Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann's films usually require a degree of stamina to watch. Even with words set firmly on paper, a camera set firmly on a dolly, clips locked firmly on Final Cut's timeline, his films still manage to explode free in garish, technicolor nightmare. The actors speak at a superhuman pace around edits, post-production slo-mo/fast-mo, slide whistles and prat falls while bright, bright colors spill between the widescreen bars in random piles, and all the while good ol' Baz hides behind the red curtains pulling madly at levers and cackling like a lunatic, where no amount of backpedaling or polite harrumphing could kill his momentum.

This is not necessarily a compliment.

Australia begins like his previous films, around a simple framing device that predicts what is to occur in the next two hours. Not that I'm a particular fan of this method to begin with, but it is clear at the offset that this time around, it really doesn't work. The theme is immediately unfocused, the timeline is too narrow, and Brandon Walters's narration is completely and totally unnecessary, especially considering that the character isn't present for much of the interaction between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

This and increasing issues in execution stagnate the films pace. With the narration bookending dramatic moments and act transitions, there is nothing left to wonder about, nothing to capture the imagination save for the occassional well-filmed landscape. Luhrmann writes 1+2=3 on the wall and leaves it at that, and it's exactly as boring as it sounds. There is a mystery that is easy to figure out, a body count lacking emotional oomph, and a villain so one-dimensional that any suspense left within is dead on arrival.

The only portion of the film that remotely resembles an exciting adventure across the outback is the cattle drive, a sequence approximately 40 minutes long with frequent breaks in believability thanks to obvious green screen cutaways and a wholly preposterous deus-ex-machina. Problems abound, the same that plague the rest of the film, but still exciting, and the sequence steers closest to what I wanted from the film: two people from different worlds fighting for one cause and one purpose and managing to win without compromise or exception, and especially avoiding fighting with one another over NOTHING.

Luhrmann's brand of scattershot methamphetamine writing typically has a direction to vessel it safely to the endpoint -- something that is impossible in the old school style of Hollywood. His remake of Moulin Rouge! didn't emulate Huston's original. Why, suddenly, should this film? Why should this one require so little imagination and only enough fortitude to keep from leaving before the film is over?

I will say that, in addition to the acting of both Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, the mimickry of old Hollywood is successful, if only at its base definition. It compliments the past but does not extend or improve upon it. In the end, Australia can't even confidently stand up next to Baz's remaining filmography.


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