Status: In limited release (opened 10/24/08)
Directed By: Charlie Kaufman
Written By: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener
My favorite college professor, who taught computer science theory and mathematical combinatorics, would occasionally say in response to a suggestion from a student in his class, “Anything you can do, I can do meta.” I almost feel like this could serve as the movie poster tagline for Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. His main character, stage director Caden Cotard, an enchantingly thought-provoking portrayal from the always-excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, comes to a crossroads in his life and endeavors to write and direct an exceedingly ambitious play, staged on a massive set of New York in a warehouse in New York (and yes, the set does have the warehouse in it… which has another set in it, also with a warehouse…). The play, as its production draws on (for nearly 20 years), comes to be a reenactment of his life, and his life comes to become a reflection of what’s going on in the play. If this sounds a bit confusing, it is. If it sounds a little pretentious, it is that as well. But it’s thoroughly brilliant, although it will surely prove to be somewhat inaccessible to matinee audiences.
The word “synecdoche” refers to a whole relating to its parts, or the parts relating to a whole. This is what is reflected by the play within the movie, certainly, but it also describes Caden Cotard’s life, not to mention that it sounds like Schenectady, which is where he happens to come from (and where the opening of the movie takes place). It’s a double entendre of a title for a movie that relishes in double entendres and synecdoche and symbolism and countless other literary devices that Kaufman’s high school English teachers are undoubtedly very proud to seem him employ to such great effect. Kaufman revisits several of his favorite themes here, combining them and expanding upon them in new ways that could only be undertaken by a writer given free reign to finally direct his own work: stagnating relationships and fits of jealousy, as in Being John Malkovich; obsessive feelings of sexual inadequacy and dysfunction, as in Adaptation.; surreal forays into the subconcious, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Saying anything more about what this film entails would be to perform a disservice to any potential audience. It’s one of those “you just have to see it” movies, and I resist adding “to get it” onto the end of that statement because I’m not quite sure that I do. I think that, given a couple more viewings, I’d be able to explore what I believe to be the dominant ideas being presented here, because it’s that kind of film—it not only lends itself to repeat viewings, it virtually requires it.
Hoffman’s brilliant performance is as good as any he’s given, showing a tortured man struggling to make sense of his life over a 20-year span and through several relationships. His supporting cast is equally as great, from Catherine Keener, who plays his wife at the start of the film, to Michelle Williams, who plays the star of his plays who he inevitably falls into a relationship with. These are overshadowed, though, by a career-defining performance from Samantha Morton (probably most recognizable as the female pre-cog from Minority Report, though here she has flowing red hair). Morton plays Hazel, the box office worker at the theater where Caden is directing Death of a Salesman as the movie opens. She also plays at least 3 other roles, their identities not totally defined, although at least one of them is also Hazel, I think. Morton is remarkably bold in her portrayals; I’m particularly impressed, visually speaking, by a sex scene with Hoffman showing a slightly unflattering angle, but also by the range of character depictions she goes through, not only as her primary character’s personality changes over the years but also as the other “versions” of Hazel, too.
To say that most of this film is abstract is an understatement. The majority of it is not to be taken literally, although it is telling a story that is intended to cut to the core of human existence in the way only surrealist work can. Jon Brion‘s hauntingly ambient score punctuates the mood perfectly, and Hoffman’s embodiment of Caden Cotard is enchanting, particularly as the playwright ages before our eyes, and continues to lose touch with reality and his various relationships.
As I mentioned, it’s a bit pretentious, but it knows it. Kaufman makes fun of pretentious art, in fact: Keener’s character is a painter whose canvases are the size of postage stamps, and at her much-heralded showings the patrons wander around the gallery wearing glasses that appear to have miniature binoculars attached to the lenses. It’s one of the best visual gags in a movie that’s full of visual ploys, and yet I’m confident that I can’t ruin it by desribing it, so well does it play on screen.
A brief footnote, about why I feel this movie qualifies as “great”: it is one that takes some effort to appreciate, in the way all great art does. When I began writing this review, I gave it 3 stars, believing it to have been well executed and thoroughly interesting, but a bit too abstract and confusing to elevate it into the realm of significant cinematic accomplishments. Through the process of organizing my thoughts on it and reflecting on my own film-going experience with it, however, I’ve come to appreciate it on a deeper level; I’ve also thoroughly convinced myself that I will only proceed to find more appreciation for this film the more times I view it. That’s the reason I write these reviews in the first place: to think about and discuss movies in more depth than you would engage in on the car ride home from the theater, with the hopes that this leads to more appreciation, better enjoyment, and a fuller understanding of the art of film as a result. Synecdoche, New York is an epitomizing example of just that, so to call it anything other than great (and to give it anything less than 4 stars, my highest rating) I feel would be intellectually dishonest. It’s a film I’d describe as “challenging,” but like most I would apply that term to (e.g., There Will Be Blood), I feel that it is a challenge well worth undertaking.
Director Gabriele Muccino’s follow-up to the emotion-laden life-turnaround story The Pursuit of Happyness opens with Will Smith’s character calling in his own suicide, then jumps to a scene of Smith brutally berating an innocent blind telephone operator (Woody Harrelson). At least he and screenwriter Grant Nieporte are generous enough to inform us up front what we’re going to be in for: Smith’s character in this film is generally an asshole, and as we come to find out more about the strange quest he’s put himself on, it behooves us to keep this fact in mind. The relationships we find him developing throughout the film, thanks to the manner in which it opens, only serve to build our skepticism, which is ironic because the movie’s ultimate point is to show us what a good guy he is.
This is a very odd turn for Smith, who is pretty much instantly likable in every previous role he’s taken on. And yet, it’s still hard to totally dislike him, due to his endless supply of charm and his ability to turn it on whenever needed. Such charm is pulled out on occasion in Seven Pounds, but mostly Smith relies on a single go-to facial expression, which looks like he’s equal parts confused, kind of mad, and kind of straining for something (it’s a little more complex than a typical comedic look of constipation, but not by much). The only time we see him fully smile are in some of his scenes with the love interest, played by Rosario Dawson (who forewent a titular role in Zack and Miri Make a Porno for this movie). She is as good as she’s ever been here, providing some genuine emotion that is easy to go along with (in contrast to Smith’s character, who is supposed to be a sympathetic one despite our introduction to him). Despite the awkward relationship their characters find themselves in (or perhaps somewhat because of it), Smith and Dawson are thoroughly engaging when they share screen time together, showing their full range of ability as some of the most accomplished actors working today, and providing pretty much the only aspect of this movie that raises it above its otherwise audience-unfriendly production.
The plot of this film is hard to talk about without giving away the would-be surprises, but suffice it to say that Smith’s character is ostensibly setting out to help people. He’s an IRS agent who takes advantage of his lot in order to help others out of their own… sometimes. The majority of his character’s actions are aimed at passing judgment on those he encounters, and deciding whether they are deserving of his aid or not. Said aid is at times obvious—granting a no-strings-attached tax extension, for instance—but more often mysterious: he’s setting up “something” that we’re not entirely privy to until the film’s climax.
Unfortunately, that climax, when it comes, is nothing but infuriating. It’s foreshadowed little enough that it feels sufficiently surprising when we finally see it coming only shortly before it happens, but it is completely unsatisfying on multiple levels. The way the exposition is edited does nothing but exacerbate this situation, with seemingly-random scene jumps that only give a slight idea of what’s coming, at the expense of the narrative’s sense of continuity. I feel that the aim of this movie is to pull one over on its audience, and the majority of that audience will certainly feel put off by being antagonized in such a manner. We’re often confused, unsure of where any of it’s heading, and wondering why we’re seeing this guy who was introduced to us as a huge asshole on what seems to be a journey of goodwill. The film’s resolution is quite obviously supposed to be uplifting, portraying a spiritual redemption that the entire movie has served to contrive. It is instead a frustrating exercise in unsympathetic characterization, showing a man who not only deigns himself fit to pass judgment on others, but to carry out actions that will greatly affect their lives based on these judgments in very questionable ways, and then we are supposed to sympathize with him when he finally makes a personal sacrifice.
As I say, it’s hard to talk about what I most disliked about this movie without ruining it for anybody who might want to see it (although the creative forces behind it have done all they could to ruin it already). If you do see it, though, please somebody try to answer this for me: why isn’t he in jail?
Here’s what would seem like a decent solution to the fact that many people find Keanu Reeves’s acting to generally be very stiff: cast him as an alien being without emotion who visits our planet to coldly decide whether or not our species should be allowed to continue inhabiting it. That’s the premise of this “re-imagining” of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Jennifer Connelly playing an updated Helen Benson—no longer a lowly secretary, now an astrobiologist who happens to be conveniently qualified to address the issue of visiting extraterrestrial life—and Jaden Smith (Will and Jada’s son) stepping in as her stepson (yes, they have a somewhat contrived story to explain how he ended up in her care—I’m not sure if it was tacked on after the casting decision was made).
Director Scott Derrickson and writer David Scarpa have settled on a somewhat awkward pacing for their film, front-loading it with a lot of rapid exposition and tense action while the alien and his classically-styled robot companion arrive before settling in as a slow-moving car-ride movie. The exposition is interesting, with an appropriate amount of mystery maintained around the alien’s arrival and capture by the U.S. government, led by a NASA official (Jon Hamm, TV’s Don Draper) and the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates). There’s a very generic E.T. feel to this, with Connelly’s character serving as the Elliot: the evil U.S. government wants to experiment on the spaceman, but she’s the only one who sympathizes with him and recognizes that somebody should help him. She and her stepson take him to meet with another alien-in-human-form and generally work on assessing the potential ability of our species to stop destroying our planet.
Whereas the original film had a strong post-WWII sensibility, with the aliens’ judgment focusing on humans’ penchant for warring with and killing each other, here we have a modern twist where their concern is over our knack for exhausting the planet’s natural resources (and specifically, its rare ability to support life). I don’t know that I find this to be a more effective plot device, but I can’t argue that it isn’t timely, at least.
As mentioned, Reeves is stoic—to put it lightly—throughout, doing all he can to show as little emotion as possible. He is, unsurprisingly, successful in this endeavor. Personally I find this to be somewhat effective, but I think the majority of audiences will tire of the expressionless visitor named Klaatu rather quickly. Connelly and Smith are as good as they can be, considering the fact that the majority of their lines are flatly lifeless, despite the situation their characters are supposedly in. There’s also a cute cameo from John Cleese as the genius scientist. On the whole, though, there’s not much the actors here can do because the screenplay is so weak. Without giving anything more about the plot away, suffice it to say that you’re best off checking your sense of logic at the ticket counter; almost every major plot point is sure to help relieve any itchiness your scalp might be experiencing.
Status: In limited release (opened 11/12/08)
Directed By: Danny Boyle with Loveleen Tandan
Written By: Simon Beaufoy
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor
Rare is the director who becomes known not for a single achievement or one particular genre that he or she helped define or a unique technique of some sort, but rather for the way his career spans multiple genres, multiple techniques, and realizes many significant accomplishments. The great Sidney Lumet certainly comes to mind as an example of the latter, as does Ang Lee; they are men whose careers are defined by their undefinability, their willingness to take chances and try something new and never allow themselves to become pigeon-holed. I think we are now compelled to add Danny Boyle to this class of director (if we weren’t already), as Slumdog Millionaire is one of the freshest, most unforeseen, and boldest films to come out in a long time. It’s not just a fresh twist on a timeless type of story, it’s also an epitomizing example of a director at the top of his form, the master of every minute detail of his production, taking a daring risk by venturing into some new territory and making his movie all the better for it.
This is a British filmmaker and British screenwriter telling the story of a homeless boy from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal, using an adaptation of an American gameshow as its central plot device, loosely based on an Indian novel called Q&A. It’s not exactly Quantum of Solace with its globe-hopping style, but it does have a certain worldly sensibility to it, particularly to a Western audience. Jamal has gone on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in order to attract the attention of his lifelong love, a fellow “slumdog” from the streets named Latika. Somehow he’s found himself at the final question, on the verge of winning 20,000,000 rupees, and being accused of cheating in order to get there.
The story is told in the style of The Usual Suspects, with the police interrogating Jamal as he explains to them the manner in which each of the questions he’s been asked on the show thus far relates to a defining moment in his life, in order to explain how he knew the answers. We see these moments played out as he recounts them, chronicling the lives of Jamal, his older brother Salim, and the girl Latika. These three characters are shown at three defining stags of their lives: as children, as early teens, and as present-day twenty-somethings, and each is portrayed by three different actors. Their paths diverge and intersect in fascinating ways, showing the hardships faced by the most populous country’s poor as they struggle to survive.
Boyle lovingly portrays the lower-class culture of India as playful and quick-witted and charming, and it is easy for an audience—even one that cannot relate on almost any level to the logistical aspects of their lives—to find itself caring for these characters, particularly Jamal, who has let his love for Latika guide his every move even into adulthood, when his childish puppy love turns into grown-up naivete. The real joy of watching this story unfold is in the way it’s told, not just because it jumps around in time and is constantly setting up and then revealing the secrets of many mysteries along the way, but also because every jump feels natural, every transition unforced, every life moment’s relation to a Millionaire question believable. Boyle, along with editor Chris Dickens, visually foreshadows several key moments throughout the film, and where other directors might try this and have it result in a jumbled mess, here it serves as a masterful means of keeping the audience’s mind on the main thrust of the story—Jamal’s quest for Latika’s affection—while allowing each of the smaller stories to be fleshed out in a way that paints a complete picture, giving us the feeling that we really know these characters, which of course makes us feel more invested in the situations they find themselves involved in.
The whole production is very polished, with several aspects of the film reveling in the cultural cross-contamination that is both on display—the characters seem to speak at about a 60/40 split of English and Hindi, for instance—and that the film itself exists as an example of. Bringing a story of Indian children to Western audiences in a relatable way is bold enough; doing so with the proper sensibilities is even more impressive, and Boyle pulls this off as flawlessly as every other element of this film. He has just the right amount of Bollywood charisma thrown in, too, most notably in the veteran Indian actor (Anil Kapoor) who plays the sleezeball gameshow host. And then there’s the music, again a mix of Indian and English pop songs used along with the film’s score, bringing another side of the culture we’re witnessing to the forefront in an accessible way.
Most of all, this is a feel-good story with several unique twists that set it apart: the uncommon setting and culture on display, the effective storytelling style that tells us everything we need to know about the life of its main character while relating it all to his present dilemma, and the stylish and polished production. It’s a unique choice from a unique creative visionary, uniquely executed almost to perfection. Definitely one of the most purely enjoyable movies I’ve seen in several years, it will certainly be in the running for a lot of best picture of the year short lists (including, of course, my own).
I know I’m a little behind on this one, but here’s a video I think that everybody should watch. It’s 7 minutes from The Daily Show that near-completely summarizes the two prevailing points of view on the gay marriage issue, with Mike Huckabee playing the role of the social conservative with the slight Southern drawl, and Jon Stewart serving—as usual—as the person with the capacity for rational thought.
Huckabee keeps harping on what I think is the worst possible defense of anti-gay-marriage laws: that they are only exemplary of the will of the people. “If the American people are not convinced that we should overturn the definition of marriage,” he says, “then I would say that those who support the idea of same-sex marriage have a lot of work to do to convince us.” Stewart uses what I consider to be the most obvious retort to this type of thinking: “What if we make it if Hispanics can’t vote?” Is there any doubt that if such a measure were put to ballot in, say, Texas or Arizona or New Mexico, that it would pass? Or how about a vote to remove rights from black people in a state like Arkansas—wouldn’t you imagine that, if given the chance, the majority of the people in that state would happily assert their will in such a measure’s favor? (Am I guilty of broadly applying stereotypes here? Of course… but that doesn’t diminish the credibility of the point.) “Segregation used to be the law,” Jon reminds us.
Stewart also takes another stance that’s near and dear to me: “Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality.” This, of course, is a particularly relevant comparison to make, considering the near-universal religious basis of anti-gay-rights movements as of late.
Huckabee runs through all of the go-to arguments against gay marriage rights. I think one of the most curious to me is when he suggests that were homosexuals given the right to marry, then “we would have to say to the guy in West Texas who had twenty-seven wives, ‘That’s okay.'” And without knowing the details of the story he seems to be referring to (and ignoring the obvious “straw man” nature of the point he’s trying to make in the first place), my initial reaction to that is: why shouldn’t it be? If 28 consenting adults have found an arrangement that brings them happiness, whose business is it to tell them they’re wrong? What about having 27 wives is intrinsically damaging to society, other than the fact that it’s not what white Christian Westerners have been told constitutes a “healthy family”? Perhaps that’ll be a fight that’s waged at some point in the (distant) future. (Or perhaps someone can tell me what I’m missing with this topic… “You watch too much Big Love” not being particularly enlightening.)
Obviously for now it’s all our culture can handle to try to address this current issue intelligently. When there are still people—leaders, in fact; governors, even—trying to assert “the difference between a person being black and a person practicing a lifestyle” it shows just how entrenched most of the thinking surrounding this issue is. Not to mention how fucked up.
Like most people who are into watching movies at home, I went out this week and bought The Dark Knight on Blu-ray. I’ve found it to be both an incredible use of the medium and simultaneously an awkward step in the format’s development. While I think there are some clever ideas on display with the extras, I find most of the BD-Live content to be pretty cheesy, and wonder if a significant amount of people would ever make use of such features. Primarily, though, this is a fantastic example of a beautifully-shot movie being exhibited in the best manner that current technology allows, and while that fact alone excites me, there is one aspect of this disc that really annoys me.
Christopher Nolan clearly feels that the IMAX format will be The Next Big Thing—not just figuratively, but quite literally—in film production and exhibition. It’s an interesting format, and has a lot of potential, but I feel that Nolan has gone about making use of it all wrong with The Dark Knight. (I’d actually intended to write a separate review of The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience this past summer, but never got around to it… although a lot of my comments here apply equally to the theatrical IMAX release, which will be back in theaters next month.)
Unfortunately, only parts of The Dark Knight were shot in the IMAX format. The introductory bank robbery scene was filmed entirely in IMAX, but that is the only complete sequence that can make that claim. Throughout the rest of the film, the uses of IMAX are largely restricted to helicopter establishing shots, with a few brief action shots thrown in. It makes it feel like we’re paying to watch the filmmakers experiment with a new format, and in fact that’s partly true. But just because experimenting with shooting in IMAX is “a very fun thing to do” that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea, especially when it comes at the expense of the cohesion of the movie.
To demonstrate the kind of high production value I believe in, I have taken video on my cell phone of my TV while watching The Dark Knight on Blu-ray and uploaded it to YouTube in order to illustrate my point:
If by some odd chance it’s not completely clear what you’re seeing there, I’ll summarize: most of the movie is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, which means it’s letterboxed when viewed on a 16:9 (1.78:1) HDTV. The IMAX scenes, however, take up the entire 1.78:1 viewing area, in addition to appearing a bit more crisp and defined, with better color balance, making them feel even “more high-def” than the rest of the movie. What this amounts to is that the black letterbox bars come and go throughout the movie, at times for only seconds at a time and several times during a single scene. It’s like the movie is continually informing you, “NOW YOU’RE WATCHING IMAX… now you’re not… NOW YOU’RE WATCHING IMAX!… now you’re not…”
Using a large format like IMAX is supposed to enhance the film-viewing experience; it’s not supposed to replace it. That is, it should make it more enjoyable—more impressive—to watch the movie, but it should not be, in itself, the source of that enjoyment, brashly calling attention to itself every chance it gets. Instead of the experience of viewing The Dark Knight—either in an IMAX theater, or in high definition in a home theater—being broadened by the occasional use of IMAX, it is instead detracted from by virtue of the fact that the format changes are jarring and obtrusive.
In short, it interrupts the suspension of disbelief.
This is a film that purports to Say Something, but unfortunately it believes that the assertion that you have said something is equivalent to actually saying it. The most prominent example of what I’m referring to: at the very end of the film, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) states that Batman will go on the lamb, because that’s what Gotham “needs right now.” This is a really dramatic way both to end your movie and to set up its sequel, but unfortunately nothing in the preceding two and a half hours has set up this moment: saying “he has to” is not a valid substitute for taking your character through a progression that convinces the audience that this is the case without having to actually state it. Likewise, I think that the premature use of IMAX makes for an ultimately dissatisfying experience, akin to teasing the audience with what might have been had the filmmakers only gone the whole way with it.
All of that said, though… damn, do those IMAX-filmed scenes look amazing on Blu-ray on a nice big HDTV. I’ll be excited to see the first major motion picture that’s filmed entirely in IMAX make its way to the format, so that it can be enjoyed without the distractions inherent to this type of partial use of it.
Status: In limited release (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Cinematographer: Harris Savides
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Allison Pill
It’s tempting to consider that Harvey Milk—businessman, San Francisco Supervisor, and gay-rights activist—knew that he was living a life that would make for a good film. Shortly before his assassination, he recorded an audio monologue describing his experiences and beliefs and correctly predicting the manner in which his life would end, providing a terrific blueprint for would-be biographers. What Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant have done, however, is so much more than simply a retelling of an already-told story. They’ve recreated not just a specific time and a specific place, and told the story of the people (Milk in particular, obviously) who lived there and then, but also the mood and the ambiance and the culture that existed in San Francisco in the 1970s, and they’ve done so in stunning fashion. Mlik isn’t just a “biopic”—though in that regard, it excels—it’s also an historical account (it could, I suppose, almost be called a “period piece”) with production value and a storytelling flare that lends even more credence to its already-weighty subject matter.
The film chronicles Milk’s arrival in the Castro from New York and his subsequent failed attempts at running for public office after discovering his knack for community organizing. I’ll defer to Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, to describe what happened from that point, the situation both documented in his film and dramatized in Gus Van Sant’s:
In 1978 voters elected Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s city council, making him the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California. These unprecedented cultural upheavals provoked a national reaction. Anita Bryant—a former Miss America, orange juice jingle singer, spokesmodel, and born-again Christian—took the anti-gay lead. In California, a little-known state senator named John Briggs saw an opportunity and took up the fight as well. He crafted the California ballot proposition “Prop 6“, which would ban openly gay people from working in the public school system.
How fortuitous that Milk would come out just weeks after a similar California measure was passed. We see both how relevant the movement that Harvey Milk spearheaded still is, and how little the world has really changed in the intervening 30 years, despite the advances he and his successors made—and have continued to make—in that time. The parallels between Prop 6 of 1978 and Prop 8 of 2008 are striking, and we see that Anita Bryant and John Briggs make for as good of heels in their day as do the Mormons and the rest of the “pro-family” movement today.
Milk‘s production blurs the line between archival footage and dramatic recreation expertly. Every aspect of the settings and characters and events is remarkably staged, from the facade of Milk’s camera store to the tight jeans worn by Emile Hirsch’s character to James Franco’s mustache. The film doesn’t just depict San Francisco in the 1970s, it exists in it. It’s difficult to tell at times in the film when we’re watching newly shot material and when we’re watching previously-existing pieces of film, and I mean that in the best way possible: Van Sant has an innately tuned sense of what he can and cannot achieve in this manner, and walks the line as well as I’ve ever seen. There’s an incredible attention to detail throughout every aspect of the film: the set dressing, the costumes and makeup, and most of all the acting, which is consistently terrific throughout.
And here I’ve said all of this and not yet gotten to the performance of Sean Penn, which is every bit as good as anticipated and every bit as good as you’ve heard, and then some. He provides this year’s unlikely version of Daniel Plainview, a character so fully embodied that it feels more like a documentary than reenactment. His speech pattern, hair, and makeup are the more obvious parts of this embodiment, and they’re all as dead-on as could be expected; the more subtle gestures and mannerisms and other embellishments Penn adds take it into rare territory, certainly one of the best performances of the year, if not the best.
What I found to be the most striking evidence of the quality of the overall production of Milk is that it is able to inform you in the opening scene of the manner in which it will climax, and yet still that moment is surprising and shocking and feels as dramatic as it must have for those who lived around it when it happened. Had this movie come out last year, or next year, it would still have been great—it’s not like the filmmakers suddenly decided to produce it in response to recent events, afterall. Admittedly, the timing of its release elevates it that much more, as its subject matter is at the forefront of the audience’s consciousness even before they enter the theater. I think we’ll see this effect play out in the form of Oscars and other awards, and I don’t think any bit of it will be undeserved.
Status: In theaters (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Written By: Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann & Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters
It’s virtually impossible to describe a movie like Australia as anything other than epic: It’s a sprawling story, focusing on individual relationships while setting them against a backdrop of world events (hinging around the 1942 bombing of Darwin), depicting in equal parts fantastical adventures and history lessons. It touches upon a myriad of themes—racism, genocide, war, greed, pride, coming of age, and of course love—and does so in a variety of ways, all of which could serve as textbook examples of the unique power of cinema as an art form: musical cues both subtle and overt, visual callbacks, contrasting spatial representations, a careful handle on the passage of time that allows for a very personal story to be told in very universal terms. Not every film that qualifies as “epic” is also “great,” however (Richard Kelly’s ambitious yet flawed Southland Tales comes to mind), but Australia does not disappoint, and while it’s not perfect, it does not miss on any of the main points it’s going for.
At its most basic level, this is the story of an English aristocrat named Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who comes to pre-WWII northern Australia to attend to her murdered husband’s beef ranch. There she meets and eventually falls in love with a cattle driver-for-hire known only as the Drover (Hugh Jackman). He is cut from the same cloth as Eastwood‘s Man With No Name, mysterious, anonymous, and a tougher-than-tough man’s man. What he is not, however, is heartless: the Drover, we learn, is one of the few white men at the time to not only tolerate blacks but to work with and befriend them (and we later find that it goes even beyond that, but I don’t want to spoil anything). The love story of Lady Ashley and the Drover is the overarching plotline of the larger tale.
Perhaps even more critical to every aspect of this film, though, is the character of Nullah, an aboriginal boy who narrates the story while serving as the fulcrum upon which all of its machinations hinge. The movie wouldn’t work if not for this character, and young Brandon Walters is simply amazing in the role: he’s adorable, emotive, charming, and most of all completely believable. This last part is certainly helped—especially to audiences outside of Australia—by the complete uniqueness of the character, a native Australian half-breed (derisively referred to as a “Creamy”) with an enchanting speech pattern and accent, not to mention an exotic passion for music. Nullah is the son of one of the maids on Lady Ashley’s ranch—called, cutely, Faraway Downs—and was fathered by one of the multiple heels of the story, played by David Wenham. That character becomes employed by King Carney (Bryan Brown), the cattle baron of northern Australia, who wishes to buy Faraway Downs to complete his monopoly and secure an exclusive supply deal with the Australian military, as their involvement in World War II is becoming inevitable.
A movie like this doesn’t lend itself well to plot synopses, though, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear in the preceding paragraphs. I hope I’ve at least begun to convey the fact that it is complex; that its characters’ stories intertwine in intricate ways; that it is a classically-styled tale of love on the frontier set against a backdrop of impending war. From this basis, Baz Luhrmann tells a story in his wholly unique way, filled with drama and music and magic and emotion. Australia shares many of these characteristics with Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, though they are run through a filter of sorts, toning down the assault-on-the-senses absurdity and favoring a more graceful touch at every turn. The similarities are surely there, though: the story told is as much of a specific time and place as it is of the characters who inhabit them (Paris in the late 1890s to early 1900s, Darwin in the late 1930s to early 1940s); it tethers itself to a particular “home base” location (the nightclub with the red windmill in the earlier film, equally Faraway Downs and The Territory Hotel in the recent one); its personal story is related in part by the universality of popular culture (“The Sound of Music” and “All You Need is Love” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Elton John’s “Your Song” previously; here “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and The Wizard of Oz and the spiritual nature songs of the indigenous people of Australia). Most impressively, despite being so full of all of this, it is all in perfect balance, all contributing to elevate the movie as a whole to a rare level of not just enjoyable storytelling but expressive art as well.
The most obvious complaint about this film to anticipate is of its length; at nearly 3 hours its runtime matches the ambitious nature of its plots and themes and style, for sure, but it is also more than some audiences would prefer to sit through. This isn’t helped by the fact that there is a point about two-thirds of the way through the movie that feels like it could be the end, where the larger plotlines remain unresolved but there is a lull in the action and a calm before the storm that is the picture’s final hour that would be mildly satisfying were it the conclusion—there’s even a summarizing voiceover from Nullah and a picaresque sunset over Faraway Downs before a fade to black… And if that’s where it left off, this would be a modest movie of modest scope and modest achievement, good but not great (probably 2½ or 3 stars on my scale). It is the final hour that really elevates this movie, though, and it does so by escalating the stakes on every front. The definitions of “good guys” and “bad guys” become blurred, and the goals of the major characters become refactored as the Japanese bombers arrive, all while the action and excitement and suspense are elevated accordingly.
Every aspect of Australia‘s presentation is not just thoroughly impressive but thoroughly enjoyable as well. There are consistently solid performances from every member of the cast, particularly the two leads and most notably the aforementioned young boy. Seemingly every shot captures both the immense sprawl of the vast locations and the personal emotions of the characters at the same time. The scope of the story effortlessly expands and contracts in ways that always feel natural, keeping our focus on the intimate stories being told while simultaneously relating them to the larger events that are occurring. And there’s just the right amount of old-fashioned movie magic blended in, making this an epic that I think will stand the test of time.