Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saddle Sore: Australia

To see a herd of beefy cattle crossing a river in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is to encounter a cinematic image that’s as familiar as it is rare. The cattle drive is a staple of American movies, but then so is smoking; we don’t see much of either anymore. I’m 31 years old, and if I’ve seen one cinematic cattle drive, I’ve seen dozens. But how many of them have I been fortunate enough to catch on the big screen? Only three come to mind: those of Open Range, City Slickers and The Man From Snowy River. And so it was that the initial cattle drive in Luhrmann’s throwback epic set my heart aflutter, transporting me less to 1939 Australia than to a time when the Western ruled and cinema’s visual grandeur was too big for an iPod screen. Alas, this high was short-lived. Luhrmann’s conjuring of the Old Hollywood aesthetic created a promise that he wasn’t prepared to keep.

The longer it goes, the more it becomes clear that Australia is New Hollywood, perhaps not in genre but certainly in technique. Next to a fine-silver creation like John Ford’s The Searchers, Luhrmann’s Australia is stainless steel – prepolished, sterilized and, these days, ubiquitous. By the time Australia reaches its second cattle drive, the real herd that thundered through the river is replaced by a digital bevy of bovines, and all at once a sight for sore eyes becomes an eyesore. Stampeding toward a canyon, the cattle remind less of Red River than of Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, another picture in which the cooked-up drama freezes amidst its videogame treatment. The best CGI makes the impossible possible – most of Peter Jackson’s King Kong being a good example. Australia’s CGI is the other kind: it makes the impossible seem indeed impossible, thereby disturbing our celluloid dreaming.

The cartoon cattle aren’t the only offenders here. Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker frequently make the human actors seem inauthentic, too. This is especially true in fast-paced horse-riding scenes. Even the best Westerns shy away from close-ups in such conditions, because the shots are more trouble than they’re worth. To pull them off, you need actors talented enough to ride and deliver their lines at the same time, plus a camera crew that can keep the action in focus. It’s an unfeasible combination, and yet Australia is full of such shots – obviously created with green-screen technology – to the point that I began to wonder if stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman did any actual riding at all. Come to think of it, maybe that initial cattle drive that made me go gaga wasn’t so real either. When you’re so inundated with computer enhancements, including the curious halo that occasionally surrounds the actors, it becomes difficult to believe in anything.

And yet Australia is a movie that believes in itself very deeply, and that’s worth something. Luhrmann’s story overflows with romance, spirituality and melodrama, not to mention with love for American cinema. Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a proper Englishwoman who shrieks, huffs and gesticulates like a star of the black-and-white era. That she’s as emotive in tight close-ups as in distant helicopter shots tells you everything you need to know; Kidman plays to a back row located somewhere around New Zealand. Jackman, meanwhile, plays the role of Drover with the gruffness of Humphrey Bogart and the six-pack-abs sexuality of Matthew McConaughey. If all Outback cattlemen were as ruggedly beautiful and inescapably charming as this, The Land Down Under would draw women like a Michael Bublé concert.

That said, the Lady Ashley-and-Drover love affair is as expected as your morning coffee, and only about as thrilling. The fault is not that of Kidman or Jackman, who are clearly having fun here, but of the story, which dedicates an inordinate amount of time to the subplot of a half-caste child named Nullah (Brandon Walters). Inordinate, because though Nullah narrates the tale, the movie never really steps into his sandals. Walters is beautiful in body and spirit but his character is a little empty. Hinted to be the next great mystic of his Aboriginal people – if he’s ever allowed to go on a damn walkabout with his flamingo-posing grandfather (David Gulpilil) – Nullah is so convincingly fearless that he makes for a rotten helpless victim, despite the screenplay’s many attempts to thrust him into the role. The developing mother-son relationship between Lady Ashley and Nullah works in places, but just as often it’s tarnished by direct references to The Wizard Of Oz that wind up feeling forced, well-intended though they are.

The same might be said of the film’s constant allusions to another 1939 film, Gone With The Wind. From the bickering couple falling in love, to the war-time context, to the sunset motif, there’s no mistaking Luhrmann’s inspiration. But the emotional gravity isn’t the same, and the bombing raid of Darwin by the Japanese, though impressive, doesn’t fit like Atlanta in flames. In fact, Australia’s entire third act feels tacked-on, a misguided attempt to make a romantic epic into a historical one. The resulting artistic shift alone is jarring, like trading the untamed beauty of Out Of Africa for the gray military tableau of Pearl Harbor. We go from a world kissed with a heavenly glow to one that looks as if it’s never seen the sun.

And then there’s the running time: 165-minutes going on five hours, or so it feels. Australia is ready to end once, twice, three times, oh my, but somehow it plows ahead, caught in the momentum of its own stampede and unable to detect its emotional climax. If Dorothy could get from Kansas to Oz and back again in less than two hours, it seems that Luhrmann could have at least trimmed 30 minutes. By dong so, he might have realized that Australia isn’t a love story between a man and woman or between a woman and a child. It’s an affair between a filmmaker and his native land. And by the end it’s as tedious as a home-video.


Richard Bellamy said...

I agree with everything you say here - and yet I found myself having fun with this movie. I won't rush out to see it again, however. Immediately, as you say, it takes us back to old Westerns - and to me it was much like a lesser John Wayne film: silly, full of action, melodramatic, but kind of fun. As soon as Kidman strutted off the docks of Darwin in such an exaggerated way that I thought she was going to dislocate a hip, I thought, "This is going to be a long 2 hours and 45." But then it grew on me. I enjoyed its grand silliness - and the time seemed to go by quickly, for the most part.

The CGI stampede was ridiculous - with the herd turned by the drovers just on the brink of the cliff - and the cows looking like a lot of Gumby toys. One thing for sure, John Wayne never would have camped his herd in a narrow canyon funneling out onto a small plain heading straight for a chasm - with only a narrow passage to safety to the left.

Fox said...

Great job on giving this movie some lashes... though I think you may have been too kind. :)

I saw this today, and was just stampeded myself with how poor it was. Luhrman clearly likes pretty colors, but can he direct?? I don't think he can.

And I'm all for genre referencing, but if I ever hear "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on a harmonica again in my lifetime it is gonna be one time too many.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts, fellas.

Amen on the harmonica!

As for Luhrmann: I'm a fan of "Moulin Rouge" -- not one of the folks who thinks it's one of the greatest films of the past 25 years, but I think it's a winner. And that scene in "Romeo + Juliet" where the star-crossed lovers meet for the first time around the aquarium is magical (which is why it's always replayed), but otherwise the film fails to engross.

Last night I poured through reviews of the film on Metracritic. Someone -- maybe Stephanie Zacharek at Salon? -- made a great point: If you walked in at any point and watched two minutes, you'd think it was a good film. But, man, the total package is a load.