A Review of Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”

CAPTION:  In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, cinematography and Kidman rule.

The Wizard of Aussie-land Conjures Something Shockingly Good 8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

And now it’s time for a story about our friend Baz. Mr. Luhrmann holds the dubious honor of directing the only film I have ever walked out on in the theater. After fifteen minutes of the insipid kitsch of his Moulin Rouge! my friends and I bolted. About a year later I watched the film in its entirety to give it a fair chance and declared it the worst film of all time. His nauseating, hyper-realized, quick-cut style of editing and boiling down of every story arc to its rotten simplistic core was the most obnoxious trend in film-making I could ever imagine. Well, Baz went home to Australia to think long and hard about where he was headed as a director. After a seven year hiatus, he conjured up a huge budget, invited his muse Nicole Kidman for the ride, whipped up every conceivable cliché from epic movie history into a slow boil and spewed the sprawling tale of his homeland onto the screen in Australia.

Australia has an opening fifteen minutes that are cringe-worthy. It appeared Baz learned nothing from his walkabout and was delivering a mega-storm of comical kitsch that almost had me heading for the exit. But there was something oddly magical about this unwieldy dust storm of muddled Australian history, Aboriginal mysticism, and Outback adventure that prompted me to stick with the film and see if Baz had learned any new tricks. Much to my surprise, Mr. Luhrmann did, and it’s not just the slow-mo cam or the sweeping shots of the Australian Northern Territory that Luhrmann warmed to. It turns out when your heart is in the right place, clichés can work and become dramatically engaging. Luhrmann not only attempts to create his own modern version of Gone With the Wind with the cattle ranch at Faraway Downs substituting for the plantation at Tara, but he also desires to heal the racial wounds of his entire nation. He’s a man madly in love with movies and recklessly drawn to his homeland’s history. His handling of Australia’s part in WWII and the racial strife between Australia’s Aborigines and the English settlers may strike some as condescending and trite, but those would be the people missing the point of the film.

At its core, like Tarsem’s The Fall, this Australia is about creating a good story and the mythos of film. Whereas The Fall presented us dazzling images we had never seen before, Australia presents us a dizzying array of epic filmdom’s greatest hits. There’s a rousing cliffhanging cattle stampede, a romantic kiss in the rain, a not so subtle Wizard of Oz motif, a Japanese bombing of Darwin, a daring rescue of orphans, and a weepy reunion in the wake of tragedy. There’s comedy, thrills, drama, romance, and a message. No stone is left unturned on this vast continent, and the most wonderful thing about it is if you can forgive the opening fifteen minutes of dreck, the remaining two and half hours work splendidly as grand-scale entertainment.

Ignore the critics and leave your prejudices at the door. The plot of the film is irrelevant as any story arc is merely an excuse for Baz Luhrmann to unleash another sumptuous image from his dreams of Australia’s past. And though the characters are drawn in broad strokes, know that the performances are uniformly finely wrought, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman complimenting each other nicely and proving to be especially adept acting through the wildly shifting tones. By framing the story through the narration of Nullah, a half-caste Aborigine boy played sympathetically by Brandon Walters, Luhrmann lets the audience know that this film is about telling your own story and dreaming big dreams. In doing so he re-imagines the history of his Australia as a fable and with the help of a little movie magic adds a relevant layer to the mythos of film. Crickey, that sounds like a pretty good story to me.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0455824/usercomments-63

Being There, Done That

BEING THERE:

I recently watched for the first time Hal Ashby’s 1979 satire, Being There, which I found amusingly prophetic.  Satire is so hard to do, and Ashby’s film does it fairly well, though it never achieves the scathing brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film made just three years prior.  In Being There, Peter Sellers plays a TV-obsessed idiot savant gardener who through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings becomes the toast of Washington D. C.  For the most part, Ashby plays the satire light and bubbly, until the eerie closing scenes that become rich with overt symbolism and end with Sellers literally walking on water not knowing yet that he has been handpicked by the Masonic cabal to become the nation’s next political wunderkind.

Whereas Network envisioned a society in which reality TV runs amok, corporate fascism rules supreme, and Saudi Arabian oil money holds a controlling interest in American media and politics–sound familiar?– Being There paints a picture of America in the midst of an economic meltdown where a bumbling idiot is gifted the Presidency by the ruling class–wow, that could never happen.  One of the funniest bits in Being There is when the media falls in love with Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner and considers him a breath of fresh air because he doesn’t read any newspapers.  In fact, he doesn’t even know how to read or write.  The public sees him as brilliant because he boils down the economic crisis to a simpleton’s terms by using a gardening metaphor.  There’s also a great bit where his former caretaker (an elderly African-American maid) sees him on TV and proclaims, “That boy is as dumb as a jack-ass.  This proves all you have to be is White in America and you get what you want.”  In 1979 that was spot on, but, wait, have things actually changed?

Well, as we now have one idiot who didn’t read newspapers leaving office after eight horrendous years that produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and another idiot who failed to get into Washington D. C. after being advertised as a breath of fresh air sweeping down from Alaska, we are about to inaugurate an eloquent African-American as our next President who has proven hard work can trump nepotism in a renewed America.  It seems the era Being There warned of has already come to pass and it was even more horrifically funny than the film that prophesized it.

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DONE THAT:

In the “done that” category, I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  You know, The Road is one of those books everyone you know who reads has read and has been telling you, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS”, but you didn’t read it until you heard it was being made into a movie.  The Road is a grim tale of a father and son roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to survive.  In this dark future, ash covers everything, charred bodies litter the landscape, most animals have become extinct, and marauding groups of cannibals pick off survivors one by one.

McCarthy crafts the novel in a stark, lean style meant to mirror the savage existence he describes.  I found the fragmented sentences and unmarked dialogue hard to get used to, but the book moves at such a quick and horrific clip that it soon becomes easy to overlook the stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Much of the storyline is repetitive:  father and son search for food, father and son find food, father and sun run out of food, father and son search for more food, they stumble upon a cannibal here, a terrifying scene there, they find an idyllic shelter they only have to leave too soon out of fear–and many readers will find it frustrating that the apocalypse is never explained and the ending arrives all too conveniently.  I also found the religious underpinnings to be overly simplistic.

Despite these flaws, The Road held me mysteriously captivated.  It was the fist time since I was a child that I raced through a book in only two days.  I don’t know if that speaks to the style in which the book is written or the power of its story.  When I was a teenager, I was more inclined to enjoy these post-apocalyptic-sci-fi-horror-infused tales, and this would’ve been just the type of thing my immature mind would’ve loved.  Now, I’m a bit more cynical and tied to the real world, and The Road seems like the relic of a juvenile past.  I give credit to McCarthy, however, for delivering something that is completely unlike anything I’ve read in the past five years.  It will be awhile before I fully digest his vision.

The film adaptation of The Road is set for an early 2009 release.  It is directed by John Hillcoat, who was responsible for the grim Aussie Western The Proposition, and stars Viggo Mortensen.

Written by David H. Schleicher

A Review of “Quantum of Solace”

*Note to Readers:  Having seen this just one day after the amazingly depressing The Boy in the Striped PajamasQuantum of Solace probably came across as more of a feel-good escapist flick than it might actually be, which is ironic since it is probably the darkest Bond we’ve seen yet.  Like the film, I have tried to keep my review brief and on target.

Bond Back in Action Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

As one of the few people who thought that Casino Royale was just okay, I found its action-packed sequel Quantum of Solace to be genuinely entertaining. The film picks up exactly where the last one left off, but thankfully leaves its predecessor’s bloated sense of self-importance and run-time behind. Thanks to the tone set previously by Daniel Craig, this Bond maintains the darker hard edge. Directed with appropriate kinetic zeal by Marc Forster, the film never lets up and takes Bond away from that all that silly deep introspection and returns him to pure action while still playing a strong hand with its “this time its personal” theme.

There’s really not much more to say about such an indomitable franchise. Of course, in an attempt to appeal to audiences who have preferred Jason Bourne over James Bond in recent years, some of the action has a slap-dash over-edited feel, but never in a Bourne film would you find exploding planes and death-defying stunts involving every mode of transportation except by train.  Quantum of Solace also suffers from one of the worst Bond themes and opening credit sequences ever, but really, who cares about that?

The bottom line: Craig is as cold as ice and the action and the women are smoldering hot.  Quantum of Solace successfully serves up a healthy dose of Bond-fueled entertainment that will leave you shaken but not stirred.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0830515/usercomments-478

Check out my original review of Casino Royale:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0381061/usercomments-703

A Review of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

The Holocaust Presented as a Grim Children’s Fable, 14 November 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It’s official. The award now goes to the British for making the most depressing film I have ever seen. For the first time in my movie-going life I witnessed an audience member’s physical reaction to a film when a father was observed outside the screening room for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas collapsed against the wall with his child emotionally distraught and crying in his lap. With the rest of the audience, including myself, stunned into silence after the film and exiting the theater a communal internalized wreck, I don’t know if I was more devastated by what I had witnessed on screen or by that poor little child out in the hallway whose father for some reason thought this film would provide a history lesson his child could stomach at such a young age. As the film proves, the innocent are not cut out for war.

That being said, I would recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to anyone emotionally prepared to sit through it. The film’s climax will hit you like a sucker punch to the gut…but there is a lesson to be learned for those in the right frame of mind and mature enough to handle it. In adapting John Boyne’s novel, director Mark Herman envisions the Holocaust as a grim child’s fable, and in doing so, presents the historical events from a daringly simple new angle. Yes, Life is Beautiful attempted something similar not so long ago, but that film was told from the point of view of a child-like man trying to shield his son from horrors and had abrupt tonal shifts that sank its dramatic impact. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, however, keeps a powerfully consistent tone, and until the harrowing final act, is entirely told from the point-of-view of the young son of a German commandant assigned to run a concentration camp.

Herman directs the film fairly well, utilizing visual motifs and not so subtle foreshadowing (that left me with a sinking feeling in my gut as the film progressed), and he is aided greatly by the wonderful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. The script, though contrived in parts, is tight and moves at a brisk pace, and the normally sappy composer James Horner shows great restraint with his score that is both haunting and reverent to the events that unfold. The mostly British cast is stunning. As little Bruno, Asa Butterfield successfully permits us to relate to the child’s naïve innocence without ever allowing the character to become cloying or blissfully ignorant. David Thewlis commands attention as his tortured and misguided father, and Vera Farmiga is dynamite as his distressed mother. She gives a powerhouse performance and proves yet again to be a gripping chameleon of an actress nearing the level of a Cate Blanchett.

With its slim run-time, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems a sound choice for a future generation of teachers to show their high school students in lieu of an epic like Schindler’s List. It also makes a good visual companion piece to Eli Wiesel’s literary Night as it shows a fictionalized flip-side to the same tragedy. As the real survivor accounts sadly fade with the passing of time, the horrors of the Holocaust will remain firmly in place in the world’s historical fiction for centuries to come long after the last person who actually witnessed it has died. These stories will forever be screaming at us, and we would be wise to listen. Fault the film if you wish, but in its bold child-like simplicity it shows the insidious evil of the Nazis as two-fold. Yes, they slaughtered six-million innocent Jews, but it was an act of murder-suicide as in doing so they also sentenced themselves to death.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0914798/usercomments-43

Turning THERE NEVER WAS into YES THERE IS

The final votes have yet to be counted, but it is now clear.

America, the greatest nation on earth, has once again turned THERE NEVER WAS into YES THERE IS.

History has been made.

No longer do we need chants of YES WE CAN, because, my friends, YES WE DID.

I am speechless.

And tomorrow, a new day dawns in this great land.

Ladies and gentlemen, your first family:

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Congratulations to John McCain for one of the most honest, heartfelt and gracious concession speeches that hopefully will bridge some of the divides still present.

For complete election results, visit:

http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/president/

Election Night Drinking Game

Well, folks, Tuesday November 4th is just around the corner, so here’s what all of you Joe the Drinkers have been waiting for:

Your 2008 Election Night Drinking Game Initiative!

The rules for this one are simple and come courtesy of my friends Karen and Diane.

Just follow these 5 easy steps:

1.  VOTE!   (If possible, early and often)

This is the most important step, good citizens.  Remember:

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”  -Plato

2.  Purchase your favorite bottle of vodka.  I recommend sending an olive branch to Palin’s neighbors and buying Stolichnaya. Continue reading