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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • 1 Theatrical trailer
  • 5 Cast/crew biographies - Principal cast
  • 1 Featurette - Promotional
  • 6 Interviews - Principal cast and director

Paperback Hero

Universal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 92 mins . M . PAL

  Feature
Contract

While this Australian film received good reviews at the time of its (very limited) release, Paperback Hero came and went without too many people noticing its existence - a sad fate that befalls many a solid local film. Such limited exposure is, though, not to be taken as a sign of poor quality - in fact, some of the most inventive and adventurous locally-made films barely get a chance at being screened in a cinema before heading straight for home video, while the latest formula dreck from the US gets a heavily-promoted run in the biggest cinemas available.

Paperback Hero was co-produced with the now-defunct European company PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, whose catalogue has been taken over by Universal for home video in Australia. Its arrival on DVD is very welcome, and along with several other key Australian films - both big and small - also making their way to disc, fans of our unique and vibrant film industry look set for an entertaining year.

Despite its rather cheesy and ambiguous title, Paperback Hero spins a gentle, humorous romantic story that will have wide appeal. Truck driver Jack (Hugh Jackman) makes his living hauling freight in his rig between cities, living out the cliché of the Aussie Bloke to fit in with the truck driving world and his friends in his small home town. But secretly, Jack has written a novel. A *romance* novel. This is something that Jack wants to keep very quiet, and so when he submits his completed book to a publisher, he uses a pseudonym for the author’s name. Unfortunately, the name Jack has chosen is Ruby Vale - which also happens to be the name of his long time hometown friend (Claudia Karvan). And as luck would have it, the publishers love the book and send a representative (Angie Milliken) to find “Ruby” and gather information for publicity use. And so the “real” Ruby - a hot-headed and effusive woman whose great love is flying her crop-dusting biplane - suddenly finds herself in Sydney being hailed as the next big romance author, promoting a book she didn’t write - and with Jack in tow as her “manager”.

It’s fairly light fare, sure, but Paperback Hero works well, thanks both to the conviction of its writer-director Antony Bowman (who spent seven years trying to get the film made) and the effortless charisma of the three main players. Claudia Karvan is one of Australia’s most dependable and watchable actors, and she’s obviously having a lot of fun with her role - as is Angie Milliken, who opts to play the publishing rep in a manner that could only be termed “Sydney times ten”; the results are often hilarious. Hugh Jackman - more accustomed to live theatre than film - is fine as well, though we don’t get quite as much of a sense of his character as we should.

One of the film’s assets is its subtlety - for example, when our characters arrive in Sydney from the outback, the usual cinematic ploy would have been to soundtrack it with loud, brassy music. Not here - the main aural sign of our new location is the frenzied blip-blip sound of a pedestrian crossing, and even that’s kept carefully in the background.

If it’s emotional fireworks you’re after, you won’t find them here. But this is that rare “feel-good” movie that avoids the obvious and paints real, likeable characters and situations - and does so with a nicely subtle sense of humour.

  Video
Contract

Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Paperback Hero is rich in saturated, warm colour, in keeping with its setting in remote outback Australia. The transfer is very faithful to what was obviously the cinematographer’s intention, and the overall effect is a very warm, film-like appearance to the image. The downside of this, though, is that some more sparsely-lit scenes are very dark on a television screen, even in a darkened room - in fact, there appears to be a little too much contrast in most of the scenes throughout the film. But this “look” does give the film plenty of atmosphere - and some of the film’s outback scenes are visually breathtaking as a result.

Placed on a single-layer disc at a decent bitrate, the encoded DVD looks generally good, though some scenes display a loss of detail in backgrounds. This, though, was likely the result of the film-to-video transfer itself - no compression artefacts are visible throughout - or indeed the way the film was intentionally shot. Regardless, it looks terrific - it just doesn’t look like the latest blockbuster from the US. This is, of course, not a bad thing at all.

English-language subtitles are provided for the hearing-impaired - and big kudos to whoever was responsible for them, too. Unlike every other DVD I’ve seen, the subtitles here are placed on screen relative to the location of the character that’s speaking the words, making following the film much easier for those that rely on text assistance. There’s also unintentional comedy here - at the start of chapter six, for example, the subtitles proudly declare “FERRY HORN SOUNDS” followed by “HYDRAULIC BRAKES APPLY”. Neither of these sound effects are in any way important to the understanding of the scene, but you certainly can’t fault the subtitle crew’s thoroughness…!

The disc opens with 45 seconds of non-skippable copyright, branding and rating material, but hitting “stop” followed by “play” takes you straight to the start of the movie.

  Audio
Contract

One big issue before we go any further - the surround channel on this Dolby Surround 2.0 disc appears to be more than a little bit too loud. This is obvious from the opening titles, where Roy Orbison’s I Drove All Night blasts out at massive volume - from the rear speakers! This happens again and again with the music score throughout the film, while the various sound effects directed at the surround channel also seem unnaturally loud. It’s not unusual for elements of pop music songs to creep into the surround channel with a matrixed Dolby Surround audio track, but usually the front channels keep this from becoming obvious. While there’s every possibility the film may have been mixed this way intentionally, I’m going to take the plunge and suggest that somewhere along the way something went awry with the Dolby Surround audio mix. If you back off the level of your surround channel the film starts to sound more “normal” - but listening in conventional stereo or through headphones, there’s so much out-of-phase material at high volume that it’s almost an uncomfortable experience. Any of the filmmakers are welcome to contact me at the email address above to clarify this one, in which case I’ll append any new info to this section of the review.

That aside, this is a crisp, skilfully-mixed soundtrack with plenty to recommend it - dialogue is crystal-clear, effects and ambience are immersive and Burkhard Dallwitz’s music score (which does appear to have been mixed with intentional surround activity) is perfectly appropriate and involving. Despite the extensive use of looped dialogue in places, the sound field is always nothing less than convincing.

  Extras
Contract

A fairly basic set of extras is supplied - principal cast biographies, a short (less than five minutes) making-of featurette, a trailer and a set of interview segments with key cast and the director. The featurette is a bit superfluous, being largely comprised of excerpts from the trailer and interviews. But the interviews themselves, though short, do provide plenty of insight into the way the cast and director approached the film and are a welcome inclusion. Director Antony Bowman’s interview segments have you wishing he’d done a commentary track, but as it is the disc is crammed to capacity.

  Overall  
Contract

While it was probably never going to get the attention of a wide audience looking for formula entertainment, Paperback Hero is a winning, unassuming film, well directed and expertly acted by a terrific cast. The fact that it’s on DVD at all is encouraging - the vastly underrated and hugely inventive world of Australian cinema may well have found its perfect distribution medium, and hopefully there’ll be many more to follow this and the others in the recent batch of local releases.

You’ll love this film if you’re a fan of the Australian way of doing movies in general, and you’ll be right at home if romantic comedy is your genre of choice. For this writer, it was simply the pleasure of seeing two of Australia’s best actors (Karvan and Milliken) playing out a well-crafted, warm-hearted story that was obviously a labour of love for its writer-director - and one which is presented with pristine quality in its proper widescreen format.


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