Friday, January 02, 2009

AUSTRALIA: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, David Gulpilil
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Runtime: 165 min.
Rating: *1/2
Genre: Drama, Romance

        Once Ms. Kidman died to those many flowing tears in Moulin Rouge, the writing was always on the wall. We might have never realized it, not even after Romeo and Juliet, but we always had it coming. And now, here in Australia, Mr. Luhrmann’s penchant for whacking off his characters to gain maximum leverage out of the resulting melodrama finally blossoms into what it was all along – something really immoral and something deserving of utter contempt. The film’s list of obligatory deaths, of false deaths is longer than the grocery list of most households, and it uses them in all sorts of ways. Like using the death of a kangaroo for laughs. Oh, a false death is defined as a situation which is designed by the film wherein one or more characters and the audiences are forced to believe a particular character is dead for no other purpose than to milk the drama out of it. There is, as usual, the obligatory black man who is killed amongst many others. You see, this tendency of using a death for no other reason than for mere drama actually reveals an inherently sick disposition, like for instance Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, which whacked off one of its own just so to add a twist in the tale.
        I could have taken assurance from is the consistency of this trait, which if let loose like Mr. Luhrmann does in his films, is honest. But no, and in the film’s final moments Mr. Luhrmann did a u-turn on his instincts, changed the footage and pieced it all together at the last possible minute after a disastrous test screening result with an audience in the UK. What’s appalling is the presence of circumstantial evidence (the character is shown to run into the path of the bullet, but ends up alive, and in the film’s final moments is the cause of embarrassing angle errors), and motivational evidence (as I have described above). Yes, the original ending would have laid bare-naked Mr. Luhrmann’s taste for the kitsch, and I bet would have resulted in peels of laughter every which where. Maybe that is what happened down at the test screening. But the way it happens is disastrous beyond measure, and leaves a terrible feeling of incompleteness.
        I wonder if what I perceive as a penchant is actually a sign of an inability. To actually stir audiences’ emotions. To actually make the audience feel as much as even a speck of honest emotion. To actually thrill the audiences with a great story narrated with a deal of conviction. You see, Mr. Luhrmann intends his film to be a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. The problem is his goals might be noble, and believe me they’re noble. There might be someone here who would argue that Mr. Luhrmann is smarty pants enough to employ the excesses as a Brechtian tool, like he did in his previous two films. That is not the case, and this film finds Mr. Luhrmann telling a tale from his heart and betraying everything within. This is a man from rural Australia, and this finds him at his noblest. But then his means most certainly are not. Neither noble, nor adept. He knows A. He knows B. His script includes both A and B, and assumes that will do the trick, forgetting that true magic at the movies is never created by A or B, but by the small arrow that connects them. Magic is never the event, it is always the process. Australia doesn’t realize that at all, and what it ends up being as a result is a series of would-be sweeping moments that seem to be desperately seeking the one lucid thread that connects them. There’s nothing left other than a sense of desperation on the part of the film to be an epic, to be like those Golden Age films, and it is disappointing. The film tries to be a lot of things, like for instance giving us two films at the price of one, and it fails on all conceivable counts in all conceivable ways.
        Now, it is one thing that the narrative is a terribly tasteless and shameless, and it is totally another that I can’t seem to recall even a single shot of note. In a movie that is intended to be a visual stunner, a spectacle, Australia feels like a tired old assembly of obligatory wide shots that cannot seem to recall why they were called here. The locations are fine, and Mr. Luhrmann does capture them quite splendidly as a matter of fact, but fails to join them together. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of awe to the proceedings, and much of it is a result of Mr. Luhrmann’s kinetic editing. He cannot, simply cannot seem to soak in and savor a moment. It is not a chop show by any means, but there seems to be no rhythm about it. The shots and the edits seem to be at terrible odds to each other. The camera feels as a mere perfunctory tool, doing only as much as to somehow put to frame the gorgeous locations and leave us wondering of what could have been. See, anybody can be lavish on a cattle stampede, because (a) it is over a vast space, and (b) there’s only so many logical way you could compose your frames – wide sweeping shots from sideways or from up above, possibly a bird’s eye-view or a view from a nearby cliff. But the beauty comes when something as unassuming as a home in the middle of vast plains is captured, and more importantly is given a sense of its place. Luhrmann’s visual style might work in the rush of crowded places, but it fails in such an inherently barren landscape. It calls for restrain, to experience the moment before moving further, and maybe that is too much to ask of him.
        The film's only apparent strength might be Ms. Kidman, and it is a shame that much of the magic and charm of her performance is lost in Luhrmann’s choice of frames. There’re more than a few scenes which would have worked had they just cut to Ms. Kidman and let her move us. This is a film, and this is a performance that doesn’t as much call for consistency of character as it calls for feeling the moment. The other performances might have been good, I don’t know, but I cared for none of them save Ms. Kidman’s. Everything revolves around her, and it is only her interests that keep us interested. Of course, the characters are wobbly, acting as mere outlets of emotions. As the film holds a belief, much of these characters don’t seem to have a story, which makes them uninteresting.
        And honoring its tradition, Australia brings the plot into existence by means of a death, which frankly isn’t anything more than a silly ruse to bring Ms. Kidman down to Australia and kickstart it all. The man dead is one Mr. Ashley, and he was the owner of a cattle ranch called Faraway Downs. His wife, Lady Sarah Ashley (Ms. Kidman) arrives to convince him to sell his business and return to their native UK. But he is found dead on her arrival, killed by a spear, and she is thrust with the ranch and a half-aboriginal kid, whose grandfather is alleged to have committed the crime. The grandfather is one King George (Mr. Gulpilil), but he is no royalty, at least not in the traditional sense. But he is someone I would like you to discover on your own.
        So, Lady Ashley seeks help from the guy who drove her down to the place, and his name is Drover (Mr. Jackman). The big problem is the rival ranch in possession of King Carney (Mr. Brown), who is a shrewd and wealthy businessman of considerable influence. The objective is to get the cattle down to Darwin where they could be sold to the military for beef (death again), and this sets off an adventure where a couple of thousand of these cattle are driven across vast landscapes. The shame is it doesn’t work at all like many such center-pieces do so magnificently in John Ford’s films. There, it feels like an adventure. Here it feels kinda fast forward. Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t know how to build it all up. He can just deal in crescendos. Problem is crescendos by themselves hardly amount to anything.
        There’s a problem of the kid too, his name is Nullah (the little Brandon Walters), and he is the one narrating the film. The deal is he is supposed to be separated from his mother and sent to one or the other missionaries just so that he stop being blacks and turn into whites, as was the case with aborigines in Australia till as late as 1973. Add to this boiling pot the Japanese invasion of Darwin, and you would be well within your rights to expect nothing short of a sweeping extravaganza of emotions, romance and spectacles. The film tries all that, and it fails.
        I wouldn’t want to get started on how dubiously disrespectful the film is to its aborigines. Spielberg was cheerfully stupid in Temple of the Doom by attributing mystical powers to a particular race, but here, in a film which is dealing with their unfortunate history, that is a colossal error in taste that is highly despicable. More criminal is the fact that it is a big bore. See, predictability in a film like Australia might not be a bad thing at all, as long as that old magic is created all over again. Titanic sure does come to mind. That was good old-fashioned everything, if ever there was one. An epic for the ages. A tribute as good as there can be.
        It was a curious start to proceedings to the new year, for both the films I saw were throwbacks to a different era. There was this film in the night, and earlier in the day there was The Good the Bad the Weird from Korean master Kim Ji-Woon. Now that is one hell of a film, one hell of a tribute. One of the best films of the past year. One rip roaring piece of entertainment. That will be a film I’ll cherish reviewing immensely.
        Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Australia has one other strength. Unintentional laughs. Loads if them.

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