Talking Movies

December 16, 2018

From the Archives: Australia

Baz Luhrmann’s genre-wrecking epic was a late in the day blockbuster of 2008 as I discover diving thru the pre-Talking Movies archives.

“A Life lived in fear is a life half lived” is the motto that appears at the start of Baz Lurhmann’s chaotic epic and he is indeed fearless/foolhardy in attempting to smash together a number of different genres.

The film begins with Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) flying to Australia to sell the farm belonging to her ne’er-do-well husband and drag him back to dear old Blighty. This should be an obvious homage to films like Giant where the heroine marries into an exotic lifestyle in sweeping landscapes except that Lurhman has written the first 30 minutes in the high camp style that worked so well for Moulin Rouge! It’s so out of place here though that you fear for your sanity if a 2 hour 45 minute western epic is to continue like this…

Thankfully the film settles down after a confrontation with Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the racist villain running the farm, and becomes an archetypal western in the mould of Red River as Sarah joins force with the rough-hewn Drover (Hugh Jackman) to save Faraway Downs by driving the cattle herd to Darwin to sell them to the army for supplies. The action here is superbly choreographed and the diabolical plotting of Fletcher to protect his boss King Carney’s  beef monopoly is thrilling, but the mix of obvious CGI shots with beautiful landscape vistas undercuts the effect of the location shooting. At this point magical realism rears its head as Lurhmann endows the aboriginal characters with magical powers over animals and their native outback.

This is well intentioned as a riposte to the racist disregard for native culture that was the official Australian policy of the 1930s but the mashing up of genres makes it very problematic. Sarah attends a society ball which doubles as a homage to Titanic, when a clean-shaven Drover crashes it to the horror of the upper crust and the swooning of the female audience, and a Rabbit-Proof Fence style debate on the rights and wrongs of the forced assimilation of the stolen generation of Aboriginal children into white society. You will wince every time a character uses the word “creamy” to describe half-Aboriginal half-Caucasian children in this film but such incisive politics sit uneasily in a supposed romantic adventure movie.

The film finally ends as a collision of Pearl Harbour and Empire of the Sun as the surrogate family of Sarah, Drover and the Aboriginal orphan Nulla (Brandon Walters) is torn apart while Japanese forces destroy Darwin. Historical fact is outrageously altered here and Lurhmann veers uneasily between cliché and heartfelt moments before a very fitting ending of national reconciliation. This film is an over-reaching mess but it has very good sequences and its intentions are very honourable, if perhaps just expressed in the wrong genre, and it is well worth seeing.

3/5

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January 30, 2015

Son of a Gun

Ewan McGregor rediscovers his charisma as Australia’s most notorious armed robber in what’s probably his best movie since Moulin Rouge!

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Innocuous surfer dude JR (Brenton Thwaites) arrives in jail, where his flowing locks are transformed into a buzz-cut. A pretty boy like him has much to fear on the inside. His cellmate is raped every day by hard-man Dave (Sam Hutchin), and JR’s interest in famous prisoner Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) is frowned upon by Brendan’s protection detail Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). However, after JR reveals a flair for chess Brendan decides to take him under his wing. All he needs is a small favour once JR gets released in a few months… And so begins JR’s initiation into the dangerous world of the Russian mob led by Sam (Jacek Koman). A trip to arms dealer Wilson (Damon Herriman) and a visit from Sam’s much younger girlfriend Tasha (Alicia Vikander) later and JR’s part of a heist…

Son of a Gun is a hard-edged caper movie with a strong romantic undercurrent. Director Julius Avery makes his feature debut working from his own script, with a polish from Master & Commander scribe John Collee, and it’s bursting with confidence. The chemistry between Thwaites and Vikander is palpable from their first meeting and Nigel Bluck’s cinematography of their night-time drive in a fast car is positively swoon-worthy. McGregor’s movie career has never lived up to the promise of his first few features, but this is the first film he’s made in quite some time where he’s giving a damn fine performance in a damn fine movie. His Lynch is charming, but also ruthless at the flick of a switch; combining both in a deliriously jump-started interrogation scene where he doesn’t have the patience to properly torture someone for information.

In a strong ensemble Koman, Moulin Rouge!’s resident narcoleptic, also switches between businessman and thug, while Vikander’s moll is a no-nonsense creation, and Herriman’s arms dealer is as eccentric as you’d expect from Justified’s Dewey Crowe. The only wrong note is Tom Budge as Sam’s nephew Josh – a character scripted purely for structural reasons. When Sam insists that entitled brat Josh be part of the intricate gold heist you set your stop-watch to see how long till he screws it all up. That quibble, and a slightly over-extended finale, aside Avery’s movie rattles along with confidence. There are a number of excellently choreographed set-pieces; a prison break worthy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a gloriously worked-out heist of a gold-mine, a terrific car-chase; while the romance between JR and Tasha and a number of double-crosses keep you engaged and second-guessing yourself.

Parker is the most recent Hollywood reference point for this popcorn mix of violence and romance, and McGregor’s sparkling turn outdoes fellow Brit The State’s criminal mastermind, while the romance is far better developed.

3.5/5

April 24, 2014

Tracks

The omnipresent Mia Wasikowska gets to use her own accent for a change as a real-life explorer in 1970s Australia.

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Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) wants to be alone. And not in the ‘get out of my room/house’ Greta Garbo sense, more in the Calvin & Hobbes ‘I want to live a million miles from anyone’ way. Arriving in Alice Springs, she circles her dream of escaping into the Outback with some camels and crossing the Australian desert to reach the Indian Ocean. She slaves for German camel-trainer Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock) learning the craft, but Afghan rival Sally (John Flaus) becomes her true mentor. She says goodbye to her Pop (Robert Coleby) and sister Marg (Emma Booth), who don’t understand her motivation. Her best friend Jenny (Jessica Tovey) does, but scuppers Robyn’s desire to be alone by introducing her to National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Along with Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) Rick helps her survive the desert.

Tracks is a very well made film. Mandy Walker’s photography of the striking scenery impresses as much as her work in Australia (when Baz Luhrmann let her actually film Australia), John Curran’s direction is as measured as ever, and the use of actual grouchy camels rather than the CGI creations you’d have half-expected/feared is very refreshing. Marion Nelson’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s memoir, however, disappoints.  We’re teased with elliptical reveals of the reason Robyn wants solitude; but it’s a substitution of cinematic convention for true psychological probing. Jenny seems to introduce Rick to stymie what she never articulates – Robyn’s death-wish; a fear verbalised by sister Marg, who the script mocks for suburban conformity. And, as much as I Am Legend, without a faithful dog (Diggity, NCIS fans will rejoice is actually named Special Agent Gibbs), the protagonist would be toast.

Tracks could use a lot more detail on the actual practicalities of arranging the supplies for a 2,000 mile trek across a desert, and the mechanics of how navigation, establishing camp, feeding camels et al actually happens. But at the same time towards the end you get the distinct impression that Curran actually wants to make a film trippier than a PG-13 rating allows for. There’s a lot of weird nudity with Wasikowska skinny-dipping and trekking naked, shot from behind or far away, which is oddly prurient; and seems a belated attempt to depict the madness that inspired the trek as well as that inflicted by the trek. So, oddly, by charting a middle course between those two extremes of narrative technique Tracks has something to annoy everyone who wants to quibble. But there can be no quibbling about the acting. Driver is quite funny as the awkward Yank, and Flaus’ mentor is very empathetic.

Tracks is a solid, enjoyable film, but despite Mia Wasikowska’s commitment in the lead it never really catches fire.

3/5

March 28, 2014

The Baz Aesthetic

I’ve considered myself a fan of Baz Luhrmann for a long time, but after Australia and The Great Gatsby, I’ve become sceptical that the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy was really a deliberate trilogy – I think all of his films reveal the Baz Aesthetic; and it’s being imposed on increasingly unsuitable material.

THE GREAT GATSBY

Deleted scenes are often the most revealing features on DVDs. Baz Luhrmann deleted the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Jordan and Nick’s romance ends. He shot it as Nick taking the phone away from his ear, and hanging up on Jordan. Because in the book it says Jordan’s voice faded away and then they weren’t talking anymore. I always thought that Nick spaced out thinking about Gatsby’s fate and Jordan hung up on him, because that seems far more in character – but Baz went with what is a very literal interpretation. It transpires Luhrmann also cut Gatsby’s famous line “Her voice is full of money”, because it complicated a scene – but only because Luhrmann had put the line in a different scene to begin with… So this is an adaptation in which the text is taken literally, but all the meaning and nuance lost – not unlike Zack Synder’s worst missteps with his Watchmen.

But it is also an adaptation in which Luhrmann’s particular aesthetic is mercilessly imposed upon a text for which it is radically unsuitable. Why does Nick Carraway suddenly want to be a writer? Duh, so that the film can be framed, like Moulin Rouge!, with him depressed, and then, by writing his story, redeemed by art at the end with his completed manuscript representing his salvaged personality. But … what was wrong with F Scott’s original novel that it needed to be Moulin Rouge!’d? Nothing, that’s just the Baz Aesthetic… How else could one justify transforming the small smoke-filled restaurant that Gatsby and Nick dine with Wolfsheim in into a raucous Jay-Z booming speakeasy with black strippers twerking onstage? How else could one explain turning the grand piano in Gatsby’s mansion into an organ that would look outsize in the Albert Hall? How else could one excuse ditching the actual glorious popular music of the 1920s for terrible anachronistic Jay-Z drivel, and replacing the fiendishly complicated dance moves of the Charleston (which are quite the spectacle when choreographed en masse) with pathetic ‘raise your hands in the air’ hip-hop stylings? How else could one make sense of using so much unnecessary CGI that you feel like Avatar had more of a sense of physical reality, and of deliberately ditching the iconic flapper look of the 1920s for more cleavage because ‘sexiness’ is all that matters?

The Baz Aesthetic is excess – everything has to be excess. And that’s fine as an aesthetic; when it synchs with the material, but here it doesn’t. Gatsby gleefully tosses his shirts down a floor to Daisy leading to her tears over the shirts, and Nick adds a helpful line to tell the audience her line about the shirts is stupid – but in the novel Gatsby is distractedly tossing shirts about because he’s in a trance, and Daisy cries because she can’t articulate what she feels and she says a stupid line knowing it’s a stupid line. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or nuance, and that’s not a problem for Moulin Rouge! But if you’re going to shoehorn every property into the template of Moulin Rouge! then that is a problem.

April 5, 2011

Politik

“Gil! Learn to be more politic…” – CSI: LV.

The hysteria of the general election caused me to write a few political tweets, satirical and serious, so here’s a brief excursion by the blog proper into the political realm.

The Vision Thing

I said that Fianna Fail had a vision of society, switched it for a vision of an economy, and now were left bereft of any vision at all. DeValera undoubtedly had a vision of the society he wanted to created, and tried to bend the world to fit it, as the presence of a Gaeltacht in Meath will attest. Whether you agreed with that vision or not, you could hardly deny its sincerity, and after all Fine Gael’s precursors had introduced censorship so their vision was hardly dissimilar. Lemass took the bold, almost insane step, of disavowing all he’d worked for over thirty years and starting again by replacing Dev’s vision of an ideal society with a more pragmatic vision of a functioning economy. This vision worked for a while, fell apart because of two oil-crises and the inability of politicians, of all parties, to figure out that spending cannot be infinite, and taxes cannot be raised to 58% on the average punter before he just leaves. Savage treatment got it working again and Fianna Fail took the credit, but after having become the natural party of government because of their economic credentials they then encouraged a bubble whose bursting blew out the tyres on the entire country rather than just the building sector. Having comprehensively set fire to their trump card, they’re now bereft of any vision. What exactly does Fianna Fail stand for? Who knows? Admittedly Fine Gael had the same problem not so long ago but it’s always a more pressing question when in opposition. Vision is a rarity in Irish politics. Fine Gael had a vision in the 1960s (quickly discarded) and in the 1980s (doggedly attempted) but right now their vision is not entirely clear. Fianna Fail are in the same position the Republicans found themselves in from 1932-1952, nobody will put them in charge again. But, unlike the Republicans, they don’t still have muscle at a lower level, they have been obliterated. And unlike the Republicans they don’t have the luxury of a two-party system allowing them the time and space to find some way to rebuild their credibility; as the Republicans decided to invoke socialism at home and communism abroad to paint the Democrats as elitist and unpatriotic before finally in the 1980s speciously managing to regain the mantle of being the economically ‘responsible’ party. Task: Vision, Time: Five Years…

Balanced Government

A man who has three lemons in one pocket and two in the other and throws away one lemon to have two in each pocket is balanced; if asked what he plans to do with all these lemons, he’ll answer ‘lemonade, obviously…’ The idea promulgated by Labour in their absolute panic during the last weeks of the election that one should vote for them in order to ensure a balanced government is much like saying a man with five lemons in one pocket and two oranges in the other should throw away three lemons in order to be balanced; ask him what he plans to do with this odd assortment of fruits, he’ll answer ‘God only knows, but it sure won’t taste nice…’ Incoherence in government is incoherence, not balance, and a government that apparently has no idea exactly what its second Finance minister is actually going to do doesn’t appear to have got off to a particularly cogent start. A Fine Gael majority government supported by the Fianna Fail rump would not only have been a delicious re-run of the Tallaght Strategy with the blame for screwing things up reversed, but might have given us all a chance to finally have a coherent left/right divide in this country. Not that two-party systems are particularly brilliant, but because the lack of first past the post and the inanity of our constituency and voting systems makes anything with a degree of clarity preferable. But then perhaps Irish politicians fear that precisely because then clarity would be demanded of them. HCG Matthew’s reading of Gladstone’s political genius is that he was able to find causes that managed to unite warring Radicals, Peelites, Whigs, and Liberals into something approaching a purposeful Liberal party – which then usually collapsed at the end of its governing term until the next cause was found to pull it together. Can any one party really sum up all the varied attitudes that make up a single individual’s response to the world? No, absolutely not. All parties are a poor substitute for the sort of direct democracy that a combination of Australia’s compulsory voting and direct secure internet referendums could produce. But short of such a space-age Athenian democracy in action it would be nice to have some sort of coherent oppositional ideological divide between two dominant parties rather than have to mumble embarrassedly about a civil war.

Club Med/The Piigs

As with the credit crunch and the housing crash anybody with an eye in their head could have foreseen the current difficulties of the Eurozone. Back in 1999 UCD Economics Professor Rodney Thom was heavily critical of the admission of what were then dubbed the Club Med countries; Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain; into the European Monetary Union. They were countries that had great difficulty in balancing budgets and maintaining fiscal restraint or stable currencies, and guess what, they’re, with the addition of Ireland, the countries now monikered The Piigs. In other words they were pegged as troublemakers before the Euro was even physically introduced and they’ve proven to be troublemakers. The reasons the markets are relentlessly targeting the Piigs is because the markets are working out the inexorable logic of economics not politics. The Piigs should never have been part of the Eurozone in the first place. Gordon Brown created economic tests for joining the Euro which he knew would never be fulfilled but in a very real way all he did was expose the stupidity at the heart of the project; which was privileging political aspirations over economic reality. A common currency area will work if each region’s trade is predominantly with the others involved, and if their economic cycles are synched, otherwise it will be ruinous. It was always obvious that France, Germany and the Benelux countries were admirably suited economically, but that no one else should join for economic reasons; and they didn’t, they joined for political reasons – the insane need to be seen as ‘good Europeans’. Ireland is now ruined largely because it gave away the power to set its own interest rates. The ECB kept interest rates farcically low compared to what a responsible Irish central bank would have hiked them to in order to cripple the housing bubble long before it got to its ultimate supernova status, and in imploding the property sector has taken down everything else. We joined an economic system for political reasons, and were happy to have a round economy ineptly hammered into a square political hole, because we thought it made us look like good troupers in the grand European project. The best thing the Piigs could do now is en masse to impose bank-debt-for-equity-swaps, belatedly leave the ill-suited Eurozone, and loudly point out that economies are too important to be sacrificed to theoretical political models.

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