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

A Review of Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

Re-watching Carl Dreyer’s silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was the final piece of my self-taught Spring Film School that started in April with The Third Man and continued in May and June with M, Metropolis, The Big Heat, The 400 Blows, The Innocents, Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Citizen Kane and finally Dreyer’s film.  One of the most interesting facts about Dreyer’s film is that the “text” is taken verbatim from confirmed historical documents of Joan of Arc’s actual trial.  Catholics are meticulous record takers.  Fans of Dreyer should also note that the Criterion Collection will be issuing a new re-mastered edition of his other bona-fide classic, Vampyr (1932), sometime next month.

____________________________________

CAPTION:  A silent picture speaks a thousand words.

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
– Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Craft”

Dreyer’s “Realized Mysticism”, 7 June 2008
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*Note: This a review of the Criterion Edition DVD with the “Voices of Light” accompaniment.

Over the decades Dreyer’s film was a victim of religious and politic censors, two fires that destroyed valuable prints, unauthorized cuts, and zealous editors working against his wishes to modernize the film. An original, uncensored cut was found miraculously in a Norwegian hospital for the mentally ill (ironic?) in 1981 and fully restored for the Criterion Collection. Famed composer Richard Einhorn created his libretto, “Voices of Light”, in response to his own experiences viewing the film and researching the history of Joan of Arc. The film can be viewed with or without the accompaniment, though I can’t imagine Dreyer would’ve objected as Einhorn with great care honored the spirit of the film and arguably of Saint Joan with his compositions.

Carl Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a shocking example of the potential of film as art. No amount of scholarly critique can account for the raw power in viewing the film. It’s one of those rare experiences that can only be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetics (the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups of the actors’ faces) are perfectly married to the gut wrenching performance of Maria Falconetti (a theater star who never acted in another film) in the lead role. I think Dreyer was most accurate in describing her performance as nothing short of “the martyr’s reincarnation.” One need not be religious to understand what is meant or to feel for Joan as portrayed so humanely and exquisitely by Falconetti. Her face is beyond the realm of haunting, and Dreyer seers it into the audience’s memory along with other stunning imagery like a window frame’s shadow turning into a cross on the floor, worms crawling through a skull unearthed from a freshly dug grave, or a bored executioner barely able to hold up his head in the company of his torture devices. And then there’s the burning at the stake and the brutal suppression of the peasant riot–unimaginable horrors rendered so beautifully and hyper realized onto a series of moving images projected onto a blank screen.

The genius of Dreyer’s visuals and Falconetti’s performance is that they create a deep psychological complexity that can engage a modern viewer on multiple levels. In their bold suggestions and through the artistic integrity of their respective crafts, Dreyer and Falconetti leave it to their audience (weather it be a French nation still celebrating and mythologizing their 15th century hero Joan a mere eight years after her canonization in 1920 or a more skeptical 21st scholar studying the history of film) to decide the veracity of Joan’s convictions. Was Joan truly a mystic, a martyr, a saint? Or was she simply mad and the unfortunate victim of the time period in which she lived and died? Either way, she is presented here as human. And in relating to her, one thing is for sure: the mysticism of film was realized by the Dane Carl Dreyer and Maria Falconetti in the year 1928 with The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019254/usercomments-119