[Screen It]

(2001) (Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton) (PG-13)

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Comedy: The residents of a small, Australian town prepare for the first televised landing of man on the moon that's to be relayed through their huge, radio telescope.
It's 1969 and NASA has launched Apollo 11 in hopes of landing on the moon. They also hope to transmit live images of the event back to Earth and have so employed a mammoth radio telescope in the rural town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia as the backup dish to their prime receiver in California. To make sure things go smoothly in their "just in case" scenario, NASA has sent a by-the-books representative, Al Burnett (PATRICK WARBURTON), to Parkes to make sure everything goes as planned.

There, he meets Cliff Buxton (SAM NEILL), the older team leader of what turns out to be the largest receiving dish in the Southern Hemisphere, along with his crew, Ross "Mitch" Mitchell (KEVIN HARRINGTON) - who doesn't think Al or NASA respects the Aussies - and Glenn Latham (TOM LONG). He's the shy calculations expert who can't find it in himself to ask out Janine Kellerman (ELIZA SZONERT), the young woman who repeatedly brings the crew snacks and is the sister to Rudi (TAYLER KANE), the dish's lone and overzealous security guard.

The townspeople of Parkes are just as excited as the team to be involved in such a historic event, and none could be prouder than Mayor Bob McIntyre (ROY BILLING). He's eagerly awaiting the arrival of both Australia's Prime Minister (BILLE BROWN) and the United States Ambassador (JOHN McMARTIN) with whom he'll watch the landing, all while dealing with the varied reactions of his family members including wife May (GENEVIEVE MOOY), son Billy (CARL SNELL), and his moody teen daughter, Marie McIntyre (LENKA KRIPAC) who's the object of attention for Keith Morrison (MATTHEW MOORE), an overeager cadet in training.

As time counts down toward the scheduled landing and they suddenly find themselves as the primary receiving station for the big event, the Australian team must deal with various unforeseen complications and mishaps as they race to get things back in order to televise the footage around the world.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
In today's world of instant messaging and live audio and video feeds on the Internet as well as instantaneous TV broadcasts from around the world, the thought and/or amazement of witnessing something live through any medium has lost most of its nostalgic luster, the sense of communally experiencing something and the excitement of gee-whiz technology.

Yet, some of us remember a time when people gathered around their radios and TVs to listen and/or watch some live, groundbreaking event. That was especially true for anything to do with the space program of the 1960s and particularly the landmark lunar landing and man's first step on the moon. Yes, on July 20, 1969, the largest global TV audience up until that time watched Neil Armstrong step off that ladder and make his now famous proclamation.

Of course, back then - just like today - few viewers took into consideration the amount of work and depth of technological know-how needed to bring such events into their living rooms, especially when one considers that Armstrong and company were more than two hundred and twenty thousand miles away. The biggest surprise related to that telecast is that it didn't travel from the lunar landing spot to Houston or Cape Canaveral, but instead was sent to a huge radio telescope in the remote town of Parkes, South Wales, Australia.

That's the first delightful revelation of many to be found in the ultra charming Australian comedy, "The Dish." Recounting the true-life travails and success a small crew of Australian engineers experienced in providing such a crucial, but until now, relatively little heralded role in that important event, this is a constantly engaging and terrific little film.

As directed by Rob Sitch -- who works from the screenplay he co-wrote with partners Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy (who all worked on "The Castle" that Sitch directed) - this is one of those disarmingly entertaining films filled with a cast of charming and somewhat eccentric characters that I had previously written off as a sub-genre that had begun to wear out its welcome - from sheer repetition - after a few good examples.

Of course, it doesn't hurt for viewers - American or not - that the film is filled with that nostalgic "can do" spirit and enthusiasm that also benefited "Apollo 13" and the fabulous HBO miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon," and Sitch wisely milks that feeling for everything it's worth. Even so, the film thankfully never feels heavy handed or manipulative in that sense.

Although I was only five at the time of the momentous event, the sight of those old Apollo rockets lifting off and Armstong's descent down that module ladder still elicits that misty-eyed, lump in the throat, goose-bump feelings, and such emotions truly serve the film quite well.

Yet, like most small scale, charming comedies set in "distant" lands, this one truly works because of the characters within it, their attributes and characteristics that are used as running gags of one sort or another, and, of course, their interaction with each other. That latter part, set up by the former ones, is where the film excels and generates most of its laughs and even a few touching moments along the way.

Of course, those accustomed to or looking for big belly laughs stemming from sophomoric or gross out material probably won't understand why critics and anyone who loves to be entertained by well-made and enjoyable films will find this offering so delightful. Yes, it's more of a grownup and intelligent comedy than most of what Hollywood and others are capable of delivering - not surprisingly, it was made in Australia by Australians - and it wonderfully plays out from start to finish, even if the latter is predictable from a given historical standpoint.

Since the filmmakers perfectly set it up so that we immediately like the characters so much, their efforts at generating laughs, drama and even some bits of palatable suspense in relation to them work brilliantly and unfold like clockwork. It is to the filmmakers and performers' credit that we come away feeling as if we really know and enjoy the company of these characters - especially considering the film's less than two hour runtime - something that TV shows can accomplish over an entire season, but which few films are capable of doing in one outing.

As the mild mannered director of the Australian operation, Sam Neill ("Bicentennial Man," "Dead Calm") delivers a terrific performance and does so in an understated and subtle way. It's Patrick Warburton (TV's "Seinfeld" and a vocal talent in "The Emperor's New Groove"), however, who steals the show, as he's a blast to watch as the by-the-books NASA representative whose wry style and demeanor initially clash with the Australians. Kevin Harrington (making his feature film debut) and Tom Long ("Risk," "Country Life") round out the main characters and are also very good in their respective roles.

Like many small scale comedies such as "Waking Ned Devine," this film also features a great supporting cast, including Tayler Kane ("Turning April"), Roy Billing ("Children of the Revolution") and John McMartin ("All the President's Men") to name a few, who get a lot of mileage and exude a great deal of charm out of what are seemingly somewhat limited characters, at least from the standpoint of their time present onscreen.

Featuring the obligatory, but nevertheless still effective soundtrack of period songs as well as a great score by composer Edmund Choi ("Down to You," "Wide Awake"), this is simply one of those charming, funny and clearly well made films that's so entertaining that it will leave all but the most cynical of viewers giddy with delight and filled with the urge to run out and tell others about it.

That's the effect it had on me, and so that's what I'm doing here. Accordingly, go out and see this wonderful little film, and make it a hit so that Hollywood and others will recognize there's a paying public for quality entertainment like this. This terrific, charming and highly enjoyable film won't disappoint you. "The Dish" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed February 26, 2001 / Posted April 6, 2001

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