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Film review: Dish, The

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16 2001 1:42 p.m. MDT

Contrary to popular belief, humor doesn't have to come in the form of big belly laughs to be successful. Case in point: "The Dish," a charmingly wry little comedy that's based on some fascinating real-life events.

While his Australian import does have its share of kneeslap-worthy moments, it doesn't get them by playing up vulgar humor (you won't find any flatulent animal gags here) or straining for other cheap laughs.

Instead, it favors genuine character development and lets the humor develop naturally, which is probably why — when the film finally does settle into its comedic groove — it's such a delight.

It may take a little while for some audiences to get adjusted to the more gentle comedic rhythms, but those who persevere will find it well worth their time.

Perhaps the film shouldn't come as a complete surprise, considering its director is Rob Sitch, who made the similarly looney "The Castle," which made quite a splash at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Since then, he's made great leaps as a filmmaker, and this is a very well-put-together little movie — one that dramatizes some of the events of July 1969 — an exciting time to be alive, even in tiny Parkes, Australia.

Foremost among the Parkes residents is the crew manning the huge telescope receiving dish located in the middle of one of the town's sheep meadows. Scientist Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) and his cohorts are acting as the backup to NASA's monitoring station, and will receive transmissions coming from the Apollo XI astronauts.

However, there are a few problems, not the least of which is the arrival of Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), a NASA representative who immediately butts heads with his Australian counterparts, thanks to his by-the-book methods.

If that isn't bad enough, there are also problems with the dish's backup generator, which causes a loss of contact with the Apollo capsule. There's also a powerful windstorm that threatens to topple the dish and send it into one of the nearby farms — even as the American dish has a few troubles of its own.

To their credit, the four men try to stay calm and conceal the problems from a visiting American ambassador, as well as the townsfolk, who are thrilled to be participating — in a small way — in history-in-the-making.

Again, Sitch and his co-screenwriters don't believe in straining for laughs and instead allow the humor to evolve from the situations and characters, both believably off-beat.

Of course, he also has a very appealing cast, especially Neill, who's very likable, and Aussie actors Tom Long and Kevin Harrington, who make up Cliff's crew.

And what's perhaps most refreshing of all is the fact that the film never gets too drippy or sentimental, despite opportunities.

"The Dish" is rated PG-13 for scattered use of profanity (including one utterance of the so-called "R-rated" curse word) and some mildly off-color humor. Running time: 104 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com

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