Thursday, December 11, 2008

Beauty in the Outback

On the website Rotten Tomatoes, Australia currently has a rotten tomato. The critics think the movie outweighs the story. Which, in part, is true. Baz Luhrmann is the king of visual storytelling. All of his movies, especially Moulin Rogue!, are all about being beautiful. Australia is no exception. Gorgeous landscapes, impeccable costumes, amazing lighting, and Hugh Jackman all make for quite the beautiful movie. But alas, clocking in at nearly three hours, there wasn't enough story to support all that beauty. Fortunately, the story that is there is a good one that made me very happy I saw the movie.

Spanning from 1938 up to the Darwin bombings in 1941, Australia is set in northern Australia. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an extremely proper Englishwoman, comes to the country to force her husband to sell his failing cattle ranch. What she doesn't know is that her husband was trying to keep the leading cattle man King Carney (Bryan Brown) from monopolizing the beef business. In order to stop Carney and his wicked right-hand man Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), Lady Ashley hires Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help her drive 2,000 head of cattle over an unforgiving landscape. During this process Sarah falls for Drover and becomes very attached to a little half-Aborigine, half-white boy named Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters).

Before I get into the good of the movie, let's discuss the bad. Australia is really two movies. One is about a little boy going on an adventure witnessing a woman and a man falling in love. The other is about what war and different cultures can do to people. The problem is the transition from one story to the next. After the cattle drive, I felt the movie was basically over. All I needed was a solid epilogue--they lived happily ever after in the gorgeous landscapes of Australia--and I would've been satisfied. But no, the story keeps going, and the epilogue turns into another act...and another.

After awhile, I got comfortable with the new story, but the transition period is a little wonky and might cause most film goers to take a glance at the time. Let me tell you, suffer through it because the second story is quite moving.

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are perfectly cast. This movie is very old Hollywood with its epic scope and stylized scenes. Everything is amped up--especially the beauty--and to cast two beautiful people just makes it work even better. (I personally don't think Kidman is all that beautiful, but she does have a very statuesque look that screams Hollywood.) They both also pull off melodrama without making it look, well, melodramatic.

Kidman and Jackman aside, the person who steals the show is young Brandon Walters. This boy is phenomenal! He is the heart of this story, and his performance is absolutely flawless. His eyes tell a million stories, and his beautiful singing/chanting is intoxicating. I'm happy Luhrmann chose to tell the story from his point of view, or I wouldn't have been sold on the simplicity of it all. From a child's perspective, everything is grander and simpler.

For those who are wondering if classic Luhrmann is present, the answer is...sort of. His addiction to contemporary music and funky camera moves are still there, but they're sparingly used. There are more sweeping shots and Aboriginal tunes. Australia is very light and then deathly serious, much like the Red Curtain Trilogy. It is, though, a different step for Luhrmann.

Part western, part war film, and all romance, Australia is a love letter to the country, its indigenous people, and its history. Two movies or one,
simple story or not, Australia is a spectacular thing to watch. It may not be a thinking-man's film, but it is a damn good movie.

Friday, December 5, 2008

November Round-Up

I saw a few of movies in November, and I've been a slacker. I thought instead of writing a bunch of wordy reviews, I'd stick them all in one blog with a paragraph or so a piece. Think of it as economically-sound blogging.

A super-low budget indie based on a short film of the same name, Cashback may not have been the best movie of the month, but it had to be the most interesting. Art student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) just broke up with his girlfriend. The breakup causes insomnia, and since he's getting no sleep anyway, Ben takes a night job at the local grocery. All of the workers find interesting ways to pass the time, but Ben's involves the manipulation of time so that he can pursue his art.

It's a strange surreal play on time that has a sweet romance dropped in. If you can deal with Ben undressing women for the sake of art, then I'd suggest giving this one a look.

The Promotion, on the other hand, I really did not enjoy. It has a few chuckles here and there, but interesting it is not. Sean William Scott plays Doug, an assistant manager at a Chicago supermarket. When a new store is opening in a better neighborhood, he applies to be the manager so he no longer has to work in the horrid conditions he endures currently. In comes Richard (John C. Reilly), a transfer from Canada who has more experience than Doug. The two are now in competition for the coveted position. At first, it's friendly, but things quickly get a little crazy, and Doug keeps finding himself in awkward situations. Think about all the horrible things that kept happening to Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents, and now think of them not being so funny. That's how I felt about The Promotion.

Chaos Theory is a very sweet, slightly wacky story about a man who goes from making lists for everything to embracing the chaos of the world. Ryan Reynolds is Frank Allen--a father, a husband, and an efficiency expert. While away on business, Frank gets a little wasted, takes a woman (Sarah Chalke) back to his room, and doesn't sleep with her. He leaves and ends up helping a pregnant woman get to the hospital. After some serious mistaken identity issues, Frank's wife (Emily Mortimer) thinks he's fathered some strange woman's child. All of a sudden, Frank goes from happy family man to crazy man who follows any and every whim--from picking a fight in a bar to streaking at a hockey game.

Reynolds has definitely found a good home for himself in the offbeat comedy world. If you end up liking this, I would suggest checking out Just Friends as well. It's a little more sophomoric, but it's hilarious and sweet.

And then there was Quantum of Solace. I do enjoy a good James Bond movie, and no matter what my friend and fellow critic Mike Mechanick says, I think this is a James Bond movie. No, Q is not in the movie. No, Daniel Craig never utters, "Bond, James Bond." But I don't care! There's slick action, a decent villain, two beautiful women (one happens to be a pretty tough cookie), and Dame Judi Dench is so great as M, she may have stolen some cool from Bond.

This was Bond's revenge film. In the first, he lost the love of his life, in this, his second love almost gets killed. It's not a movie about saving his country, it's a movie about saving his sanity. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And even if you don't think it's classic Bond, it's still one hell of an action movie.