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REVIEW: "Sweet Country"

By Eric Hillis,

originally published: 03/22/2018

REVIEW: "Sweet Country"

Along with its vast acres of formidable and inhospitable terrain, Australia shares a similar colonial past with the United States, with its native aboriginal population historically treated almost as badly by its white invaders as Native Americans and African slaves were by the Europeans who arrogantly claimed the land to their west for themselves. As such, Australia has proven itself the only country outside North America that can convincingly pull off westerns set in its own past.

Aussie westerns have come to be known collectively as ‘meat pie westerns’. Notable examples include 1970’s Ned Kelly, 1977’s Raw Deal and 2005’s The Proposition. All three of those films deal to some extent with colonial era Australia’s anti-Irish/anti-Catholic sentiment, presenting us with Celtic anti-heroes battling Anglo-Saxon authority figures. As with the US, where Irish immigrants were similarly initially met with hostile bigotry, eventually the Irish were accepted by their white Protestant Australian neighbors, and would soon inflict the sort of discrimination against ‘blackfellas’ as they once experienced themselves.

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country takes place in the aftermath of WWI, and its white villains boast Irish and English surnames, as do the indentured aborigines they keep as slaves in all but name. One such captive is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). He has a better deal than most of his people, working for Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a kindly white man whose interpretation of Christian teachings leads him to treat his aborigine neighbors as equals. Not so enlightened is Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a bitter racist war veteran who borrows Sam and his wife to spend a day helping on his small homestead.

Harry and Sam don’t exactly hit it off, the former raping the latter’s wife, unbeknownst to Sam. Thornton films the prelude to this act like a terrifying reversal of the scene in Rear Window where Hitchcock has Grace Kelly slink around James Stewart’s apartment turning on lamps one by one. Here, Harry slowly shuts every window in his home, the audience growing more uncomfortable with each shard of outback light he eclipses.

REVIEW: "Sweet Country"

The next day, with Fred away in town, Sam and his wife find themselves under siege by a shotgun-wielding Harry, who believes they are harboring a young aborigine petty thief. Forced to defend himself, Sam blows a hole in Harry’s neck, the white man quickly choking to death on his own blood. Suspecting he won’t be granted a fair trial, Sam flees with his wife into the outback. Led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), a posse gives chase, with Fred tagging along in an attempt to ensure Sam is brought back alive.

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Sweet Country is so blunt in its depiction of racial bigotry that it hammers home just how safe most modern American movies depicting racism play their drama. Thornton, of aboriginal descent himself, doesn’t give a damn if his movie upsets white viewers, and he gives us images here no American would dare, and crucially, he gives agency to his blackfella lead. It’s a stark contrast to the recent US western Hostiles, a movie that felt like it was constructed to help white Americans sleep at night. Sweet Country is designed to give white Australians nightmares. The closest Thornton’s film has to a white savior is Neill’s bible-basher, guilty himself of a form of bigotry by imposing his own religion on the aborigines in his charge and discarding their own culture.

In one of its most daring moments, Thornton generates dark comedy from a young black boy stealing a watch from the corpse of a white man, transferring the indignity imposed upon his people by white settlers back onto one of their own in death. It’s a genuinely hilarious moment, and it hints at the type of comic material Tarantino struggled to mine from his own ill-conceived race western, Django Unchained.

Elsewhere, Thornton’s film travels a similarly dusty path to S. Craig Zahler’s thrilling debut Bone Tomahawk, with sudden outbreaks of gruesome violence that add modern gore to the sort of brief bouts of action Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann mastered back in the genre’s heyday, and with comic interludes exploiting the awkwardness felt between the disparate members of the party. An example of the latter comes when the gruff Fletcher calls for someone to lighten the mood with a song, Fred fulfilling his request with a religious ditty that draws hilarious looks of discomfort from the godless mercenaries in his company.

For all its ballsiness in tackling racism without a filter, Sweet Country isn’t going to win too many awards from feminist critics. None of the few women here have any agency: at best they’re silent prostitutes, at worst rape victims reduced to mere plot points. Of course, it’s a movie set in the 1920s, but would it have hurt to give us at least one female’s perspective on this very male world?

Sweet Country - 4 1/2  stars out of 5

Directed by: Warwick Thornton. Starring:  Hamilton Morris, Matt Day, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Anni Finsterer

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2018 International Film Festival Brings 4 Award Winning Foreign Films To Vineland
(VINELAND, NJ) -- Enjoy four highly-acclaimed award-winning recent foreign films representing diverse cultures at the 2018 International Film Festival, starting Monday, November 26, at the Levoy Theatre, 126-130 N. High St., Millville, NJ. The four films—A Fantastic Woman, The Interpreter, 1945, and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me—will introduce the theatergoer to the universality of themes that are common to Jewish and other international themes. They are representative of the finest of today’s international cinematographic art.
John T. LaBarbera Presents Charlie Chaplin's “The Immigrant” with New Original Score
(TEANECK, NJ) -- Performer, composer, and author John T. LaBarbera performs his original score for Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck on October 28 at 4:00pm. LaBarbera’s score creates an emotional atmosphere through the melodic themes that are reminiscent of the Italian immigrant music published during the early 20th century. Chaplin’s 1917 comedy about his own experiences as an immigrant draws on parallels of the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley which inform LaBarbera’s composition, highlighting the comedic and romantic aspects of the film through ragtime style, slapstick references, and melodic leitmotif that adorn the film’s narrative.
NJSO presents Star Wars: A New Hope in concert on Thanksgiving weekend
(NEWARK, NJ) --The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presents screenings of the complete film Star Wars: A New Hope with Oscar-winning composer John Williams’ musical scores performed live on Thanksgiving weekend, November 23–25. Performances take place in Red Bank, Newark, and New Brunswick.
East Lynne Theater Company presents "Poe" and "Dr. Jekyll"
(CAPE MAY, NJ) -- The award-winning Equity professional East Lynne Theater Company presents two events in time for Halloween: "Poe by Candlelight" on Saturday, October 20 at 8:00pm and the classic silent thriller, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," accompanied by Wayne Zimmerman on the organ, on Sunday, October 21 at 7:30pm, both at The First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes Street in Cape May, where the theater is in residence.
Basie Center Celebrates Dia De Los Muertos With "Coco" Benefit Screening And Community Ofrenda
(RED BANK, NJ) -- The nonprofit Count Basie Center for the Arts will present a big-screen showing of Disney’s Coco as part of its annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos, sponsored by Basie’s partner program Calpulli Mexican Dance Company. The screening, which takes place on Saturday, November 3 at 11:00am, will also serve as a fundraiser for the Red Bank Borough School District, which will receive half of all tickets sold.

REVIEW: "Cold War"
Back in 2006, German cinema scored something of a breakout global hit with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, which followed the travails of a group of disgruntled, pro-western artists in communist era East Germany. At the time I couldn’t help viewing the protagonists of Von Donnersmarck’s drama as the sort of people who would be just as discontented with their lot if they found themselves living in the capitalist west. The grass is always greener on the other side.
Baba Babee Skazala
Among the many intriguing films being screened at New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018, one title immediately caught our eye — Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother.  
NJ Film Fest Preview: October 2018
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- The New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 runs from September 14 to October 26 on the Rutgers University Campus in New Brunswick, NJ. Showcasing new international films, American independent features, animation, experimental and short subjects, and cutting-edge documentaries, the New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2018 will feature over 30 film screenings.  
REVIEW: "Black 47"
In a year that has offered cinemagoers culturally distinctive takes on the western genre from countries as disparate as Australia (Sweet Country), Indonesia (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts) and South Africa (Five Fingers for Marseille), it’s no surprise to find Irish cinema adopting the tropes of that most traditionally American of genres.
Michael Gallagher’s terrific comedy Funny Story Premiere’s at the Fall 2018 New Jersey Film Festival this Friday, September 14!
Michael Gallagher’s terrific feature Funny Story Premiere’s at the Fall 2018 New Jersey Film Festival this Friday, September 14!

Event calendar
Sunday, Oct 21, 2018


DiTrani Bros: Folk, Swing, Jazz, Ragtime!! @ Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse, Dunellen - 7:00pm

Jazz Guitarist Abe Ovadia @ Englewood Public Library, Englewood - 7:00pm

Gypsy Jazz Brunch with Pyrenesia and Max Hansen Buffet @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

Dryden Ensemble: Bach Cantata Fest @ Miller Chapel (Princeton), Princeton - 3:00pm

Suzzanne Douglas @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 7:30pm


The Ghost Princess @ Pax Amicus Castle Theatre, Budd Lake - 2:00pm

The Shuck @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 3:00pm

CDC Theatre presents A Few Good Men @ CDC Theatre, Cranford - 2:00pm

Wait Until Dark @ Somerset Valley Playhouse, Hillsborough - 8:00pm

World Premier of, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, A Horror of a Play @ Forum Theatre (Metuchen), Metuchen - 3:00pm

The Color Purple @ Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn - 1:30pm and 7:00pm

Almost, Maine @ Jay & Linda Grunin Center For The Arts At Ocean County College, Toms River - 2:00pm

Black Tom Island @ The 1882 Carriage House, Liberty Hall Museum, Union - 3:00pm

*Uncle Vanya, Scenes from a Jersey Life in Four Acts @ Hudson Theatre Works, Weehawken - 7:00pm

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie @ Westfield Community Players, Westfield - 2:00pm


DRACULA - THE ATLANTIC CITY BALLET @ The Strand Theater, Lakewood - 4:00pm


A conversation with John Cusack Following a screening of Say Anything @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:00pm


Summit Farmers Market Pumpkin Painting @ Summit Farmers Market, Summit - 10:00am


The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival @ Victoria Theater @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 9:00am


HAUNTED ILLUSIONS LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 3:00pm

THE MAGIC OF BILL BLAGG LIVE! @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 2:00pm

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