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

Advertisements

September 18, 2013

Diana

Downfall Director Oliver Hirschbiegel reminds us he also directed The Invasion as he once again comes a cropper working with a famous blonde Australian actress.

Naomi Watts Diana

Diana opens with Naomi Watts’ Sloane Ranger getting into the elevator which will take her to a fatal chase thru a Parisian tunnel. It then jumps back two years to late 1995 with the unsettled Princess preparing for her ‘Queen of Hearts’ TV interview with Martin Bashir, and assiduously hiding this from her adviser Patrick (Charles Edwards). Diana, as she complains to her acupuncturist/psychiatrist Una (Geraldine James), is feeling detached from her children (by Palace meddling only co-ordinating their schedules monthly), hounded by the paparazzi, and generally unloved. When Una’s husband is hospitalised Diana rushes to visit, and falls for Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). But though she visits his family in Pakistan to ask for their blessing can she really marry a workaholic who insists privacy is vital to maintain the concentration he needs as a surgeon?

This, unlike The Invasion, feels like a Hirschbiegel movie. Bookended by showy (and ultimately pointless) tracking shots, his camera roves constantly. But this style and Rainer Klausmann’s narrowly focused cinematography is brought to bear on Stephen Jeffrey’s stilted script. Despite being based on the allegedly true behind the scenes story, you never believe for a second this really happened. Dialogue like Hasnat’s “You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you” should have been laughed out of the room at the read-thru stage, yet it remains; inciting unintentional hilarity. The longer the movie drags on the more it feels like a Mark Millar comic: history is a cover story, what we know about Diana’s romance with Dodi Al-Fayed was just an elaborate smokescreen created by her, in collusion with a favoured paparazzo, as part of her true romance with Hasnat.

Diana feels tediously endless because talented people are failing to achieve any insight. Watts’ head is pleasingly always tilted at an angle, but she and Andrews can’t make their characters escape the bad 1980s soap opera feel of their secret romance. Every one of their arguments is the same argument, rather like The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and so no dramatic momentum ever builds. The portrayal of Diana’s persona is just too much – especially as this is meant to reveal the woman behind the facade. A scene with a tearful blind man in Rimini joyously touching her face is the nadir: Diana as Jesus meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, power going out from her to console. Diana uses her children as an arguing gambit with Hasnat, but rarely seems to think of them otherwise; her full personality thus remains a mystery.

If you don’t believe that everyone in England was watching the Bashir interview, with entire pubs eschewing watching football or drinking for it, then Diana is not for you…

1.5/5

February 28, 2013

Stoker

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his American debut with a suitably twisted  tale of an alienated teenage girl’s growing suspicion of the motives of her  newly discovered relative, Uncle Charlie.

Stoker-2013-poster-1

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright but withdrawn teenager whose  beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday. However,  his death is immediately followed by the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew  Goode); whose existence comes as a complete surprise to India. Her mother Evelyn  (Nicole Kidman) explains that Charlie has spent the past 20 years travelling the  globe on geological surveys and was estranged from his brother Richard. Charlie  decides to stay on at the Stoker Mansion and while Evelyn throws herself at him,  India maintains an aloof distance. But the mysterious disappearance of their  housekeeper Mrs McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) followed by a visit from her  grand-aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who warns India to be wary of Charlie,  arouses her suspicions about Charlie’s shadowy past. She soon has concerns about  his present intentions as they start bonding…

Stoker looks and sounds amazing. The  colours are rich, and Park does amazing things with ambient sound; consistently  pushed to the foreground to incredibly unsettling effect giving the film a  sustained intensity of unease. One stunning moment in which the camera circles a  character, following a belt being deafeningly pulled off, creates an effect akin  to hearing the tell-tale warning before a rattlesnake strike. Park doesn’t hold  back on the Hitchcockian flourishes; the camera swoops away and pushes in  dramatically, observes characters eavesdropping, generates suspense from the  mere framing of innocuous dialogue scenes, and even features a memorably  diabolic shower scene. Park teases the audience magnificently, holding on back  on information at key points, and then complicating our interpretation of  certain images with additional back-story. Even performing a simple piano duet  written by Philip Glass becomes a deliriously transgressive experience.

But there’s a flipside… Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay lifts a  number of elements from Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt, but doesn’t pilfer such  crucial traits as a sympathetic protagonist, likeable antagonist, believable  characters, or sustained ambiguity. I’m not sure a film set in Connecticut can  really claim to be part of the Southern Gothic literary tradition as it’s been  positioned, and in any case this is more Shadow  of a Doubt by way of Dexter than  Flannery O’Connor. And this isn’t just me seeing Dexter everywhere; as probably the most  original show of the last decade it’s unsurprising that ideas from it are  percolating. But Dexter DNA doesn’t  include ciphers masquerading as people. Goode’s unblinking Charlie is positively  reptilian, Wasikowska’s India is totally deadened, and Kidman’s Evelyn a mere  melodramatic type. The result is an anti-Hitchcockian emotional detachment.

Miller’s script rocked the Black List in 2010 but it’s the weakest link in  Park’s accomplished film, which lacks his Korean movies’ visceral punch.

3/5

February 25, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar: Part II

The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around again this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.

The Academy has long shown a baffling inability to tell the difference between a good movie and a hole in the ground, and an artist and a hack. The Academy did not nominate David Fincher for Best Director for Seven, Fight Club, or Zodiac. The Academy did nominate him for Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Boring Button. It has now nominated him again for The Social Network. There are two interpretations. The uncharitable one is that the Academy cannot tell the difference between an inane ‘drama’ and a crackling drama. The other is that they only noticed that Fincher could direct at all when he paid his dues with Benjamin Button by making a movie that ticked all the boxes for the Academy’s consideration, which resulted, by an odd coincidence, in a dire movie…

The Academy Awards have been skewed for seventy years because of their habit of giving the right people the wrong awards. The Academy gave Jimmy Stewart the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. Jimmy Stewart didn’t even give the best male acting performance in The Philadelphia Story never mind in all the films made in 1940. They were giving him the award because they felt guilty about not awarding it to him the previous year for Mr Smith goes to Washington. The Oscars have been chasing their tails ever since, just look at Nicole Kidman who really won for her performance in Moulin Rouge! but was given the award for her far less impressive turn in The Hours. Al Pacino, in the most famous of the Academy’s belated accolades, was finally given his Best Actor Oscar for the now forgotten display of scenery chewing that was Scent of a Woman. He was not given the Oscar for his roles in The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which would have been more worthy of such recognition.

The Academy has a terrible habit of getting stuck in default-setting for automatic nominations. In the mid-1990s it seemed that every attempt to compile a shortlist of original scripts ended in despairing wails that there were no original ideas in Hollywood anymore, until someone asked if Woody Allen had made a film this year. Another nomination to Woody, and then they only had 4 more scripts to find… Meryl Streep’s ridiculous run of nominations is further proof of this approach. The Academy may like to delude itself that all these nominations prove she’s a throwback to the Golden Age, however, Streep’s painfully mannered accents and overwrought performances made Katherine Hepburn feel impelled to let it be known that Streep was her least favourite modern actress; “Click, click, click” she said, referring to the wheels turning inside Streep’s head.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that The Social Network was a riveting film. We don’t need them patronising Inception by giving it a Best Picture nomination because it was a box-office smash, but not nominating Nolan for Director thereby signalling they’re not taking it seriously because it’s mere entertainment.

In fact, we don’t need them, period.

Blog at WordPress.com.