Films from Down Under

The latest films from Down Under are disappointing.

The most celebrated of the bunch, a melodrama from New Zealand called Smash Palace, had its American premiere at the prestigious ''New Directors/New Films'' series in New York. Now it has opened commercially to some enthusiastic reviews.

It's a blue-collar ''Shoot the Moon'' for the first few scenes, as a young couple cope with daily life and try to hold their marriage together. But the movie gradually turns hysterical (and distasteful) after the wife takes up with their best friend, the husband goes berserk, and their little daughter gets caught in the middle. The director, Roger Donaldson, needs a sense of control to match his good technical skills. ''Smash Palace'' - named after a towing business, of all things - is like a good, fast car without a driver.

Sleeping Dogs, an earlier drama by Donaldson, has the distinction of being the first movie from New Zealand to play in the United States. This time the theme is political, with a hero who finds himself trapped between hard-fisted authorities and frantic revolutionaries. Again, there is no clear sense of direction, and the action digresses into cheap shock effects. The seriousness of its intentions are commendable, but the results are not.

Another novelty is Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the first feature-length cartoon to reach the United States from Australia. Based on John Gardner's clever novel ''Grendel,'' it tells the story of Beowulf from the bad guy's side, prodding us to sympathize with the misunderstood monster for a change. Just as Gardner's book doesn't stand comparison with the timeless story ''Beowulf,'' this ambitious animation stands well below its source. On the plus side, it is intelligently written, with a wonderfully bittersweet ending. But it lacks the pungency of Gardner's best passages, and the visual design -- by director Alexander Stitt -- is pale and lifeless. Grendel's lines, incidentally, are spoken by Peter Ustinov, who does what he can to spark the proceedings.

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