Today was the launch of two deals for watching Miramax titles online through Hulu and Netflix. So in honor of these deals, I figured it was time to revisit some of my favorite Miramax films.
Miramax is probably best known for films like Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love not to mention distributing many other films produced by smaller indie companies (like the works of Kevin Smith). And while I love both of these films, my favorite films are actually from their Australian/Kiwi era.
This is one of Toni Colette's first films and she does not disappoint. Toni stars as Muriel Heslop, a 22 year old sad sack small town total loser. She's not pretty by any stretch (dumpy hair, bad fashion choices, etc). She's a high school dropout. She can't keep a job. Her father is an egomaniac who hasn't found success as a politician and blames it on his equally sad sack loser wife, Muriel and her 3 siblings. Muriel spends her days drifting through life listening to ABBA songs and dreaming about her future wedding.
In a moment that can only be described as temporary insanity, Muriel steals money from her parent's own checking account and follows her fabulous former friends on an island vacation where she bumps into former classmate, Rhonda (played by the equally awesome Rachel Griffiths). Muriel returns home to find she's been discovered and rather than facing the music, she bolts and ends up in Sidney sharing an apartment with Rhonda. They work mediocre jobs (Muriel at a video store, Rhonda at a dry cleaners) but they are more or less happy. Something has to come along to screw that up and it does, in the form of a tumor on Rhonda's spine which leaves her in a wheelchair. Meanwhile Muriel's developed a full on wedding obsession even to the point of going to shop after shop to try on dresses and agreeing to marry a handsome and rich swimmer from South Africa so he can get his green card. An act that gets Muriel her dream wedding and the money to repay her family but also leaves Rhonda having to go back home to be cared for by her mother (which to Rhonda is a living hell)
After Muriel's mother has a breakdown and commits suicide, Muriel returns home for the funeral. While she is there, her father demands that she move back home to take care of her brothers and sister. Muriel refuses, telling off her father in the process. And then she goes to beg Rhonda to forgive her and move back to Sidney.
This is another movie that stars Toni and Rachel along with Ben Mendelson (who could be Jackson Rathbone's big brother) and great Barry Otto (father to Lord of the Rings star Miranda Otto. This time the story centers on Lewis (Ben) a down and out stage director who lives with his girlfriend Lucy (Rachel). Lewis is hired by the local mental hospital to put on a variety show as part of the patient's art therapy. But patient Roy (Barry) has a different idea. He is obsessed with the opera Cosi Fan Tutte and strong arms Lewis into agreeing to put on that instead. Meanwhile, Lewis's actor/director buddy Nick has been kicked out by his girlfriend and ends up living with Lewis and Lucy. Lewis ends up nearly going mad himself trying to put on the musical performance with Roy 'back seat' directing (aka bullying) everyone, trying to keep pyromaniac Doug from burning down the place (he fails), dealing with his possible amorous feelings for drug addict Julie (Toni) and so on. Eventually things completely fall apart and Lewis is fired. But his wacky crew (minus Doug who is back in the closed ward) beg him to help them continue and they do indeed put on one very odd performance while finding out that they are going to be sent back into the real world because the hospital is underfunded and is shutting down.
This might be the most known of these three flicks because it was the first directing gig by Aussie Baz Luhrmann (who also conceived of the idea and wrote the first draft of the script). It starts dancer and first time actor Paul Mercurio as Scott Hastings, a young man from a family with a long history in dancing. By dancing I mean ballroom and by history I mean obsessive history. His mother and (Scott is surprised to find out later) his father were both ballroom dancers and Scott has been working toward a top title in competitive ballroom dancing since he was 6 years old. He lives to dance but feels stiffled by the strong rules. He wants to be able to mix it up, add some fresh moves. He tries it at one competition and is so ridiculed that his partner dumps him. So with Scott's dream win less than a month away, he needs a new partner. And he finds one in Fran, a sad sack taking lessons at the ballroom school where Scott has trained and his mother teachers. Fran too comes from a family with a history in dancing but theirs is a more emotional passion and cultural history. Scott is pleasantly surprised to discover that Fran is a quick study as he secretly coaches her and learns a few lessons from her family.
However, his mother has her own plans including scoring Scott a top dancer as a partner. When she finds out about Fran she practically threatens to hobble the young woman and Fran sets aside despite being madly in love with Scott (and he with her). The big day comes, bringing with it some revelations about exactly how far some will go to win, what really happened to end his parents dancing career and so on. Scott, having rejected the star partner, is back with old partner. But at the last minute he ditches her and begs Fran to dance with him. Theirs is a masterpiece that not even the blustering president of the dance association can stop. And while their style isn't likely to win any trophies, they still dance with all the joy and passion of two people desperately in love, which is a victory itself.
Why these films?
I love these particular movies because they are character based. It's all about looking at a seemingly ordinary bit of life and seeing the wonder, emotion and yes even the insanity of it all. The dialogue is rarely full of zippy bon mots, there are no superpowers and no big action set pieces. They are just quaint and quirky and common all at the same time. These characters can be any of us, listening to any music that makes us feel a little better inside, doing whatever it is that we dream of doing and even feeling like we want to scream or go a little mad. It's just life.
I highly recommend taking a peek at these movies when you get the chance. It's well worth the time.