I did get a kick -- pun intended -- out of noting that Kick Gurry has gone on to bigger things in Hollywood, unlike most of the others (Csokas excepted). I was surprised to note that I saw Gurry as recently as a couple weeks ago, playing the Aussie among the group of soldiers featured in Edge of Tomorrow.


Okay, now that the Garage Days monkey is off my back, I feel like my whole world has opened up. But I'm not willing to commit to an August movie, because I've got a couple contenders, and I want to kind of let it occur organically. However, a couple choices I'm considering include Rolf de Heer's The Tracker, Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce's Dead Calm and Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark.

Just to be on the safe side, might as well watch all of them so you'll be ready to discuss.

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