Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia (2008, Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Luhrmann's films have been distinguished less by a consistent style or subject matter than a "let us entertain you!" sort of propulsiveness, in which the auteur practically bombards the audience with incident and imagery in an effort to make his mark. And while this tactic has yielded mixed results to date- Moulin Rouge! is the apex, with Romeo + Juliet the nadir- he actually puts a lid on this tendency for large portions of Australia. After a very Luhrmann-esque opening reel in which he crams exposition in like a starving kid loading up at Thanksgiving dinner, the director goes more old-school, as demanded by his genres of choice this time out, the Western and the romantic epic. There are still plenty of eye-popping visuals on display, but gone are the insistent cutting style and theatrical anachronisms of his previous work- if nothing else, Luhrmann has set out to make Australia a MOVIE through and through. But frankly, I'm not sure this is an improvement. For one thing, the few "Luhrmann-isms" that do find their way into the story stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially his repeated references to The Wizard of Oz (Get it? Australia? Oz? GET IT????), which go way beyond the numerous versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" throughout the film, something which might have been more forgivable had Luhrmann not made such a big damn deal over it. No, he feels the need to take the reference even further, as when Jack Thompson's character arrives for the cattle drive in a mini-twister. In addition, I wasn't especially taken with the movie's view of Aboriginal peoples. From the outset, Australia attacks the government's longtime policy toward half-caste children, previously laid down in Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. However, aside from the "creamy" child Nullah (Brandon Walters), all of the Aboriginal characters, whether half-caste or full-blooded, exist predominantly to aid the white heroes. What's more, the intergration of Aboriginal "magic" into the storyline is a half-hearted attempt on the filmmakers' part to show "respect" for their traditions, but it ends up backfiring by turning the characters- especially David Gulpilil's "King George"- into the "Other." But the most basic problem is that without the whip-smash editing and unflagging desire to wow the audience, the film seriously drags in spots. The film's other issues might have been easier to take if only Luhrmann had kept the movie going at a steady clip, but since the story gets really saggy at various points, it gives us (me, anyway) plenty of time to think about all the rest of the stuff that's going wrong. A few other random thoughts: (1) Nicole Kidman's brittle and chilly onscreen persona doesn't seem especially well-suited to Luhrmann's world, does it?; (2) perhaps it's partly due to the central character being a woman, but it's been a while since I saw a big-budget epic take such a distinctly female gaze toward its male lead- Jackman is easily the movie's most potent lust object, whether washing himself in view of Kidman or making the sort of attention-getting party arrival normally reserved for ingenues; (3) is it just me, or is David Wenham essentially playing the Duke from Moulin Rouge! here? That Luhrmann's style of villain is so easily recognizable is more interesting than almost anything else in this mildly diverting but ultimately disappointing movie. Rating: 5 out of 10.

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