Dr. Plonk

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SYDNEY -- Rolf de Heer, the Australian director of last year's award-winning aboriginal tragicomedy "Ten Canoes," takes a random detour into banana-peel humor with the black-and-white silent comedy "Dr. Plonk."

It's a minor curiosity about a time-traveling scientist that found life thanks to de Heer's discovery of a couple thousand feet of leftover film stock in his office refrigerator. He imagined that, run through a camera, the film would look as bad as an old silent movie and -- presto! -- a stylized bit of slapstick silliness that only just outstays its welcome at 85 minutes.

At its most frenzied, this compendium of sight gags starts to achieve lift-off, and there's some impressively acrobatic clowning from the small cast. It's too rarely laugh-out-loud funny, though, and it misses the opportunity to mine the genre's potential. The more pointy-headed film buffs will enjoy the marriage of old technology -- a hand-cranked camera -- with new, such as the computerized transfer of edited digital film onto film negative. But the commercial potential of "Plonk," due for a Toronto International Film Festival screening, seems limited.

Adelaide street performer Nigel Lunghi plays the title character as a terribly clever inventor in top hat and tails, his bald pate balanced by creatively manicured facial hair. In 1907, Dr. Plonk deduces that the world will end 101 years hence and, in a bid to silence the naysayers, builds a time machine to bring back proof from the future.

After a couple of false starts and a close shave with some aboriginal cannibals thanks to the meddling of his (rimshot, please) deaf-mute assistant, Paulus (Paul Blackwell), Plonk succeeds in transporting himself to 2007.

He finds the future less than appealing, landing in the middle of an unsightly subdivision and noting, via an inter-title, "the rise of a new civilization already under decay."

The lion's share of the film consists of Dr. Plonk and Paulus popping back and forth between centuries in the amusingly makeshift time machine, getting stranded, landing in hot water (literally) and having run-ins with the law.

All the silent-movie tropes get a look-in: There's peril on the train tracks, Keystone Cop chases, slippery banana skins and everyone -- including a maid played by the director's daughter, Phoebe Paterson de Heer -- suffers a kick in the rear at least once.

It all gets a bit repetitive after a while, though there's a terrific bit of business involving a policewoman and an oversized industrial spool, and the presence of the delightful comedian Magda Szubanski (as Mrs. Plonk) gives proceedings a fillip.

Composer Graham Tardif does a commendable job evoking the pre-talkies era with a playful score of old-timey music, performed by the Melbourne gypsy band the Stiletto Sisters.

DR. PLONK
Vertigo Prods. and Australian Film Finance Corporation
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Rolf de Heer
Producers: Julie Ryan, Rolf de Heer
Executive producers: Bryce Menzies, Sue Murray, Domenico Procacci
Director of photography: Judd Overton
Production designer: Beverley Freeman
Music: Graham Tardif
Costume designer: Beverley Freeman
Editor: Tania Nehme
Cast:
Dr. Plonk: Nigel Lunghi
Paulus: Paul Blackwell
Mrs. Plonk: Magda Szubanski
Running time -- 85 minutes
No MPAA rating
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