Blu-ray Reviews: Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace & Vigil

During International Cinema discussion, Australia always gets covered for the ’70s and ’80s thanks to its directors that created films that both pleased the art house crowd and the drive-in fanatics. Nearby New Zealand doesn’t seem to get a true mention until the phrase “and then Peter Jackson made all those Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. While the New Zealand film scene wasn’t as large as Australia, it did have creative period at the same time. Thanks to Arrow Video and Arrow Academy, the work of two directors from the land of Kiwis is getting a deeper appreciation and upgraded resolution. Roger Donaldson and Vincent Ward helped establish New Zealand on the world map and both went to Hollywood with varying levels of success. Their early works show that they were filmmakers ready to show that their land wasn’t just a location for their neighboring country’s directors.

Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs (1977) is a dystopian tale of a nation whose leader goes beyond martial law and invites the U.S. Army to occupy his country and put down any rebellions. Smith (Jurassic Park‘s Sam Neill) is trying to deal with a bad marriage and vanishes onto a remote island owned by the Maori tribe. He seems able to insulate himself from the outside chaos until he gets accused of being part of a bombing. He quickly finds himself on the run and having to deal with the resistance. He while undercover running a motel, he finds himself in the middle of US Army troops under orders of Colonel Willoughby (The Wild Bunch‘s Warren Oates). Can Smith really stay low as his country suffers? Donaldson and his crew create a fine sense of tension and paranoia on the screen. This is the film that truly got the ball rolling for Neill who was also a New Zealand citizen. The filmmakers were able to establish New Zealand as more than a backlot for Australia.

Smash Palace (1981) is the film that truly established Donaldson as a director of note as it proved to be a big hit at American art house cinemas. Al Shaw (The Quiet Earth‘s Bruno Lawrence) thinks he’s got a great life. The ex-race car driver is back in New Zealand running his family’s car wrecking yard, married to a French woman (Anna Jemison) and raising his daughter (Greer Robson). This is a great life for him. Sadly it’s not that great for his wife. She feels stranded in this middle of nowhere. She didn’t marry an international race car driver to be stuck in a junkyard. Even worse is that her husband won’t hook her up with a reliable car to be able to get around the area. She can’t stand it. While he tinkers in the remains of cars, she ends up having an affair with Al’s best friend who also happens to be a local cop. Things get nasty quick when the relationship is exposed. She leaves with the daughter, but Al can’t handle being separated from his girl. He kidnaps the daughter and heads to the woods. This is an extremely intense film with very little emotions kept in check. Bruno gives such depth to his character that we can’t reduce him down to an abusive husband who grabs the kid. Jemison reflects the frustration of a woman who didn’t marry thinking this was her future. Donaldson does not throttle the emotions as tensions build and explode. While other family in conflict dramas lose their impact over the decades, Smash Palace remains potent.

Vincent Ward is a bit more mystical in his films than Donaldson. Vigil (1984) features a little girl growing up in a remote farming village. It’s a small tight community and they feel a bit out of time with 19th century technological edge and 1970s cars. Toss (Fiona Kay) watches her father herd the sheep and attempt to rescue a ram that feel off a ravine. In the midst of the rescue, a hunter (Frank Whitten) appears. Something goes wrong and the father dies. The hunter carries the body out of the woods and back to the new widow (Penelope Stewart). The hunter tries his best to become the widows new husband, but Toss isn’t game for this happening. She is beyond suspicious of the hunter as he ingratiates himself with the family. Vigil is a very quiet film about people who don’t like to talk too much. This plays like a young adult novel that junior high kids can get easily wrapped into reading with Toss being more than a toss off character. She’s strong in a harsh world. The film goes a bit against definition since it is a family drama wrapped in a world that could be science fiction or fantasy. Ward’s next movie “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) would completely cross all those boundaries again. Arrow will release The Navigator on July 24.

Both Donaldson and Ward would have careers in Hollywood. Donaldson would immediately make waves with The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins before sailing across the Pacific Ocean to give us No Way Out, Cadillac Man, The Getaway, Species and Cocktail with Tom Cruise. Ward was supposed to direct Alien3 yet only got a screenwriting credit. He did make Map of the Human Heart and What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams. Both men spearheaded New Zealand as a place where cinema can thrive without turning it all into Middle Earth.

The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic for all three films. The transfers being out the beauty of the locations. You can see the snowcapped mountains behind the junkyard. The audio is uncompressed LPCM mono on all three films. The levels are great. Vigil has a lot of detail in the mix for just one speaker. The films are subtitled.

Audio Commentary by writer-director Roger Donaldson, actor Sam Neill and actor-writer Ian Mune

The Making of Sleeping Dogs (65 minutes) covers the film’s production featuring interviews with Donaldson, Neill, Mune, Geoff Murphy and others.

Theatrical trailer

Arrow Video presents Sleeping Dogs. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Screenplay by: Ian Mune & Arthur Baysting. Starring: Sam Neill, Warren Oates, Nevan Rowe & Ian Mune. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 107 minutes. Released: April 17, 2018.

Commentary by writer-director Roger Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen.

The Making of Smash Palace (51-minutes) covers how the film came together after Donaldson’s own divorce issues. The piece has interviews with Donaldson, actor Keith Aberdein, filmmaker Geoff Murphy and others.

Theatrical trailer

Arrow Video presents Smash Palace. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Screenplay by: Roger Donaldson, Peter Hansard & Bruno Lawrence. Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Anna Jemison, Greer Robson & Keith Aberdein. Rated: R. Running Time: 108 minutes. Released: May 29, 2018.

Appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick about Vincent Ward and Vigil.

Country Calendar is an on-set report from the long-running New Zealand television program during the making of the film.

Kaleidoscope television documentary on New Zealand cinema focuses on Vigil and Vincent Ward.

Theatrical trailer

Arrow Video presents Vigil. Directed by Vincent Ward. Screenplay by: Vincent Ward & Graeme Tetley. Starring: Penelope Stewart, Frank Whitten, Bill Kerr & Gordon Shields. Rated: Unrated. Running Time: 90 minutes. Released: June 26, 2018.

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