Monday, 19 December 2016

Movie Review: Red Dog: True Blue (2016)



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In the lead-up to today’s film (which is technically still happening, since it’s officially released on Boxing Day and I managed to catch a preview screening), whenever the original Red Dog film got brought up in conversation, it always ended on the same note: Don’t talk about it, it’s too sad. Having now seen the original, I can kind of see why that is. An unexpectedly iconic piece of Australiana, the original Red Dog is honestly really damn good. A bit cheesy and occasionally unsure of who exactly it was meant to appeal to (the kids in the audience or the adults), but overall pretty good as a look into Australian culture and mannerisms. So, naturally, a follow-up look at our four-pawed folk hero was something I was looking forward to. However, for reasons I’ll get into, this film has plenty of reasons to be initially sceptical, and for other reasons I’ll get into, it validates an awful lot of them. This is Red Dog: True Blue.


The plot: Mick (Levi Miller), having flown over to Pilbara to live with his grandpa (Bryan Brown), happens upon a dog in the bush. Naming the dog Blue, after the blue paint all over his coat (initially, at least), the two form a friendship that will aid him through his rural story of growing up and learning how to cope with the larger world.

To start off the warning signs that maybe this film won’t turn out as well as the original, let’s have our main character played by an actor whose only other prominent role is in Pan, a film that I am still astounding was even made, let alone released. Then again, much like Pan, his performance isn’t even that bad; not too noteworthy, but considering some of the lines he’s been given, he does remarkably well. Bryan Brown and John Jarratt get a decent banjo-playing scene together, but they are ultimately our surrogate for the mining community… and try as they might, it’s not an equal substitute. Hanna Mangan Lawrence as Mick’s tutor Betty is okay, Thomas Cocquerel as wannabe musician and Betty’s love interest Stemple has the grace to add a touch more depth to what is basically a romantic third-wheel, and Calen Tassone probably gives the best performance of the film as Mick’s Indigenous friend Taylor, helped by how he at least has cultural significance to back up his character.

In-between making Red Dog films, director Kriv Stenders also helped bring Kill Me Three Times to our DVD players… wow, that is disconcerting, especially considering how much KMTT just came across like a filmmaker killing time between much better productions with how uninspired and annoyingly dull it was. Well, while this film isn’t nearly as boring, it does unfortunately have that same feeling of being unable to make proper use of the material… and it all starts with the opening. Featuring token non-Australian actor Jason Isaacs as the grown-up Mick, it literally comprises of him (somewhat begrudgingly) taking his kids out to the movies to see the original Red Dog. The bulk of the story comes about when, after being moved by the film, he tells his son a bedtime story about his own interactions with the legendary dog. Metafiction can be a great storytelling device when done right, and just flat-out including the comparative text in the story is not the way to do it; it didn’t work for Fifty Shades Of Black, and it certainly doesn’t work here. While this does start out the film on a rather disingenuous note, as for all we know the character could have just been making crap up for whatever reason, it also marks the first big misstep of the film: Despite what the title may suggest, this is not a story about Red Dog. Where the original film used pub anecdotes to flesh out the character’s legend and relationship with the locals, this distils it down to just being another film about a boy and his dog. If it wasn’t for the fact that this has the same director and writer as the first film, I’d suspect that this is a disconnected party just failing to understand what made the original work in the first place.

Aside from how soaked it was in Australian colloquialisms, the big factor into why the first film didn’t appeal as much to non-Aussie audiences was because of its approach to comedy. Given how it took place in a mining town, and quite boisterous miners at that, the comedy would frequently go into more adult areas than your average ‘child and its pet’ narrative. However, because of how authentic it genuinely felt, the humour in the movie was fine if needing a bit of time to initially get used to. Once again, this film tries to keep in that spirit but it makes a serious misstep for one key reason: It’s a child saying the lines this time, not a bunch of drunken adults. Not to say that this enters the exact same awkward realms, but when you have a barely-teenaged kid talking about having orgies in a cave (admittedly, without knowing what orgies even are because kids say the darnedest things when they’re written by grown-ass adults) and wistfully staring at his dog playing with women’s underwear on a clothesline, the cringe definitely intensifies. To say nothing of the romantic sub-plot involving Mick, Betty and Stemple, which ends up with Stemple feeling challenged by Mick. I usually avoid making blanket statements like this, but any film where a character is feeling sexual inadequacy because of a literal kid who wants their love interest has some serious problems.

So, it doesn’t have narrative depth or a fitting sense of humour; what does this film have? Well, there seems to be a lot of clumsily-handled cultural commentary weaved into all this. The aforementioned cave of squick results in Mick being told the Dreamtime legend of the cave itself about a stone that can curse living things if pointed at them. Yeah, this ties into a running gag about a horse who thinks it’s a bull after being struck by lightning, and if it sounds like it makes no sense, it’s only because it doesn’t. What results from this are the kind of statements concerning land and what the whites have taken from the natives that, honestly, Australian cinema has a healthy reputation for being able to deliver well. Unfortunately, all it ends up doing is adding a thin layer of mysticism to the events that do no real favours to either party when all is said and done. Kind of difficult to buy into the emotion when, as the film frames it, Mick ends up causing a massive bushfire due to an Aboriginal curse. Apart from reiterations of how everything that we see is taking place on stolen land, it doesn’t end up adding anything close to the folklore tinges of the original. Then again, it’s difficult to pretend that you’re making a point about White/Aboriginal relations when you have an Asian character named Jimmy Umbrella, whose only purpose to the story is to literally serve the white main characters. Bah!

All in all, this is a wavering and incredibly limp attempt to further the Red Dog mythos, resulting in just a generic film about a boy and his dog. The acting is okay, considering the material, and there are a couple of funny moments, but it ultimately just keeps trying to be as good as the original and failing on all counts. No matter what the main consensus for the 2011 film is, it still showed more ambition and heart than this thing could possibly hope to accomplish. It’s worse than Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which made at least a marginal attempt to flesh out the themes it paraded in front of the camera, but since there isn’t any key point that annoys for the entire span of the film, it fares better than Sir Noface.

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